Tale of 2 bike lanes: Providence moves ahead with contested South Water St. project, puts the brakes on Mount Pleasant Ave.

THE CITY OF PROVIDENCE recently began construction on a two-way bike lane along South Water Street, yet has put a similar bike lane on Mount Pleasant Avenue on hold amid residential concerns. Pictured is a rendering of South Water Street traffic once the project is complete. / COURTESY CITY OF PROVIDENCE

PROVIDENCE – Providence has pumped the brakes on a contested two-way bike lane along Mount Pleasant Avenue.

But similar concerns have not stopped the city from moving ahead with a bike lane along South Water Street. After holding an extra public meeting in August to respond to local business owners’ concerns, the city recently began construction on the half-mile dedicated cycling lane along the downtown waterfront.

Both bike lanes were put forth as part of Mayor Jorge O. Elorza’s 2020 Great Streets Initiative master plan, intended to make the city more friendly to all forms of traffic: Motorists, cyclists, pedestrians, skateboarders and more. Yet only one bike lane appears to be happening, while the other is on an indefinite hold.

Why the different approach?

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Timothy Rondeau, a spokesperson for Providence Department of Planning & Development, said in an emailed statement that the city was moving forward with bicycle safety improvements “for every street where improvements make sense.”  

But to at least one observer and transportation advocate, another factor is also in play: the support (or lack of) from members of the city council.

“When you’re talking about building a connected, complete bike network that will serve every neighborhood of the city, it only really works and will be useful to everybody…if it connects to every neighborhood in the city,” said Liza Burkin, lead organizer of the Providence Streets Coalition. “It’s really unfortunate that specific council member support or opposition is influencing this great plan.”

Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan, whose ward includes the Mount Pleasant Avenue project, has been a vocal opponent to the bike lane, faulting the city for sufficient public outreach. Ryan did not return inquiries for comment for this story.

Meanwhile, Councilman John Goncalves, who represents the area including the South Water Street cycling lane, has defended the city plan despite what he described as “an 11th- hour to attempt to reverse course on a project.” 

The two neighborhoods are very different. Mount Pleasant Avenue has been plagued by traffic problems for years, with speeding drivers, crashes and even one fatality amid a residential and school-zoned area. South Water Street, meanwhile, lies in between two pedestrian areas. On one side is India Point Park and the East Bay Bike Path, and on the other, a walkable downtown connected by the Michael S. Van Leesten Memorial Bridge.

Burkin acknowledges the differences.

“People are going to the  river front specifically to get out of their cars, and go outside and be active,” she said of the South Water Street area.

Yet both cycling lanes were included in the Great Streets plan. The plan itself has not been changed, according to Rondeau, meaning the one-mile stretch of Mount Pleasant Avenue could include a bike lane at some point.

But it also isn’t happening anytime soon. The Providence City Council on Sept. 16 approved an agreement with R.I. Department of Transportation for $2 million worth of safety improvements along Mount Pleasant Ave between Smith and Beaufort streets, including sidewalks, new pavement, traffic signal improvements and raised crosswalks. The project, which is being supervised by RIDOT using federal funds, does not include the bike lane.

Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan in a statement said the bike lane was not included “based on input from residents and local businesses. Indeed, residents turned out in droves at a January 2020 public information on the proposed bike lane, citing lack of notice and safety concerns on the highly trafficked streets. Ryan quickly joined the fray of critics, faulting the city for failing to engage the community on its upcoming projects.

A year and a half later, businesses along South Water Street were sounding the same alarm bells, with many saying they had no notice of the two-way bike lane and also fearing increased congestion along a key entry point to Interstate-195. The city held an additional public information session in August to assuage business owners’ concerns. They also modified the proposal, holding off on raised speed bumps and making adjustments to sections of the road adjacent to key loading docks. 

But they did not strike the bike lane from their plans.

Thomas Lisi, managing partner of Marcum LLP in Providence, could already see a traffic backup from the construction visible from his accounting firm’s South Main Street offices. Like others along the riverfront edge of downtown, he was less than thrilled with the project.

“I foresee problems with traffic patterns, especially during that morning and afternoon commute time,” he said. “And parking is already tough over here.”

Street parking will not be affected by the bike lane, though vehicle traffic will be reduced from two lanes to one. However, a city traffic study showed that the 705 cars-per-hour a one-lane road could accommodate would be more than enough based on current traffic patterns.

The South Water Street bike lane, along with similar lanes on Manton Avenue, Empire, Chestnut and Richmond streets are expected to finish this fall, according to Rondeau.

Additional information on the Great Streets Initiative master plan including upcoming phases of work and public hearings is available at https://www.providenceri.gov/planning/great-streets/.

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.com.

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  1. These bike lanes are the WORST idea! If you want to ride a bike then get a helmut, a bike with a mirror, a horn and reflectors and then stay off the highways! That’s it. No bike lanes needed.
    I live in Seattle and they have created a TRAFFIC NIGHTMARE out here with all these bike-lanes, in a city where it rains 270 days a year!
    I love Providence and can’t wait until I move back there, but don’t ruin it with bike lanes that wind up not being used, have cyclists ignore them and STILL ride on sidewalks and on unmarked roads when it suits them and impacts traffic.

    If you want to reduce cyclist deaths? Mandate those things I mentioned in my first sentence and then enforce it.