THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Great Streets, Mobile City

Envisioning an equitable transportation system for the creative capital

by Avi Shapiro & Ilan Upfal

Illustration by Natasha Brennan

published November 1, 2019


Zooming down College Hill last weekend on our bikes, a friend and I criss-crossed our way downtown, barely avoiding cars and trucks as we biked down the five-lane Memorial Boulevard that lacked any space for cyclists. Passing under the mall, we finally reached the beginning of the Woonasquatucket River Greenway: 4.6 miles of bike paths through forests, parks and cityscape along the river. After only a mile, we stopped at a park. As children played behind us, we breathed in the fresh air of the autumn afternoon and soaked in the trickling river. Many like us are beginning to seek out biking as a healthier, more sustainable way to move through Providence. Despite this shift, cars continue to rule the streets. As both ridership and fatalities grow, we must act as a city to envision cohesive and safe bicycle infrastructure integrated with other affordable alternatives to cars.

This June, Providence’s Office of Sustainability released a plan to blanket the city with a network of bike and walking trails within easy walking distance of 93 percent of residents and 95 percent of jobs. The proposal, ambitiously named the Great Streets Plan, was developed based on 275 comments from residents at a series of public input meetings combined with existing traffic-calming efforts and crash data. The network, consisting of 32.6 miles of new on-road separated bike lanes, 1.1 miles of new striped bike lanes, and 15.9 miles of new neighborhood greenways, has the potential to cut climate emissions and begin to radically equalize our transportation system.

Great Streets is notable not just for its ambition, but also for the break with decades of American transportation policy oriented exclusively towards cars that it represents. From President Eisenhower’s interstate system to this year’s widening of I-95, our system has consistently favored massive public investment in a car-dominated transportation system. Most recently, the state has diverted millions from projects to improve biking and walking infrastructure towards highway investments and lane widening. Car culture, sold as an ideal of freedom in our society, is robbing our generation of a livable future and excluding marginalized groups from many essential opportunities.

In reality, cars are a barrier to mobility for many and a threat to a livable future. For low-income communities, folks with disabilities, and the elderly, cars can be totally inaccessible. The average car costs over $9,500 and emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon annually, according to the US Department of Labor Statistics and the Environmental Protection Agency. The world’s top environmental scientists are in consensus that we need to cut carbon emissions drastically in the next 11 years, redesigning every part of our economy in order to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. In light of the climate crisis, perhaps a much broader swath of society should move away from cars. While electric car culture is touted by the political mainstream, in reality such a change could perpetuate the current access barriers at a massive energy and resource cost. Decarbonizing our society necessitates that we densify communities, eliminating the need for individual cars and instead creating affordable, low-energy walkable and bikeable communities.

Despite the urgent need for ways to get around the city without a car, the Great Streets Plan’s ambitions are being met with resistance in the form of budget cuts and motorist pushback. Just one month after the plan’s release, the city ripped out a stretch of brand-new protected bike lanes on Eaton Street due to motorist complaints that they were inconvenient and posed a risk to their safety. A few weeks later, state officials reallocated $37 million in bike and pedestrian improvements for highway expansion. These setbacks reveal an input process that fails to fully consider community needs before implementing projects, and, perhaps, a resulting lack of strong public advocacy for this infrastructure.

The Great Streets Plan is a policy vision based on community input that has the potential to transform the way we get around Providence. However, most of it is unfunded and aspirational. Fully implementing the plan will take our government standing up for the needs of our city’s communities, something that will require strong public pressure to achieve.

 

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In Rhode Island, commuting via anything other than a car is an anomaly. According to Transit Forward RI’s State of the System report, released in 2019, approximately 74 percent of Providence residents drive alone or in a carpool, compared to only 6 percent that take the bus or 10 percent that walk. Lacking a reliable alternative, residents and commuters waste time and money waiting in congested streets and isolated by the confines of their cars.

Yet, much of Providence was built around the city’s streetcar lines, forming “streetcar suburbs.” These lines made up an impressive system of frequent, fully electric mass transportation that moved people not only through the city but also to surrounding towns like Woonsocket, Cranston and East Providence. These streetcars provided scenic transportation through the state’s landscape, giving remarkable mobility to a population that owned few private cars. Like those of many other cities, those mass transit lines had been ripped out by the ’50s, as trolley companies were unable to compete with the growing preference for automobiles, and the freedom they might afford. Government policy followed this turn, investing heavily car infrastructure.

