It’s time to stop waiting for the bus in Rhode Island

This post originally published on Rhode Island Future.

I like RIPTA. Transit agencies struggle to provide direly needed transportation access to thousands of people, and they don’t get to take a day off if they’re not feeling up to it. I’ve seen some RIPTA staff in action, and they impress me. I’m also pumped about the redesigned Kennedy Plaza; for all the flak it gets, I think it’s an excellent thing for transit service in Rhode Island and a boon to rejuvenating downtown Providence.

But this is the 21st century.

In the 21st century, people don’t want to wait around in the cold for a bus, because they don’t have to. They have the internet, which can tell them, based on real-time location data, exactly when their bus is going to arrive. Or, maybe they live in an urban area that values its transit system enough to provide frequent enough service such that, even if you miss one bus, the next one will be along before your toes fall off from frostbite.

Unfortunately, neither of those things is true in Rhode Island.

Google Maps and other transit apps are still waiting for RIPTA to provide them with real-time data, instead relying on scheduled bus arrival times. When you’re standing out at a stop in the cold, and you have a meeting or interview you need to get to, what do you do with the statistic that a majority of buses arrive at each stop within 5 minutes of their scheduled time? Do you wait to see if the bus will come? Or do you walk over to the next transit corridor to maybe catch that bus? Or, more likely, you just don’t rely on the bus, because you don’t know whether it can get you there. When you can’t rely on the bus, it’s not a good alternative to car ownership for most people.

Or wait! Even if there’s some major technological, bureaucratic, budgetary, or other reason RIPTA can’t set up a process to format its data in the necessary fashion and provide a feed for Google and other apps (or even *gasp* citizen developers!) it doesn’t matter, right? There are a lot of bus lines; people can rely on the schedule and function pretty okay, yeah?

Except the problem is, RIPTA’s bus service is on the low end of frequency. Transit expert Jarrett Walker categorizes transit service based on off-peak frequency into four categories: buses every 15 minutes or less, every 30 minutes or less, every 60 minutes or less, and occasional service. If you miss those most frequent buses, no worries, because another will be along soon. If you miss the less frequent ones, you know the drill. Walk home, and tell that fantastic job or client you were really excited about that you won’t be able to make it.

So here’s a map of Providence with RIPTA routes colored according to frequency. Red is the best, then blue, then green, then orange is practically nonexistent service.


But look! There are lots of red lines there! Except if you notice, those red lines are mostly along limited-access highways, without much in the way of transit access to the people living next to them. I could count on one hand the corridors outside of downtown with actual frequent transit access:

  1. North Main (paragon of pedestrian friendliness that THAT is)
  2. West Broadway
  3. Cranston Street
  4. Broad
  5. Elmwood
  6. Waterman/Angell
  7. Eddy (only to Thurbers)

Okay I borrowed two fingers from the other hand. But THAT’S IT. No frequent service to RIC or PC. No frequent service to the Wards of City Council members Narducci, Ryan, Correia, Igliozzi, Hassett, or Matos, and hardly any to Councilman Zurier’s Ward 2 or Council President Aponte’s Ward 10. And really, the frequent coverage ain’t great in many other Wards; they just have one or two frequent lines running through them.

Ideally RIPTA would solve both of these problems, but of course there are budgetary constraints and an imperative to cover the whole service area with service. As Walker states in this awesome video (yes I’m a geek), there is a tension between the goal of coverage and the goal of frequency. And indeed, with the R-line and suggestions of further focus on the highest-potential routes, RIPTA is headed more in the direction of frequency than it has been historically.

But the other problem? C’mon RIPTA. We’re living in the 21st century. Get on it. Or tell us why you’re failing in this way. Do you think we don’t care? Or that you’ll look bad? We do care. You already look bad when you don’t tell us why you’re deficient in this area. Here are some links to help get you there if you’re not already on your way: GTFS-realtimeMBTA’s live-feed page. Transit Camp 2015 conference notes.

PVD Police Dept one of least racially representative in the country

This post originally appeared on RI Future.
PVD police

A lot of American cities have police departments that don’t proportionally represent the racial mix of residents. And Providence is one of the worst.

