You can’t even go to South Water Street in Providence anymore, at least not without wearing a bulletproof vest and duct taping your AirPods to your ears. Nothing screams thug like a skinny person in bicycle shorts.
Said absolutely no one ever.
Yet here we are with another round of complaints about how bike lines are destroying the fabric of the city, ruining small businesses, and terrorizing innocent walkers who just want to take selfies on the pedestrian bridge without getting run over by Mayor Jorge Elorza on his Huffy.
The latest controversy revolves largely around the city’s decision to create a two-way protected bike lane on South Water Street, which you probably know best as the stretch from the backside of Hemenway’s to Al Forno, with the Wild Colonial Tavern in between.
The new bike lanes mean that vehicles are down to single lane, which really screws over street racers, poor parallel parkers, and possibly, an ice cream truck or two.
Of course, if you’re listening to the critics, like the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, you’d think that Elorza ordered his public works department to cover the road in nails just so he could punish anyone who dares to still drive a gas guzzling car.
The DOT actually thought it would be wise to whine to the Federal Highway Administration and claim that the city could be on the hook for $4.4 million for violating some agreement no one knew existed until a few weeks ago.
Thankfully the FHWA has no interest in getting in the middle of some petty dispute between Elorza and DOT Director Peter Alviti.
Or maybe the feds just understand something too many public officials in our state choose to ignore: real cities have bike lanes.
Elorza is leaving office next year, and making Providence more bike-friendly is going to be one of his signature accomplishments. His administration struck good agreements to expand access to bikeshare services and scooters, and it put years of thought into the Great Streets Initiative, which is designed to better connect the entire city, in part by adding more bike lanes.
“We’re 10, 15 years behind the curve on bike lanes,” Elorza told me on Thursday afternoon. “Even cold weather cities have integrated bike lines. We’ve designed our cities around cars for generations, but people are asking for something different.”
The Great Streets plan isn’t solely about bikes, either. It’s about safe streets. Ask the people who live in any neighborhood in the city and speeding drivers will be among their top three complaints.
But when the city tried speed cameras, critics labeled it a cheap way to balance the budget. When they installed speed bumps in various parts of the city, people actually complained because it slowed them down (If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard, “you can’t even drive on Gentian Avenue anymore,” I’d be able to afford a hip bike).
Now it’s the bike lanes. Elorza compared them to the “bike version of NIMBY-ism. Everyone is for it, except in their backyards.” He compared it to his decision to make Roger Williams Park a one-way loop a few years ago, and noted that people accused him of attempting to kill children.
“The parade of horrible never materialized,” he said.
This is one thing the candidates for mayor and City Council can learn from Elorza. You aren’t always going to please everyone, but once you do your homework, gather the data, and engage the community in the process, you have to stand by your decisions.
“You can’t base your decisions and your policy on the loudest or the angriest voices,” he said. “If that’s what going to guide your decisions, you will literally get nothing done.”
Just make sure you wear your helmet.