Providence’s New Bike Plan Embraces Pedal Power

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Making the city more bicycle friendly means more than signing and striping bike corridors — which was the main focus of the original Providence bicycling plan. The city’s new bike master plan aims to make cycling a viable option for getting around.

“The idea is for it to be considered normal to use your bike instead of a car,” said Bill DeSantis, the corporate director of bike/pedestrian transportation for Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. (VHB). “We’ve turned the corner on bike importance. This plan will keep biking on the city’s radar as Providence grows and changes.”

The Bike Providence plan will allow the city, according to its authors, to create a local bicycling vision using the five E’s of bicycle planning: education, enforcement, engineering, encouragement and evaluation. They note that cities with comprehensive bicycling plans have higher levels of cycling participation.

Providence’s previous plan, fully implemented five years ago, lacked the essential education and encouragement components, according to Eric Weis, trail program coordinator for East Coast Greenway Alliance. That plan, Weis said, was built largely on identifying good bike routes.

But local officials and bicycling advocates quickly realized that to coax people out of their cars and to adequately address a growing population looking get around by bike, simply identifying good biking routes didn’t have much of an impact.

“The first four E’s go hand in hand,” Weis said. “If we want to encourage more people to bring cycling into their lives, we need to help them gain the know-how needed to be savvy enough to ride with traffic.”

DeSantis told the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission (BPAC) on Monday night that this new plan will be the city’s guide to bicycling and will be relevant five to 10 years from now. The soon-to-be released plan has been in the works for more than a year.

According to DeSantis, bicycle infrastructure must be planned and developed in concert with education programs, encouragement to promote biking as a safe, healthy, environmentally friendly and economical choice for transportation, and increased enforcement by local agencies of violations by both motorists and bicyclists.

Providence’s new bike plan — its authors call it a flexible and adaptable document — will guide the investment of future funding into the local bicycle network through a program of recommended short-, medium- and long-term improvements. It will address bicycle detour routes during road and bridge construction. It will be referenced during the scheduling of pavement projects.

The plan addresses Providence’s bicycling trouble spots, such as Allens Avenue. The busy, industrial street has painted bike lanes, but with little to no enforcement of parking laws in that section of the city, motorists regularly park in the bike lane without fear of getting ticketed, according to Weis.

“Because there is no enforcement, fewer cyclists feel comfortable biking on that busy street when the bike lane is cluttered with parked cars,” he said. “And since there are fewer cyclists, police are less likely to enforce.”

Weis also noted that Allens Avenue bike lanes are littered with debris and sand, making a challenging road to bike even more unpredictable.

The plan also addresses the need to better connect the West and East sides of the city, and recommends creating more bicycle parking downtown with hitching posts, higher-capacity bike racks and on-street biking corrals.

“Downtown businesses prefer making the streets, like Westminster, more accommodating for bicycles and pedestrians,” Weis said. “Bikers and pedestrians drive their success. If we increase and improve our bike infrastructure, more people will choice to ride bikes instead of drive cars. That means less pressure on our roads and on our pubic transportation system. It’s like the old adage, ‘If you build it, they will come.’”

Before the Bike Providence plan is made public, it needs to be reviewed by the BPAC and City Hall. The project, for which VHB was hired as a consultant, was funded by the state Department of Transportation and a Rhode Island Division of Planning Challenge Grant.

“The plan address the good and bad regarding biking in Providence,” DeSantis said.

There are plenty of both.

Making connections
There are 37.5 miles of bikeways within city limits, but there are gaps in the existing network and a lack of connectivity to residential, employment and multimodal centers. The plan addresses those challenges, but the fixes aren’t things that can be accomplished overnight. There’s the obvious need for funding, and there is always reluctance to change.

Providence’s new bike plan, however, is important to the city’s future economic viability and health, according to those behind its development. Many U.S. cities and communities, such as Chapel Hill, N.C., are currently drafting or updating bicycling plans.

Recognized bike-friendly urban areas such as Portland, Maine, and Portland, Ore., Minneapolis, Davis, Calif., Seattle and Cambridge, Mass., have plans in place that have guided the development of bike infrastructure, planning and promotion.

Of course, bicycling enhancements in those cities took time, and the local political will needed to be massaged. Portland, Ore., for example, wasn’t always the bicycling mecca it is today. Like most U.S. cities, its highway/street system was car-orientated. But the collapse of the logging industry in the 1970s transformed the city, opening the door to new ideas. A biking community slowly took root.

“It took Portland 30 years to get where it is today,” said Jack Madden, owner of Legend Bicycle on Brook Street.

Today, Portland’s bicycling mode share — the percentage of travelers using a particular type of transportation or number of trips using said type — is about 6 percent. Providence is closing in on a 2 percent share.

Compared to some more progressive cities, Providence is getting a late jump on embracing bicycling as a suitable and sustainable mode of transportation. Advocates say that delay isn’t an obstacle.

“Our transportation culture has long been dominated by cars,” said David Everett, principal planner for the city. “Change is hard, but there’s already a change in the culture going on. The public needs to want this, and it has shown it does.”

