Complete-streets loophole creates patchwork design
By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff
In June 2012 complete-streets legislation was passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by then-Gov. Lincoln Chafee. The law requires federal- and state-funded road-construction projects to consider bicyclists, public-transit users and pedestrians during the design process. The goal is to increase road safety for non-automobile users and, thereby, encourage people to use alternative forms of transportation, which promote public and environmental health while reducing traffic congestion.
While Rhode Island’s complete-streets legislation has resulted in safer road design in some places, many bicycle advocates are generally disappointed by the results. The legislation requires the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to consider incorporating complete-streets features, but allows exceptions on projects if the agency determines space is limited or costs are deemed disproportionate to the use those features would likely garner.
A few summers ago, DOT resurfaced Elmwood Avenue in Providence. Complete-street features were incorporated in the project, including pedestrian-safety and traffic-calming measures. For example, the number of lanes on the road’s northern segment were reduced from 4 to 3 — one in either direction, with a center turn lane.
Beginning as early as March 2010, community, environmental and bicycle advocacy organizations began requesting that bicycle infrastructure be added to the northern segment of the road, according to Matthew Moritz, board president for the Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition (RIBike). Initially, these groups requested separated bike lanes, but later compromised on on-street bike lanes.
Despite gaining flexibility in road design resulting from the reduction in lanes, DOT didn’t include bike lanes in the project. Instead, it opted for wide parking, driving and turning lanes for automobiles — 8 feet, 12 feet and 15 feet, respectively, according to Moritz.
A 2015 Chevrolet Suburban is less than 7 feet wide, and a city bus or delivery truck can be accommodated by an 11-foot travel lane, according to the National Association for City Transportation Officials Urban Street Design Guide. Furthermore, the guide recommends against lanes greater than 11 feet, “as they may cause unintended speeding.”
Shared-lane arrows were included for bicyclists on Elmwood Avenue, an accommodation that many bicycle advocates dismiss as meaningless on high-speed roads.
“Sharrows are not the solution for fixing our parking, traffic, air quality and physical activity problems,” Moritz said. “Healthy transportation options that include biking and walking do, and to get more people (biking and walking), creating places where they feel safe to use and cross the street is fundamental.”
Charles St. Martin, of the DOT’s Office of Communications and Customer Service, explained to ecoRI News why bicycle lanes weren’t included in the Elmwood Avenue redesign.
“While bike lanes were certainly considered for this stretch of road, it was unfortunately not practical to include them because of funding and space issues,” he said. “Adding lanes would have required the roadway to be widened, increasing the overall cost and affecting drainage, sidewalk widths and parking.”
Despite following the guidelines of the state’s complete-streets legislation, DOT only made Elmwood Ave moderately safer for bicyclists.
“Elmwood Ave was particularly tragic,” said Alex Krogh-Grabbe, program director of RIBike. “There was a local desire for something better for bikes, but (DOT) disregarded it in favor of a rural, car-based design.”
Krogh-Grabbe said there needs to be a minimum standard for streets such as Elmwood Ave regarding bike lanes. DOT’s obligation to consider including complete-streets design features isn’t enough, he said.
James Kennedy, author of the blog Transport Providence, has suggested a compromise on the “consideration” loophole in the complete-streets legislation. A certain type of complete-streets design could be required within a half-mile of every location, he said.
Kennedy said this would continue to allow DOT to determine if a road is unfit for a bike lane, but would then require the agency to include an alternative bike lane at a nearby location.
“It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be better,” he said.
Recently, DOT announced that construction to replace the Pleasant Valley Parkway bridge over the Woonasquatucket River in Providence will begin next spring. This bridge is part of a hazardous section of road that has been identified as a priority corridor by advocacy organizations for bicycle accommodations.
However, no bicycle accommodations were included in the bridge’s design, a fact only learned after Krogh-Grabbe contacted DOT about the project. According to Krogh-Grabbe, when he requested bike accommodations be included in the bridge design, a DOT representative suggested that, “Maybe bicyclists can ride on the sidewalk?”
