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.