OP-ED: Great Streets Off to a Bumpy Start

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Mayor Jorge Elorza’s 100-page Great Streets Plan, an ambitious attempt to reshape the city streets for biking and walking, has provided a rather bumpy ride so far. With input from only 275 City residents, (.001 percent of the population), it generated plenty of controversy as it introduced an ongoing series of bike lanes, bump-outs, and snarled traffic into areas that in many cases had never faced them before. And while admittedly some of the projects remain intact, several others have had to be removed almost immediately. Eaton Street near Providence College, which was quickly undone in response to complaints from angry residents, actually cost more to replace than initially install – over $120,000 total.       

The response is not surprising to the few of us who have bothered to even read the Great Streets report, which includes a disclaimer on page one: “Information contained in this document is for planning purposes and should not be used for the final design of any project. All results, recommendations and commentary contained herein are based on limited data and information and on existing conditions that are subject to change.” 

By definition, any planning department worth its salt would drool at the opportunity to be given a blank piece of paper with the instructions to use their imagination and design a better way to move vehicles, pedestrians, and bicyclists around the community. The reality is that things change rather quickly in the real world and they cost real money to implement. We found very little discussion about the importance of taking existing livability and historic characteristics into account before implementing a finished plan. Yes, Blackstone Boulevard’s seldom used bike paths slow down traffic, but they also create more and faster traffic on adjoining side streets during rush hours as well. And Olney Street? A visual disaster.

The City’s next big project, scheduled for the fall, is likely to produce even bigger controversy as well. But in this one, the stakes to the larger community are potentially more onerous. The City’s current plans are to add a bike lane to South Water Street, reduce it from two lanes to one and limit parking on the west side of the street. The problem is that this street is also the major route for drivers coming out of downtown and the East Side onto I-195 East.

The planning department’s supporting data is based on a traffic study taken in March of last year that recorded 329 cars per hour. The threshold for two lanes is 600, which planning department spokesman Tim Rondeau says supports their decision. But, and it’s a big “but”, this data was collected just before the City was completely shut down due to the pandemic, which may have skewed the numbers.

Even with the downtown at 20 percent of people back to work, South Water Street often backs up, especially when there is a highway issue and cars take an alternative route. Even more ominous is that the study was conducted before Trader Joe’s announced they would be opening on the street, which will add traffic. The Parcel 6 project will only offer 162 parking spaces in the garage to service Trader Joe’s, 68 residential units, and an additional 10,000 square feet of retail space. Rondeau asserts that the Parcel 6 development was considered in the design, and no adverse traffic impact is expected.

There seems to be an unexpected randomness to some of the current implementation of the Great Streets plan. “I haven’t heard about it,” noted a surprised Brian Kingsford, owner of Bacara on South Water Street. A manager of Plant City was equally surprised, as were several nearby residents. Others expressed additional concern over the loss of parking spaces given the increasing popularity of the new pedestrian bridge for tourists. John Goncalves, Ward 1 Councilman, reports that one of his recent meetings on the subject drew over 100 Zoom attendees.

What seems to be missing is transparency of upcoming plans as well as initial feedback from a wider network of people who will be affected. With every additional start/stop bike plan, both the dollars and the frustration of local residents and businesses ratchets up, and in this latest proposal, adds the potential of citywide slowdowns.

For the cynical among us, speed bumps and bike trail markers may soon join poorly plowed snows and potholes as icons of urban frustration here in Providence.

Comments

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Dan Jones

Great Streets is off to a bumpy start because of lazy articles like this one and fearful citizens. Providence isn't the first city to reduce traffic lanes and add bike lanes. In fact, it's one of the last on the east coast and it's a serious problem given the poor transportation options here.

All that the author and other opponents need to do is simply read about what has happened in other east coast cities who have installed the same sorts of bike lanes and reduced traffic lanes: no lasting harm to businesses, no substantial increase in traffic, and an increase in bicycle traffic. In Manhattan they have reduced traffic lanes and added two-way bike lanes on many major avenues including Broadway leading right into Times Square. Like in PVD there was initial concern, and then after a year of them being up and running, that concern subsided and everyone who doesn't use the bike lanes essentially ignores them.

The fear is real here, but it isn't based on reality. Let's let the city planners do their jobs and let' move Providence into a brighter more pedestrian-friendly future rather than treating the city like it's a 1990's suburban strip mall.

Friday, August 27
Alan Barta

Been an activist for 25 year, a bicyclist for 60, and rode 150,000 miles mostly around Rhode Island. I consulted on RIDOT's Guide to Bicycling in the Ocean State map.

There isn't a scintilla of truth in this entire article, which repeats conservative negativity and warrants censure.

Bicycling infrastructure costs ZERO. All cities have to do maintain a shoulder with a solid line far enough away from the curb after they routinely repave streets. This "fog" line is mandatory anyway, so must be repainted after resurfacing. Bump outs, dedicated lanes, and traffic calming measures actually aggravate cyclists.

The trouble is that impatient motorists urge city hall to add "double or turning lanes" to streets that used to be one lane and a shoulder in each direction.

This is ILLEGAL. Violates several federal, municipal and state laws, NHWSA and USDOT guidelines, all of which guarantee equal access to all roads for bicyclists, drivers and pedestrians. Plus ADA demands crosswalks and curb relief for disabled wheelchair users.

Bicycles are already BANNED from 30% of streets: highways, limited access, and major bridges, often where not practical. In these cases, parallel routes need to be designated that don't cause undue detours. For example, Jamestown and Pell Newport bridges don't allow bicyclists, so the detour is 75 miles through Providence for riders who want to go from North Kingstown to Newport,

Streets shown on state map up to now altogether ignored Providence, until recently considered one of the worst places to bike in a 100 radius. The new bike-ped bridge parallel to Point Street is a danger to ride across, as is Point Street, the principal crossings of Narragansett Bay.

You don't need a lot of input from vocal cranks to conduct neighborhood street repairs that follow existing laws. They can take it up with three branches of government, to change the laws, but otherwise they have no say.

Tuesday, August 31
Scott Shuler

I agree with Dan Jones and Alan Barta that this article was a deeply disappointing dark spot in an otherwise nicely presented magazine full of useful content.

The Great Streets Plan was NOT invented by a bunch of planners who "drool" at the opportunity to fool around with transportation in Providence. On the contrary, this plan applies best practices that have already been implemented and evaluated in other towns -- not just in the Northeast, but around the world -- to improve the quality of life in our city. Now, as e-bikes are becoming increasingly popular and affordable -- including models with baskets and center consoles for carrying briefcases and groceries -- is a great time for other areas of Providence to make the leap to becoming walkable, cycle- and resident-friendly like Wayland Square, Thayer Street, and Wickenden.

We want people to feel comfortable moving into and walking around our city, frequenting shops and cafes. The more foot and bicycle traffic that prospective residents see, the more comfortable they will feel about moving in, occupying the mixed-use conversions and construction projects that are emerging. One common complaint about cities is the absence of grocery stores. Wouldn't it be nice if Trader Joe's became a magnet to attract residents who would like to be able to walk to the market? Do we really want people to have to hop in their car to drive 3 blocks to the store? Might more pedestrian and bicycle traffic also help us save Providence Place's retailers?

As planners and developers work to make Providence a friendlier place for pedestrians and bicyclists, let's not allow past habits to get in the way of a better future. Support the Great Streets initiative!

Wednesday, September 8