RIBike and representatives of the city of Providence later met with Peter Garino, DOT’s deputy director, about the project. Garino told them a change order would be submitted to replace the sidewalk with a bicycle/pedestrian multi-use track, otherwise known as a separated bike lane. It remains unclear whether such a change to the bridge’s design has been made; DOT didn’t respond to ecoRI News’ request for this information.
Like with Elmwood Avenue, St. Martin told ecoRI News that bike lanes were considered during the Pleasant Valley Parkway bridge design process in 2012 — as required by the complete-streets legislation — but not pursued.
The difference in this case, could prove to be the support of Mayor Jorge Elorza’s administration and the Providence Department of Planning. After being alerted to the absence of bike accommodations on the bridge, the city lobbied for their inclusion, and DOT appears to have changed its stance as a result.
“When (DOT’s) new administration was contacted about this issue after taking office earlier this year, they directed our consultant, VHB, to look into incorporating bike lanes into the upcoming project,” St. Martin said.
Conversely, it was only after the Providence Department of Planning came out in support of DOT’s recommendation of incorporating sharrows instead of bike lanes on Elmwood Avenue that the conversation about bike lanes died on that project, according to Moritz.
“The experience in cities all over is that it takes political will from the top of government to make daring changes for our roads that aren't rehashes of what we've done for the last 50 years,” Moritz said.
Krogh-Grabbe said it will take a change of culture at DOT before the inclusion of good bike infrastructure is the norm.
“The default for state or local roads has been to leave out bike facilities unless there is some force — whether it’s the governor, a mayor or an advocacy group — pushing for their inclusion,” he said.
To bring about that change will take persistent advocacy on the part of the bike community, and strong leadership at the state and municipal level that demands bike infrastructure be included in appropriate projects, rather than only demanding that it be considered, Krogh-Grabbe said.
“In Rhode Island, we haven't had enough of either of those two things,” he said.
Even when DOT includes bicycle accommodations in its projects, bicycle advocates are often disappointed by the result, revealing a fundamental disagreement over the definition of appropriate bike accommodations.
This past summer, DOT finished resurfacing South Main Street, South Water Street and Dyer Street, each part of the I-195 Redevelopment District. All three roads were almost entirely newly constructed with no existing buildings limiting road width. Each road consists of two parking lanes, two travel lanes and, squeezed between them, narrow bike lanes.
The bike lanes position bicyclists between fast-moving traffic and parked cars, with no buffer zone on either side. Bicyclists using these lanes risk being “doored” — a term used to describe the phenomenon of a bicyclist somersaulting over the handlebars when the door of a parked car is opened in front of him or her.
Ideally, DOT would have figured out a way to include separated bike lanes in this project, Krogh-Grabbe said. He noted that lane widths could have been narrowed, parking could have been limited to one side of the street or the wide sidewalk on the Riverwalk could have been narrowed to accommodate better bike lanes. He said the lack of a buffer between bicyclists and parked cars is regrettable.
While he is disappointed by the outcome of the project, he said it is a step in the right direction. “I am of the perspective that while door-zone bike lanes are not good, they are on the bad side of acceptable,” Krogh-Grabbe said. “Bikes getting designated space on the road is a signal to drivers and bikers that biking is something that is allowed there.”
Kennedy, of Transport Providence, disagrees, noting that the bike lane on South Water Street doesn’t start until about 500 feet after turning onto the road and ends in a confusing intersection that is challenging for even experienced bicyclers to navigate.
“If you were anywhere that was serious about bikes, the signal (at that intersection) would stop all the cars as a normal part of its cycle so you could safely cross from one corner to any other corner on your bike,” he said.
Meanwhile, the South Water Street bike lane’s counterpart on South Main stops abruptly after the first 500 feet. Kennedy said the lanes are too narrow and in the door zone. He said streets with higher vehicle speeds than 20 mph should be fitted with separated bike lanes.
