Alex Krogh-Grabbe

Alex believes that cities are complex and messy, but dense smart growth with strong alternative transportation infrastructure is the best medicine for climate change and for our unsustainable car dependence. He also believes that good policy balances input from many different perspectives, especially traditionally oppressed low-income communities and the local business community. Everyone’s perspective is valuable, even though it’s impossible for policy to please everyone all the time.

He lives and works in Providence, RI, to which he relocated in June 2014 from Amherst, MA. Upon completing his master’s degree from Tufts University in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, Alex served as the founding Executive Director of the Amherst Business Improvement District. Since moving to Providence, Alex has immersed himself in his new city, managing a City Council campaign and organizing the Providence Symposium weekend. Alex’s expertise is in downtown revitalization, transportation policy, town-gown relations, and he has experience in graphic & web design, social media, event organizing, and data & spatial analysis.

In addition to his professional work optimizing complex urban systems, Alex is an avid contradancer and contradance organizer, and a former & occasional Ultimate Frisbee player & coach.

PVD ripta

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.

Analytics of #AskElorza Twitter Town Hall

Today from 1:00pm to 2:00pm I participated in a Twitter Town Hall with the new mayor of Providence, Jorge Elorza. The idea is, the mayor’s office announced a specific hashtag (#AskElorza) and people asked questions, appending that hashtag, and then the mayor answered them. I was curious about topical trends, so I exported and broke down the tweets that used the hashtag.


The mayor received 141 questions during the hour, and replied to 34 of them. 3 of the questions were offered in Spanish. Here were the most common topics:

  1. Softballs (answered 6/12) e.g. “Do you have a dog?”, “How was your run yesterday?”, and “Read any good books lately?”
  2. Alternative transportation (0/10) e.g. “What will you do to make the city safe and inviting to pedestrians and bicyclists?”, “Where can the city combine road diets and stormwater management?”, and “How will you restructure the street design process to slow down cars?”
  3. Volunteer (3/9) e.g. “Where do I go if I want to help give back to the city?” or “How can my organization work with the administration?”
  4. Schools (3/8) e.g. “How can we get more of our kids going to college?”, “Any thoughts on implementing restorative practices in Providence schools?”, and “How will you support parents to speak up as their kids have about schools?”
  5. Public Safety (1/8) e.g. “There is crime! What are you doing about it??”
  6. Outreach (3/7) e.g. “Quiero saber si la página Web de la ciudad tendra mas material en español?”, “Are there plans for a constituency Twitter and mobile app similar to NotifyBoston?”, and “What will you do to improve customer service at City Hall?”
  7. Promotion (1/6) e.g. “How are you planning to promote Providence to the world?”, “How are you planning to promote tourism?”, and “How do we help the Providence Cyclocross Festival keep happening?”
  8. Potholes (1/4) e.g. “There are potholes! What are you doing about them??”
  9. Open Government (1/4) e.g. “Will more data be put up on data.providenceri.gov?”
  10. Small business (1/4) e.g. “How can we work together to make locally owned businesses thrive and compete?”
  11. Development (0/4) e.g. “Baltimore offers large tax incentives in their vacant properties, should we do the same?”
  12. Arts Festival (2/3) e.g. “What is the progress on the Arts Festival you talked about during your campaign?” and “How can residents get involved?”
  13. Chief Innovation Officer (1/3) e.g. “What, specifically, will your Chief Innovation Officer be doing?”
  14. Healthcare (0/3) e.g. “Como resolver el problema de seguro de salud que los empleadores no quieren pagar a sus empleados acortando las horas de trabajo?”
  15. Sidewalk Snow Removal (0/3) e.g. “Snow hasn’t been removed from the sidewalks! What are you doing about it??”
  16. Superman building (0/3) e.g. “What’s going on with the Superman building?”

You can read the whole conversation here.


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 FiveThirtyEight.com 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.


How blue is Rhode Island, by town

Originally posted on Rhode Island Future. They have lots of great stuff, so head over and check it out!

In the sensationally titled “Revenge of the Swamp Yankee: Democratic Disaster in South County,” Will Collette argued emotionally that despite statewide wins for Democrats in Rhode Island two weeks ago, South County was a sad place for the party. He makes a strong case that local South County races, through low turnout and Republican money, had a night more like the rest of the country than the rest of Rhode Island.

Will focuses on General Assembly and Town Council races, but his post made me wonder how different towns around Rhode Island voted compared to the state averages. So I dug into the numbers for statewide races. Here’s what I came up with:

Democratic Lean by Town Population


Democratic Lean by Town Density


statewide election results_small

This is a little confusing; here’s what I did:

  1. I looked up what percentage of the votes in each town the Democrats and Republicans for each statewide office received.
  2. I subtracted the GOP candidate’s percentage from the Democrat’s for each town, giving the percentage margin the Democrats won (or didn’t) by.
  3. I then averaged together the margins for each statewide race, roughly giving each town’s Democratic lean.
  4. I then subtracted the average statewide Democratic lean from each of those town leans, giving us an idea of how each town compares to Rhode Island as a whole.

