SHARING THE SIDEWALK Mayor Taveras. [Photo courtesy of GCPVD.ORG]
Providence has a bike "master plan," but is it any good? _by Zach Green
Last fall, Mayor Angel Tavares unveiled the rather redundantly named, Bike Providence: A Bicycling Master Plan for Providence — a 73-page plan for improving the city’s bicycling infrastructure, submitted by the transportation development firm Vanasse Hangen Brustlin. The proposal opens with an assessment of the current state of cycling in our city. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that if you live and work in Providence, chances are you use a car to get around. A 2006 US Census survey found that 63 percent of our city’s commuters regularly drove alone to work, and less than 1 percent rode a bike.
While that same survey, conducted again in 2011, found that the percentage of bicycle commuters had doubled to 2 percent, those numbers are still disheartening, especially considering the widely acknowledged health, environmental, and economic benefits of choosing a bike as your primary mode of urban transport. Bike Providence enumerates several of these factors, outlining how states with the lowest incidence of biking and walking also have the highest incidence of obesity, and how car ownership costs the typical US household 18 percent of its annual income. (Interestingly, Bike Providence makes no mention of the obvious — and no less significant — environmental benefits of a strong urban bicycling infrastructure.)
While Providence’s bicycle commuting rate is somewhat better than the national average — 0.6%, according the League of American Bicyclists—we rank well below a number of similarly sized cities. Eugene, Oregon, boasts a bike commuting rate of 8.7 percent; Cambridge, Massachusetts has a rate of 8.5; and Boulder, Colorado has a rate of 12.1. And given Providence’s relatively small geographic size, the short distances that separate the city’s neighborhoods, and our easy access to MBTA trains connecting us to Boston, Bike Providence suggests the city would be particularly well served if all of us started biking more.
To make this happen, Bike Providence proposes a “5E” plan, looking at solutions related to engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement, and evaluation. On the education front, the plan seeks to “debunk the perception that bicycling is a dangerous activity,” citing evidence that, in terms of injuries sustained per hour of activity, bicycling is second in safety only to walking. (Regular bicycle commuters on the city’s West End might reasonably disagree. Attempting a left hand turn on a bike from Westminster Street onto Parade at rush hour is hardly a safe experience). Bike Providence advocates adding a bicycle education program in the city’s elementary and middle school curricula, and recommends traffic offenders complete bicycle training courses in lieu paying fines. Bike Providence suggests “intense periodic enforcement campaigns” to ensure bicyclists are respecting stop signals and lights, but this recommendation feels particularly imperious, as the plan makes so few notes of the need to ensure that motorists are also adhering to the rules of the road.
Of the five “E’s,” engineering gets the most focus, as the plan stresses the need to “expand the existing bicycle infrastructure for every level of cyclist.” But a striking aspect of the report is how little infrastructure there seems to be to improve upon. A 2012 inventory found a total of 38.1 miles of existing bikeways in the city, the majority of which are identified as “Phase 1 Routes,” which include “shared lanes, marked shared lanes, and paved shoulders.” Bike Providence’s own definitions help us parse those phrases. The term “shared lane” is somewhat of a misnomer, as it refers to any street where bicycles can legally be operated — basically any road other than a highway. A “paved shoulder” is simply a road where the shoulder — that’s the strip of road outside the normal travel lane — is paved, allowing for travel by bicycle, but also for parking by car. In urban transportation parlance, a “marked shared lane” is generally known as a “sharrow,” and refers to roads painted with the familiar bicycle and double-chevron icon, designed to indicate that a street is frequented by bicyclists.
These options are the most basic of urban bicycling engineering ideas, and for better or worse, they represent the predominant proposals of Bike Providence. The plan suggests repaving roads, adding street signals and signage, and other ambiguous small-scale improvements like “street furnishings,” and often fails to describe how these solutions will improve Providence’s bicycling environment. At times Bike Providence seems willfully uncreative and uninspired, even as it notes that “experience in the US has shown that most bicyclists prefer riding on separated bikeways such as bike lanes, cycle tracks, or off-road, shared-use paths.”
So why don’t we see more of those in the proposal? The plan suggests it is a question of money: “Major transportation and/or redevelopment projects in the city can provide the opportunity to make large scale improvements to the cycling infrastructure, such as off-road shared-use paths, bike lanes or cycle tracks, but these major projects are usually very expensive and take years of permitting and approvals before construction can begin.”
The plan’s architects have said that Bike Providence is designed to be a “living document” that’s continually open and subject to change. The Providence Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Commission, a group appointed by Mayor Taveras, has regularly taken comment on Bike Providence. And local residents James Kennedy and Rachel Playe have written thoughtfully and extensively about the present and future of bicycling in our city on Transport Providence (transportprovidence.blogspot.com), arguing, for example, that the sharrows proposed by Bike Providence fail to realistically address the needs of bicyclists in the city. “Sharrows represent shared space, and shared space is only appropriate in low-volume, slow-pace areas,” they write. “There’s nothing wrong with taking small steps forward, but it is wrong to tell people that you’re taking steps forward when you’re treading water.”
When the plan was released last November, an accompanying press release from Mayor Angel Taveras stated, “The master plan will continue to be evaluated as it is implemented and can be updated periodically as conditions and funding sources evolve,” which neither reads as a full endorsement of, nor inspires a lot of confidence in, the commissioned plan. If Providence is ready and able to become a great bicycling city, then what are the conditions necessary to make that happen? Is it a lack of funds, or a deficit of vision, holding us back?
Bike Providence is available for download via the Greater City Providence blog, at gcpvd.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/bike-providence.pdf.
Next page: Is Providence getting a bike share?