Providence Ordinance Paves the Way for Street Safety

The Green and Complete Streets Ordinance is the second of its kind in New England to mandate road repairs for accessibility

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“When you travel Dexter Street now, you can see really clearly that it’s a thoroughfare that has all users in mind,” says John Flaherty of GrowSmart RI. He’s talking about Central Falls, the first city in New England to pass a Green and Complete Streets ordinance, in 2018, that lays out the framework for how future street projects will be executed. “They’ve got really clear crosswalks that have a different surface treatment to them, they have a sort of stamped concrete that appears to be brick, and you know, visually that sends a message to people who are driving that they’re actually crossing a pedestrian way.”

Now, as of late July when Councilor David Salvatore’s Green and Complete Streets Ordinance was passed, Providence streets are likely to see similar treatment. “The ordinance really memorializes the city’s existing commitment to streets that are safe and accessible for all users whether they’re on a bike, wheelchair, or behind the wheel of a car,” shares Flaherty.

The impact of this legislation is likely to be gradual, but meaningful, beginning with street redesign and repair: now, changes must follow Green and Complete Streets design guidelines. This means any reconstruction or repairs done will be mandated to
ensure pedestrians, wheelchair users, bicyclists, motorists, and public transit users alike have safe and equal access to city streets.

Beyond its aesthetic appeal, the ordinance’s expansion of trees and greenspace will also help improve air quality in Providence, particularly in majority-minority neighborhoods that experience more harmful pollution. And street performance tracking measures, now required of the City through this ordinance, include traffic complaints, ADA-compliant sidewalks, total miles of bike lanes, and an inventory of street trees. This aggregated information is updated regularly and accessible to the public on the City of Providence website.

The bill faced virtually no opposition. “It’s extremely rare for anything at all to pass unanimously. I think that speaks to the universality of this work,” says Liza Burkin, an organizer for Providence Streets Coalition. “It should have absolutely nothing to do with how old you are, what your income is, what your political leanings are – most people want to get around, and they want more choices on how they get around, and they want to get around safely and easily, and they want the freedom of mobility.”

Flaherty, who was involved in seeing the first ordinance in Central Falls through to fruition, often hears Providence residents share that they wish they could incorporate walking or using their bikes more as a mode of transportation, but feel unsafe with the way their communities’ streets are currently structured. “As long as people don’t feel safe, they’re not gonna do it,” he says. “We know the demand is there. We’ve seen, since COVID, more people wanting to be out walking, using their bikes, getting exercise, and building it into their daily routines, but you’ve gotta feel safe to do it.”

Flaherty and Burkin both envision next steps for Providence streets, now that Green and Complete Streets has passed. For Burkin, it’s to continue pushing for other important projects. “What we’re currently working on is a lot of the Great Streets Plans projects that are being implemented this year,” she says. “For the two state plans – the Transit Master Plan and Bike Mobility Plan – we’re currently advocating for increased funding for those plans, and we’re especially wanting to see the state Department of Transportation acknowledge and incorporate the recently passed Act on Climate legislation into their plan.”

For Flaherty, it’s seeing the Green and Complete Streets movement grow in Rhode Island. “Once a road is done, it isn’t touched again for quite a long time, so it’s really to all the communities’ advantage to become aware of the value of complete streets,” he says. “There’s the public safety value, which is paramount, but there’s also the value of creating a kind of place where more commerce can take place, where people are naturally drawn to, and it creates a vibrancy along those streets and that’s good for business. It’s really a win-win-win. So we want to celebrate the successes that are being achieved at the local level and encourage other communities to consider adopting these ordinances for their
own community.”

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