By Kevin Proft/ecoRI News staff
SMITHFIELD, R.I. — The town's roads, like in most communities in southern New England, are designed for cars, not bicycles or pedestrians. But Greg Sankey Jr., a local community organizer, envisions his town’s streets supporting all modes of transportation. To help make this vision a reality, Sankey recently launched Bike Smithfield, to organize cyclists, pedestrians and transit users to advocate for streets that better reflect their needs.
Bike Smithfield isn’t about telling people not to drive their cars. Many residents who commute to work can't ride a bike or walk to their jobs. But getting around Smithfield, a 6-square-mile town, could be achieved by bike, foot or bus if the town’s streets were better designed, Sankey said. Bike lanes and signage, more and better sidewalks and crosswalks, and more appealing and accessible bus stops are all pieces of the puzzle, he said.
Alternative forms of transportation offer a long list of benefits. Biking, walking and riding the bus, which usually requires a walk to the bus stop, are considered healthier forms of transportation. These modes of transportation also help reduce air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions. Encouraging and enabling alternative forms of transportation helps municipalities reduce automobile congestion on roadways. Economically, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure is cheaper to build and maintain than automobile infrastructure, and the use of public transit prolongs the life of existing roadways by reducing wear and tear.
Sankey has spoken to town planners from Smithfield and other municipalities, and said they generally support designing streets that enable alternative modes of transportation. “Planners think bike infrastructure is a good thing,” he said.
A draft of Smithfield’s 2016 comprehensive community plan includes language that supports Sankey's claim. According to the plan, bikes are a “viable substitute for automobiles on a local scale, provided that adequate facilities are provided.” It also states that the town supports extending the Fred Lippitt Woonasquatucket River Greenway through Smithfield via on-road bike lanes, and notes that the Rhode Island Department of Transportation has identified 22 miles of “suitable” roads in Smithfield for bike-path development.
“The town is dedicated to providing streets that allow access not only for automobiles, but also for pedestrians, bicycles, wheelchairs and other forms of conveyance,” according to the plan. “Smithfield should investigate, initiate, and endorse initiatives that promote the creation and expansion of multi-use trails and designated bike routes to and through the town.”
The plan includes similarly supportive language about pedestrian amenities. “In order to encourage and promote pedestrian travel, the town should provide an adequate number of safe, readily accessible and efficient pedestrian travel ways between locations where pedestrian traffic is most likely to be in demand." The plan recommends connecting residential neighborhoods to schools, parks and commercial centers, and elderly housing developments to nearby medical facilities.
Concerning public transit, the plan is less thorough, but supportive. “By replacing a portion of the motorized traffic on the roadways, (public transit) can help alleviate traffic congestion. It is only effective, however, if it is readily accessible, travels (between desired) locations, and operates with adequate frequency to allow riders to use it in place of their vehicles,” according to the plan.
State legislation that requires the consideration of complete streets features before construction or renovation of roadways is another tool Sankey is prepared to use.
The question is not whether multi-modal streets are a good idea, but whether our elected officials will budget for and support these initiatives, Sankey said.
In the short term, Sankey said Bike Smithfield with focus on advocating for the town to address streets with obvious safety issues. He cited Pleasant View Avenue — a street lined with residential homes, businesses and three schools — that he said needs share-the-road signage and street paint for cyclists, improved sidewalks and crosswalks for pedestrians, and measures to slow traffic.
In the longer term, he would like a bike master plan to be developed to guide the town’s decision making regarding future infrastructure, and for more money to be budgeted for alternative-transportation projects.
A parallel but related objective of Bike Smithfield is to get more residents riding bikes immediately. Sankey plans on achieving this through organizing group rides and smart-riding classes that will teach people to coexist with cars and build confidence.
Sankey said he already sees a lot of people on bikes in Smithfield, including middle- and high-school students, fitness riders and some recreational riders. He describes these as die-hard riders who will bike regardless of whether there are bike lanes painted on the road or not. He said improved infrastructure and increased confidence will result in more people joining them.
“The more bikers you can get on the road, the more reasonable it seems (from the town’s perspective) to build bike infrastructure,” Sankey said. “They have an obligation to keep us safe.”
Two towns east, Central Falls, is on its way to being the first Rhode Island municipality to create a bike lane separated from traffic by a barrier — the elusive holy grail of bicycle infrastructure.
The separated bike lane is still in its design phase, but ideally would include two crossing bike lanes — one oriented east to west, the other north to south — totaling 1.6 miles, according to Peter Friedrichs, director of the city’s office of planning and economic development. The lanes would connect many of the city’s schools and parks. The city also plans to add bike racks to the schools and parks along the route, he said.
“Central Falls doesn’t provide bus service to most of its students, so most kids are out in the streets on bikes or walking,” Friedrichs said. “Our residents are interested in this mode of transportation, so we think that bike facilities should be provided to safely get people where they need to go.”
The project is supported by two grants. The first was secured by The Learning Community, a charter school whose after-school-program students initially developed the idea for the bike lane. The $7,500 grant was awarded by PeopleForBikes.
The other grant was awarded to the Pawtucket Central Falls Development Corporation by the Citizens Bank Foundation and will contribute $10,000 to the bike lane. The city will likely also contribute funding to the project, according to Friedrichs.
“We are currently trying to figure out which streets would give us the most bang for our buck,” he said. Depending on the projected cost after the design is finalized, the project could be scaled back to just one bike lane, Friedrichs added.
The bike lane will be separated from traffic by movable barriers, rather than a curb, making the project cheaper and easier to build. Friedrichs said he hopes construction will begin in May and that the bike lane will be available this summer.
Central Falls also has applied for a Small Cities Community Development Block Grant to fund a bike master plan, to inform future bike-infrastructure investment decisions, Friedrichs said.