PROVIDENCE — As of Thursday the new temporary 1-mile bike lane on Hope Street had been up and running for more than half of the one-week pilot project. And if you wanted to get a sense of people’s opinions about it, you only had to stand on the sidewalk outside Frog & Toad for a few minutes on a gorgeous fall Thursday afternoon.
Biker after biker (and some pedestrians) rode up to praise the lane’s virtues — its safety, its convenience, the way it connects one part of the city to another.
“It’s an extra layer that helps people participate in the neighborhood more,” said Mel Rainsberger, who lives nearby and was riding on the trail Thursday. Rainsberger doesn’t use a car because of night vision problems.
Daria Brashear, an avid biker who sometimes gets recognized because of the octopus on her helmet, rode all the way from her home in Edgewood to Frog & Toad — and did so mostly on urban trails or bike lanes, a testament to the city’s fledgling progress.
“I gotta tell you, it feels like living in a real city,” Brashear said.
But also, around the same time, someone drove up in a car, rolled down her window, and said the following:
“I just want to tell someone this is the worst idea ever.”
Opinions about the Hope Street temporary trail are… well, impassioned. And organizers say there’s good that comes out of that.
“Folks seem to feel strongly either way, which means they really love their community — which is wonderful,” Liza Burkin, lead organizer with the Providence Streets Coalition, said in an interview.
The bike lane project — the Hope Street Temporary Trail, advocates call it, a nod both to its impermanence and the fact it can be used for more than just bikes but also scooters, wheelchairs, or pedestrians — is the work of the Providence Streets Coalition and other private groups. The coalition got city permission to put in the lane, but used private funding for it. It includes paint, temporary bollards, and platforms for bus stops, running a mile on the eastern side of Hope Street from Tortilla Flats to Frog & Toad.
Supporters emphasize that it’s merely a temporary project, running until Saturday. The city doesn’t have the funding or timeline to install it permanently right now, to say nothing of the upcoming change in administrations from Jorge Elorza to Brett Smiley, so even if it proves incredibly popular based on the surveys that are being done right now, it won’t be a full-time reality anytime in the near future.
Still, the pilot project and the resulting debate over it have crystallized the push and pull that often comes with putting in bike infrastructure on city streets long dominated by cars.
A group of merchants on Hope Street opposed even the temporary installation of the bike lane, pointing to traffic and parking concerns. The city did not stop it, and by the middle of the week, some area businesses say their fears have come true.
“I understand the concept they have,” Mohammed Islam, owner of Not Just Snacks and Not Just Spices. “But it doesn’t work in every location. I’m completely against it.”
The Indian restaurant and grocery are just up the street from the northern end of the trail, but it has already affected traffic and business on Hope Street, Islam said, taking away parking and causing delays when, for instance, everyone has to queue up behind a garbage truck that can’t pull to the side. (Supporters of the bike lane say safety should trump a few seconds or minutes of added travel time.) Altogether, the trail takes up 132 parking spots, though not all of them are in the central commercial area and supporters say there’s still plenty of parking on side streets.
Joanne Vincent, owner of the Tortilla Flats restaurant, said business was a bit lower on Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday. (They are not open Monday, and Saturday was normal.) She can’t attribute the decline to the bike lanes, she emphasized. But it certainly hasn’t been the case that business has improved since the bike lane went in, she said.
“I have yet to have anyone say, ‘Hey, I rode up on the bike trail and pulled up and I’m here for a drink,’” Vincent said. “But that could still happen.”
Still, the skepticism among business owners isn’t universal. The Frog & Toad shop has embraced the project, giving out free water bottles with any purchases for people who arrive by bike to the Hope Street location.
Owner Asher Schofield said many customers are enthusiastic about the lane, although some people have said it’ll put them out of business and at least one of his delivery drivers raised issues with it. To Schofield, trying to get away from fossil fuel-centric modes of transportation is going to come with some pain points — but is necessary in a time of climate change.
“I’m leaving a world behind for my kids,” Schofield said. “We as a society are going to have to make some difficult decisions.”
Burkin, the Providence Streets Coalition organizer, said the question of whether the bike lane will ever be permanent on Hope Street is one left to the people in the area. For the apparent small number of people who haven’t made up their minds, they can come out before Saturday afternoon and night when it “turns into a pumpkin again,” Burkin said.
But one thing’s for sure: They’ll try this sort of project again.
“We’ve learned so much in doing it,” Burkin said. “We hope to continue.”