By KYLE HENCE/ecoRI News staff
NEWPORT, R.I. — The City-by-the-Sea, though a haven for sailing enthusiasts and a popular tourist attraction, is a far cry from a bike-friendly place. Sail power, for sure. Pedal power? Not so much.
Bike Newport, a nonprofit organization formed last year, is aiming to change that. In an obsessive car-oriented culture, that’s a tall order. But with growing community support, and vibrant bike program models across the country, the group is optimistic.
Wednesday night, March 7, at the Speak Easy, where a row of bikes stretched across the front of the restaurant along upper Thames Street, Bike Newport held its first fundraiser, packing the popular downtown local music venue.
By the time local band Castle began to rock the house, hundreds of raffle tickets filled a silver Krug champagne bucket near the door. A volunteer from The Bike Garage, a collaboration of Salve University, St. Michael’s School and The Met School at the Newport Area Career and Technical Center at Rogers High School, busily split tickets for Bike Newport supporters.
Ticket holders were snatching them up, beer or wine in hand, hoping to win a shiny new Fuji bike donated by Pedal Power, a generous family gift card for tune-ups from Ten Speed Spokes or any one of a host of other gifts donated by area businesses.
Bike Newport’s mission is to “improve, encourage and facilitate bicycling in Newport for the health and well-being of our youth and families and as a viable and enjoyable method of transportation for residents and visitors.”
“This is a cause we all support; we are all bikers,” said Castle guitarist Mike Cellemme, “and most of our fans are bicyclists.”
Tim Leary, a Portsmouth native, works in Newport and counts himself one of Bike Newport’s most ardent supporters. “Bicycle paths and lanes on the island would be helpful,” he said. “I just came from Florida and they are all over down there. I’m a regular on the bike paths in Bristol.”
Leary would like to see a bike path up the west side of Aquidneck Island — an idea that was the focus of an exploratory expedition on the Old Colony & Newport Rail in January.
“We traveled from the Old Colony Depot in Newport all the way north, just short of the Sakonnet Bridge and discussed every inch in between,” wrote Bari George, president of Bike Newport, after the recent trip. “We’ll be looking at past studies to get us started – and a fresh three-town collaboration. It’s a beautiful route with great potential. Let’s see if the moment is finally right to move it forward. The consensus today was very optimistic.”
Some of the best bike paths in the country are here in Rhode Island, but none are on Aquidneck Island, according to George.
But nearly two months after the group’s fieldtrip the momentum continues to build for an Aquidneck Island bicycle path. George recently spoke with ecoRI News to discuss ways to get people out of their cars.
“The turnout far exceeded our expectations,” she said of Bike Newport’s inaugural fundraiser. “It was a vote of confidence from the community.”
Community heath, economic well-being, historic preservation and traffic congestion are all impacted by increased bicycling.
“Every trip (in the city) is within two miles,” George said. “It’s good for the road, the city, the air, it’s good for everything. If you replaced a quarter of your trips, the environmental impact would be huge.”
The $4,000 Bike Newport raised this week will allow a group of volunteers to complete a training offered by the League of American Bicyclists this spring. The city’s Police Department and school system, as well the Boys & Girls Club, will all be represented in the program.
“The focus is what it means to be a bicycle-friendly community, to do it safely, to do it in a sustainable way that enhances the community,” George said.
The idea is to have these new bicycling ambassadors instruct, inform and educate individuals on school and planning committees across the island, according to George. The goal is to create experts to reach out to the community with the knowledge to actually implement a program to make the island’s three communities more bike-friendly, she said.
In addition to the training regarding community bicycling, Bike Newport also is producing the second edition of the Bike Map of Newport. The map will cover Jamestown in the west to Sachuest Point in the east, and will include four recommended recreational routes.
The group also will be installing more local bike racks and signage to increase awareness around sharing the road with bicycles.