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Providence makes the top 10 of the worst cities to drive

One-way streets, dead-end streets and confusing street patterns, such as Eddy Street, make Providence the ninth most difficult city to drive in.

BY MICHAEL CORKERY

Journal Staff Writer | August 6, 2004

Providence fancies itself among America's A-list cities. And now, according to a new national study, the Renaissance City is in the same league as Boston, New York and Washington, D.C.

Providence is ranked the nation's ninth most difficult city to navigate by car.

One-way streets, dead-end streets and confusing street patterns put Providence at the top of the list, said the study's author, Bert Sperling, a national researcher who ranks cities in a range of categories.

Snow and rain contributed to navigational problems in Providence, while overall traffic congestion was ranked relatively low.

Avis Rent A Car and Motorola paid Sperling to conduct the study of the nation's 75 largest cities. Boston was the worst city to navigate in the country, while Bakersfield, Calif., north of Los Angeles, was the easiest.

TurksHead.jpg

Journal photo / Sandor Bodo

Drivers make their way around the corner near the Turk's Head building in downtown Providence. The shape of the building supposedly follows the contours of an old Indian path.

News of Providence's top-10 ranking had drivers nodding in agreement and city officials trying to cast a positive spin.

"I would rather have our winding, historical streets than the bland, wide streets of a grid system," said Thomas E. Deller, director of the Providence Department of Planning and Development. "It adds to the charm and beauty of New England cities, just like the European cities."

It's charming, perhaps, until a driver gets lost, which in Providence can happen even by following the signs.

Take, for example, Eddy Street. It starts downtown behind the Biltmore Hotel and then ends in three blocks south at Weybosset Street. During that stretch, the flow of traffic on Eddy street changes twice.

Eddy Street appears again at Pine Street and then vanishes at the Garrahy Court House.

It returns again for a block and then stops at an on-ramp to Route 195. On the other side of the highway, Eddy becomes a major thoroughfare past Rhode Island Hospital.

"I had to ask four times where it was," Jerry Fiorentino of St. Petersburg, Fla., said yesterday as he returned his rental car to the Budget Rental office, on Eddy Street, behind the Biltmore. He asked for directions to Budget twice, while traveling two downtown blocks.

"I get lost every time," said Fiorentino, who was visiting family in Uxbridge, Mass.

SUCH CONFUSION has its roots in a world before cars. The modern street layout grew out of the Indian paths that connected the downtown rivers to the woods and fields surrounding the city, said Robert O. Jones, a senior historical-preservation planner at the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission.

These early paths were determined largely by geography, such as a ford in the river where Indians could cross between the east and west sides of Providence.

The Indian path that later became Weybosset Street curved around a hill where the Turk's Head building now stands, said Jones. The hill is gone, but the curve remains.

"It's a long history of funny decisions," said Jones. "It's how you cope with topography."

The colonists used the same paths that extended from downtown into the farms of South Providence, Elmwood and the West End. Over the years, Jones said, these vast expanses were subdivided; the resulting maze of one-way streets and dead ends marked the boundaries of former farms.

"When some roads don't go straight, that was the boundary of a farm," Jones said.

Waleed Muhammad, who drives a taxi in Providence, sympathizes with newcomers to the city. He often parks in front of the Biltmore to wait for passengers. While he waits, he answers questions from drivers asking directions.

"You try to explain to them how to get around, and they just look at you with a blank stare," said Muhammad.

One man needed to drive from downtown Providence to Sockanosset Cross Road in Cranston.

"I said, I can tell you how to get there," Muhammad recalled. "But the guy said, 'I'll pay you to lead me there.' "

Muhammad said another driver, who was on North Main Street, needed to reach South Main Street. The driver couldn't find his way back to the South side of the one-way street. So he ended up at the Biltmore looking for help.

"I could tell you more stories than you have hair on your body," said fellow cabbie, Jack Hayden, a 17-year veteran.

"It's all messed up," said Muhammad.

SPERLING'S RANKINGS are based on an analysis of street maps of overall geography, including rivers, bridges and the ocean. He examined whether the streets were straight or twisting and whether they were organized in a grid or sprawled chaotically.

Sperling enlisted the help of the Texas Transportation Institute to measure congestion levels.

On average, Providence drivers spend about 21 hours a year in traffic. "Providence has a good average," said Sperling. By comparison, Los Angeles drivers spend 50 hours a year in traffic.

But it was the confusing layout of Providence's streets and highway merges that made the city stand out among its peers. "Those are the factors that put it into top 10," Sperling said.

Deller said the city is working to improve street signs and recently changed the flow of traffic on some downtown streets. But for all the new signs and maps, none of it may matter. After all, this is a place known for its unique sense of direction.

"It's what we do in Rhode Island," said Deller. "You tell them to, 'go down three streets and take a right where the Almacs used to be.' "

From The Providence Journal

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