According to data provided by the office of the Public Safety Commissioner, the 444-officer Providence Police Department is 76.3 percent White, 11.7 percent Hispanic, 9.0 percent Black, 2.7 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, and 0.2 percent American Indian. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the city as a whole is 37.8 percent White, 38.3 percent Hispanic, 16.1 percent Black, 6.5 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, and 1.4 percent American Indian.

That means the white portion of the PPD is 38.6 percentage points overrepresentative of the city as a whole, while the Hispanic portion is 26.5 percentage points underrepresentative, the black portion is 7.1 points underrepresentative, the Asian/P.I. portion is 3.8 points underrepresentative, and the American Indian portion is 1.2 points underrepresentative.

These numbers seem vaguely interesting without context, but in the context of other cities, they’re far more troublesome.

On October 1, data journalism blog published an analysis of the 75 largest municipal police forces in the country. Providence has approximately the 90th-most officers in the country, so was not included in that analysis. The main thrust of that analysis was examining the effectiveness of residency requirements (tldr?: They actually correlate with worse representativeness). However, there is an excellent visualization putting all 75 departments side by side, ranked in order of how racially misrepresentative they are of their cities. I highly recommend checking it out.

So Providence wasn’t included in that analysis, and there are about 15 other departments that also weren’t included and have bigger departments than we do. But how do we compare to the 75 cities included in the analysis?


Only three of the cities FiveThirtyEight looked at have police departments worse at representing their communities than Providence. So that’s a problem.

In a statement, Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré said, “Recruiting a diverse workforce is always a priority.  We hired two recruit classes for the PFD and one recruit class for the PPD.  It was one of the most diverse classes we’ve had in our history.  Our goal is to mirror the community we serve.  The challenge is to reach out to the available workforce in the region and recruit the best candidates.”

The new class of 53 police officers was the most diverse in 20 years, with 9 Hispanic recruits and 13 other minorities. But the class itself overrepresented white Providence by 20%, and barely budged the underrepresentation of Latinos.

When it comes to recruiting new and diverse officers, Paré said he’s “battl[ing] the perception that you need to have a connection to become a police officer,” he said. “It exists in the profession.” He acknowledged the fire department “can do a better job…recruiting more women. It is always difficult to get women interested in the fire services because of the physical demands that is required.” (What, because women have trouble doing physical work? *facepalm*)

Importantly, Paré welcomes ideas from the community. “We have invited community stakeholders to become part of the process for their input, ideas and recommendations to improve how we hire police and fire,” he said. “They have been critical partners in these last 3 training academies.”

There’s racial misrepresentation to address in Providence Public Safety, but with willing leadership and the active participation of community groups, maybe we can solve the problem together.

Providence Racial Geography

Racial geography really interests me. I think too often white people steer clear of neighborhoods where mostly people of color live due to a feeling that those neighborhoods are “unsafe” when really we’re just being accidentally racist. I think it’s important to be aware of where people of different races live so we don’t accidentally prejudice services, investments, or attention to white neighborhoods while the neighborhoods of people of color suffer.

To that end, here is a map I made using 2010 Census block-level data. It shows which racial group made up the plurality of residents of that block (i.e. the biggest group, e.g. 38% – 33% – 25% – 4% even though it’s not a majority). A few notes:

  • I want to also include indicators on this map of how big a plurality each block is, as well as the relative population of each block.
  • The average population of the census blocks in Providence is about 75 people, the median is about 50.
  • Remember that this is from 2010, and we’re almost halfway to the next decennial Census. It’s old data, but it’s precise data.
  • Providence has sizable Cape Verdean and West African populations, and I’m not sure how they present in this data.
  • Furthermore, there are distinctions between Irish, Italian, and hipster white Providence residents, as well as between Dominican, Guatemalan, Puerto Rican, and other Hispanic residents. These distinctions are relevant, but not captured in this data. I would love to capture them in future maps.
  • Also, race is a social construct. My interest in studying it is mainly to fight racism.

PVD racial geography

Elorza won throughout Providence

It was a bad night for Democrats nationally, but a good night in Rhode Island. I was working most closely on the mayoral campaign, doing data analysis and managing the website for the Jorge Elorza campaign.