Today’s cities and suburbs are entirely car-oriented, supported by massive public subsidies to pay for free streets, free highways, and free parking. Rhode Island and Providence are no exception, as they continue to divert funding away from bike and pedestrian infrastructure to road widening projects and highways.  “Here in Rhode Island, our Department of Transportation thinks the car is king,” Kurt Teichert, professor of environmental design and urban planning at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, told the College Hill Independent. This failure to challenge car culture imoedes our city’s efforts to combat climate change and harms those who cannot access cars, restricting their access to economic opportunity, healthy food, education, and recreation, and does nothing to address the looming climate crisis. Currently, the state’s alternatives to cars are lacking in ambition and serious funding.

Instead of driving cars, Rhode Islanders can take public transit, ride bikes, or walk. The state’s mass transit system provides an important alternative, but faces a tight budget and declining ridership. The shift towards public transit is a crucial step toward a more equitable and decarbonized future. Even before transit agencies embrace electric buses, as many are, increasing transit ridership is a crucial way to reduce emissions, especially in Rhode Island, where our car-dominated transportation system accounts for 40 percent of carbon emissions. The Rhode Island Public Transportation Association (RIPTA), a quasi-public entity, is both chronically underfunded and tasked with serving the entire state. Only 44 percent of its routes run consistently from 6 AM to 10 PM on weekdays, and only one route runs more than twice an hour, according to Transit Forward RI’s State of the System report. RIPTA’s infrequency inhibits widespread usage by reducing the reliability of the system.

The city’s bike infrastructure is hardly any better. Rather than build protected bike lanes, as proposed in the Great Streets Plan, the city has generally elected to simply paint bike silhouettes onto the street. Cyclist deaths have soared 10 percent in the past year, and pedestrian deaths increased 4 percent, according to the Department of Transportation. Providence still scores 33 out of 100 on a measure of pedestrian and bike infrastructure safety, nearly 50 points below the national median score, according to a 2016 report by the National Complete Streets Coalition.

The Great Streets Plan could be the next step towards an equitable and decarbonized transportation system, giving residents access to low carbon and low cost alternatives to driving. The plan would also increase access to nature for residents across the city through its parklets and greenways, especially benefitting the city’s marginalized communities that have the least access to these spaces.

 

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Across the country, other American cities are pursuing investments in infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit. In 2016, voters in Seattle and Los Angeles approved massive transportation packages that included billions of dollars of funding for new buses, rail lines, bike lanes, and sidewalks. These measures aim to transform notoriously car-oriented cities into mass transit-centered metropolises where access to education, employment, or healthcare does not require a private car.

In Seattle, the percentage of households within a ten minute walk of frequent transit—a bus or rail line that comes at least every ten minutes all day, every day—has jumped from 25 percent in 2015 to 64 percent in 2017. The system has quickly improved to the point where 90 percent of bus riders are so called “choice riders,” who could drive but decide to take transit, according to public surveys. These more affluent riders, who often hold political sway with elected officials, demand real improvements to the system, which in turn promotes transit as a viable alternative to cars. The city also involves the broader public before making any decisions, requiring public comment at four stages in the project design process. Planning meetings are held in the evenings and near public transit lines in order to maximize public access. In order to be approved, projects must meet the needs of a neighborhood while furthering the city’s carbon reduction goals by favoring transit, pedestrians, and cyclists over private vehicles.

In Providence, activists allege the city’s public outreach process is totally broken. Ahmed Sesay, an organizer with the Providence-based Racial Environmental Justice Committee (REJC), says city agencies don’t center the voices of marginalized communities most impacted by environmental injustice, such as South Providence and Washington Park. “There is so much community input that we would love to have, but even though the city is somewhat involved with the REJC, there’s still a lot of conversations to be had about including more of the people who are actually dealing with these issues in our communities,” Sesay told the Independent.

The lack of genuine community input in the city’s projects can be seen in challenges the city’s low-income communities have faced with RIPTA’s input process. “Community meetings aren’t very well attended, because they aren't really friendly to community. It’s really hard to say they are supportive and open to the community,” Pol Tavarez of the REJC told the Independent. Tavarez also cited RIPTA’s attempt to defy the state's Open Meetings Act last year by kicking respected community journalist Steve Ahlquist out of  a meeting as an incident of RIPTA’s failure to be open to communities.

Sesay and the REJC have a more inclusive approach to bringing marginalized communities together to give input. “One way we have come up with these climate strategies is by nurturing and really bringing in the whole person. We try to always make sure there is some kind of childcare and food, so that people coming to do work that is really heavy oftentimes can feel like they are being supported as a whole person and not as a voice or a token,” said Sesay.

