A winding row of white stanchions. A blocky biker figure painted into the asphalt. Some new white divider lines. And that’s about it.
The new bike lane on South Water Street looks innocuous enough. You may not notice it while strolling along the Providence River. Even so, the transportation adjustment prompted months of back-and-forth media coverage, caustic communiqués, and ire from prominent Providence institutions. The battle over the South Water Street Trail encapsulates important truths about contemporary environmentalist politics, Providence-Rhode Island relations, and the role of transportation in our lives.
The story begins in January 2020, when the Providence Great Streets Initiative announced plans for a bike lane on South Water Street. More than 20 public meetings, thousands of mailers and emails, and three project iterations later, Providence’s Department of Planning and Development began construction on the South Water Street Trail in August 2021.
After the construction process had begun, a group of local businesses and university spokespeople marshalled an eleventh-hour stand against the project. Organized by Jewelry District Association president Sharon Steele (who did not respond to a request for comment), the group included Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, Plant City, Hemenway’s Restaurant, and several other businesses located along South Water Street.
In an October 1st, 2021 letter to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT), the stakeholders disputed the city’s analysis of traffic levels in the area and urged the state to intervene. The new analysis provided a “different, and foreboding story,” they wrote.
Although presenting as a unified front, the coalition that opposed the bike lane comprised various agendas. Brown University and Hemenway’s Restaurant (located in the 121 South Water Street building, which Brown owns) were concerned primarily with a juncture at the thoroughfare’s north end—the curve leading off of the Crawford Bridge. Under the previous two-lane structure, delivery trucks would pull into the loading dock behind 121 South Water Street while cars passed around them in the other lane. Now, Brown contends, the one-lane street poses a danger for these trucks, cars, and cyclists alike.
“How do I put this in an accurate way… They didn’t understand the volume of vehicles and diversity of vehicles that deliver to that delivery dock,” Albert Dahlberg, Brown’s Assistant Vice President of the Office of Government & Community Relations, said in a recent interview with the Brown Political Review.
The other local businesses do not use this delivery dock. These establishments appeared worried about losing customers as driving becomes less convenient, three urban infrastructure experts told the Review—a belief that is as unfounded as it is pervasive.
“Owners tend to think people drive and park, while [the] actual ways people access businesses are much more diverse,” said Teo Wickland, a postdoctoral fellow in Urban Studies at Brown University who wrote his master’s thesis on a similar situation.
Kurt Teichert, an Environmental Studies professor at Brown, agreed. “They think, people come to my business in cars and need to park cars to come to my business,” he said.
“These groups are opposed to bicycle infrastructure because they see it—in what we see as a shortsighted manner—as detrimental to business,” said Samuel Zipp, the director of Brown’s Urban Studies program. In fact, “businesses are only going to be benefitting” from the addition of the bike trail, he said.
Businesses often oppose sustainable infrastructure projects because they fear large-scale change, especially in these economically trying times, the professors said. “But studies have continually shown that in cities that have made investments in bicycle infrastructure… the values of properties only increases, because now you have people in many modes [of transportation] able to access those businesses,” Wickland said.
On October 6th, five days after the initial letter, RIDOT formally backed the signatories and asked Providence to stop construction on the trail. The already-begun bike lane looked to be in jeopardy.
RIDOT said it had turned the issue over to the Federal Highway Administration for review, but that if the city did not halt construction in the interim, it may end up owing the state $4.4 million. In response, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza refused to stop construction, leading to legal threats and various bouts of political grandstanding. Ultimately, the FHWA decided not to take action.
“It would seem that taking a major connector road that is part of the U.S. highway system and cutting it down to one lane is not the best course of action,” the head of RIDOT, Peter Alviti, said in a statement, which a spokesperson pointed to in response to a request for comment for this article. “However, if the FHWA has no interest in getting involved, we have no choice but to let the construction stand.”
RIDOT’s resistance to the bike lane was both perplexing and predictable: perplexing due to its abrupt reversals, but predictable because it followed the department’s longstanding antipathy toward multimodal transportation initiatives. In July 2021, the department told GoLocalProv it was “aware of” the project and “[had] no issue with it.” After receiving the stakeholders’ letter, however, RIDOT changed its tune. According to the department’s new stance, the South Water Street project breached a 1999 contract between the city and the state. The contractual agreement in question, officially named RI Contract 9910, dictates that the South Water Street area “may be used for other than transportation purposes only with the approval of the State.”