I was a little disappointed by the media narrative about Elorza’s victory, though, which focused more on the election as a referendum on Cianci, and the East Side as kingmaker. While those factors were certainly a piece of what happened, Jorge Elorza was a great candidate, and many parts of Providence contributed to his victory.

Campaign status

We can see in this map based on precinct-level results from the RI Secretary of State’s website that while the East Side went strongly for Elorza and was crucial to his victory, so did a wide swath of the rest of Providence. Big pieces of the West End, Elmwood, and Reservoir went for Elorza by 10-20 percentage points. And Federal Hill, formerly a bastion of the Italian-American community that gave Cianci a lot of his power, went to Elorza, as did parts of Smith Hill, Valley, Olneyville, and Hartford.

Outside of his strongest areas of support in the northern and eastern neighborhoods of the city, Cianci really didn’t have very much support. He won Upper South Providence by a healthy margin, and Washington Park. But the real narrative of this race should be, as with the topline numbers, it was a close race, and both candidates won about half the city, splitting areas outside their bases rather evenly.

I hope to have more analysis at a later time, but now I need to get ready for the Providence Symposium, which I’ve been working on for the Providence Preservation Society for several months and begins tomorrow night. You should go!

Update Nov 10 @ 5:00pm

Thanks to Dan McGowan at WPRI, I got the post-mail-ballot precinct totals. Also, Andy Grover reminded me that there are some precincts that just don’t have many people in them, so they shouldn’t necessarily be shown on the same scale as densely populated places. Finally, Frymaster was uncertain about these neighborhood boundaries, so you might be interested to know that these are the official neighborhood boundaries that the city uses.

Mayoral results

Rhode Island should save costs and replace 6/10 with a boulevard

People decide which kind of transportation to take based on what is convenient and cheap. Our preferences make a small contribution to the decision, but we’re mostly just pragmatic. Due to the massive public investments in highways and car infrastructure that our federal, state, and local governments have made in the past fifty years, in many places today the only safe option is cars. I think you’ll agree that having more options would be good.

We built for cars, now deferred maintenance is coming back to bite us

In many places, bicycle and pedestrian safety were not considered in the construction of roads or residential and commercial development. Public transit agencies are chronically underfunded while lawmakers desperately smash their piggy banks to find funds for highway repair.

But as those public works maintenance bills come due and the federal money that usually pays for them dries up, many local governments are realizing that it is a much better use of their transportation budget to invest in options that are lower cost than rampant kowtowing to wider highways and more flyovers.

Data from City of Providence

What could the repair money fund instead?

In Providence, Rhode Island, $500 million of repairs are needed on a small highway spur called the 6/10 connector. This highway occupies 73 acres of land on the city’s West Side, cutting off the vibrant neighborhood of Federal Hill from the Woonasquatucket River and the neighborhoods of Olneyville and Valley. The rich legacy of Providence’s industrial past is visible in the buildings of these neighborhoods, and but for the concrete wall of exhaust fumes isolating them they could share the vibrancy present in Federal Hill.

R-Line bus

Bus Rapid Transit needs dedicated lanes to work.

At the same time as state & local governments are faced with the nine-figure price tag to keep this monument to auto-dependence functional, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) is rebranding its best-used bus lines as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). BRT is a relatively new innovation in transit, based on the idea that with adequate investment, bus service can be as convenient and comfortable as subway or light rail. Cities around the world (especially in Colombia and Brazil) have shown that strong BRT systems have increased the mobility and accessibility of their cities for a relatively low price tag. As RIPTA adds to its R-line improvements, it would be good to see local and state government offer their support for a successful BRT system through components like:

  • Dedicated lanes or right-of-way
  • Preference at traffic lights so that buses always get a green light.
  • Bus stops more like subway stations featuring off-board fare collection, no step up to entry, real-time displays of wait time, and big well-designed maps.

Removing highways reduces traffic for less money

Let’s get back to that ugly expensive highway that needs to be removed. Highway removal has a successful recent history across North America. The Embarcadero in San Francisco and the West Side Highway in New York are the two most-often cited examples. Numerous other cities have seen removal or urban highways leading to reduced traffic and economic development. Yes, that’s reduced traffic. Counterintuitively, more highway lanes leads to more traffic and fewer highway lanes leads to less traffic. As Providence has seen with the land made available downtown through the moving of I-195, the opportunities for real estate investment on former highway land are enormous.

