Thanks to Brown’s conveniently compact campus, the main modes of transportation on College Hill are walking, biking and scootering. Unfortunately, many neighborhood streets feel like they were not built with this reality in mind — commutes are often dangerously complicated by the needlessly wide and busy thoroughfares that throttle campus. Any student who has waited at the corner of Brown and Waterman streets and tried to navigate around cars knows the danger and nuisance of the heavy traffic that constrains Brown’s pedestrians. Just as easily, anyone can picture vehicles roaring down Thayer, causing serious noise pollution and harming quality of life along the street. Pedestrians in Providence, especially on heavily-walked College Hill, deserve better than this, and can have safer commutes while also improving the surrounding community by pedestrianizing local streets. In particular, Thayer and Brown streets should be closed to traffic for their length along campus, allowing only for emergency vehicles, public transportation and delivery vehicles.
At present, Thayer Street is approximately 30 feet wide, as are most main conduits on the East Side, with Brown Street having a parking lane on its east side and Thayer having double-sided parking. Brown Street is two-directional, while most of Thayer is one-way. These are some of the busiest streets for both vehicular and pedestrian traffic in the entire neighborhood, according to a 2017 transportation study conducted by the University. Unsurprisingly, both streets see suffocating congestion at intersections as cars compete with the rush of students moving between classes. The University has already recognized that this congestion is a serious problem in its study, assigning some of the most notorious intersections, such as Brown and Waterman, Thayer and Cushing and Thayer and Meeting streets an “F” grade for intersection operations at certain times of day. This means those intersections see exceedingly long delays with severe congestion, which are not just inconveniences but also lead to more severe air pollution. It is important to note that the community most impacted by this excess of congestion, the Brown community, contributes little to the problem. Many Brown students do not own cars as parking on campus is exceedingly difficult, while faculty and staff who live on College Hill often commute as students do by walking or biking, with others carpooling.
To reduce congestion and improve quality of life, there must be a change on College Hill. One option would be to pedestrianize both Brown and Thayer streets from Bowen Street on the north end to Power Street in the south. This means prohibiting personal vehicle use along these streets while still allowing for buses, delivery vehicles, and emergency vehicles to use the road. This change would be less obstructive than it may seem, cutting car access from only a half-mile stretch on both streets. For reference, Columbia entirely closes off a similarly sized area of New York to through traffic. If it can work in highly congested Manhattan, it can work on College Hill too. Altogether, this is a concept which hurts few and benefits many. It allows for vehicles, such as delivery trucks, that need to use the road to still do so, while allowing a far easier and enjoyable commute for students and residents. Importantly, those that could only access their homes from either street would still be allowed to do so with their personal vehicle.
Such a change would be minimally invasive while making possible pedestrian- and bike-friendly additions possible. Thayer and Brown streets could remain visually similar to their current configuration, with the addition of bike lanes where there is currently street parking. Additionally, streets that normally intersect with Brown and Thayer would gain raised crosswalks with clear signs signaling that vehicles cannot turn onto the newly pedestrianized streets. Such a plan would allow for buses and emergency vehicles to still access the roads and perform their necessary services while also giving pedestrians significant freedom to use the space comfortably and safely.
This concept would bring economic, social and environmental benefits to Providence. Along Thayer, rising rents and the expanding influence of chain stores has led to the closure of many long-time staples as turnover has increased. Thankfully, real-world attempts at pedestrianization have been shown to significantly increase customer visits to city streets while driving down the number of vacant storefronts. For example, pilot pedestrianization programs in New York City reduced commercial vacancies by 49% along pedestrianized streets, while another program in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn increased customer visits by 54%. Pedestrianization of Thayer would help local businesses by increasing the overall economic vibrancy of the street.
Brown Street, unlike Thayer, is not commercial — the street is surrounded mostly by Brown classrooms and offices as well as private residences. Despite the lack of commercial presence on Brown Street, pedestrianization would still have important benefits. Both the Brown and George and Brown and Waterman intersections are considered to operate at unacceptable levels of congestion, according to the University’s report. These critical intersections, serving as the main access points to the Main Green, are so congested that it has led to inexcusable impacts on the quality of life of students and the greater community. One study found that living in close proximity to highly congested roads can exacerbate asthma and may have a negative impact on cardiovascular health. In addition, congestion has been directly linked to reduced quality of life. Thus, pedestrianization of Brown Street, while not having as significant of an economic impact, will markedly improve the lives of the thousands of people who use the street every day.
Perhaps most importantly, pedestrianized streets serve as places for communities to gather and develop greater social cohesion. Brown’s relationship with the College Hill community has long been strained, recently aggravated by the decision to build a new dorm on the former location of beloved businesses Bagel Gourmet and East Side Mini Mart. It is apparent that the relationship between Brown and the surrounding community could benefit from increased positive interaction. Pedestrianizing Thayer and Brown streets would create a natural gathering place for the entire community, not just Brown, and would allow for increased interaction and hopefully a more harmonious relationship between Brown and the rest of College Hill.
Pedestrianizing Brown and Thayer streets would undoubtedly be a tangible good for the University. It would make walking around campus safer and more enjoyable while improving the environmental quality of the area. More importantly, it would improve the entire community, making Thayer a more economically prosperous corridor for all businesses while also giving back to the greater College Hill community. Ultimately, this plan could serve as a model for communities all across Providence, creating a more walkable and livable city for everyone.
Gabe Sender ’25 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.
Gabe Sender is a Staff Columnist at The Brown Daily Herald with a particular focus on campus issues and development challenges in Providence. He is currently pursuing an independent concentration in urban environmentality.