Providence Biking Meeting Attracts Crowd and Mayor

By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Bicyclists and pedestrians voiced their wish lists for the city at a recent meeting of the Providence Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission (BPAC). Too few bike lanes, too much parking, confoundingly placed crosswalks and, of course, sidewalk snow removal were all a part of the discussion.

The Feb. 18 meeting began with a visit from Mayor Jorge Elorza.

“I want Providence to be the fittest, most active city in all of New England, and a necessary step into making that possible is making sure that we have bicycle and pedestrian friendly streets and sidewalks throughout our city,” he said. “Providence is the perfect size city to go all in on pedestrians, bike-friendliness and public transportation.”

The mayor said he plans to lead by example. “In past years we’ve had bike to work day. This year, bike to work day is going to take place every Friday,” he said. “I look forward to biking to work, bringing attention to the issue, and encouraging as many people to do so as well.”

Elorza also announced that he would join a nationwide “Mayor’s Challenge” to improve the safety of Providence’s streets. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has called on “mayors and local elected officials to take significant action to improve safety for bicycle riders and pedestrians of all ages and abilities over the next year,” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation website.

The mayor also said the League of American Bicyclists will visit Providence on April 16 to conduct a survey on the status of the city’s streets. He said the Washington, D.C.-based organization will share relevant ideas the group has observed in other cities that could be implemented in Providence.

Elorza acknowledged the issue of snow-covered sidewalks, but failed to offer solutions. “The truth is that in the past, the city simply hasn’t focused on making sure that all of us as homeowners and property owners clear our sidewalks,” he said. “Little things such as that cause so much disruption for those of us who do walk to work, take public transportation, or walk to school.”

The mayor said he has had many conversations about snow removal from sidewalks, but didn’t specify with whom he spoke or about the substance of those conversations.

The BPAC meeting aimed to compile a list of ways the city could improve pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, culture and safety. “Tonight is not about discussing ideas but about compiling them,” said Eric Weis, chair of the commission. He said the ideas generated would be discussed at future meetings.

Better connectivity between neighborhoods was a main point of focus for the 45 or so people at the meeting. Robert Booz described his bike commute between Smith Street and South Providence as “treacherous,” because of the lack of bike- or pedestrian-friendly infrastructure along Dean Street where it crosses over the 6-10 Connector. “I take my life into my own hands,” he said. Others in attendance voiced similar concerns.

One meeting attendee said the bridges and service roads over and alongside I-95 act as a barrier between West Side neighborhoods and downtown that many cyclists are uncomfortable crossing. Another said getting to India Point Park from Wickenden Street is too difficult for cyclists and pedestrians because there are too few opportunities to cross I-195.

Barry Schiller, a North Providence resident, suggested that Providence’s bike infrastructure should aim to align with that of neighboring cities and towns. He said neighboring planning departments should be collaborating their efforts.

Doug Victor, a Providence resident and frequent public transit user, cyclist and pedestrian, voiced support for City Walk, a project that aims to connect India Point Park and Roger Williams Park via a pedestrian- and bike-friendly route.

Bike racks and lanes
Meeting attendees called for more bike lanes to make riding safer and more accessible, especially for those uncomfortable riding in traffic. Charles Street, Douglas Avenue, Elmwood Avenue, Smith Street, North Main and Broad Street were all named as candidates for bike lanes.

Attendees also called on the city to install more bike racks, especially around business hubs. James Baumgartner noted that Atwells Avenue currently has no bike racks.

Jim Tull, another proponent of additional bike racks, said the Providence train station’s covered racks are a good example for the city to copy. Other users of the train station’s bike racks said vandalism is an issue.

Snow removal
Sidewalk snow removal was a popular topic. One West Side resident said he has stopped walking anywhere with his four children, because the condition of the sidewalks forces pedestrians to walk in the street.

Others said that the ice banks that build up on the sides of roads and corners because of street plowing make clearing sidewalks challenging or impossible. David Kolsky, an East Side resident who doesn’t drive or ride a bike, said the snow banks often block pedestrian access to well-shoveled sidewalks.

“There are some beautifully plowed sidewalks that it’s impossible to get to if you are more than an 8-year-old with an adventurous spirit,” he said.

Meeting attendees also said bus stops need to be better maintained in snowy weather. Most bus stops remain unshoveled, they said, while snow banks from plows create barriers that make boarding the bus from the sidewalk a slippery and dangerous proposition.

Resolutions offered by attendees included requiring businesses to shovel nearby bus stops or requiring firemen to shovel bus stops near hydrants, which they already shovel around after storms.

Don Rhodes, president of RIPTA Riders Alliance, suggested the state set aside a million dollars to clear the thousand most trafficked bus stops.

Victor said Providence’s snowy sidewalks lessen the city’s livability. He said he has seen baby strollers, senior citizens and disabled people struggling to walk or wheel along sidewalks or in the street. He said the most vulnerable users need to be considered when it comes to sidewalk snow removal.

James Kennedy, an East Side resident, said parking minimums should be eliminated. Requiring businesses to maintain a minimum amount of off-street parking incentivizes driving over other modes of transportation, according to Kennedy.

Kennedy also said surface lots in Providence should be taxed to encourage development of buildings instead of impervious parking lots. According to Kennedy’s proposal, any revenue from the tax would go into reducing property taxes. He also said parking spaces should be metered to encourage faster turnover of users, adding that revenue from meters should go toward reducing property taxes.

Sam Bell suggested that bicycle parking should be more easily substituted for car parking in the zoning code.

Daniel Howe said the city should offer overnight-parking-pass holders the option of parking in large commercial lots during snow emergencies. Currently, many pass-holders are left with nowhere to move their cars when a parking ban is in effect, resulting in cars being towed and interfering with city snow-removal efforts.

Schiller suggested reducing government parking subsidies as a way of moving toward friendly roads for pedestrians and cyclists.

“State government subsidizes free parking at URI Providence even though it has transit access from every direction and is in the most congested and polluted part of the state,” he said. “They subsidize free parking for every faculty member, every staff, and every student at the Convention Center garage at huge expense.”

By reducing these subsidies, Schiller said, commuters would be forced to either pay their own way or figure out other ways to travel to campus such as by bus or by carpooling.

Crosswalks and striping
Attendees requested better road striping. Crosswalks on North Main Street and Manton Avenue were highlighted as being nonsensically placed in relation to road design and bus stops.

Eric Peterson suggested local residents should be consulted before striping occurs in their neighborhood to offer suggestions about how the city can avoid poor striping decisions that may not be obvious to decision makers unfamiliar with the neighborhood being striped.

Multiple people called for Bike Providence, the city’s bicycling master plan, to be updated.  Alex Krogh-Grabbe suggested creating a bike and pedestrian coordinator position within city government.

Schiller suggested better enforcing current speed limits and other laws designed to protect pedestrians, such as the requirement for cars to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. Howe suggested reducing the city speed limit to 15 mph to increase safety for pedestrians and cyclists.