“When people shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Well, it’s OK (that this is a bad bike lane), we’re moving forward,’ I think that’s dangerous,” Kennedy said. “We are not moving forward.”
St. Martin, stands by DOT’s effort to accommodate bikers on South Main, South Water and Dyer streets. “When our projects are being designed, RIDOT makes every effort to accommodate bicyclists, and such was the case (on this project),” he said. “On this particular project, the bike lanes were designed to be 4-5 feet, and buffer lanes – while ideal — cannot always be included. Adjacent parking lanes are 8 feet, which can help give added space to passing cyclists.”
St. Martin said DOT refers to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities for best practices. The 4- to 5-foot lanes included in the project are nearly in-line with the lower end of the guide’s recommendations, which recommends 5-foot lanes in most situations, but wider lanes — up to 7 feet — on high-speed and high-volume roadways, presumably like the roads included in this project.
The guide only recommends 4-foot bike lanes be used for roadways with no curb or gutter and no on-street parking, or on extremely constrained, low-speed roadways with curbs but no gutter.
Depending on the bicycle advocate you ask, opinions differ about whether DOT is improving bicycle infrastructure. Krogh-Grabbe, who is cognizant that he must work with DOT to achieve his organization's aims, speaks optimistically about the agency.
“I see progress happening right now,” he said. “The new leadership of RIDOT professes to be interested in including bike facilities and they know how to talk about it. That makes me optimistic.”
Krogh-Grabbe said bicycling advocates are struggling against inertia and legacy design practices from an age when the country was focused on building highways.
“In the U.S., building good bike infrastructure is a new concept that only arose over the past five or ten years,” he said. “Meanwhile, most traffic engineers were trained long before that by the people who built the interstate-highway system.”
Krogh-Grabbe said the inclusion of bicycle advocates in the design phase of projects is important. “The earlier we get involved in the process, the easier it is to ensure good bike accommodations are included,” he said.
He wants to get to the point where DOT automatically checks with bicycle advocacy organizations at the outset of a resurfacing project to learn if the road in question is an important bicycle corridor.
Kennedy has a less favorable view of the state’s bicycling infrastructure efforts. “Bikes are always an afterthought,” he said, “even for the infrastructure that’s already in place.”
He noted that in the winter DOT doesn’t plow its bike paths. “That’s something that is done in Vermont,” Kennedy said. “You'd think Vermont is hilly and snowy and awful in the winter, but because they plow their paths, I met people that bike 5-6-7-8 miles each way to work all the way through the winter.”
Kennedy estimated that up to 60 percent of urban trips and 30 percent of trips in other locations in Rhode Island could be taken by bike if DOT prioritized bike infrastructure.
“This is a compact enough city and state that if we did accommodate bikes it could take up a huge amount of our traffic,” he said. “It’s not going to come through (organized) bike rides or encouragement or posters or helmet giveaways; it’s going to come when we put in the kind of infrastructure that makes the average person feel like riding a bike makes sense for them.”
Kennedy said the state needs to commit to bike infrastructure and trust that riders will follow. “There is never evidence of a need to cross a river if you measure by the number of people swimming across it,” he said.
DOT recognizes that the proportion of bike commuters in Rhode Island is lower than in Massachusetts and the national average. According to St. Martin, the state is committed to boosting ridership by creating bike facilities with input from local communities and bicycle advocacy groups.
“This administration is committed to providing alternate modes of transportation around the state, from transit to pedestrians to cyclists,” he said. “To (increase bicycle ridership), it is important to have designated routes for cyclists to travel on where they feel both comfortable and safe.”
To reach this goal, the state is creating a statewide bike plan. This plan will “better guarantee that important projects move forward by giving them dedicated funding,” St. Martin said.
He also said the statewide bike plan will help create a more thoughtful network of bike facilities in the state. Currently, bike facilities are only considered when a construction or resurfacing project takes place. This approach to bike facilities has left the network disjointed, according to St. Martin.