Lessons From Past Bike Lane Controversies Rarely Inform Present Debates

History repeats itself with the political controversies created by bike lanes.

2 minute read

October 19, 2021, 7:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

The East Bay Bike Lane runs along the water in Rhode Island.

The East Bay Bike Lane, once a hotly contested addition to the state of Rhode Island, is now a "gem" of Rhode Island's infrastructure. | DonJames / Shutterstock

An article by Brian Amaral commences with a long list of complaints and predictions of doom lobbed against the East Bay Bike Path—linking providence to Bristol in Rhode Island—can when it was originally proposed 1983.

Despite the vehement protestations of opponents back in the early '80s, the bike path is now one of the state's most treasure infrastructure gems, "so wildly popular that one of the main concerns is how crowded it can get. Bristol now touts itself as the safest community in the state, and as crime has gone down overall, Barrington’s property values have only gone up."

Despite that track record, bike infrastructure remains controversial in Rhode Island, reports Amaral.

Today, business owners and institutions in Providence are raising concerns about a recently completed two-way protected bike lane on South Water Street. A bike lane on Eaton Street was torn up in 2019 after opposition from neighbors and the local councilwoman. A pilot program for a protected bike lane on First Street in East Providence was cut short after the City Council voted to do away with it over concerns about a confusing traffic pattern.

While acknowledging the differences between the bike lane projects of the 1980s and the present day's proposals, there are still comparisons to be made. Amaral focuses first on the First Street bike path project.

In an Oct. 1 letter to RIDOT published by the Providence Journal and signed by representatives of RISD, the food hall Plant City, Brown University, law firms, the Jewelry District Association, and others, opponents say they’re not opposed to a bike lane, just one that cuts out a lane of travel on South Water Street. (There’s enough room between the street and the Providence River for a bike lane, they argue.) They’ve said the city’s traffic studies are flawed and have asked the state Department of Transportation to intervene.

The article also compares the lessons of the East Bay Bike Path the controversies surrounding the South Water Street protected bike lane.

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