Just Keep to the Side Streets, Bikers


There was nothing hugely surprising about the recently released Providence bicycling master plan. The original plan was scheduled to come out in June. It's was pushed back several times, though, to the point that a few days ago, after the “official release” of the plan, when I called up to ask where it was online to view it, it still was AWOL.

There's nothing particularly criticism worthy of the postponements in themselves. In the grand scheme of things, taking a few extra months to produce a truly quality design is admirable, especially if it springs from a motivation to increase the amount of public input time.

What I find disappointing in light of the time this plan took is that it doesn't feel like it has changed much at all. The first presentation I saw on the plan over a year ago covered the same basic recommendations that exist in the current proposal. The biking public hasn’t been heard.

Rhode Island Public Radio did a short piece in which Sheila Dormody, the city’s sustainability director, is quoted explaining the merits of the plan:

“Putting bicyclists on the busiest streets is a little intimidating for many bicyclists, so with this plan we’re looking at how we can more comfortably navigate the city.”

While it's obviously true that the heaviest trafficked roads in the city are not comfortable for even daring cyclists, the problem is not the diagnosis but the proposed treatment. The bike plan mostly opts to invite people to bike on the streets that are already bikeable. I'd like to invite you to imagine this logic if it were applied to improving public schools in Providence (ahem):

"Our (underfunded, failing public schools are) a little intimidating for many (parents) so with this plan we're looking at how we can (steer parents to the suburbs and to private schools),” said A. Politico, running for City Council.

So let’s not remove parking from W. Westminster Street, where it’s hardly used and could better support businesses as protected bike lanes. Let's not address routes on Waterman, Angell, Hope, Cranston, Broad, Elmwood, or Harris. Let’s get people to ride their bikes on Elmgrove. The data from the smart phones shows that they already do this. So this must be the way.

The plan, and its accompanying presentations — many of which I have sat through — have presented making biking easier in Providence as if it's rocket science. I'm tempted to quote from extensively from Donald Shoup's explanation (see page 10) of how traffic engineering likes to present the blood-letting and lead-poisoning of its craft as a delicate and highly trained pseudo science.

The Providence plan divvies out percentages to different aspects of what makes a route good. Safety gets 20 percent. Directness gets 15 percent. And so on. To quote from the margins of the “Ease of Implementation” part of the chart, which explains the mathematical points assigned to potential routes:

• Signing and Striping = 10 points
• Minor Reconstruction = 5 points
• Full Reconstruction/Parking Removal = 0 points

Why does parking removal get zero points, as a direct equivalent to “full reconstruction?” Parking removal can easily be achieved on some streets in Providence where cycling is in high demand, but parking is not. W. Westminster Street had an 11 percent parking occupancy when I checked it during one peak period. We could put bike lanes there with paint this year — the lines are already there, they just need bike stencils — and next year start planning and implementation to make them more permanent with “full reconstruction” if they prove popular. We can opt to take them away if they're really such a shonda.

Making the city bikeable is not expensive, especially in light of how much money is wasted on lesser things. There are serious proposals to fund the construction of yet more parking in our already parking dominated downtown on the I-195 land. At $30,000 to $50,000 a space, a mile of two-way, completely physically separated cycletracks could be bought for the equivalent of three to six parking spaces.

We keep being told by moderates that this should take us 40 years to develop, because it took 40 years in Amsterdam. Since when do we reinvent the wheel each time we do something just because it took a long time for it to be originally developed? When I get sick, I don't go into my bedroom and fool around with various molds until I figure out, by accident, that there's something called penicillin.

I go to the pharmacy and get the fourth or fifth generation improvement of that idea, with little more than a slip of paper from my doctor. Advocates are acting too tepidly when they present the problem of creating biking safe spaces as if it's some monumental problem that will take decades to fix. If Providence wants people like me to stay here and raise children (I'm 28; it's coming sometime soon) then it ought to act like creating safe places for my children is a high priority.