It’s up to us to make this happen

I suggest this. I suggest the 6/10 Connector be removed. I suggest replacing it with a boulevard that includes separated walking and cycling paths as well as dedicated transit lanes. I suggest we contact Michael Lewis at RIDOT and the gubernatorial candidates to ask for the conversion of this space to a safer, more urban corridor. It’s time Rhode Island made the mature decision on transportation infrastructure and focused on more cost-efficient mobility.

Algorithmic Redistricting

I saw this evening an article from the Washington Post claiming that someone had “solved” gerrymandering by creating a computer program that algorithmically creates ideally compact redistricting based on Census data.

The title is a little presumptuous; there are so many other important factors besides compactness. But the general point I agree with: define congressional districts algorithmically, taking all the relevant factors into account. Here are some factors that redistricting needs to account for, in the rough order of importance:

  1. Equal population & using Census Block boundaries
  2. Compactness & Contiguity (all parts are connected to each other)
  3. Political competition (just the right amount)
  4. Creating majority minority districts where appropriate (the good kind of gerrymandering, to increase representation for underserved racial groups)
  5. Preservation of city and county boundaries
  6. Respect for “communities of interest” (fuzzy idea about geographic tribes, CoI’s need to make the case for their consideration in the process = lobbying)
  7. Incumbent protection

Equal population standards can be very strict, depending on the state. There are many ways of measuring compactness, but I feel it should probably include more consideration of travel time than one usually see; it’s usually “how close to a circle is the district”.

As for competition, theoretically a 50/50 district would lead to less polarization in Congress, which would be good. In practice, political parties will try to get about 55/45 or 60/40 for themselves so that they’re assured a win without wasting any votes. If a district is gerrymandered to go 80/20 for one party, that’s actually bad for that party because that’s 30% more of their voters in that district than necessary, and those voters could be helping elect someone from that part in a different district. Party identification is a less reliable way to measure political competition than actual election result data.

There are trade-offs in these criteria too. If you focus on competitiveness, you will have fewer majority minority districts. Because it’s very much like gerrymandering, focusing on majority minority districts will decrease compactness. Focusing on preserving city and county boundaries will decrease competitiveness and compactness. And respecting communities of interest is also likely to reduce competitiveness and compactness.

It would be great to have all of these factors determined algorithmically (even though computers are only as objective as the people who program them, and only as accurate as the data that they use) and then combined into composite redistricting maps weighing the factors according to their importance. You would have to set the relative importance of different criteria as variables that are adjustable by the user. Needless to say, it is more complicated than one algorithm designed to maximize compactness and equal population “solving” gerrymandering.

I used this great slideshow from the Redistricting Institute for a lot of the details contained here.

Waiting for the urban mechanic, or someone like her

Yesterday I wrote about how to cross the street boldly but still safely. But having confidence as a pedestrian doesn’t solve the problems making the streets unsafe. This is a post about that.


Cars are dangerous things. Unfortunately, American development patterns have forced us into dependence on them. The Project for Public Spaces had an article up today critiquing a Vox article about declining traffic deaths in the US. Basically, every other peer country has seen traffic deaths decline significantly more than here, using creative techniques that our archaic street engineering for auto dependence hasn’t figured out yet:

In the UK, 20 mph zones have been steadily growing since the turn of the century, and automated traffic enforcement is saving lives. The Dutch abandoned a street design philosophy based on “forgiving” errant drivers (which America embraced), shifting to an emphasis on walkable, bikeable streets. Japan has perhaps the world’s best transit networks, making driving less necessary. Germany is a pioneer in traffic-calming street design. Sweden, as the Economist recently reported, cut pedestrian fatalities in half over the last five years with a strategy that included low speed limits in urban areas and building 12,600 safer street crossings.

It would be great to see some of these innovations gain more traction in the US. They already are in some places, but the culture of street engineering and transportation funding needs to change.

There are lots of other tools for making streets safer for everyone that urban planners try to get our communities to adopt. Here are a few of them:

  • In dense areas, narrow roads, widen sidewalks, and cater the fronts of buildings to pedestrians.
  • Make pedestrian crossings shorter by creating bump-outs and pedestrian islands.
  • Adjust the balance of transportation funding to provide more for transit.
  • Instead of depriving transit of that funding, raise the gas tax and highway tolls to pay for road repairs.
  • Change zoning to create much greater density of development. This is what transit needs to work, especially outside of urban centers.