A few months into the Great Streets Plan, the city’s stunted public input process has already halted progress. In September, city officials decided to remove the Eaton Street bike lane just three weeks after it was installed, citing complaints from residents who felt that they weren’t adequately consulted prior to the change. Although some comments centered around reduced car access, an unavoidable impact of a project that repurposes vehicle lanes for bikes, they also reflect a genuine failure of the city’s public outreach. Projects like the Eaton Street bikeway are essential to reducing transportation emissions and meeting the city’s carbon reduction goals. A robust public outreach process is essential to creating an equitable, effective, and politically feasible solution.

The REJC is currently working to assemble community members for a Transportation Equity Group to gather more input on what a more just transportation system would look like for the city, specifically centering the voices of people of color and those without access to a private car. Sesay describes his method as a model for public officials, describing how “we asked people about their day to day story of how they relate to the city around them, how they relate to the land, the air, the water and the earth around them. That was a good starting point to think about what the environment really means. Because people sometimes think that it’s really abstract, that it’s not as small as your neighborhood or your home, and it really is.”

 

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The REJC’s recent Climate Justice Plan, an effort to connect equity with climate policy in the City, calls for quickly and equitably decarbonizing transportation, energy, and buildings, as well as improving community health and developing a more localized economy. On transportation, the plan calls for identifying and modifying truck routes in highly residential and polluted areas, investing in improved electrified public transit, and expanding biking infrastructure as well as bike and scooter access in low-income neighborhoods.

In contrast, mainstream technocratic visions for decarbonizing transportation recommend a business as usual, unplug-and-replace model by which current fossil-fuel powered vehicles and power plants are merely replaced by electric vehicles and renewable energy farms. In reality, such thinking perpetuates and protects today’s inequitable systems while missing the powerful opportunities decarbonization holds. Electric cars are energy intensive to produce and ultimately emit roughly half of the emissions of gasoline cars, according to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists. While any reduction in emissions is valuable, electric cars alone do not represent a viable path to net zero emissions, nor do they address transportation access concerns.

In the State Senate’s sixth district, Tiara Mack has made equity and environmental issues a rallying cry of her campaign, noting that, “If we transition to zero emissions vehicles, we will place undue burden on those families and communities unless we address the issue of accessing electric vehicles.” Indeed, the benefits of rebates for electric vehicles have almost exclusively gone to affluent households in Rhode Island. No matter how they’re powered, cars are major emitters that create a high financial barrier to basic mobility.

Providence is making some progress towards a more equitable, lower carbon, and less car-centric future; the aforementioned Great Streets plan is one of several such efforts. The City Walk Project, which secured $2 million to create walking greenways on Clifford Street downtown and on Pine, Friendship, and Broad Streets in South Providence, is the start of an urban trails system of walkable and bikeable streets. The plan also makes safety improvements at dangerous intersections for cyclists and pedestrians. Kurt Teichert highlights the City Walk project’s success in increasing access to equitable transportation. “There’s a [theory] of making neighborhoods just green enough that focuses on many points of access to green space instead of one glorified park that is frequented by mostly people in that wealthy neighborhood. So they’re trying to address that through the City Walk process that’ll build bike lanes, pedestrian access, and safer access to the bus.”

City Walk acknowledges the urgent need to make roads safer for non-car transit within a comprehensive, city-wide network that distributes projects equitably and allows citywide low-carbon travel. The scope of the plan is essential to preventing a focus on wealthy neighborhoods at the expense of the low-income residents who face a more urgent need to safely travel without a car.

 

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On the whole, Providence and Rhode Island have a long way to go towards a more just, lower-carbon transportation system. As our car oriented system further marginalizes people and drives climate change, public subsidies for fuel, car storage, and roads continue unabated. RIPTA’s funding is limited, and bike and pedestrian infrastructure is more often treated as an afterthought than serious transportation. Yet, programs like Great Streets and City Walk show the potential of a truly decarbonized transportation system to finally enshrine mobility as a basic human right, one that isn’t predicated on socio-economic status or ability.

With state lawmakers seemingly more inclined to fund highway mega-projects than basic non-motorized infrastructure, perhaps looking to local residents for leadership would be a better path forward. Strengthening input processes to build support among and public and better serve them will be critical to the success of this transition.

“We are working to create tools for thinking proactively about creating a vision of transit equity here in Rhode Island,” said Tavarez. “We are getting together Black, Indigenous and People of Color and prioritizing people who do not have a personal car, because we recognize that they are the ones who face the most hardship when it comes to transit due to our society’s narratives around having a personal car.” As groups like the REJC envision more equitable transportation systems and input processes through which they can be designed, it will take collective action to demand our leaders take bold action to implement them.

 

AVI  SHAPIRO B’22 and ILAN UPFAL B’22 can ride their tandem bike with no handlebars.