Cover Story

Building a More Bikeable Providence

The Bay Magazine ·

As bike paths go, the dedicated bike lane recently opened on Fountain Street isn’t particularly impressive; It runs just a few city blocks in a corridor carved out between floating parking spaces and the curb, and has been bedeviled by cars encroaching on the ribbon of pavement intended to be the sole domain of cyclists.

As a sign of things to come, however, this intended safe passageway for two-wheelers is significant. In recent years, bike lanes have been added to various streets throughout the city, including Broadway, Allens Avenue, Kinsley Avenue, Pleasant Valley Parkway, and a short stretch in front of the Starbucks adjacent to the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. “There are a smattering of bike lanes that, on occasion, offer a space for you to ride – if no one is parked in them,” says Sarah Mitchell, board vice chair of the Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition. All of this is good news, especially in a city of Providence’s size. Whether you’re a daily commuter by bike or a casual cyclist, everything here is just a bike ride away, so the streets should reflect and encourage that.

The bike lane by the Dunk is noteworthy because it’s the first in the city to have physical separators to keep bikes and cars apart (on Fountain Street, the cars parked on the “island” of spaces between the traffic and bike lanes help to physically protect riders). More are coming. Earlier this year, the national group PeopleforBikes chose Providence to take part in its 10-city Big Jump Project, aimed at a rapid ramp-up of bike-friendly amenities, such as dedicated bike lanes, with the goal of increasing bike riding in urban communities.

The main beneficiary will be the nascent City Walk project, an effort to create a bike- and pedestrian-friendly connection between Roger Williams Park and India Point Park that would include bike lanes on Broad Street and a crossing on the pedestrian bridge currently being built to span the Providence River. Martina Haggerty, associate director of special projects for the Providence Department of Planning and Development, notes that this route would serve lower-income neighborhoods where car ownership isn’t a given, and where many residents rely on public transportation and bikes to get to stores and work.

The project has raised some concerns about displacement and gentrification, notes Leah Bamberger, director of sustainability for the city of Providence. “We’re working with the community to let everyone know that this is for them, not for people moving into the neighborhood.”
A new greenway slated to open soon in Roger Williams Park will include a two-way bike lane, a one-way travel lane and a parking lane, notes RI Bike Coalition vice chair Mitchell. “We are excited about the new greenway as it creates separation where there previously was none, vastly increasing safety for people who are biking in the park,” she says.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, an avid biker whose earliest memories include pedaling around the West End, is a strong supporter of improving the city’s biking infrastructure. He leads Bike the Night, an open to the public, quarterly bike ride through Providence that starts at the steps of City Hall and explores a different neighborhood each time, all while promoting safe, responsible riding in the city. “Biking is nothing new for a lot of Providence residents – one of our goals is to make biking more accessible and safer for those for whom biking is their primary transportation,” says Bamberger. The city’s compact size makes it “extremely bikable” for both recreational and commuter cyclists, she says, and bike lanes and other safety features could encourage more people to leave their cars at home and help the city reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

Greater Providence is the terminus for four of the state’s five major off-road bike paths – the East Bay Bike Path, the Washington Secondary Bike Path, the Woonasquatuck Greenway Bike Path, and the Blackstone River Bikeway. But while each of these are used regularly by bike commuters, no two are connected directly to each other. In other words, many of the spokes in the wheel of Providence’s biking network remain missing or broken.

“The off-road paths in and at the edges of Providence need to be connected together – either through the addition of more off-road paths or the addition of separate bike lanes with physical barriers on our busiest streets to ensure that bikes and cars never mix,” says Mitchell. “Providence needs to provide better signage not only for people on bikes but for people in cars, to communicate to them that people on bikes belong.”

Slowly, the pieces are coming together. A recently completed 0.7-mile off-road segment of the Blackstone River Greenway bike path now runs along the Seekonk River from where Gano Street meets the I-95 – and right by the Providence end of the East Bay Bike Path – to Richmond Square. From here, you can make your way north via Pitman Street and Blackstone Boulevard, following the signs to the beginning of the Blackstone River Bikeway.

Both public and private efforts are underway to connect the Washington Secondary Trail, the Woonasquatucket Greenway Trail, and the bike network in downtown Providence. Bike and pedestrian friendly corridors have been baked into the redesign of the 6/10 Connector, for example, and the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council recently received money to build a separated, two-lane bike lane on San Souci Drive, which runs behind Recycle-A-Bike. Huntington Avenue is being eyed as another bike-friendly link in the chain. In the heart of downtown, the city is hoping to have a separated, two-lane bike path connecting the Providence train station to Kennedy Plaza, via Exchange Street, in place by 2019.

“Every street in the city really should be designed to accommodate all modes,” says Mitchell. “Streets are for people, not vehicles. Providence should have a goal of ensuring that anyone traveling through the city using any mode feels safe and comfortable on the road. This means connecting our bike lane network, building safe routes to schools, and building a community that values and respects each other.”

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