Bike the Newport Bridge (Virtually) This Weekend at Crossing the Pell
The virtual reality experience by Rhode Island School of Design students lets users bike the bridge on simulators — and give feedback for a future where it's really possible.
What if you could ride your bike all the way from Jamestown across the bridge to Newport?
That’s what Rhode Island School of Design students are trying to simulate in a virtual reality experience debuting to the public in Newport this weekend.
“Crossing the Pell” is a project by the RISD Interior Architecture Department in partnership with Bike Newport to envision a future where people can walk and bike across the Claiborne Pell Bridge, a.k.a. the Newport Bridge. The experience, which comes complete with four simulator bikes and a virtual reality headset, allows people to test out different designs for crossing the bridge and give feedback on what they’d like to see.
“We feel this is a very timely moment to think about the future,” says Lilliane Wong, a professor in the Interior Architecture Department. “With climate change, at some point, we’re probably not going to be using vehicular access in the same way, and right now there’s even no way to get off [the bridge] unless you want to brave the seventy mile-per-hour wind going across.”
The idea started in 2020, when Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse called Wong to ask if her students would consider creating the simulation. The department had previously done a project where they envisioned different uses for the vacant Superman Building downtown.
Fast forward to 2021, and students created four designs offering pedestrian access to the Newport Bridge. The simulations were initially on display in RISD’s Center for Integrative Technologies in downtown Providence, but the school wanted to showcase them to a larger audience. According to Michael Grugl, assistant professor, the class used a 3D simulator to lay out their models because the bridge was just too big to grasp using traditional architecture methods.
“We can immerse people in the ideas, and we are also going to ask people for feedback,” he says.
The project included students like Yangchuan Deng, who walked members of the media through a preview of the virtual reality simulation this week. One of the designs includes a tunnel that collects wind and solar power as it protects pedestrians from high winds. Another features a concert space visible from the bridge and passing boats. All of the designs, Wong says, allow pedestrians to cross the bay while still leaving enough space for boat traffic underneath.
Bari Freeman, executive director of Bike Newport, says the organization gets calls weekly from people who want to bike across the bridge.
“Not being able to cross the bridge is really a barrier,” she says.
“What we know very clearly is that people want to bike and walk across the bridge. What we don’t know is how we’re going to do it in Rhode Island,” she adds.
Earlier this year, the federal government announced an $82.5 million grant to the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority to improve the bridge. The grant does not include funds for pedestrian access, but bike advocates think it’s an opportune time to begin exploring the idea. Wong says the project also seeks to create equitable access in Newport’s North End. The bridge’s current on ramp cuts off parts of the neighborhood from the rest of the city, a situation advocates say contributes to disparities among residents.
“It’s about imagination and inspiration. Because we can do something on the Pell Bridge — it’s not necessarily going to look anything like what we’re experiencing in these virtual reality designs, but what will it be is up to us to determine,” Freeman says.
The interactive exhibit will be on display this weekend at the Old Colony House in Newport. Visitors can pedal through the four virtual reality designs on stationary bikes, including a traditional bike, kids’ bikes and an adult tricycle. They can also use iPads to envision the changes to the bridge in 3D. The exhibit will be open on Saturday, Dec. 3 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 4 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Pre-registration is encouraged, but not required to participate.
After this weekend, Freeman says, Bike Newport hopes to host the simulator bikes at its headquarters on Broadway and other public places so more cyclists can test out the models and give feedback.