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Mayor Smiley faces backlash for South Water Street bike lane removal plan

City Council passes resolution opposing mitigation proposal citing safety, cost, business concerns

The City Council received 294 letters opposing the bike lane closure proposal, Councilman John Goncalves confirmed. They only received one letter supporting the Mayor’s decision.
The City Council received 294 letters opposing the bike lane closure proposal, Councilman John Goncalves confirmed. They only received one letter supporting the Mayor’s decision.

Since March, the city has considered temporarily closing the South Water Street bike lane to alleviate traffic congestion from the Washington Bridge closure. On April 3, the City formally unveiled the bike lane removal proposal alongside other traffic mitigation plans.

The bike lane, located near the Providence Pedestrian Bridge, opened in October 2021 as a segment of Providence’s Great Streets Initiative. Since the Washington Bridge closed in December 2023, “drivers are often opting to leave the state highways to travel along city streets,” according to a press release.

“The city has been listening to feedback from neighbors and local businesses about the impact the Washington Bridge closure has had on our community, particularly involving the dramatic increase in traffic on our local roads,” wrote city spokesperson Josh Estrella in an email to The Herald. “By removing the two-way protected bike path along South Water Street, we are opening up that road to two lanes of travel which will significantly improve traffic congestion in this area.”

Local leaders, community members object


The proposal has faced backlash from community members and organizations. On April 4, the voting City Council Members passed a resolution introduced by Councilman John Goncalves (Ward 1) opposing Smiley’s proposal. 

According to Councilwoman Rachel Miller, the City Council received 294 letters opposing the closure proposal. Only one received letter supported Smiley’s decision.

“I have profound concerns about the potential removal of the bike lanes on South Water Street,” Goncalves said. “Removing the bike lanes would be completely backward in terms of positive quality of life.” 

In his resolution, Goncalves cited the bike lane’s contributions to increased safety. Fatalities, total crashes and injuries have decreased since the installation of the South Water Street bike lane and other two-way protected bike lanes, the resolution asserts.

“If streets are narrow, you’re going to drive slower,” said Dylan Giles, an organizer with the Providence Streets Coalition, a collective of locals advocating for more transportation safety and accessibility. Slower speeds reduce the likelihood of pedestrian and cycling accidents and promote traffic safety, he added.

Estrella emphasized that the city plans to “develop an enhanced urban trail adjacent to the current bike lane and will soon be installing pedestrian safety infrastructure, including a raised crosswalk.” Estrella added that the plans are not finalized and that community feedback will be considered.

Katrina Demulling, owner of Unpredictable Finds and other small businesses in the downtown area, said that Smiley’s proposal prompted her to look into federal guidelines on bikeway selection. Citing these guidelines, she argued that sharing the sidewalk with bikes and pedestrians “only makes sense when both walking and biking volumes are relatively low.”

The city has estimated that the bike lane removal and raised crosswalk construction will cost $750,000. “Is it worth it?” asked Tyler Justin, owner of Mission Electric Bikes. “I don’t feel like we’re solving a problem.”

Stakeholders hesitant about effectiveness of mitigation plan

Giles expressed doubts that adding a second car lane back to South Water Street would mitigate traffic. “All of those cars are going to have to go down to one lane anyways to get onto the highway,” he said. 


Justin expressed a similar sentiment and said he would like to see more data from the city about exactly how the bike lane removal would improve traffic issues. 

Estrella did not provide specific information about how the removal would improve traffic times. But he pointed to studies that addressed general concerns with the original bike lane construction plan in 2021. He highlighted the Rhode Island Department of Transportation traffic count data and a Fuss & O’Neill study commissioned by the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission. 

‘Ill-conceived from the get-go’

Smiley has described the bike lane as “ill conceived from the get-go.” Several local businesses, the Rhode Island School of Design and the University signed onto a letter opposing the bike lane’s construction when it was initially proposed.

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“We supported a bicycle lane on South Water Street,” said University Spokesperson Brian Clark in an email to The Herald. “What we did oppose was the design of the bike lane, which we believed created a safety risk.” Clark explained that the design forces large trucks to obstruct traffic during deliveries, triggering other vehicles to make a ninety-degree turn with limited visibility, increasing traffic concerns.

As for Smiley’s current plan, “Brown has not been directly involved in conversations with the city,” Clark wrote. “We continue to support the need for bicycle lanes along South Water Street.” 

Plant City, one of the businesses that initially opposed the bike lane design, declined to comment on the mayor’s proposal. Several other business owners have voiced support for the bike lanes and opposition to Smiley’s plan.

Demulling wants “to capture as much potential business as possible, which includes drawing in those who can bike.” For her, the bike lane drew in additional customers that traveled by bike or by walking, opening up parking space for customers traveling by car.

A bike-forward ecosystem

Some advocates suggested that increasing the presence of bike lanes and encouraging people to bike their commutes would be beneficial in alleviating congestion from the Washington Bridge closure.

“I am required to drive for work, and I hate traffic as much as anyone else,” Tim Jewett, a member of the Providence Streets Coalition, wrote in an email to The Herald. “The only way to reduce vehicular congestion is to provide alternative methods of transportation.”

“The vast majority of people driving during commute times are a single occupant in their car,” Giles said. If a fraction of those people switched to biking to commute, Giles argued, that could help improve traffic flow. 

Sam Archer, an East Providence resident, has been biking for his commute since long before the Washington Bridge closure. He moved to Rhode Island from Boston in July and chose his home in part because it was at “the meeting of two bike paths.” Archer bikes into Providence — often traveling via South Water Street or Main Street — and then takes the train to his job in Boston. 

He described the South Water Street path as “safer” than other streets and a route that he feels more comfortable bringing his 12-year-old son to. 

Archer, Justin and Jewett all cited walkability and bikeability as reasons they moved to the Providence area. Justin moved to Providence seven years ago and said that, generally, “it’s been getting much more bike-friendly” since then. 

While bike lane advocates said the City Council’s opposing resolution to Smiley’s proposal showed widespread public support for the bike lanes, the resolution was non-binding. As of now, Smiley still plans to move forward with the removal.

The mayor hosted a community meeting on April 8 about the impact of the Washington Bridge closure, where several more bike lane advocates attended to share their opposition to the plan. 

“The goal of the community meeting was to hear directly from the community about the impacts that the Washington Bridge closure has had,” Estrella wrote. “There will be ongoing engagement around the design of a future bike lane.”

Ciara Meyer

Ciara Meyer is a Senior Staff Writer covering the Beyond Brown beat. She is from Saratoga Springs, New York and plans on concentrating in Statistics and English nonfiction. In her free time, she loves scrapbooking and building lego flowers.

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