Set Your Own Path: Reports from the rambling Rhode Island roads

One day, some years ago, I suffered a car-induced bike crash on North Main Street in Providence, right in front of the Walgreens. I wandered bleeding into the pharmacy as the bewildered manager offered me first aid products. A little later, at the urgent care across the street, a young woman scrubbed road grit out of the open wound in the palm of my hand. Two of my finger joints were permanently damaged. I was riding North Main because it functions as a direct and efficient artery between a certain part of Pawtucket and downtown Providence. After the crash, I avoided riding on North Main unless absolutely necessary. I had learned an important lesson; as a cyclist, the direct route is often the most likely to result in injury or death. The most elegant route that you can imagine, or that Google can optimize, is often beset by hazards both structural and behavioral. It feels silly and anti-modern to forsake convenience, but being a few minutes late to work, or to that coffee date, is certainly preferable to arriving early to your own grave. 

I was quite upset at the driver who cut in front of me and caused my crash, but in reality I was undone by much larger forces. Upon reflection I understand that North Main is chock full of hazards, two of which are endemic to mobility of any kind in the state of Rhode Island – Rhodius Caesar and the Unethical Intersection.

Rhodius Caesar

The spirit of this ancient Emperor possesses motorists across Rhode Island at intersections great and small. The motorist will slow their car to a near stop, lower their window, and extend their hand in a gesture of magnanimous clemency. The Emperor has renounced His own right of way! The chosen car may turn left before Him, or emerge from that side street, or supermarket, or parking space. While Rhodius Caesar’s spirit is noble, His benedictions often manifest as curses for others at the juncture – for Caesar is merciful, but not all-seeing, and by directing traffic ad hoc, He is liable to direct His subjects into the person or path of other motorists, pedestrians and cyclists – none of whom were party to the royal agreement to suspend the prevailing traffic laws.

The Unethical Intersection

In my observation, certain Providence intersections lend themselves to dangerous, unethical driving at all times of day, no matter who is driving through them. For example, the right turn from southbound North Main onto Smithfield has its own lane. Cars using it should, in theory, observe a red light by stopping before turning right. This does not happen. Instead, there is a sort of continuous stream of slightly hesitating cars who only stop at the point of collision with the northbound left-turners (who have a green arrow) or any poor child-of-a-gun unfortunate enough to be crossing Smithfield in accordance with the walk signal. There are many intersections like this around town, and once you know the patterns, you learn how to predict, how to defend yourself, but that doesn’t quite settle the issue, because watching motorist after motorist (and maybe even yourself) fall into a structural impatience trap that skirts reasonable rules and endangers everyone is a rather sad observation on human nature, is it not?

Getting back to the day of my crash – I was on my way to Riverside Park in Providence when I bit the pavement. Imagine my starting point as Antonio’s Pizza on East Ave. What route would I take today? What route would you take? Would you trust what Google has to say?

East Ave. to Hope Street is not so bad. East Side motorists are generally considerate, and you should be pragmatic and take advantage of this. Will you shoot up Hope most of the way downtown? For one week in October 2022 this would have made perfect sense, but not anymore. The shopping-street section of Hope is mostly pacified and traffic is slow, but the roadway is hemmed in by parked cars and pedestrian pinch points, and as a cyclist you have to accommodate those crossing pedestrians, too. You do not enjoy stopping for pedestrians on your bicycle; momentum gained by muscle and sweat feels more precious than that gained by on-demand combustion. So avoid misunderstandings by taking a different route.

You will turn right from Hope onto Chace – a perfectly quiet, narrow side street. Hill climb through some speed humps then bang a left onto Top. Rarely see a car here. Zigzag onto Summit and you are approaching Miriam Hospital. Vigilance required. There are two-way stops here, which are a dicey proposition in this state, especially as motorists encounter them for the first time. They may think that because they have a stop, you must also have a stop. A certain balanced assertiveness is required, enough to demonstrate your right of way, but cautious in case the perpendicular driver should act the fool. Wiggle through this stretch and veer left to stay on Summit and you’ve got a sweet little runway ahead. Brilliant speed hump placement on Rochambeau westbound means cars will slow approaching the intersection, giving you extra time to dart in and quickly turn left onto Ivy.

During the Hope Street Temporary Trail fiasco of Fall 2022 (alluded to above), you were one of the people saying, “Well what about Ivy Street?” If its asphalt were not in tatters, Ivy would be a bike superhighway. Ivy parallels Hope, but with a gentler grade. The road is wide and sparsely trafficked and visibility at four-way stops is good. Why wage war with the NIMBY shopowners when this gem is hiding in plain sight?

