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INFRASTRUCTURE

A battle over bike paths pits environmentalism and infrastructure against public safety and traffic problems

Now wildly popular, the East Bay Bike Path faced plenty of opposition in the 1980s. Will Rhode Islanders come around to others, like the South Water Street project?

The new bike path on South Water Street in Providence.
The new bike path on South Water Street in Providence.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Critics are unsparing: The new bike infrastructure is deemed “absolutely idiotic.” Abutters and powerful interests are lining up to try to kill it. They worry it’s getting rammed through without enough input about safety and traffic concerns.

It is 1983, and the proposed East Bay Bike Path to eventually link India Point Park in Providence to Independence Park in Bristol is one of the most controversial projects in the state.

It’s an “absolute tragedy that in a world in utter despair we would spend this kind of money to put in an idiot bike path,” one opponent said in The Providence Journal. “We’ve got bridges falling in the water.”

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“As for Bristol,” the then-town administrator told the Journal around the same time, “I see no great need for it because the bicyclists here have Colt State Park.”

A cyclist on the East Bay Bike Path at Riverside Square in East Providence.
A cyclist on the East Bay Bike Path at Riverside Square in East Providence. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

“This particular path is a very dangerous route which will lead to serious personal injury and death,” a state representative at the time, Arthur Read, wrote in a letter to the editor.

Three and a half decades later, the East Bay Bike Path is considered a gem of infrastructure in the state, so wildly popular that one of the main concerns is how crowded it can get. Bristol now touts itself as the safest community in the state, and as crime has gone down overall, Barrington’s property values have only gone up.

But bike infrastructure remains controversial.

Today, business owners and institutions in Providence are raising concerns about a recently completed two-way protected bike lane on South Water Street. A bike lane on Eaton Street was torn up in 2019 after opposition from neighbors and the local councilwoman. A pilot program for a protected bike lane on First Street in East Providence was cut short after the City Council voted to do away with it over concerns about a confusing traffic pattern.

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“There’s a perception versus reality thing that happens with any kind of big project like this,” said Chris Martin, the East Providence Waterfront Commission’s executive director who was involved in the First Street project. “It’s on advocates and municipalities to advocate. We learned a lot from it.”

To be sure, the circumstances surrounding the East Bay Bike Path in the 1980s are different from the projects today. It’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges, in that they’re not exactly the same but they’re both fruits. The East Bay Bike Path was built in an old rail bed, while the projects in Providence and East Providence reduced a lane of car traffic for a protected bike lane running along the street. While opponents raised safety concerns in all these instances, one major focus on the East Bay Bike Path was on teenage beer parties and crime. (Crime is much lower now than it was in the 1980s and 1990s. No solid data exists on teenage beer parties.)

But there are links between the East Bay Bike Path controversies of yesteryear and the debates happening today. Some of it is literal: The First Street bike path would have connected a missing piece of the East Bay path where it goes out into a city road; the city wants to eventually connect the South Water Street one with the bike path’s start in Providence. And supporters of South Water Street say that just like the East Bay Bike Path, people will eventually love the South Water Street protected bike lane and forget about the controversy.

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“It says to me people are afraid of change, no matter what,” said Liza Burkin, the lead organizer of the Providence Streets Coalition. “But that once the change comes, when it’s in the form of active mobility infrastructure, it is nearly universally beloved afterward. The fears of the changes just don’t come to bear. We see this over and over and over.”

The new bike path on South Water Street in Providence, by Plant City food hall.
The new bike path on South Water Street in Providence, by Plant City food hall. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

First, though, the path is littered with opposition. In an Oct. 1 letter to RIDOT published by the Providence Journal and signed by representatives of RISD, the food hall Plant City, Brown University, law firms, the Jewelry District Association, and others, opponents say they’re not opposed to a bike lane, just one that cuts out a lane of travel on South Water Street. (There’s enough room between the street and the Providence River for a bike lane, they argue.) They’ve said the city’s traffic studies are flawed and have asked the state Department of Transportation to intervene.

The Department of Transportation did so, telling Mayor Jorge Elorza to halt the roughly $300,000 project until they could assess whether it was consistent with 1999 repairs that involved state and federal funding. The state said the city never informed them.

The project was already well underway. Mayor Jorge Elorza has stood firm, and called the DOT’s demand that he halt the project “extremely dubious.” The city finished the last piece even after receiving the letter about safety concerns. The state is now conferring with Federal Highway Administration officials.

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And critics are unsparing.

“We are living in a lawless city, because it is being run by a lawless mayor,” said Sharon Steele, the president of the Jewelry District Association who’s been a leading voice in opposition to the project.

Steele says abutters didn’t get enough notice about the project. Supporters and the city say they did. Screenshots of old emails and Twitter messages are flying around amid the acrimony. Steele, meanwhile, says traffic has already been snarled and confused by the project, and is concerned about safety. People might get injured, or worse, she said.

“The bike coalition happens to be a very, very aggressive coalition,” Steele said. “But the numbers of people who literally rely on their cars to get to work, to do business, to pick up their kids from school, to literally get from point A to point B, every single hour of every single day — that is not going to change tomorrow. You can wish it away or you can deal in reality.”

The East Bay Bike Path near Kettle Point.
The East Bay Bike Path near Kettle Point. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Steele also rejected comparisons to the East Bay Bike Path, because that wasn’t built directly onto a vehicular roadway. She said her group isn’t against green technology or biking — just things that they believe will cause traffic and safety problems.

The South Water Street project — a two-way protected bike lane that supporters like to call an urban trail because it can be used by other types of non-car mobility — has important backing, not just from the mayor but from John Goncalves, the councilman who represents the area. Supporters like Goncalves point to the health and environmental benefits in a time of climate change.

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They would do well to heed the lessons of the East Bay Bike Path, which had its own rough road.

“It’s a miracle that it ever went through,” said Judith Byrnes, whose late father, Thomas, was one of the leading advocates for the project as a local elected leader and first introduced it in the General Assembly. “There was a lot of fearmongering, and a lot of very determined opposition from a lot of different sources. Once the bike path was done, it was an overnight sensation.”

Paul Redman recalls his late father, George, a truck driver and warehouse worker whose life of cycling persisted through the arthritis in his spine, going around town and collecting signatures to get people to signal their support. He was, in the most loving way possible, a pain in the neck. George Redman’s name is now on the linear park connecting the path along the Washington Bridge. But the fight over other aspects of the bike path continue, including the bridges in Barrington and extending it in Bristol.

Add to those disputes the South Water Street lanes, too. Redman believes it will be a positive as it eventually connects with the section named for his father.

“It will attract more people to the area, and improve the overall quality of life for the residents of Providence,” Redman said. “The bigger vision is to tie all these bike paths together in a safe and logical way. This is part of that vision.”

And what about the critics of the East Bay Bike Path back in the 1980s? Were they wrong? Ask Arthur Read. He’s the state representative who, in the 1980s, called it “absolutely idiotic.”

He says now about some of his criticism: “In hindsight, I was wrong.”

He maintains that he was right to raise issues — complicated to explain even then, much less three and a half decades later — about the ownership and rights to the property. And yes, he maintained, crime does happen on the bike path, although not to the degree people feared.

But he says that if anyone tried to get rid of the East Bay Bike Path today, people who have come to love it would simply not accept it.

“They’d go nuts,” he said. “It’s become part of our life.”


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.