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COMMENTARY

We can redesign Providence’s streets to be better for all — pedestrians, bicycles and cars

North Main Street, the Providence thoroughfare, could have a dedicated bus lane, protected bike paths, and better intersections for pedestrians. “My imagination is expanding,” city resident and state Representative Rebecca Kislak says.

A cyclist rides within the temporary bike lane on Hope Street in October.Glenn Osmundson

I grew up in suburban Miami. I lived 2 miles from my school, and drove every single day. There was never a minute when anyone thought it would be OK to get there any other way. That’s how the streets were designed. For cars. Not to walk, not to bike. And I never imagined anything else. As a child in the 1970s and 80s, in the suburbs, streets and cars were for getting places; cul-de-sacs and neighborhood streets were the places for kids to bike. There was also a longer bike path for recreation, if we could get dropped off there in a car.

I’ve lived in Providence for 20 years now, and live not far from North Main Street. It has always been a functional and busy street for cars, a way to get from Pawtucket to downtown Providence and back again, or to get to or from the highway. There are a lot of empty lots and storefronts. There are some great places there — sandwich shops, a place to buy my sneakers, a new old-fashioned pharmacy, a few gyms. But North Main Street is scary as a pedestrian, and I regret the one time I accidentally ended up there on my bicycle. Recently, a pedestrian, crossing with the light and in daylight, was struck by a car and injured.

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I couldn’t imagine North Main any other way — until I started attending community meetings hosted by Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune and the Providence Planning Department. I have now seen designs for possible new infrastructure. North Main Street could have a dedicated bus lane, protected bike paths, and better intersections for pedestrians. There is a park that fronts the cemetery, but is behind the cemetery gates — we could move the gates and have better access to our park. There are so many possibilities. It doesn’t have to be the way it always has been. My imagination is expanding.

I’ve started riding the bus more. The 1 and the (now free) R lines go where I want and need to go. The 1 isn’t quite frequent enough; the R is a hike down or up the hill for me. And now we have a driver shortage, so sometimes a scheduled bus never arrives. But I can imagine more frequent service here and around the state. I can imagine buses coming when we want and need them and taking us where we want to go. I’ve also experienced the convenience of free — I don’t need to make sure I have cash in my pocket or an app on my phone. I just need to hop on the bus.

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We recently had a one-week trial bike trail on Hope Street. I hadn’t experienced many protected bike lanes, but the protected bike lane for the uphill climb on Olney Street has changed my commute whenever I have meetings downtown. It has made it possible for me to ride without worrying about the cars almost hitting me as I struggle to ride up the big hill. The South Water Street protected bike lane is such a pleasure to connect India Point Park with downtown. We may or may not end up with a protected bike lane on Hope Street, but now that I’ve seen it and experienced it, I can’t unsee it. My imagination has grown. I had nearly completely protected rides downtown. I can imagine more lanes, and connecting them too. It would be great if my kid could safely ride from the East Side to his high school on Westminster Street. My younger child enjoyed riding on Hope Street — “No hills on the way to school!” — for the first time ever.

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I don’t have all the answers, but I’m glad I understand that we don’t have to replicate the same problematic roads we currently have. We can redesign North Main Street, and all our streets, to be better for all of us — cars, bicycles, pedestrians. Let’s imagine something better together.

Rhode Island state Representative Rebecca Kislak, a Democrat, lives in Providence and represents District 4.