What category the bike lane project would fall under, if not transportation, is unclear. But this kerfuffle is only the latest example of an ongoing philosophical clash between RIDOT and Providence. It’s “not a congenial working relationship,” according to Teichert. Alviti “does not acknowledge that walking, biking, wheelchair are forms of transportation,” Teichert said. “He wakes up and goes to sleep thinking about how he can make more cars go through Rhode Island.”
Urban Studies experts from Brown University who spoke with the Review took issue with the October 1st stakeholder letter.
Rather than presenting new dangers, they said, the bike lane has made the area safer. “Before, it was a 40mph race track for people racing to get on the highway,” Teichert said. There are “much safer crossings now.”
What’s more, “the focus on vehicle volumes is a distraction, because that’s not the focus of the project,” Wickland said. The point of bike lanes like the South Water Street Trail, he explained, is not to accommodate existing traffic levels but to encourage other modes of transportation that are more sustainable and accessible. “Traffic creates itself—it’s the concept of induced demand,” Zipp explained.
Wickland was also skeptical of the alternative analysis cited in the stakeholder’s letter. “To the extent that engineering analyses have historically erred, they tend to overestimate automobile capacity that is required,” he said.
In all likelihood, this cause célèbre is about more than the South Water Street trail.
“Bike lanes in particular get mobilized as part of a kind of culture war between these two political cultures: localist, protective interests, protecting property values or automobiles—and this other kind of political culture based around walkable and sustainable modes of transportation,” Zipp said. It’s also telling that the stakeholder letter was spearheaded by the Jewelry District Association, “even though the South Water Trail goes nowhere near the Jewelry District,” he added.
“Often in this context there’s misinformation or fear about changes a bike lane is going to bring,” said Wickland. “Businesses have a disproportionate idea of how many people arrive by cars.” As a result, they advocate “making people wait for cars that aren’t even there.”
On October 28th, a multidisciplinary collection of Brown professors sent the University a letter objecting to Brown’s signing of the opposition missive. “The university has committed itself to making campus and the wider community more equitable, accessible, and sustainable. Undermining the South Water Street Trail risks undermining those commitments. We request that Brown make its support for the South Water Street Trail and its traffic-calming improvements clear and publically [sic] known,” the letter read.
Almost a month later, on November 23rd, Brown sent a letter to Bonnie Nickerson, Providence’s Director of Planning and Development, in which they responded indirectly to the professors’ letter. The University affirmed their commitment to the bike lane and sustainable infrastructure in general, but repeated some of the arguments from the original stakeholders’ letter.
In a subsequent interview with the Review, Dahlberg stressed the University’s concern with various elements of the project, particularly a perceived lack of communication before construction.
“There was a lot of opportunity to engage with us and some of the other stakeholders, and it seemed like there was a limited interest in doing so, particularly around the safety issues,” he said. He also described “surprise” on the part of local businesses that the “request for proposal and the contract were signed before resolution of parking issues.”
Even so, the University is not advocating for the bike lane’s removal. “Leave it as it is,” Dahlberg said. “If there’s a way we could move the curb, or figure out a design that avoided travel through the bike lane, that would be preferable. I don’t have any answers at my fingertips.”
Criticisms of the city’s communication efforts were certainly overblown. In a statement on October 12th, Councilman John Goncalves, who represents the area that contains the bike path, detailed the many opportunities for feedback that he and the city organized over the past two years.
Nevertheless, the city could consider doing more to inform the public in the future. “One of the challenges has been that many business owners think there’s been too narrow of a window” of feedback for implementation, Teichert said. This “piecemeal approach has to happen because of the nature of contracts,” he added, “but the time it takes has led to uncertainty and confusion.”
For Teichert, Elorza’s defiance of the RIDOT order was an example of Providence “defending the right of people in the city to move safely.”
Influential Providence institutions have a responsibility to facilitate the construction of sustainable infrastructure in the city, not stand against it. In many ways, the South Water Street Trail is more than just a bike lane: it represents a successful push for transformative change against powerful hidebound interests.
Ultimately, even if the bike lane ends up causing more problems than solutions, “it’s worth trying to see how we can alter the terms of transportation and terms of mobility around the central part of the city,” Zipp said. “To see if it doesn’t help Providence transform itself for the future.”