February’s issue of Providence Monthly contained an op-ed discussing the upcoming Hope Street Urban Trail – a temporary path for pedestrians, joggers, cyclists, and scooter and wheelchair users on Hope Street this spring. This project would let residents and business owners experience this potential street redesign in person and give feedback for permanent changes in the future. I'm not involved with the project or the organizations behind it, but I do live near Hope and would be affected by it. Sadly, proposals for urban trails in Providence like this one have repeatedly encountered fearmongering and misinformation.
The truth is, urban trails – including the ones recently completed on South Water Street and Empire Street and the one in progress on Broad Street – are good for just about everyone. Pedestrians and cyclists avoid dangerous encounters with vehicles. Drivers enjoy decreased traffic and less competition for parking because more people take alternate forms of transportation. Taxpayers spend less on road upkeep because fewer cars means less wear and tear on the roadway. And despite the fears of some business owners, their establishments thrive with increased foot traffic. (I repeat: decades of data overwhelmingly show that even when some parking spaces are removed, urban trails bring more income to businesses.)
I suppose if you're an oil baron you may be upset, but everyone else will benefit. There are plenty of true challenges in managing a city: education, housing, employment, public health and safety. Can't we just celebrate that this one is an obvious win-win? For those still unconvinced, I encourage you to go to CyclingFallacies.com and see whether your anti-urban trail assumptions are actually backed by evidence.
Putting aside the many benefits of urban trails, opponents suggesting that we should only build our cityscape for those who can afford the cost of a car are insulting the many Providence residents struggling to make ends meet. The price of a bus fare, bicycle, scooter, skateboard, wheelchair, stroller, or pair of roller blades or running shoes is all it should take to get around our small and dense city quickly and safely. I'm lucky to have access to a car some of the time, but I prefer to walk or bike – it gives me fresh air and exercise, doesn't cost gas money, and often takes the same amount of time as a car once you factor in parking. But it can be scary too: I've been yelled at and run off the road by aggressive motorists who don't seem to realize that cycling on the street is both legal and practical.
Some people point to the fact that Providence does not have as many cyclists as Amsterdam as evidence that “no one wants to bike here.” But in fact, it's remarkable we have as many cyclists as we do given how dangerous some of our roads feel with vehicles buzzing by. And as a driver it's stressful too – it isn't always obvious where the safest place to pass a scooter rider is, and being stuck behind a slow bicycle can be frustrating. This is why it makes sense to separate vehicles from everyone else on our busiest streets as the Hope Street Urban Trail would do. And the data shows that when American cities build protected bike lanes, cycling increases significantly.
Mayor Elorza's Great Streets Initiative has done more to collect feedback from residents, business owners, and other stakeholders across the city than virtually any other city would have bothered to do, and the overwhelming response has been positive. (In contrast, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation just committed to spending $750 million of our federal transportation dollars without a single opportunity for oral public comments.) A 2021 poll found that 70 percent of respondents in Providence would like to ride a bicycle more often, 71 percent would do so if there were protected bike lanes like the Hope Street Urban Trail, 63 percent think there should be more urban trails even if it reduces car lanes or parking, and 80 percent think that developing alternatives to driving is the best way to reduce traffic issues. All of these percentages have gone up since the same survey was conducted in 2019. And a 2020 national poll conducted by researchers from five universities found that Rhode Islanders named climate change as its number two most pressing problem after COVID-19 (vehicles are the largest source of carbon pollution in our state).
Opponents of Providence's current and upcoming urban trails like to paint a picture that there is some small but vocal minority pushing for these changes. What the data shows is that they in fact are the minority. Instead of letting them drive our city's future, let's build a Providence for everyone.
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