By KIERNAN DUNLOP/ecoRI News contributor
NEWPORT, R.I. — When Bari Freeman moved to the City-by-the-Sea in 2009 one thing became clear, it made more sense to bicycle than drive in this small and often traffic-clogged island city, but it was almost impossible to do it safely.
“It was kind of like a wild west for bicyclists ... the way that bicyclists were riding and surviving in the city,” Freeman said. “There was a lack of communication between cars and bicyclists in a place that felt like it was meant to be biked.”
Five years later, thanks in large part to Bike Newport, the community organization Freeman founded with a group of like-minded individuals, the transportation culture in the scenic seaport at the end of Aquidneck Island is changing.
Since the nonprofit’s inception in 2010, the League of American Bicyclists has named Newport a Bicycle Friendly Community, and Bike Newport recently received a 2014 Smart Growth Leadership Award from Grow Smart R.I. — a nonprofit that advocates sustainability in the Ocean State.
A key part of Bike Newport’s success is keeping the city’s growing fleet of bikes in working order. The organization’s bike garages help bicycling beginners keep their wheels well maintained.
“The bike garages and the programs we’re starting to do through the bike garages,” Freeman said, “are about getting our kids comfortable and knowledgeable from an early age about how to ride so that we can all be informed as cyclists and motorists on the roads of Newport.”
The first garage started in a basement classroom in the East Bay MET School, and has since been moved from a storage bin in the parking lot of the Florence M. Gray Center to a new indoor space in the facility, thanks to the support of the Frederick H. Prince Memorial Fund.
The public response and support of the organization’s first garage was so positive, another garage was opened at Rogers High School.
One of the bike garages’ most popular programs is open garage, which is held Saturdays and on certain weekdays. Youth and adults attend, have access to tools, and learn how to work on their bikes properly and ride safely. People without bikes can borrow a bicycle and helmet to take a ride around the neighborhood.
In addition, if an individual is interested in owning his or her own bike, he or she can earn one in exchange for five hours of volunteering at the bike garage or adopt one for a fee. The bicycles are all donated from outside sources and are then refurbished by Bike Newport employees and volunteers.
Mark Chesterton, Bike Newport’s director of education, stressed the importance of youth education at bike garages. “What they learn can make the difference between being able to go for a ride and not go for a ride, and getting a flat tire on the road and finishing a ride versus having to call some one to pick you up,” he said.
In many cases, the teachers are students themselves — all part of Bike Newport’s attempt to not just teach people about bike safety and get more people riding, but also foster community.
“We’re really trying to design bike garages as what’s been philosophically called a third space,” Chesterton said. “It’s not home or work, it’s a place where people can hang out and be in a community, where people can have access to things they are interested in without the commercial aspect of the workplace or the bicycle store.”