A BIRD'S-EYE VIEW with parking lots and garages highlighted. [Courtesy of GCPVD.ORG]

This past summer, the city of Providence produced a TV ad citing parking as a reason to visit. “We have over 15,000 parking spaces!” the Director of Public Space for the Providence Downtown Improvement District said. He’s right; approximately half of the surface area in downtown Providence is earmarked for parked cars. But it’s nothing to boast about. In fact, for bicycle advocates like me, a walk around the Jewelry District — a neighborhood characterized by huge, gaping surface lots — feels like a visit to post-war Dresden.

While it’s far from a sexy conversation topic, parking is one of the most important urban planning issues to be tackled by a city, particularly if it wants to become more bike-friendly, as Providence often professes. So with that in mind, and in honor Providence’s inaugural Park(ing) Day this Friday, September 20 — a day dedicated to repurposing parking spots as parks, outdoor reading areas, restaurant seating, art installations, and other creative uses — here are a few parking reforms that would greatly improve the city’s bike-friendliness. After all, successful high-bike-ridership cities like Amsterdam and Portland, Oregon don’t achieve those successes by destiny or magic.

Problem: Some major routes, like Hope Street and the West End portion of Westminster, are unsafe for riding bikes, but are heavily used by cyclists.

Solution: Remove parking lanes on some streets in order to create eight-foot wide bike lanes.

The few existing bike lanes in Providence, like the one on Broadway, run parallel to parked cars. In this scenario, a swung-open door can mean serious injury or death for a cyclist. Putting bike lanes directly along a curb removes this danger. Cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia are already doing this.

On many streets in Providence, parking is underused, so it’s not doing much to help to motorists anyhow. I once did a survey of cars parked along curbs on the west end of Westminster Street (not including Downcity) at a peak period and found a paltry 11 percent parking-space occupancy rate. On that same street, meanwhile, numerous cyclists struggled in mixed traffic.

On Hope Street, there are small sections around Brown University and the Rochambeau shopping district where the removal of parking lanes would be impractical. But along the vast majority of the street, parking lanes would serve the public much better as bike lanes, because there’s no need for so much parking. In the denser parts of the street where parking is needed, speeds could be calmed to 15 mph to allow cyclists to ride in mixed traffic.

Businesses on Westminster and Hope Streets should be pretty pissed that Broadway gets to have all the fun while their streets stay status quo ante. Cyclists, who have been shown to spend more money than drivers, are a key shopping demographic.

Problem: Providence and Rhode Island are both too broke to spend money on bike infrastructure.

Solution: Parking is expensive. Treat it that way.

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