And in case it seems like I'm harping on parking as the only example of expense mislaid, let me point out a transit example. Building an infill train station for Olneyville or Pawtucket will cost about $1.5 million — enough to build almost 10 miles of two-way cycle tracks. With Olneyville as close to the existing train station as it is, I have to wonder why we wouldn't build five 2-mile approaches to the train station, greatly improving its functionality to those coming and going without slowing the trains with an additional stop.

Bike infrastructure, unlike an additional station, would help people get around between things once they get into the city, instead of leaving them to fend for themselves when they get here. I don't pose this example to say that we shouldn't build urban infill stations. I only do so to say that bicycling is treated as an afterthought to transportation planning, and in many cases it offers more bang for the buck than any other option.

Cycle tracks are not all that’s needed. Shared space is a completely appropriate way for a city to approach the needs of cyclists, and as the plan states, no matter what, cyclists will have to encounter traffic somewhere. But the way the city is presently approaching shared space through the bike plan isn’t helpful. A sharrow on what the plan’s consultant calls a “calm residential street” like Doyle isn’t helpful, because while Doyle is not as trafficked or as fast as, say, North Main, it's 25-mph official speed limit is far too fast for any but the most elite cyclists to keep up with cars.

A speed of 25 mph doesn’t count as “calm” for the purposes of shared space. It isn’t to say that 25 mph (or even faster) can't be a tenable speed for many roads. It’s only to say that inviting people to “take the lane” when they can’t keep pace with cars is a failed approach.

The plan presents the “five Es” of bicycle design — education, engineering, encouragement, enforcement and evaluation — and takes the approach that engineering, while the sexiest and most interesting of the Es, should have to share the spotlight more with the others on the list. While a reasonable argument obviously stands for the inclusion of all the Es, I find the plan’s use of the non-engineering components of design to be implemented in a way to distract from the real need for engineering.

For instance, the plan does approach the subject of cycle tracks. While the wording of the plan isn’t quite as critical of cycle tracks as the consultant’s in-person presentations have been, it more or less keeps the same story of cycle tracks being an expensive half-blessing that cause as many accidents as they prevent.

While it's no doubt true that cycle tracks that are poorly designed result in injuries from drivers who don't yield at turns to bikes, well-designed cycle tracks have been a key to making Dutch injury rates 10 times lower than Boston rates, all while boasting a third of trips nationally and two-thirds of trips in city by bike.

The plan’s hired consultant keeps implying that adding real infrastructure will result in bike deaths from “right hooks.” But it takes 30 seconds on the Internet to find an explanation of how to build a safe, well-designed cycle track that doesn't have these problems.

Even where the plan stretches out toward idealistic sounding recommendations, there is danger lurking. Take this gem:

“While many advocates look to European countries for inspiration regarding bicycle  infrastructure design, they overlook the importance of the European bicycling education programs. In Denmark, bicycling education in schools begins at the kindergarten level and culminates with a national standard written exam and road test for students entering high school.”

There is no question that a vigorous bicycling education program can produce tangible increases in the level of bicycling activity. I'd be impressed by this quote if I thought it was a genuine recommendation with teeth to develop Danish all-ages bike education to change over our whole society.

Unfortunately, I was at a Providence Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission (BPAC) meeting and asked for some easy-to-implement bike lanes in my neighborhood, and had the plan’s consultant use this exact part of his argument to try to refute the need for that infrastructure.

"It’ll take years to remove parking,” he said, and then launched into how important education was. Well, I won’t hold my breath waiting for the U.S. education system to add consistent history and art classes, much less cycling classes. Offering education as a true complement to infrastructure is a great idea, but using it as a rhetorical distraction isn’t acceptable.

Providence should invest itself in biking like its future depends on it, because it does. “The Bottom Line” just interviewed the chair of the I-195 Commission, and the program reminded listeners that much of the 20 developable acres of the former freeway lies only a few feet above the water table. What happens when sea levels rise just a foot? The program excitedly predicted that the building space that could be added to the city in that 20 acres could add another third to the city, and become one the most important centers for our whole state and region. That ain’t no spotted owl we're talking about saving. That's money.

Providence needs to stop being the A+ student that slouches and earns a C-, and then has the nerve to tell its parents that it tried its best.

Providence resident James Kennedy runs the blog Transport Providence.