Boldly Thinking Beyond the 'Sharrow'

By JAMES KENNEDY/ecoRI News contributor

PROVIDENCE — The city's Bicycling Master Plan emphasizes a paint-only strategy that lacks ambition and imagination. This was illustrated at the last Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC) meeting when the height of excitement was a discussion of “sharrows” on Camp Street, a calm, residential street on the East Side that requires no amendments in order to qualify as bikeable.

BPAC has suffered the same fate as many progressive groups in the United States: it acts as its own worst enemy, constraining its vision to peripheral reforms before it even faces any opposition from outside. If the political process will inevitably whittle down cyclists' proposals, then cyclists should focus on making their initial demands bigger. Sharrows shouldn't even be on the table.

The most common excuse for BPAC's lukewarm approach is that more serious changes to the city's roads would be expensive, complicated and permanent. This doesn’t have to be so. An ambitious bike plan can strike at the core of Providence’s transportation problems while leaving the city the option to reverse changes if they don't work. The expense of experimentation can be minimal.

Philadelphia, which ranks No. 1 in the United States for per-capita biking, is a model for success. In 2011, the Bicycle Coalition there proposed a pair of buffered bike lanes on JFK Boulevard and Market Street. The plan required the removal of not one but four full lanes of traffic.

Rather than fretting about the permanence and expense of such a project, or suffering mini-panic attacks about what suburban commuters might think, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter's office sensibly experimented with orange cones and caution tape to test the effects of a road-traffic diet.   

Philadelphia's initial attempts to make Center City bikeable were less bold. The first east-west bike lane in Center City was a bike-bus share lane on Chestnut Street that resulted in confusion. The “shared” lane gave neither buses nor bikes truly prioritized access to the street. Cyclists who didn’t want to sit in unending stop-and-go traffic behind a diesel bus avoided the route entirely. Buses inched along without their own dedicated lane. The failure to create a critical mass of cyclists, and the periodic absence of buses between arrival times left a void, which aggressive taxis were gleefully happy to fill.

Providence's approach to bike infrastructure represents an even more tepid version of Philadelphia's Chestnut Street experiment.

Providence traffic stress map. (Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc.)

Providence traffic stress map. (Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc.)

By contrast, Philadelphia's buffered Spruce and Pine lanes succeeded because the move didn't require public transit users and cyclists to compete for the same road resources. Innovations such as timing the signals to 20 mph so that bikers got a consistent "wave" of green lights helped to calm traffic and make the route safer. 

The existence of a partial road block on Waterman Street near Brown University demonstrates how a temporary narrowing of the street for construction is enough to make drivers act with some civility. The speedway that Waterman Street becomes just a few short blocks beyond — from Hope Street to Wayland Square — shows that without changing the roads' construction, Providence's bike routes are little more than a hollow suggestion.

Concrete isn't necessary to change traffic patterns. All it takes is a little imagination and the willingness to experiment.