The Uphill Battle for Bicyclists in Rhode Island
Bicycle use boomed during the pandemic, but some travelers still have a one-track mind when it comes to sharing our city streets.
In 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic shuttered gyms and yoga studios, millions of Americans hopped on bikes. After more than a decade of relatively stable cycling rates, usage surged. PeopleForBikes, a Colorado-based industry coalition and charitable foundation, reported that 10 percent of Americans either started or restarted biking or used their bikes in new ways during the pandemic. The Rails to Trails Conservancy tracked an 80 percent increase in trail use in November 2020 compared to a year earlier. And bicycle and accessory purchases jumped nearly 15 percent in 2020 to $7 billion, according to the United States Bureau of Economic Analysis.
At the crossroads of these trends was Alana Deluty. She had bought a serviceable Trek mountain bike in 2019 to commute from her South Providence home to Davol Square, where she worked as a medical research assistant. But COVID-19 radically transformed her relationship with two-wheeled transportation.
“I never biked before. I wasn’t even physically active, but I was too cheap to pay for parking, so I started walking, and thought maybe it would be nice to bike one or two days a week. But it didn’t occur to me to use it for anything else,” she says. “Then, like a lot of people, I got laid off during the pandemic, and I was afraid to see my friends in person, so I started biking to have something to do. I would ride the East Bay Bike Path. At first, I bought a bike rack for my car and drove there. And then I started doing long-distance biking, spending all day riding and running.”
Today, Deluty owns nine bicycles and biking is part transportation, part health plan, part budget saver and part activism. A member of the Providence Streets Coalition, an alliance of thirty-five organizations, businesses and community members advocating for people-friendly streets, Deluty has come to see the dominance of automobiles over all other transportation modes as isolating — and even discriminatory.
“I believe in mobility justice — the idea that everyone deserves to get around safely and independently — and currently, we have a system where only people healthy and financially able enough to drive and own cars can get around independently,” she says. “Walking and biking connects us with our communities.”
That’s a view that has gained some traction in Rhode Island. The state and many municipalities have written plans dedicated to improving accessibility and safety for bikers and pedestrians, among them, the state’s Long-Range Transportation Plan — which includes the Transit Master Plan and the Bicycle Mobility Plan — and Providence’s 2020 Great Streets Initiative. The League of American Bicyclists’ 2022 report card gave the state a solid B for considering bicycles in its infrastructure, planning and funding. An analysis of bicycle fatality rates by the price comparison organization IceBike rated Rhode Island as one of the top ten safest states, with 1.13 deaths per 100,000 people and twelve deaths total in the last ten years.
But advocates for a strong, connected network of pedestrian- and bicycle-safe streets say things could be a lot better.
“It’s a mixed bag,” says Kathleen Gannon, board chair of the Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition.
The state is blessed with sixty miles of recreational bike trails, but they don’t link to one another, she points out. These state and municipal plans have excellent potential to create accessible bike infrastructure, but advocates say that the Rhode Island Department of Transportation is no ally; there doesn’t seem to be much political will to make it happen.
“The Bicycle Mobility Plan would be a boon, but there is no funding attached to it, and it has stagnated, with no timeline or push,” she says.
In addition, COVID bike boom notwithstanding, there’s still active opposition to bike lanes, even when they have strong community support. Mayor Jorge Elorza, himself an inveterate biker, envisioned an urban trail network as part of the Great Streets Initiative connecting all neighborhoods with bike-, pedestrian- and transit-friendly thoroughfares. The plan analyzed traffic crash data, and the city received community input at twelve neighborhood meetings in 2019 before its adoption. Yet the 2021 construction of a bike lane on South Water Street was the scene of a last-ditch battle that pitted the city against Brown University, some South Water Street businesses, the Jewelry District Association (a neighborhood unaffected by the bike lane) and RIDOT. The latter tried to draw the Federal Highway Administration into the dispute, but the FHWA declined, the mayor refused to budge, and the project went forward.
Likewise, several merchants vigorously opposed a one-week experiment last October to install a mile-long bike lane on Hope Street, fearing the loss of parking spaces would hurt business. More than twenty small businesses urged Elorza to cancel the trial in an open letter.
“Still reeling from COVID losses, we fear an unnecessary interruption of business in the short-term, and have serious concerns about the project in general,” they wrote.
As of January, the Providence Streets Coalition was still assessing speed, park
ing and use data from the experiment in anticipation of releasing its findings to inform any future debate on making the bike lane permanent. Anecdotally, says Providence Streets Coalition lead organizer Liza Burkin, “people either seemed to really love it or find fault with it. But the raw numbers showed more positive support from residents and visitors to the area than negative.”
