EAST PROVIDENCE — Jennifer Soares and Ryan Guillette were riding south on the East Bay Bike Path toward Barrington Town Beach at about 1:30 on a recent Saturday morning when they saw a vehicle on the path even more unusual than their disco-light-laden tandem bike: an East Providence police cruiser. The cruiser flashed its lights. They were being pulled over on the bike path.
The events of the next 30 minutes went right from rather unusual to fairly awkward and a little tense: Soares and Guillette said police unnecessarily detained them and told them, to their surprise, that the bike path was closed. City police said they were doing what their residents expect them to: patrol the area for potential crimes at night when the path is closed, including a recent rash of catalytic converter thefts — which Soares and Guillette, in turn, note they clearly did not have in their possession, auto parts being rather obvious when you’re carrying them on a tandem bike.
But it raised a larger question that’s now on the minds of bike mobility advocates in Rhode Island: Why does the East Bay Bike Path technically close between sunset and sunrise?
“The least-safe time to bike on the road is in the dark, and the bike path closes at dark,” Soares, 35, said. “So you’re just automatically shifting everybody into the street when the sun goes down.”
The state Department of Environmental Management, which manages the path, said that’s an issue the agency is willing to discuss.
“We recognize that the use of all state bike paths within Rhode Island has likely never been higher as more people may be using the bike paths for both commuting and recreational purposes,” Michael Healey, a spokesman for the agency, said in an email. “A discussion about broadening the purpose and use of all bike paths within the state and the resources required to do that must happen at a policy level first and DEM would be a willing participant in this conversation.”
Under state regulations, beaches, parks, and state-managed bike paths — the East Bay Bike Path, Trestle Trail and the Blackstone River State Park Bikeway — can be used from sunrise to sunset.
Healey said there are likely a few reasons for the policy: safety and security, as well as resources. Opening state amenities like parks and other outdoor facilities around the clock would be a resource strain for an agency that already struggles with staffing during the hours as they exist now.
To bike mobility advocates like Liza Burkin, who is friends with Guillette and Soares, safety and security could be improved because you keep it open 24/7, not despite it. If people are using it for crime at night, the best response would be to help people use it for transportation at night. It’s especially relevant in the winter, when snow covers the unplowed paths and it gets dark early.
“If they’re closing it technically after sunset and there’s no lighting, most people aren’t going to use it,” Burkin said.
Transportation advocates challenge the idea — common when the bike paths were first being built — that they’d become superhighways for larcenists and other assorted scofflaws. Burkin said a former state Department of Transportation director relayed an anecdote about a community meeting decades ago where people were concerned about bike path crimes. The director had a staff member ride a bike across an auditorium stage while balancing a TV on the handlebars. It didn’t work.
A catalytic converter wouldn’t be much more practical, Burkin noted. After her friends were stopped as police were investigating those sorts of thefts, Burkin posted about it on Twitter. She got responses from people as far away as London and Los Angeles. People said they’d been stopped by the police for using a bike path after dark. None of them were from Rhode Island, showing just how unusual this encounter was. But it highlights a central tension about these paths: Are they for fun, or to get where you need to go? To Burkin, they’re no less a transportation option than the highways that nobody would ever think of closing at night.
“To me, this is very representative of how the state thinks about bicycle transportation — as a recreational, fun thing to do on a Saturday afternoon in the summertime and not as a 24/7, year-round, serious transportation method,” Burkin said.
As for Soares and Gillette, they both said they’d like to see the East Bay Bike Path open ‘round the clock. They said they weren’t even aware that it closed after sunset, and had ridden it often at night. They’d never seen a sign saying as such; the DEM said it would be difficult to put them everywhere on a path that stretches for nearly 15 miles from Providence to Bristol and has 52 intersections.
When Guillette and Soares were stopped early on Saturday, July 30, they said the police informed them that the bike path was, in fact, closed — and said they could be ticketed for being on it, they said. They did not end up getting a ticket.
Oddly, it was the second time in the span of just a few days that they’d seen police on the path. The other time, also late at night, they were briefly stopped in the same area by a police officer who seemed to be looking for somebody else.The officer told them they were free to go. That one didn’t turn into a whole thing; the officer in that case didn’t even say the bike path was closed, Guillette said.
Police said there are reasons people are seeing a police patrol presence on the path: nuisance crimes in the area, including break-ins, drug use, and particularly the increase in catalytic converter thefts. It’s a major problem in the area, and a growing one, said Lt. Michael Rapoza, spokesman for the East Providence Police Department. Catalytic converters are part of a car’s exhaust system.
In one incident earlier this year, Barrington and East Providence police were able to charge a person who used the East Bay Bike Path to get to and from the scene of overnight catalytic converter thefts and break-ins of outbuildings, using a bicycle, Rapoza said. (Chief Christopher Francesconi said in an email directly to the bikers that, “unlikely as it may sound,” some people use the bike path to transport stolen catalytic converters via bike.)
The police do not often stop people riding on the East Bay Bike Path after dark, Rapoza said. This encounter lasted as long as it did because the bikers — there were three, Guillette, Soares and a friend — refused to identify themselves at first, Rapoza said. Guillette constantly interrupted officers, Rapoza said. The incident ended when police determined they hadn’t committed any crimes, Rapoza said. A third biker, Guillette and Soares’ friend, who was on a non-tandem bike, had also provided his ID — early on in the interaction, Guillette said.
“Our officers definitely handled it with professionalism,” Rapoza said.
Soares acknowledged not wanting to tell police who they were and where they were going, because “we weren’t doing anything wrong that we were aware of — because we weren’t aware the bike path was closed.”
Guillette acknowledged saying “[eff] you” to the police as he left, but said it was at conversational volume, not a scream, as the police chief said in an email to him.
“I thought the whole interaction was stupid, so I said that,” Guillette said, noting it was his free speech right.
Guillette, Soares, and their friend ended up calling off their beach excursion and headed back. Soares and Guillette said the police made clear they needed to continue their journey off the bike path that night, because it was closed. They did get off the bike path, but were so unfamiliar with the area they had to look up directions. They eventually got back on the path later. Rapoza, the spokesman for the city police department, denied that the officers told the bikers they couldn’t ride the bike path home that night, given how dangerous that is.
Soares and Guillette, meanwhile, are now looking at trying to change policies around bikes and transportation.
“I think it’s a really valuable piece of infrastructure,” Guillette said. “I’d like to see bikes seen as a legitimate form of transportation.”