Opinion

Car-Dominated Transit, Lax Pollution Controls Heat Up Rhode Island

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Providence hasn’t choked itself on cars and pollution to the extent that Los Angeles or Boston has (LA topped the list of cities with the worst traffic congestion for six years running until Boston took the title last year), but it’s not for a lack of trying.

Rhode Island and its capital city have done little to nothing to improve public transportation. It’s simply not a priority, even though the transportation sector is responsible for the largest percentage of greenhouse-gas emissions in the state, at about 40 percent. Instead, some of the lawn around the Statehouse was ripped up several years ago to create more parking.

The state law that prohibits diesel vehicles from idling for more than 5 minutes isn’t enforced. For decades city and state officials have done little to reduce the amount of pollution emitted from the city’s waterfront — or the amount of fossil fuels and dangerous chemicals stored there.

Peaceful protesters are treated more harshly than businesses that chronically pollute the Ocean State’s air, soil, and water. A statue of Christopher Columbus is better protected than upper Narragansett Bay.

The 6-10 Connector is being rebuilt in basically the same manner it was originally constructed in the 1950s, with some pedestrian and bicycle accommodations sprinkled in.

The city and state’s obsession with 20th-century development, a scarcity of concern for environmental protections, an absence of forethought, and a lack of urgency when it comes to the climate crisis are cooking the future, and much of the present.

A decade ago a NASA study found Providence had surface temperatures that were nearly 22 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the surrounding countryside. In the 10 years since that study was published, the city hasn’t gotten cooler, but it has gotten warmer, thanks to cranes in the sky, asphalt-covered ground, and shrinking green space.

The number of days above 90 degrees is increasing, and summers in Providence are projected to be warmer by 6 to 14 degrees by 2100. Heat intensifies air pollution and prompts asthma attacks. We’re moving from the frying pan into the fire, and all we do is twiddle our thumbs.

Green space, including open space ringing Providence, is relentlessly under attack by proposals for more big-box stores, more parking lots and garages, more office parks, more strip malls. Zoning laws are routinely changed to accommodate these projects, even though green spaces improve quality of life and are a natural way to reduce temperatures.

Man-made structures such as buildings, roads, and parking lots absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat far more than natural landscapes such as forests and meadows.

The result, especially for Providence, is a worsening heat-island effect. Providence and Boston had some of the most intense heat islands of the 42 northeastern cities analyzed by NASA a decade ago.

While the climate crisis is raising temperatures worldwide, the problem is intensified in urban areas, such as Providence, East Providence, and Central Falls, by the heat-island effect. Increasing temperatures can have significant consequences for cities and their residents. Heat islands, especially in the midst of a heat wave like we have been experiencing recently, cause air conditioner and electricity usage to surge, elevate levels of dangerous ground-level ozone, and increase the mortality of elderly people and those with pre-existing respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.

Rhode Island has no adequately funded, coordinated initiative to address the climate crisis in general or the heat-island effect in particular. It’s a mishmash of agency reports and studies and political executive orders that regurgitate unfunded, unenforceable recommendations that are ignored when special interests push back. It’s all talk and too little action.

In Providence, efforts to reduce the heat-island effect seem to consist largely of relying on volunteers to plant street trees and installing air conditioners in senior centers. While both efforts are laudable, they do little to address the intensifying problem.

The state’s go-to fix — uninspired development — can’t solve this. In fact, decades of it have made the situation worse. Unfortunately, the Statehouse and many of Rhode Island’s town/city halls don’t take the climate crisis seriously.

They do nothing as trees are mindlessly cut down and green space covered to build a huge office park in Johnston, a casino in Tiverton, which has left a casino in Newport wasting away, and ground-mounted solar arrays throughout the Rhode Island countryside even though there is plenty of already-developed space in rural, suburban, and urban areas, including the Newport Grand Casino, begging to be reused.

Rather than truly incentivizing — and requiring it when new buildings and parking are built — the covering of Rhode Island’s sea of parking lots with solarized carports and rooftops with solar panels, the state instead, both directly and indirectly, offers better financial incentives for building utility-scale solar arrays on farmland.

Doing just the opposite — covering developed spaces with solar panels and better helping farmers make working their land more profitable in the local and regional marketplace — would reduce the heat-island effect, better protect Rhode Island from disruptions in the global food supply, and help address the climate crisis’ myriad other issues.

The only way to address these many challenges, for both the present and future, is to aggressively embrace necessary change, explain why it’s needed, and support its implementation.

Rhode Island could start by, say, banning cars from certain areas of Providence, or painting roofs in the state’s urban core white to reflect the sun’s rays. Planting vegetation on rooftops also reduces surface temperatures, as does increasing or at least maintaining green ground cover and not cutting down trees.

It’s time we collectively start thinking beyond big-box stores, free parking, six-lane highways, fossil fuels, and fancy skyscrapers. It’s time Rhode Island’s 39 municipalities, state officials, and the collective we actually work together to tackle a problem that will still be staring us in the sweaty face when the pandemic is eventually brought under control.

To steal a phrase, it’s time we “knock it off” and appreciate the seriousness of the climate crisis. We don’t have time to hold the matter for further study. We don’t need to create another task force or sign another toothless executive order. We know what needs to be done. We need to do it. Now.

As of now, when it comes to the climate crisis, Rhode Island is a failed state.

Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.

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  1. as usual, good post Frank even if its something the authorities might not like to face.
    Short-term, there are two related transportation actions that can be taken if you read this in time:

    1: 4pm Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee is hearing the Governor’s proposed capital program in Article 5 of the budget, H7171, and this time she is leaving out any funding for bicycle infrastructure. This despite the need for socially distanced exercise, and the urgent need for more use of truly zero-emission vehicles! The long delayed Blackstone and South County paths need funding, all the paths converging on Providence need better connections, and more. Her administration had already cut bike/pedestrian funding in the Transportation Improvement Program. You can contact the Committee on this at Slegislation@rilegislature.gov

    2 at 1:30pm Wed Aug 19 RIPTA’s Board of Directors meeting includes a discussion and possible vote on RIDOT’s plan to spend tens of millions of transit dollars to break up the central bus hub on Kennedy Plaza (as reported on ecori) and send most of the buses to a forlorn location on Dyer Street instead. The purpose is to get most of the passengers, disproportionately poor and of color, out of KP where Joe Paolino wants them gone as he thinks they hurt his property values. RIPTA has a public comment period, you can reserve time by calling 784-9500 x1171 by 10am on that Wednesday. (RI Transit Riders also has a petition opposing that plan)

    Stay tuned!

  2. Frank — I totally agree with this. It’s the synthesis of the other two articles about Metacomet and Mulligan’s Island. WHY isn’t the state planning office prioritizing the re-use of dead malls for these kinds of developments? I think Costco is a really good organization in its treatment of employees. It would be great to have one of their operations in RI. Why not locate them at RI Mall or Warwick Mall? Those sites are accessible already by car and bus, so they wouldn’t lead to an increase in traffic. There are other similar locations in East Providence, especially (and ironically) the empty car dealerships along Rt. 44.

    I lived in Washington DC for more than 30 years before moving to RI. Up until the 90s, most of the big department stores actually were accessible by bus and walking as well as the new subway routes. Most of them also offered the option of having your purchases delivered, eliminating the need for everyone to drive to the parking lot. That service disappeared, but why not think about reviving it? It’s already being done by Amazon and other online retailers. Costco itself offers delivery. Why not build that in to its choice of location?

    I despair at the lack of imagination, foresight, and innovative thinking that seems to govern our priorities and decisions. It doesn’t have to be this way.

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