It’s Time for Mayor Elorza to Step Up on Bicycling Like He has on LNG

JAMES KENNEDY

PROVIDENCE — Mayor Jorge Elorza bikes to work often, and takes part in frequent night rides with community members. By all accounts, the mayor is supportive of bicycling. However, the city has made next to no progress on bike infrastructure during the two years the mayor has been in office. This needs to change.

I want to be really clear about what I’m saying. I can’t fully diagnose what the internal politics of why Providence hasn’t gotten such infrastructure. It’s very possible that an intransigent City Council, interagency struggles with state-level institutions or some other cause is to blame. When I say that the mayor needs to step up, I’m not trying to insult the difficulty of being mayor, or saying that the mayor is doing a bad job.

But Providence has seen the mayor step up on some issues, and his vocal leadership has had an effect. Just recently, Elorza spoke eloquently about the dangers of liquefied natural gas (LNG), a move that put him in direct contradiction with Gov. Gina Raimondo. This move came after the Sierra Club of Rhode Island challenged the mayor to speak up clearly on the issue. I am making the same request.

Where is the bike infrastructure, Mayor Elorza? We can’t expect mass cycling to take root in Rhode Island without our core cities establishing bike routes that are suitable for 8-year-olds, 80-year-olds and everyone in between. If we’re going to provide routes that are safe for people in wheelchairs and rascals, we need bicycle routes, like what the Dutch and Danish have. Doing this can help us make more efficient use of parking, and school bus and sidewalk funding, and improve outcomes for small business.

The mayor has pushed some reform. The city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission currently receives advanced notice of street projects, and its review of those projects has brought piecemeal changes to sections of street as they are repaved.

Many of these project reviews include only tiny sections of street, and nothing has yet been accomplished beyond paint, either through door-zone bike lanes or, worse, sharrows. This is not enough.

A demand is a challenge that comes as an honor only to those politicians who warrant it. Mayor Elorza has objectively not accomplished what needs to be accomplished in his first years of office. However, he has demonstrated himself to be someone who, with pressure, might accomplish those goals. Be honored, Mayor Elorza. You’re being called to the challenge.

The mayor must work to design a full network of protected bike lanes on the city’s major arterials. A starting point for this would be 50 miles of infrastructure, which we estimate would take only 3 percent of on-street parking to achieve.

The mayor must also work to create bike boulevards, routes that are low-traffic and low-speed, off of the major arterials. These aren’t substitutes for protected bike lanes, which are needed to reach jobs and shopping opportunities in commercial areas, but they are important improvements to help make our neighborhoods safer for school children.

The mayor’s office has been supportive of remaking the 6-10 Connector as a boulevard, but as yet hasn’t sought public conflict with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) and the governor’s office about the idea.

We need the mayor to pick this fight, in a direct way, just as he did on LNG. It’s understandable that the mayor wishes to advocate behind the scenes, but what will bring life to this issue is a top official speaking openly about the poor priorities RIDOT is putting forward. Speak up, mayor! Put state government on notice!

These projects must be funded. The city’s $40 million bond includes transportation and non-transportation priorities, but among transportation priorities only 17 percent of funding is going to non-car priorities, mainly sidewalks. The city must spend in proportion to its population of non-car owners (22 percent), and it must make good use of those funds to make sure that biking is considered a high priority.

We’ve seen you act before, mayor. We have faith in you. Step it up! We need you to take action. The bike rides aren’t enough.

Providence resident James Kennedy runs the blog Transport Providence.