Proposed ordinance would require Providence City Council approval before removing bike lanes

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A bicyclist pedals on the South Water Street bike lane into downtown Providence. (Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)

The Providence City Council is trying to hit the brakes on a mayoral plan to remove the South Water Street bike lane.

An ordinance introduced Thursday night by Councilor John Goncalves would require council approval for the removal of any bike lane in the city, not just the one on South Water Street.

“I just ask my colleagues to have some empathy for the people who live in our city, for the people who love that waterfront, for the people who know what it was like when it was a two lane dragstrip,” Goncalves said during Thursday’s meeting.

“This is about us. This is about the city of Providence. This is about our neighborhoods. It’s not about the people who are trying to rush out of the city during rush hour.”

Providence Mayor Brett Smiley announced earlier this month that the bike lane — a project completed in 2021 and spearheaded by his predecessor Jorge Elorza — would cease in its current state and be transferred to the adjacent sidewalk. Cost estimates for the project were previously cited at $750,000, and the intent is to relieve traffic caused by the Washington Bridge lane closure.

Smiley has been a less mercurial mayor than Elorza, who defied even the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) to see the bike lane to completion in 2021. State transportation officials eventually backed down — but Smiley, Goncalves observed, has not.

“I think what this comes down to is the campaign promise that the mayor made before he was elected to office,” said Goncalves, the councilor of Ward 1 where the bike lane is located. “So I think he’s trying to make good on his promise. And the Washington Bridge closure is an excuse to do that.”

Josh Estrella, a spokesperson for the mayor, previously told Rhode Island Current that Smiley considers the bike lane “flawed since its inception.” On Wednesday, Estrella pointed WPRI 12 to a 2022 study by engineering firm Fuss & O’Neill that suggested “reducing the buffer width of the bike lane on South Water Street from seven feet to six feet, and increasing the adjacent parking lane width from seven feet to eight feet.”

Goncalves said he was in office when that study was conducted, while Smiley wasn’t.

“Those studies say nothing about the removal of the bike lane,” Goncalves said. “They say positive things about how the bike lane has made that area safer…Before the bike lanes were installed, there were several pedestrian deaths in that area. After the bike lanes were installed, we haven’t had a single pedestrian death in that area.”

Smiley has scheduled community meetings over the summer to solicit feedback from residents. Goncalves is skeptical the mayor will really listen. There were 200 people at an April 1 rally, another 150 people at an April 4 council meeting and 75 people at an April 8 community meeting, with the vast majority of people at each event in support of the bike lane staying put. In addition to nearly 300 letters in support of the bike lane received by the Council on April 4, that night also saw Councilors approve Goncalves’ earlier resolution opposing the lane removal with a 10-0 vote.

Councilor Althea Graves listens to Providence Mayor Brett Smiley’s budget presentation on April 17, 2024. Graves is one of the co-sponsors on Goncalves’ proposed ordinance to resist the South Water Street bike lane’s removal as proposed by Smiley. (Alexander Castro/Rhode Island Current)

The ordinance now goes to the City Council’s Ordinance Committee, where Goncalves said it should be heard within the next few weeks. After that, to enter the city’s law books, the ordinance would need to pass twice with enough affirmative votes from the entire council. With 10 votes, the council could override a possible veto from the mayor.

Goncalves said data shows reduction as high as 96% in vehicles traveling over 30 mph on South Water Street.

Liza Burkin, lead organizer with Providence Streets Coalition, also agreed.

“There is zero data to support the idea that restoring a second lane of driving on South Water will have any meaningful reduction in trip times,” Burkin said in an email. “The intersection of South Water and Point Street already has two lanes, and the bottleneck is on the bridge and will remain there.”

Goncalves found it curious that earlier concerns about a sidewalk bike lane’s expense have not reemerged in the current discourse. The costly process has happened at least once before: Elorza’s administration spent $127,000 to remove a bike lane on Eaton Street in 2019, WPRI 12 reported then.

The bike lane battle was not the only transit-focused initiative reviewed by city councilors Thursday night. The state faces a number of transportation predicaments centered around its capital city. In addition to the Washington Bridge’s lane closure and planned demolition, there are a slew of issues concerning the Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority (RIPTA), including its CEO’s fender bender-driven resignation and bus cuts that have faced heavy public opposition.

Councillor Sue AnderBois, with co-sponsors Miguel Sanchez and Goncalves, introduced a resolution to oppose RIPTA’s relocation of their central hub, which currently sits in Kennedy Plaza and serves as the main terminal connecting buses across the city and state. That resolution went to the council’s Special Committee on Environment and Resiliency for further discussion.

Noted Burkin: “The only solution to this traffic nightmare is fewer cars on the road — this is something RIDOT should be addressing with expanded RIPTA service, park n’ ride lots, and carpooling supports.”

This story appeared originally in Rhode Island Current, April 19, 2024

Alexander Castro covers education and health for Rhode Island Current. He has worked extensively in the visual arts as a critic, curator and adjunct professor.