These are just a few fundamental ways to make the world a safer place for human beings in a car-dominated culture. What others can you think of?

Walking in the Street


There are a variety of safe ways to cross the street as a pedestrian. It is perfectly fine to stay on the sidewalk until a signal or driver grants you permission to cross. I prefer to cross more boldly. A friend summarized it well on my Facebook today:

Jaywalking is okay, but pedestrians are in charge of their own safety. If a driver sees a jaywalker step into the street as they approach, they should keep a steady pace, or slow down, but not stop. Most likely the pedestrian is going to walk behind the car.

These are great rules. I would add the following:

  • The central rule of jaywalking is to know where the cars are and not get hit.
  • Pedestrians should time their crossing to not make cars slow down.
  • There’s only a problem if either pedestrian or car gets too close to each other, such that the other has to stop or change direction abruptly to stay safe.
  • At crosswalks where there’s no walk signal, pedestrians have the right of way and cars need to stop. If pedestrians don’t assert themselves in this context, they are abdicating their power to cars.
  • It’s safe to start crossing a crosswalk if on the other side of the street a car is still passing; they’ll be gone when the pedestrian gets there.
  • If there are too many pedestrians close to the street for a driver to stop quickly if they need to, the car is going to fast.

When there is a tragic collision with a pedestrian, I tend to default to holding the more powerful party, the driver, responsible. Our culture does not tend to create safe environments for pedestrians, nor does it regularly remind drivers that they are using dangerous machinery. A lot of people have no choice but to make driving an irreplaceable and mindless part of their day. I’ll post tomorrow about some ways to bring more equality to the choice of which method of transportation to use.

The Massachusetts Frustration Connector

mahealthconnectorThe MA Health Connector website has been giving me such problems. Whenever I’ve tried to create an account, it tells me my passwords are wrong, even though they follow the listed password rules. Now it tells me I already have an account, but the people I’ve talked to on the phone tell me that’s not the case. The first person on the phone told me different password rules than the website does, and the second person said their systems are undergoing maintenance today and I can’t sign up even over the phone! Anyone know people who are involved with this website? It needs to be better. I think government-facilitated healthcare for everyone is a good direction to go in, but it doesn’t work if the tools don’t work.

Here’s why you shouldn’t ban nuts, even if you could.

Nuts come in all shapes and sizes.

Just as a community needs a variety of personalities to have a healthy discourse, a diet needs a variety of options to be healthy for the body. The Superintendent’s Office of the Amherst public schools thinks differently, apparently, and feels that they ought to ban nuts. While the nuts in Amherst are regularly a cause for frustration, and there are some people who can’t even deal with having nuts in the same room as them, I think this was a foolish policy decision.

I have two teacher friends in Amherst who used to bring nuts to school as their primary snack (teachers need protein because dealing with kids takes a lot of energy) and now they can’t anymore. They don’t really have any good replacements.

Furthermore, how can something so commonplace and inconspicuous be effectively banned? Is the policy actually practical at all? Teachers aren’t roaming the cafeteria with riding crops and trash bags examining kids’ lunch boxes, are they? If they are, there are probably nuts in other places that they should be on the look out for, including the Superintendent’s Office.

Amherst Regional Public Schools Superintendent Maria Geryk

To so dramatically force changes to the diet of so many students and staff, the School Committee, Superintendent’s Office, and Wellness Committee need to show us all numbers of how many members of the school community are seriously allergic to nut products. How many students have an anaphylactic allergic reaction just from having nut products nearby? Are we talking about two hundred students? Fifty? One? I don’t know where the cut-off is, but it certainly appears as if this decision was made without much consideration of the implications. It’s okay to acknowledge fault and reverse course; I think that would show more strength of leadership in this case than sticking to their guns.

I’m a big supporter of Maria Geryk, and I think she’s generally doing well with a very difficult job. But this is outlandish. Amherst thrives on nuts; to attempt to quash such a nut-ritious part of the diet is little more than nutty.