Hope Street’s bike trail trial

Promotional illustration for the Hope Street Urban Trail. (Providence Streets Coalition)

For a week concluding tomorrow, Hope Street between Olney and Lauriston, that is, from Tortilla Flats to the Frog & Toad, has participated in a temporary “urban trail” experiment to see how the street and its denizens feel about an official bike path being laid down, regulating what has always been a free-form personal transportation alternative – much like our personal motor cars but to a more limited extent.

Thus far it seems not to be going down all that well.

Businesses dislike losing parking spaces. All are eliminated on the east side of the street. Drivers pushed by the trial’s parking ban to spots on side streets no doubt irk the residents on those streets. Cyclists may not like how narrow the bike lanes are. The bike path has two lanes with yellow plastic bollards marking it off from the street, with occasional bollards marking the two bike travel lanes, which are also painted. Green stripes warn bikers of cross streets, and the lanes probably strengthen the feeling that traffic signals must be obeyed, whatever the normal attitude may be. Bikers traveling north must watch for sewer grates that reach midway into their lane. Occasional bus-stop risers and other obstructions also make the ride bumpier and the bollards allow less maneuvering room to avoid obstacles. Is it fair to wonder whether raised “speed” bumps might be planned for the future, if the temporary bike path becomes permanent? Who knows what “add-ons” a permanent bike path on Hope might inspire.

A resident of Hope Village, near the stretch of shops and restaurants between Rochambeau Avenue and Fourth Street, wrote a day or two ago on Nextdoor, an online site for neighborhood news, that, in regard to this experiment, “Hope St is booming tonight! Restaurants full. The sky hasn’t fallen. As Aaron Rogers says R-E-L-A-X. No one is coming for the cars.”

That may place too much credit on the bike path, ignoring the dulcet weather of the past few days. Balancing that remark, also from Hope Village, is this one: the lanes are “too narrow. And they want pedestrians to share it? No goody. … The number of people who will switch from cars to bikes because of this ill-conceived path is minuscule.

It is difficult, at this point, to judge the feelings aroused by this experiment. No doubt an official summary of expressed opinion will be released by its sponsors, including those beneath the pleasing promotional illustration atop this post.

Someone mentioned that bike paths increase riders’ safety by some 30 percent. Maybe that is so, but it is likely that safety is not the purpose of this bike path or of the system of paths growing like kudzu across Rhode Island and elsewhere.

It is, rather, as the second commenter suggested, that bicycling is indeed seen as a strategy for getting more cars off streets to reduce the carbon footprint. Or at least one of many strategies designed to help us imagine that a “transition” is indeed taking place from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

A bicycle, however, may be rightly perceived as an instrument of freedom akin to the way cars have been for more than a century. But that is no longer convenient. In order to change social behavior – such as moving people from gas-guzzling cars to bicycles – bureaucrats often assume society must reverse its conventional practices. People must be enabled, if not coerced, into preferring an officially sanctioned behavior, such as using bike paths instead of free-range pedaling along neighborhood streets. Users of bike paths give some people a manufactured sense of “doing the right thing,” and others a feeling of being able to look down their nose at people in automobiles, who can be disagreeably enviable.

But enough armchair psychology. A massive switch to the use of bicycles for commuting won’t shrink America’s carbon footprint by any significant degree.

Instead, bicycling is good because it is fun. I used to bike for that reason years ago. Cyclists who commute from the East Side to downtown (or between any two other points) will probably have more fun and be safer if they avoid Hope Street, or other major thoroughfares, and instead use the networks of streets through which major avenues like Hope pass. For example, Lorimer Street and Morris Avenue parallel Hope to the east and form an easy way between several blocks north of Lauriston to a block south of Olney. The traffic is very light, and at times virtually nonexistent. Then you can bike through College Hill along any number of historical and beautiful streets, then head into downtown on College Street. You can pay more attention to the delights of a neighborhood – squirrels, birds, dogwalkers, pretty girls, etc. – and not have to keep your eyes quite as well peeled on potential dangers.

I can’t quite figure out whether the Hope Street trail trial is meant to grease the skids for a permanent bike path, demonstrating a fake concern for the opinion of Hope Street merchants and residents. Or whether it is designed to show such a concern for the opposite reason, with the possibility of a permanent bike path on Hope already considered a nonstarter by local authorities, who no doubt feel they have already done their part in the fight for the Green New Deal. No city money has been budgeted for a permanent Hope Street bike path, it is said, but these days federal dollars will always be knocking on the door.

Either way, it’s nice that the opinion of we lowly citizens has been solicited on this very important issue.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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8 Responses to Hope Street’s bike trail trial

  1. The two are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, bike paths shift drivers to bicycling and reduce carbon footprint BECAUSE they make bicycling safer.

    There is no illustration, but this sounds to me like a protected bike lane, not a bike path. Try google to learn about the different types of bicycle facilities: bike routes, bike lanes, protected bike lanes, bike paths, and bike boulevards.

    Someone mentioned that bike paths increase riders’ safety by some 30 percent. Maybe that is so, but it is likely that safety is not the purpose of this bike path or of the system of paths growing like kudzu across Rhode Island and elsewhere. It is, rather, as the second commenter suggested, that bicycling is indeed seen as a strategy for getting more cars off streets to reduce the carbon footprint.