When you reach Cypress, turn right, but be wary – visibility is very poor to the left. The four-way stop is a little hairy – cars charge up the hill, down the hill, others across. Assert your lane, signal your left, and you’ll be fine. The downhill on Camp is fun, but beware of Camp & Doyle – a low-level Unethical Intersection, perhaps due to the subconscious fear of rolling back down the hill, and the subconscious fun of zooming down it. Watch the one-way and the school children on your way to Olney. Take a right here and meditate on the fact that bike lanes are but paint on the roadway, flimsy suggestions that will never truly nudge anyone who is not already willing to share the road.

From Olney there is no peaceful way to get to the center of downtown. Taking North Main to Canal is a terrifying thrill ride, but is it worth all the fear? The alternatives are so tangled that in this case, yes, you must fly downhill while dodging strange burial mounds on the right, then cross a bizarre angled intersection so that you can merge weirdly from the left onto Canal.

Once on Canal, you have to get over quickly to make a right onto Smith. Then you have to get over quickly to make a left – while charging uphill. Gaspee is a little chaotic, but a slight downgrade and sweeping curve ‘round the train station give it a dramatic flair. However, the intersection with Francis between the Rhode Island State House and Providence Place Mall is an eldritch nightmare. Even going straight on green feels wrong somehow, as if the cars also have a green light to plow through you. Grit your teeth and pedal. Once on Hayes, watch out for parking garage confusion, then turn left onto the joyous descent that is Park Street.

At the bottom of the hill one could be seduced into riding on Promenade, which does indeed boast some bike infrastructure. This siren song is false. Promenade and Dean is a high-level UI, and because of a surprise left-only lane, the shabby ethics often extend to Promenade and Acorn. Harris is the one that you want, even if you have to cross like a pedestrian and ride (carefully) on the sidewalk across the car-swallowing maw of the parking garage entrance.

Even before the speed humps were installed, Harris was a breath of fresh air. Sure, the asphalt is not great, there are transverse train tracks, and the surroundings are somewhat bleak. However, the road is so wide and relatively under-trafficked that a sense of freedom pervades. Fast cars can simply swing wide around you. You have not ridden Harris much in the Farm Fresh-era, but you can’t imagine that the influx of roof rack’d urban renewalists and the addition of a bicycle collective on Sims have made the cycling any worse.

The massive intersection at Eagle, Harris and Atwells is not as horrible as it looks – the ethics here are surprisingly reasonable. There is a bit of a hairy passage from Atwells to Valley, but then there is Donigian Park. A very brief bike path winds through some truly sublime river views. Ejected into a weird alley, you turn right onto Delaine and head onto Manton. You have missed the San Souci bike path, which is short but sweet. Next time. Recent infrastructure has made Manton less of an abject deathtrap for cyclists and pedestrians, and thankfully, your exposure will be short, as the safety of Aleppo Street is a stone’s throw away.

The journey ends at Riverside Park, a majestic swath along the Woonasquatucket River that houses the Red Shed Bike Shop, community gardens, and most importantly, the start of the Woonasquatucket River Greenway Bike Path.

Does the smooth, scenic, contiguous, and car-free course of the Woony Path bear any relation to the disjointed and inefficient route you took to reach it?

Urban cycling is not a jaunt down the East Bay Bike Path. Every stretch of road is a calculation with multiple variables. I would rather zig-zag zanily between the harsh and the peaceful than endure a prolonged but straightforward compaction between parked and passing cars. Those are my tradeoffs, and Summit, Ivy, Harris and Donigian are my treasures. All the sly, little maneuvers needed to connect these dislocated causeways – these become your special glue, giving your path cohesion. There is agency in the creation of these routes – exploring all this harsh terrain and judging according to your experience whether to use the bike lane on the big road or take the side streets, whether to climb the steep hill to avoid the Unethical Intersection. And verily, Unethical Intersections will always coo sweet temptation to our demons, just as Rhodius Caesar’s reign is unending. Despite the devoted and tireless efforts of mobility advocates, a safe point-to-point ride for every rider and every destination is simply not possible.

You will have to set your own path, again and again, for every destination, and in time all of these paths will become one great weave with handsome fibers and threadbare spots and one day you will end up at a city planning meeting and discover that you have been weaving together parts of the same tapestry with many others, and some of them work at City Hall, and you will tell them, a touch shyly, about the paths you have set and they will perk up and tell you that a protected lane is coming to one of your most grueling stretches and you will wonder at your luck that several of your paths are upgraded at once, and afterward you will ride past Burnside Park downtown and see a horde of cyclists gathering in neon to take the streets and you will join them, amazed to see Caesar baffled and the UI corked, and you will crisscross your many paths, seeing each of them in new light and appreciating the care with which you have set them, recognizing that though they belong to you they also belong to everyone, and on this night at least they are wide and safe and full of cyclists, a river of human power delivering you to your destination in perfect, fluid ease.