We know we have a societal interest in promoting more bicycling, especially since a bicycle is the closest to a truly zero-emission vehicle. Yet, there is a relatively low level of bike travel in Rhode Island, far below its potential for helping the environment, our health, and, since biking doesn't involve sending our dollars to out-of-state fossil-fuel interests, the economy. Biking is also (mostly) fun!
There are plenty of obstacles. Bike paths and even on-road lanes aren’t connected. Dangerous driving — distracted, drunk, aggressive — deters bike use. It’s hard to compete with the free parking most of us get for our cars and secure bike parking can be hard to come by. Sprawl results in many long trips seen as too far for biking. Rhode Island is hilly, can be cold, hot, rainy. Some towns — Johnston, Smithfield, Jamestown and North Kingstown come to mind — have at times resisted bike infrastructure, partly due to fear of crime.
But there are many reasons to hope for progress.
First, May is National Bike Month. It’s a great time to ride a bike and enjoy spring, maybe best appreciated at the speed of a bicycle. As usual, there will be Bike to Work Day celebrations, in Providence and Newport, on May 18.
May also features special rides, such as Bike Newport’s Farm-to-Farm Bike Ride, and fix-it workshops.
Further, experience has shown that fear of crime is unfounded; the Woonasquatucket River Greenway Bike Path has even been credited with reducing crime. The green economy bond voters approved in 2016 is helping to extend the Blackstone River Bikeway. Newport is working on getting a separated bike path. All that will boost our tourist economy, especially with the new national park in the Blackstone Valley whose key sites can be tied together by the bikeway.
The Providence bike-pedestrian bridge on the old I-195 corridor should be completed this season, giving a safe, convenient connection between the east and west sides of that redeveloping area. Also, some on-road problem intersections are being addressed, such as better connections in the Olneyville area are planned, and repairs to the popular East Bay Bikeway are planned. The governor has proposed continuing such improvements by recommending another green economy bond, which would go to the voters this fall if the General Assembly approves the referendum.
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and its task force charged with reducing greenhouse gases is finally paying attention to transportation, the sector with the largest emissions. Though some in that process are only interested with electric cars, there is reason to think that bicycles, the zero-emission vehicle, will finally get some attention in the fight against climate change.
Indeed, Statewide Planning is working on the first state bike master plan to prioritize future projects. Public workshops on this process are expected this summer. There are funded plans to finally bring the Blackstone River Bikeway to central Pawtucket, Central Falls and Woonsocket; finish the West Bay path to the Connecticut border; a South County path to the beach; and better bike connections are part of the 6-10 rebuild.
There are active community groups in Tiverton, the south coast and in the Woonasquatucket River watershed promoting bike facilities.
It helps that Rhode Island has strong advocacy groups, including Bike Newport, the Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition, Recycle-A-Bike and the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council. It also helps that the governor and the mayors in Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls and Newport are supportive of more biking, as is the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, whose website has a lot of useful bike information.
An electric-assisted bike-share program run by JUMP, soon to be owned by UBER, is scheduled to begin in Providence this summer. This may result in many more bikes on the city’s streets, so it’s even more important to consider road safety. The state law prohibiting hand-held cell phone use when driving kicks in June 1, making it much more feasible to enforce the no-texting-while-driving law. And while the roll-out was problematic, the Providence speed cameras sent a message that speeding is a serious problem.
Also, remember that the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s RIPTA’s bicycle racks carry bikes at no additional fare, as do all off-peak MBTA commuter trains.
I know the Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition and its partners welcome participation in their activities, but even more important, I recommend enjoying a ride, maybe on one of Rhode Island’s highly scenic and enjoyable bike paths.
Rhode Island resident Barry Schiller is a transit rider and longtime transit advocate.