Bike Issue

Brett’s Bike Lane Blitz: Mayor Smiley’s siege at South Water St. threatens the future of bicycle travel

A cyclist rides down South Water St. (Photo: Richard T. Laliberte)

On the first Tuesday evening of this past April, a rain-soaked Kennedy Plaza saw a procession of constituents file into the ornate corridors of City Hall. The days-long deluge had only just broken as thick clusters of invested individuals climbed the marble stairs and crowded into the City Council chambers. There were no empty seats and many stood shoulder to shoulder. Body heat emanated in the poorly ventilated space and there was a sense that something significant was happening. This would be no standard council meeting. For the forty-five minutes leading up to the 6pm start time, members of the general public were invited to speak and offer their opinions about the proposed removal of the bike lane along South Water St. One by one, they took the podium, gathering from all corners of the capital city and even some neighboring towns. The overall sentiment could not be ignored and the resounding echo was in direct opposition to the plan.


Recently, Mayor Brett Smiley announced the concept of eliminating the marked bike lane as a means of alleviating some of the traffic and congestion caused by the indefinite closure of the Washington Bridge. This erasure project would cost the city $750,000 and the perceived benefits remain negligible at best. With no concrete evidence to support Mayor Smiley’s decision, it’s no mystery why skepticism remains high and popular support is lacking.

That night at City Hall, one Rhode Islander after another spoke to the benefits of the bike lane. For example, commuters stated the bike lane allowed them to get to work quicker and more efficiently. Recreational riders (some even donning biking gear) were just as vocal as pedestrians who frequent the area for its scenic waterside promenade and the prominent new foot bridge. The elderly and those with small children marveled at how much safer the area felt.

Reports show that vehicular traffic has flowed at a safer pace since the installation of the bike lane, and this comes at a time when hit-and-runs tend to be a recurring theme in vital intersections throughout the area. And then there are those with mobility issues, the individuals who use the lanes as a safe space to maneuver and navigate when Providence sidewalks can be less than forgiving. The Council had allotted time for 30 individuals to speak, but over 150 residents had packed into the tight quarters. Of those, only one spoke up in favor of removing the lane.

Public opinion resonated loudly, and the Council followed suit. When it came time for item 14 on the evening’s agenda, the resolution opposing the removal of the South Water St. bike lane, many of the members seated around the chambers echoed the people’s sentiments. Councilman John Goncalves of ward one, the sponsor of the resolution, said that removing the lane would be a step backward and a misuse of funding. He hearkened back to the recent past, before the lane installation, when “the city spent significant dollars in police overtime/police details mitigating concerns from the former two-way drag strip, ranging from safety and noise disturbances caused by loud music, street racing, ATVs, and altered mufflers along South Water St. The bike lanes have addressed these issues, fostering a quieter, safer waterfront for everyone and improving quality of life for ward one and Providence residents broadly.”

Installed in 2021, the bike lanes sprinkled throughout the city were the brainchild of former Mayor Jorge Elorza. The original plan had a long list of opponents including Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, nearby law firms, the Jewelry District Association, and a handful of eateries including Bacaro and Plant City. These groups have argued that they essentially lose a lane of traffic, and observe changes to parking and have less room for deliveries. Kim Anderson of Plant City has been one of the loudest critics to the bike lane that traverses the front of her restaurant. “I’m totally in favor of bikes as opposed to cars. But the reality is, our customers aren’t coming here on bikes…I’m just doing what I can to secure the future of the business.” From its inception, Sharon Steele, President of the Jewelry District Association also opposed the bike lanes and questioned Mayor Elorza’s reasoning and research behind them. “The implementation is a disaster as it always is,” she said. “When you are trying to get out of your car, you have to go out the passenger side.” According to their website, the mission of the Jewelry District Association is “to promote the development of the district, increase property values and enhance residential living.”

It’s no secret that Mayor Smiley has been out to dismantle his predecessor’s initiative since the start of his term. Former Mayor Elorza, an avid biker himself, was the architect of the Providence Great Streets Plan. The Green and Complete Streets Ordinance would build on this further. Its purpose, Elorza said at the time, was to “ensure a safe, inviting and thriving city for all of us.” At a ceremonial ribbon cutting for the lanes, he went on to say, “For too long we’ve designed our streets for cars and not for people. But what we’ve seen over the past couple of years is that we’re reversing that and changing that here in Providence.” As of this writing, Elorza could not be reached for a comment on the present situation.

It’s worth noting that nothing has been finalized, yet. Smiley has agreed to host a series of community engagement meetings throughout the summer before any plan is solidified. His eventual goal is to relocate the bike lane to the adjacent raised sidewalk, allowing for a second lane of vehicular traffic once again. Initially, when campaigning, Smiley seemed supportive of Elorza’s Great Streets project, while expressing a desire to collaborate with transportation equity, safe streets advocates, and adjacent businesses. What will happen remains to be seen, but bear in mind that ultimately Smiley does not need the Council’s consent, nor public approval to move forward with his intentions.