Those are the numbers you see above. Here’s my spreadsheet. A few observations:

  • Hardly anyone lives in New Shoreham. But we already knew Block Island isn’t a population hub. (These population numbers are from Wikipedia and could be wrong.)
  • There’s a clear trend of the denser and more populous cities voting more for Democrats than less populous towns. I ran the correlations and it’s 0.55 for population and 0.82 for density. Both are reasonably strong.
  • Imagine the vaguely logarithmic trendline that would best fit these points. For the density graph the formula for that trendline would be y = 0.084*ln(x) - 0.6147. It’s in relation to that trendline that I’ve made the map at right. Gray towns are those that voted about how you’d expect based on their density, blue towns voted more Democratic than density would suggest while red towns voted less Democratic.
  • Remember this is one point in time, November 4, 2014. It can’t tell us a lot about how things are changing or how all those people who didn’t turn out would vote if they did.

So at the end of the day, what does this tell us? Municipalities with higher population & density tend to vote for Democrats more than towns with lower populations. This isn’t just true in Rhode Island, it’s true across the country. But what is interesting here is how different areas of the state deviate from that implied trendline.

PVD racial geography

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

Vote Margin by Precinct

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

Applying the Nate Silver methodology to polls for RI Governor

poll headlineI’m a big fan of FiveThirtyEight.com, which takes an intellectually honest, statistical approach to a number of topics, especially political polls. Its creator, Nate Silver, started it as an independent blog in 2008, and since then it has been funded by first the New York Times and now ESPN.

I’m also a political geek at the local and state level, and have seen pretty standard overreactive headlines for the polling in the current Rhode Island gubernatorial race. So I applied something like FiveThirtyEight’s poll model methodology to polls so far released in this race.

Here are the polls that have been released recently for that race:

  • Oct 28, Brown (David Binder): Raimondo 38%, Fung 35.4%, Healey 11.8%, Other 1.6%, Undecided 11.2% → Raimondo +3.4
  • Oct 23, Brown (Portable Insights): Raimondo 41.6%, Fung 30.5%, Healey 9.1%, Other 0.8%, Undecided 18% → Raimondo +11.1
  • Oct 23, NYT/CBS (YouGov): Raimondo 40%, Fung 35%, Healey/Other 10.3%, Undecided 21% → Raimondo +5
  • Oct 9: WPRI/ProJo (Fleming & Associates): Raimondo 41.8%, Fung 35.6%, Healey 8.1%, Other 0.8%, Undecided 13.7% → Raimondo +6.2

News headlines today were of the nature, “How do we explain Raimondo’s drop in support??” when a less frantic attitude would be to look at the polling average. Weighting for poll recency, sample size, pollster bias, and pollster accuracy rating, I averaged these and previous polls together to reach the conclusion that the race is probably more stable at something like Raimondo 41.1%, Fung 34.2%, Healey 9%, Other 1%, and Undecided 15.1%, in other words, Raimondo +6.9. You can see my work here.

Now, I don’t have the hubris to expect this forecast to be more accurate than those of more experienced commentators on RI politics, but I do know that taking the polling average tends to be more accurate than looking at individual polls by themselves. Absolutely there is still a margin of error, but one week from election day, there’s a big difference between +5% and “effectively tied”. I would guess that the governor’s race is closer to the former.

Keep fighting to mitigate climate change

People's Climate March in NYC, September 21, 2014
My Facebook feed was flooded yesterday with posts from friends and family at the People’s Climate March in New York City. There were more than 300,000 people there, speaking up for action on climate change. I wish I could have been there. There are talks happening today at the UN about addressing climate change, and I eagerly await news from them.

But what’s next? Speaking up and marching for climate action is important, but how can you and I really create meaningful movement to really mitigate the effects of climate change?

There are so many levels to this complex problem, and that means that whatever your comfort level, there’s probably a place you can fit in. Work needs to be done at the local scale (pushing for all manner of more sustainable policies; personally I’m all about smart growth, local economy, and sustainable transportation policy), at the state, regional, and national scales (calling & handwriting letters to your representatives is rarely a bad idea), and even the international scale. Learning more about climate policy is useful (I love David Roberts at Grist) Talking to people who disagree with you about the importance of climate change mitigation is important. Even personal lifestyle changes are useful, though focusing on those to the exclusion of other activism can be a distraction.

The important thing is to keep fighting. The culture leading to our runaway greenhouse gas emissions pervades our whole world. Both calm, insider approaches that strategically negotiate better policy and angry, outsider protests that call for more action are needed. Climate change isn’t a danger to our future, it’s a danger right now, and if we don’t keep working hard until we have a solution, we will all reap the consequences soon, starting with the least well-off.

As John Holdren said in 2007:

“We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering,” said John Holdren, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and an energy and climate expert at Harvard. “We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.”