More controversial two-way bike lanes popping up in Providence

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — After an initial snafu involving two-way bike lanes on busy Eaton Street earlier this year, the city of Providence is plowing ahead with ambitious plans to install the lanes in other parts of the city.

The two-way bicycle lanes have now been installed on San Souci Drive in Olneyville, and are in the process of being installed on Clifford Street in the Jewelry District.

The Clifford Street project has drawn the ire of the Jewelry District Association, which sent a letter to Mayor Jorge Elorza last week opposing the lanes.

“After wasting $120,000 on Eaton Street, it’s hard to believe that the city would embark on a similar reconfiguration of a main artery in the Jewelry District,” wrote Lewis Dana, a board member of the association. “Please ask your planning department to take a cold, hard look at what they are doing to our city.”

Katherine Hypolite, the spokesperson for Providence’s planning department, said the improvements to Clifford, Pine and Friendship Streets were the results of “more than two years of public engagement, traffic studies and alternatives analysis.” (Friendship Street, Pine Street and West Franklin Street are slated to get one-way bike lanes.)

‘We have heard great support for the project from a wide variety of community members,” Hypolite said. She said the cost of the bike lanes and sidewalk projects on Pine, Friendship and Clifford Streets is $513,164.

Two-way bicycle lanes are new to Providence, which currently has conventional one-way bike lanes on certain streets, some of which are “protected” by barriers or parking, and some that are not. Many streets in the city have no bike lanes at all, and signage indicates that bicyclists can use the whole road.

The two-way lanes are part of Providence’s Great Streets plan, a draft of which was released in June, which envisions two-way “share paths” connected throughout the city in an “urban trail network.” The paths are for biking, walking and riding scooters and are aimed at improving safety and encouraging modes of transport other than driving. (The final plan, expected this past August, is now due to be complete in early 2020.)

But on Eaton Street, the two-way paths were met with outcry from drivers, after the street was narrowed and some parking spots were removed. Under pressure, and to the frustration of cyclists, the city changed the street back to its old pattern.

The former Eaton Street two-way bike lanes, which were removed amid outcry from drivers.

The Clifford Street bikes lanes are now meeting similar resistance. The proposal cuts out one driving lane from the one-way street, turning it into a two-way bike path.

“They are anti-development,” said Sharon Steele, the president of the Jewelry District Association. “This is a construction zone right now.” Clifford Street goes through the I-195 District, where several new structures are either under construction, just completed or slated to be built in the next five years: several apartment buildings, a parking garage behind the Garrahy courthouse, a Holiday Inn Express, and the Wexford innovation center.

“The Garrahy Garage is going to dump 1,250 cars … onto Clifford Street,” Steele said.

She argues the new bike lanes are a safety hazard, leaving nowhere to pull over for emergency vehicles. Plus, construction trucks for the many projects — which currently block one of the two driving lanes — will be left with no place to pull over.

On a recent visit to Clifford Street after the bike lanes were painted, Eyewitness News observed multiple vehicles parked in the new bike lanes, including a USPS truck delivering mail to a residential building. (There are no parking spots on that particular stretch of the road.)

A mail truck pulls over in the newly-painted bike lane on Clifford Street. (WPRI/Steph Machado)

“This is just bad planning,” Steele said. “They are going to have to literally undo what they did, just like on Eaton Street.”

But Kathleen Gannon, the chair of the Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition, said the new bike lanes just require a “bit of a learning curve” for both cyclists and cars.

“I feel confident that once riders and drivers have some experience with them, they’ll be just like another regular thing,” Gannon said.

She said two-way bike lanes are “well-utilized and understood” in other cities, and said protected bike lanes make it much safer for cyclists.

She called it “unfortunate” that the city removed the bike lanes on Eaton Street.

“It really didn’t give residents a chance to get used to them and work with them,” Gannon said. “Bicyclists are in danger any time they are in the same roadway as cars.”

Hypolite said no additional traffic studies were done after the Eaton Street blunder, but she provided a lengthy study conducted on the Clifford Street bike lanes last year.

The 2018 traffic analysis said more than 824 bicyclists rode down the street in October of 2017. It predicted that even with the new development coming to the area, fewer than 50% of residents would drive to work. And the study argued that the new bike paths would encourage people to commute by bike, scooter or foot.

“The implementation of these facilities is expected to increase the number of people choosing to walk and bike along the City Walk corridor, while helping to reduce the volume of vehicular traffic,” the study asserts.

“I think they need to go back to the drawing board,” said Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan, who represents the Elmhurst neighborhood that includes Eaton Street. She hosted community meetings earlier this year, where she described the neighbors as “outraged” by the newly-installed bike lanes.

She said the new configuration was a “complete and total mess,” including for trash pickup and emergency vehicles. She said there was not enough engagement of residents and business owners in the area before the new lanes were installed.

“For the administration to say they engaged the community, that is completely inadequate,” Ryan said.

“I’m not opposed to creating green infrastructure and alternative modes of transportation,” she added. “However, there just needs to be a well thought-out plan.”

New two-way shared paths separate biking and walking from the car lane on San Souci Drive in Providence. (WPRI/Steph Machado)

The bike lanes on San Souci drive, which have been completed, are on a much calmer street that connects Valley Street and Manton Avenue along the Woonasquatucket River. No bicylists, and very few cars, passed through during a recent November afternoon. (The lack of cyclists may be due to the fact that Manton Avenue doesn’t have bike lanes yet.) The price tag on the San Souci Drive project was $600,000.

According to the draft Great Streets plan, two-way paths are recommended to be installed on many other streets including Broad Street, Elmwood Avenue, Reservoir Avenue, Roger Williams Avenue, Eddy Street, Dean Street, Manton Avenue, Tobey Street, Academy Avenue, Broadway, Eagle Street, Smith Street, Dexter Street, Cranston Street, Atwells Avenue, Broadway, West Exchange Street, Hope Street, North Main Street, West River Street and Branch Avenue.

Hypolite said the delay in releasing the final plan is due to the “tremendous amount of public feedback” to the draft plan, which is now being incorporated into the final product.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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