Street Stories: Steve Ahlquist

Dexter Vincent: Could you state your name, any personal identities you feel like sharing, and the neighborhood where you live.

Steve Ahlquist: My name is Steve Ahlquist, I am an independent reporter in Rhode Island. My stuff right now is appearing on Substack, before that I used to write for Uprise RI, and before that I wrote for Rhode Island Future, I’ve written comic books.

How do you typically travel around Providence, and how is that working for you?

In Providence I mostly walk within my neighborhood, but I do have my Prius which I use to get around the state. As a reporter, my typical day brings me to a lot of different places, and I used to do this entire job, believe it or not, walking or taking a bus, but having a car has made it easier for me to cover the things I feel I need to cover. Even though I do use my car, I’m really into other ways of getting around.

Do you feel safe traveling around Providence? Where do you feel safe, and where do you not?

On my scooters or on my bike, I don’t always feel as safe as I would like to feel. There are some streets where I feel extremely safe – say Blackstone Boulevard feels very safe for a bike. Other streets feel less safe, I really don’t like North Main Street which feels extremely unsafe to me, and I feel like I’m going to get clipped from behind. I grew up in Warwick, and in Warwick there are barely any sidewalks, but I used to bike everywhere. I was a pretty aggressive biker, if I didn’t like the way a car was acting, I wasn’t afraid to kick the car. But around my age of 27, I stopped riding my bike because I became very nervous about getting hit and killed. My daughter had just been born and I didn’t want to mess that up and I had known somebody recently who had died in a very serious accident. I feel safe enough as a pedestrian as long as there are crosswalks. There are plenty of places I don’t feel safe, but the general part I feel 90% safe.

How could the City, RIPTA, or the state improve your experience getting around?

I tend to be a little bit more radical on transportation than I might sound like, and I’ll tell you why: I think Providence should start thinking about doing away with a lot of the roads that we have. I think we should be doing away with a lot of the parking we have in Providence. This is where I get really radical: I think we need to get rid of 95, entirely! We can basically take 295, make that 95 from Attleboro to Warick, and just have boulevards that come into Providence.

Think about the effect of the 195 land, we had all this new land open up for development. Now imagine doing that for the six, eight miles or so that runs 95 and this is land that goes all along the bay.

Providence should never have been divided, what is happening in the port is a crime. A lot of [the pollution] comes from Shell, from the scrap metal places, but imagine we got rid of all that and the highway, then the air could be breathable. So we clean up the port, we have it boulevard-ed so there are bikes and electric cars and we open up this opportunity for economic growth that’s sane. We must have the will to make [Providence] a big shot. I’m not crazy, I don’t think we’re going to get rid of 95 tomorrow, but there is a time when we’re going to get rid of 95.

I ultimately would like for there to be no highways, but I thought the more realistic goal would be for I-95 downtown to be removed, because that’s the most prime real estate.

That was actually considered for a while when they were redoing route 6. People wanted to drop route 6 and reconnect all those neighborhoods that were divided by the 6-10 connector. That was rejected, and that also led to the end of the Department of Transportation having any kind of public outreach. So not only did that not go anywhere,  but the department of transportation decided “screw you, community involvement!”, and under Peter Alviti it has been just kind of awful.

And what it’s doing is building and expanding the same network of roads. Like I say, if we got rid of I-95, we wouldn’t need all those bridges, we could just have flat roads. We could start thinking of ways to make those safer. Another thing we need to do is to deprioritize cars, and prioritize pedestrians and bikes.

What do you think is the best way to attract people to RIPTA?

The best way to attract people to RIPTA is to have RIPTA work in a way that people want to use it. We talk about not expanding highways because of induced demand, but induced demand works both ways. For instance, a better functioning, more timely, more apt RIPTA that fits peoples’ schedules will be used more. If we induce demand there are many ways to do it, one way is to build an infinitely wide highway, the other way is to have more buses running at more convenient times.

Right, the 20 I think on Sundays runs once every 45 minutes.

A really convenient bus is one that I don’t really need to look at my phone or look at my schedule, I know I’m not going to wait more than fifteen minutes. The R line is like that right now, I don’t really look at my schedule, I just catch the R line. However, in my job – if I get out of the statehouse at ten, or eleven, or even midnight, getting a bus home is really hard. I live an hour walk away from the statehouse, which is fine, I can walk that walk, but if I had a bus I would certainly catch that bus.

What do you think most contributes to a walkable environment? Where do you find that in Providence and where do you not?

Parts of downtown are very walkable, parts of the East Side are very walkable. I find right now the South Side is really nice. You’ve got to feel safe when you’re walking through areas, good lighting helps, smart design like crosswalks, the signage should be good, people should be induced or commanded to drive slowly. Really what contributes to something walkable is fewer cars and fewer a-holes driving cars too. People in cars think they always have the right of way, but bikes and people should have the right of way all the time. We need to prioritize people: pedestrians and bikers – in all our decisions coming forward.

We have spent a hundred years enforcing the laws that reinforce that infrastructure for [drivers]. When I was a kid, I didn’t think twice about how the world works. I understood immediately that it’s my job to stay safe, look both ways – all the things they teach you as a child. Watch out for cars because they will kill you. Why am I banned as a walker, as a biker, and as a person who is not driving a six-thousand pound killing machine, why am I responsible for my own death? All these people in cars, what’s their responsibility to not kill people?

I think it will be interesting to look back and say – how many people were killed by cars in the twentieth century? If a genie said, “I’m gonna give you these cars and all it’s gonna cost you is 40,000 people a year who will randomly die”. And you would say, “what are you talking about”? The devil would say “well, would you trade that?” – No! Who would take that deal? We took that deal, it’s a part of us, it’s weird.

It’s an addiction.

It’s an addiction, but one that’s necessary for some. You do have to get around, transportation is necessary, it’s a human right, and walking should be a human right in the same sense. It should be prioritized. Any way to get away from these cars is a good thing.