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    • Yes, Charles, “bike lane” may be the most appropriate phrase. But the effect of bike lanes and bike paths in promoting bike use for commuting is probably negligible as a means to reducing the carbon footprint in an environment that cannot be changed by mankind’s changes in behavior. Safety is not the point. And bicycling reduces the carbon footprint negligibly. So the two ideas may not be mutually exclusive, but they are effectively useless separately or in combination, as a step toward climate mitigation.

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      • charlesnsiegel says:

        I think “protected bike lane” is most appropriate, not bike lane — but I can’t tell for sure since you use imprecise terms.

        I am puzzled by these comments:

        ” Safety is not the point”  Do you mean you don’t care if people are injured or killed?

        ” an environment that cannot be changed by mankind’s changes in behavior.” For the last 800,000 years, before the industrial revolution, CO2 concentration varied from a  low of 180 ppm during ice ages to 290 ppm during warm interglacial periods — a difference of 110 ppm. Now, concentrations are 420 ppm — 130 ppm greater than the highest concentrations of the last 800,000 years before the industrial revolution. The change has come primarily because of burning fossil fuels and deforestation.  There has been a big change because of human behavior. If you want to learn the basic science of global warming, I would be glad to send you my book on the subject https://www.amazon.com/ABCs-Global-Warming-Everyone-Solutions/dp/1941667198

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        • Don’t be daft, Charles. I am not against safety or pro-death. Obviously, I meant safety is not the point, that climate is the point And I do not keep before my eyes a chart with the officially approved names of bike path types. And given the impossibility of developing the batteries that are needed to solve the intermittency problem attending windmills and solar panels, I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on issues of climate – most “solutions” to which would, even if they were sensible, weigh heavily on the poor. What about equity!

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          • charlesnsiegel says:

            David: I am sorry to be adamant about this, but I have spent lots of time working for safe bike lanes. In fact, just last Tuesday, I stayed until 11 PM at a meeting to support a new protected bike lane.

            It makes no sense to say “I am not against safety or pro-death. Obviously, I meant safety is not the point,” If the lanes are not built, there will be more collisions that cause injury and death, so opposing protected bike lanes is anti-safety. Not building them keeps the streets unsafe, regardless of whether their opponents are thinking about safety.

            In fact, if you look at the data supporting protected bike lanes, you will find that safety is a central point they deal with. Safety is also a key point that supporters of protected bike lanes emphasize.

            I don’t have a chart of bike facility names either.  I have spent enough time learning about the issue that I know the right names to use without needing a chart.

            DB’s reply to Charles’s latest: I am not against bike lanes per se, but I think you are wrong that bikers will be safer because of the Hope Street bike lane. I think they would be safer on the side streets parallel to Hope, which are not busy at all, because almost all cars drive on that stretch of Hope, leaving the parallel side streets largely free of cars altogether. It is not perfectly safe, but I think it is probably much safer than Hope street with or without a bike lane. Of course, my point is that the bike lane is not primarily meant for safety but for climate policy, which I think is a mistake if it causes people to endanger themselves by thinking that a bike lane on Hope is safer than the streets parallel to Hope.

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  2. LazyReader says:

    To fix this, the standard approach – the orthodoxy – is to engage in displacement activity. Buses are stuck in congestion? Don’t fix the congestion, put in a bus lane. Bicycles get run over, because the speed limit is too high? Don’t fix the speed limit, put in a bicycle lane…..helmet only protects your head, to say nothing if your guts.

    the European Union — is going to require all cars to be speed limited by 2022. So whether you buy a four cylinder economy car or a 550 horsepower Ferrai; makes no difference anymore, they go he same speed limit on city streets. Where as in the U.S. we’re going to pay 500,000 police or whatever, to badly, randomly enforce it? At 50,000 times the public expense and 5% of the effectiveness. We should ask ourselves why.

    Bikes, are mainly a political ploy to make elected officials look hip and build up support from the few people and companies that truly benefit from the programs. Cities that are truly interested in cycling should do things like maintain the streets (cyclists find rough pavement far more annoying than auto users), make traffic signals responsive to cyclists, and provide safe bicycle boulevards parallel to major arterials. Buttichug or whatever, secretary Transportation wanted to show bikes awesome…then biked one block for press and got picked up by Government SUV which papparazi caught him doing… then at height of the pandemic , that token fairy was gone for months while the supply chain collapsed…

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    • LazyReader says:

      Traffic fatalities between 2007 and 2019 declined by 13 percent, but bicycle fatalities increased by 21 percent.

      Was the proliferation of more bikers by 21% …. hardly. Reports found that two-thirds of bicycle-motor vehicle crashes that injure the cyclist take place at intersections. Most bike lanes disappear at intersections and so do little to prevent such accidents.

      What report omits was nearly two thirds take place at night…..keeping cyclists visible may be as important as giving them dedicated lanes.In short, helmets, better lighting, and bicycle boulevards may do more for cycling safety than road diets and complete streets. …. As well as camera enforcement outside exterior of businesses..

      Segregated cycling lanes save lives they save you money……

      Instead of those floppy knockover bollards you can run over, decorative SOLID bollards every 20 feet implanted in roadway are better….yes they are more expensive but their solidarity deters vehicle interlopers from skidding near lanes….

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  3. Anonymous says:

    You were restrained! 😉 And, as you said at the end, it’s important to follow the money here. With all the equity filters, also notable are the quality and expense of the bikes most often seen during this “trial” – one person said there wasn’t a bike under $3k around – plus all the neon outfits, lights, accessories… $100K budget raised for a 1-week trial.

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