Over five years, the Elorza administration built more than thirty miles of urban trails in an ongoing effort to make Providence more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly. As of January, though, newly elected Mayor Brett Smiley had not committed to continuing the project and was contemplating the removal of the South Water Street bike lanes even as the city secured a $27.2 million federal grant for the network’s engineering and construction.
“My administration has begun the process of reviewing our existing bike network to ensure the location and the infrastructure that is in place is safe, well-maintained and capable of meeting the needs of its users,” Smiley said in a written statement. “We are open to the idea of relocation, realignment or elimination to reach those goals, but that decision will ultimately be made in consultation with our community.”
RIDOT did not address a question from Rhode Island Monthly about its role in the South Water Street controversy, but the agency rejected the notion that it does not support road users besides motorists.
“In the past five years we have tripled our average annual investment in Active Transportation projects, which include improvements for bike paths, sidewalks and to meet [Americans With Disabilities Act] requirements. RIDOT is investing more funds in bike and pedestrian infrastructure than it ever has, increasing spending in the past few years from $10 million to $20 million per year. With the most recent version of our ten-year plan and passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, we have increased that to an average of $30 million a year, or $300 million over the next ten years,” spokesperson Charles St. Martin said in a statement.
That bill was a landmark, says Ken McLeod, policy director for the League of American Bicyclists, injecting $7.2 billion into the construction of bike lanes, recreational trails and multi-use routes in the United States over the next five years. The issue has attracted bipartisan support, in part, he says, because traffic deaths of pedestrians and cyclists rose 58 percent between 2011 and 2021, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; each week, an average of nineteen people are killed while riding a bike.
“It’s still an uphill battle. Our transportation policy is supportive of cars,” McLeod says.
“There’s a sense that drivers have paid for the roads, and anything that takes away their ability to get to where they are going as quickly as they are used to is perceived as limiting freedom,” he says. “If we seriously want to deal with the traffic deaths, we need to build places where people can safely bike and walk. It’s going to be a long-term culture change for the agencies that build our roadways to make a priority of safety over speed.”
Even Amsterdam, one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world, took decades to get there. The Dutch had a strong cycling tradition, but after World War II, it faded as car ownership grew in a rebounding economy. Urban planners began to remake the city for cars, and traffic deaths followed, reaching 3,300 — including more than 400 children — in 1971. A galvanized public began to demand bicycle-safe streets, and the 1973 Arab oil embargo, which drove up the price and restricted the availability of gas, made support for energy-saving transportation politically popular. Cities all over the Netherlands began to enact policies and build cycling routes, which now cover 22,000 miles. A quarter of the Dutch population cycles every day.
By comparison, progress toward a shared, green United States transportation network is slow and halting. But the transformation of Broad Street, one of the Great Streets Initiative’s biggest successes, shows it can happen here us
ing the same mix of safety and public engagement.
The four-mile stretch connecting Cranston to the capital city was built for cars, even though 40 percent of the largely
Caribbean and Central American community around it depends on their feet, bikes and buses for transportation. It was the city’s most dangerous thoroughfare, with eighty-two injury and fatality crashes involving vehicles and non-motorists between 2009 and 2015. Discussions on a redesign began in 2006, and the plans underwent numerous revisions before Elorza declared Broad Street the city’s Latino cultural corridor in 2017 and invested $4.3 million in its renewal.
By 2023, the project from Trinity Square to Roger Williams Park was completed with preserved parking, a new calming traffic pattern, a repaved roadway, bus islands, ADA-compliant crosswalks and a two-way bike lane on one side of the road. The Providence Streets Coalition took the lead in building neighborhood support.
“We canvassed every business three to four times to make the case we’re not just adding bike lanes, we’re not just fixing a sidewalk. This is going to be better for everyone,” Burkin says. “When you take a complete streets approach and improve it for everyone who uses it, that’s the effective way to make everyone happy.”
Longtime cyclist David Fastovsky will take the victories wherever they are. Over nearly sixty years of biking, he acknowledges the incremental progress. When he took a position as a paleontology professor at the University of Rhode Island, there was no South County Bike Path. In the last few years, he has been gratified to see the recreation-deprived discover the liberating feeling of skimming the ground under your own power. Electric bikes are a game-changer for attacking hilly terrain and for commuting without arriving disheveled and sweaty, he says. Bikes have better lights and are more visible and safer than in years past.
“In many respects I’m very glad, but it doesn’t represent a sea change in the way people think about bicycles,” he says. “For most Americans, a bike is a toy, and many motorists still are disinclined to share the road. Their belief — having had this shouted at me more than once — is that the road is for cars.”
Ellen Liberman is an award-winning journalist who has commented on politics and reported on government affairs for more than two decades.