Cover Story

Cycle the City

The Urbanist's Guide to Biking in Providence

Posted

Building a More Bikeable Providence

Improvements to the city's bike infrastructure are on track to make cycling around town safer and more accessible

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.”

Ride the Bike Paths

4 scenic cyclist- and pedestrian-only routes that take you beyond the streets of Providence

1. East Bay Bike Path
This 14.5-mile bike path was the first to be completed in Rhode Island and remains the state’s most scenic bikeway. Mostly flat except for one short but steep hill in East Providence, the path runs from India Point Park in Providence to Independence Park in Bristol, rewarding riders with frequent water views and a low-speed tour of some of the East Bay’s most scenic coastal towns.

2. Washington Secondary Bike Path

The state’s longest (19 miles) bike path transports riders from the urban core of Cranston to the lush woodlands of Coventry, highlighted by views of the Pawtuxet River, the historic Bradford Soap Works and the beautiful Flat River Reservoir. Planned extensions will stretch the path right to the Connecticut Border.

3. Woonasquatucket River Greenway Bike Path
With alternating on- and off-road segments, this path is a leafy oasis in the heart of Providence’s densely developed West Side, Johnston and North Providence. Riders can pedal 5 miles from the Providence Place Mall to Lyman Pond in Johnston, with short spurs at the Button Hole Golf Course and dam behind Rising Sun Mills.

4. Blackstone River Bikeway
Rhode Island’s Industrial Revolution history comes to life along this 11.6-mile bike path, which runs alongside the Blackstone River and the remnants of the Blackstone Canal from Valley Falls to Woonsocket.

Rides and Repairs in Providence

Find out where to buy bikes and gear, rent a ride and maintain your wheels in the city

Legend Bicycle
This Fox Point bike shop will happily sell you a rugged city cruiser or a sleek racing bike – then provide free adjustments as needed as long as you own the bike (and do-it-yourselfers are welcome to use the shop’s self-service repair station). India Point and the East Bay Bike Path are just a few blocks away. 181 Brook Street

Dash
Follow the Broadway bike lane to the West Side’s Dash Bicycle, which, in addition to selling, fixing and renting bikes, also sponsors group rides, motocross events and a series of indoor “Goldsprints” events to get riders through the chilly winter months. 228 Broadway

NBX
With locations in Providence, East Providence, Warwick and Narragansett, NBX is a one-stop shop for bike sales, repairs, rentals, bike fitting, and instruction, including weekly classes on flat-tire repair, proper bike cleaning, and spotting possible safety problems before hitting the road. 729 Hope Street 

Providence Bicycle
Offers sales, service, rentals, fittings and instruction, with a particular focus on training for triathlons. 725 Branch Avenue

Velofix
Let the bike mechanic come to you with this full-service mobile repair shop, offering appointments at your home or business anywhere in Rhode Island.

Recycle-a-Bike
Community is key at Recycle a Bike, where Providence residents can drop in to learn how to build and repair bikes, use the shop’s tools in exchange for a small donation, and shop for used bikes and parts. “Wrenching Wednesdays” are set aside for women, trans and femme riders to learn bike mechanics. Volunteers are welcome. 1911 Westminster Street

Thayer Street Bike Repair Station
Includes public-use tools and an air pump, located alongside the Brown University Book Store on Olive Street.

RI Bike Groups

Need a pack to ride with? Look no further

Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition
Formed from groups advocating for Rhode Island’s greenways and the state’s cycling community, the Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition works to create safe and accessible bike routes: Notably, the group’s vision statement specifically calls for “bike routes separated from traffic.” The coalition, which successfully worked to get a $10 million state bond for bike paths passed and bike and pedestrian needs incorporated into the 6/10 highway replacement project, holds monthly advocacy meetings, and membership is free when you buy a bike from a participating local bike shop. 

Narragansett Bay Wheelmen
This nonprofit organization has been giving voice to the Rhode Island cyclist community since 1879, when it was formed as the Providence Wheelmen. Like the Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition, the Wheelmen advocate for safe biking routes but also organize weekly rides in Providence and across the state, as well as the 100-mile Flattest Century in the East, a challenging recreational tour of southeastern Rhode Island and Massachusetts.