But transforming Providence into a vibrant bicycling community won’t be easy. It will require city officials, planners and developers to accept modifying the future way curbs are cut and streets laid out. It will mean embracing traffic-calming measures, and reworking roadways to better accommodate other modes of transportation. It will mean reconfiguring traffic-light cycles to account for the speed of both cars and bicycles. It will mean incorporating signage, markings (bike boxes, buffered bikeways, colored lanes) and infrastructure (cycle tracks, bike paths) that best suit a neighborhood and/or roadway.

It likely will mean getting rid of parking spaces, and it most certainly will mean learning to share the road better with others.

Bicycling 101
Providence’s new master bike plan reaches across all modes of transportation — bus, bike, rail, pedestrian and car — and seeks to develop a prioritized plan of on- and off-road bicycling improvements.

To develop and implement a successful citywide bicycling network, however, DeSantis said one thing must come before all others: education.

Local biking advocates say they too often see: bicyclers wearing headphones; riding on sidewalks, with no hands, or against traffic; texting; and displaying a lack of respect for other modes of transportation.

“Riding with no hands the wrong way down a one-way street may have been cool twenty years ago,” said Everett, who recently witnessed such a spectacle, “but the times have changed.”

Hustling and bustling city streets that must accommodate cars, delivery trucks, RIPTA buses, bicycles and pedestrians can’t afford ignorant travelers, whether they are behind the wheel, on a skateboard or riding a bike.

“I ride my bike like I drive my car. You get more respect from motorists,” DeSantis said. The North Attleboro, Mass., resident rides his bike to the VHB downtown office at least once a week. The 14-mile ride takes him about an hour.

Despite his passion for cycling and his desire to see more people partake, DeSantis, who has been a highway engineer for 37 years, doesn’t advocate for the masses to take to the streets with Schwinns, Raleighs and Birias. The city and its collective bicycling IQ isn’t yet ready for such an influx, but preparations are well underway. They will be outlined in the final draft of Bike Providence.

“If you simply get more people to ride bikes, you’re going to see more people get hurt,” said DeSantis, a certified traffic cycling instructor. “You can’t just paint bike lanes on streets. You need a strong education component coupled with an infrastructure program. Until we’re serious about doing the education part, we can’t make it happen.”

He noted that in Europe and most notably in Denmark bicycling education starts early. Cycling is taught in schools, written exams are administered and road tests required. That emphasis on education, he said, makes a big difference when it comes to safety and keeping crash rates low.

In Copenhagen, where bicycling holds a 35 percent mode share, the crash rate is far lower than in most U.S. cities with much lower mode shares. Last year in Boston, for example, five cyclists were killed.

“Advocates all too often overlook the education component of bicycling,” he said. “Europe has better programs in place for providing cycling education, and it shows. It’s ingrained in the culture.”

Local biking advocates say they aren’t necessarily advocating for public schools to incorporate bicycling education into the curriculum — heck, K-12 art classes are disappearing — but they know simply strapping a helmet onto a youngster won’t advance his biking abilities, no more than just putting a seat belt on a 17-year-old would improve her ability to drive a car.

In Providence, the recommended need for better educating the collective biking community can’t fall solely on the city’s shoulders, said Everett, who is managing the Bike Providence project. That task must be shared among the BPAC, organizations such as Recycle-A-Bike, the state Department of Transportation and various other stakeholders.

Better education regarding the rules of the road, however, isn’t a one-way street. Motorists also need to respect other forms of transportation.

“If someone eager to become a bike commuter hits the street and isn’t given the proper space and motorists don’t use their signals when turning, it discourages them to ride,” Weis said.

Share the road
Bicyclists come in all shapes and sizes. There are the “gear guys” who ride long and fast. There are local commuters who bike to work, and there are kids and older folks who enjoy bicycling. The Bike Providence plan addresses these various skill sets by rating the city’s roadways. The four levels are color-coded, with green representing routes requiring the least amount of cycling experience and red representing the most challenging ones.

At the moment, red dominates the color scheme, but as the new bike master plan begins to address specific traffic stressors, such as intersections, citywide, the map will gradually feature more yellow and orange.

“All cyclists are not the same,” DeSantis said. “They don’t all ride with the same level of confidence. Someone who bikes every day has much more experience than the guy who bikes once a year on Bike to Work Day.”

The plan allows Providence to be prepared for bicycling's growing popularity. With 40 percent of all U.S. trips by car less than 5 miles and 20 percent less than 2 miles, travelers are beginning to realize they could save money and perhaps even time by riding a bike instead driving a car. Commuter bicyclers are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. bike industry.

To prepare for the trend’s inevitable emergence here, Everett believes Providence will eventually incorporate some type of bike-sharing program, perhaps one similar to the Hubway system in Boston.

In fact, the city this week began soliciting bids from vendors to run a pilot public bike-sharing program. Bids are due Oct. 7.

Some biking advocates, such as DeSantis, however, don’t believe Providence has the infrastructure yet in place to handle such a program or the money available to fund the prohibitive start-up costs. And, of course, the community’s collective transportation IQ needs to rise a few points.