Popular East Bay Bike Path Makes Community and Work Connections
September 11, 2023
PROVIDENCE — It’s not rain, snow, or cold that keeps Tiffany Rhodes from riding her bicycle some 10 miles to work. It’s the late-afternoon darkness in January, February, and much of March that forces her off the East Bay Bike Path and into her 2017 Jeep Renegade.
Rhodes, who has been an active mountain biker for much of her life, works full-time at Johnson & Wales University. The associate professor in the Center for International Travel and Tourism Studies teaches environmental and sustainability classes at the university’s Downcity and Haborside campuses.
The Pennsylvania native who moved to Rhode Island 10 years ago has been commuting to work via the popular East Bay Bike Path for the past five years. The Barrington resident would have started earlier, but thought the bike path ended in East Providence. When she finally found her way through that tricky section of East Providence that leads to the Washington Bridge, which connects Watchemoket Square to India Point Park across the river, her commute became more relaxing and much less polluting.
“When you’re on the East Bay Bike Path, it stops right at the bottom of Veterans [Memorial] Parkway and then there’s like that weird alley road sort of thing,” she said during a recent interview outside a restaurant on Westminster Street, her first e-bike locked up a long three-pointer away. “I thought that’s where it stopped, and I was afraid to ride on the streets. But then I discovered that you only have to ride that little section and then the bike path picks up and goes across [Interstate] 195 all the way to India Point Park. And that’s when I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, like I can bike to work pretty protected like the majority of the way.’”
Rhodes noted her commute is “98% protected bike space,” including some safeguarded lanes installed by the city.
“I feel so grateful that I have protected bike space, and it’s a shame that not everybody has that,” she said.
Her Barrington home is about a mile away from the bike path, so her ride to work begins on a tree-lined residential street and then switches to another tree-lined swath of asphalt. Depending on which of her eight bicycles she chooses and which campus she’s headed to, her commute can take anywhere from 30-45 minutes each way.
It’s typically the best part of her day. Only a lack of light keeps her from enjoying it more often.
“What I found with bike commuting is that not only did I not get gas — I didn’t fill up my gas tank that entire fall term when I first started commuting — but also it was amazing,” Rhodes said. “It slows our lives that are so hectic … we all complain that our lives are so busy, and we’re just racing here and there … this is one instance in my life where I could slow it down.”
The East Bay Bike Path is one of the crown jewels of Rhode Island’s bicycle infrastructure. It stretches from the city of Providence to the town of Bristol, tracing the Providence River south as it broadens into upper Narragansett Bay. The mostly flat asphalt path traverses five municipalities, wetlands, and wooded areas, often with clear water views, making it popular with bicyclists, joggers, walkers, hand-holding couples, bold wildlife, and commuters like Rhodes and the others she sees peddling their way to work.
It extends 14.5 miles from India Point Park to Independence Park, passing through several other state and local parks and recreation areas, including Bold Point Park and Squantum Woods in East Providence, Haines Memorial State Park and Veterans Memorial Park in Barrington, Burr’s Hill Park in Warren, and Colt State Park in Bristol.
“With spectacular maritime views and an abundance of coastal wildlife, the East Bay Bike Path offers a spectacular New England experience,” according to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy website. The path was Inducted into the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame in 2009.
Plenty of reviews on the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy website sing the praises of the multiuse path. A sampling:
“Beautiful ride amazing views made me love RI again.”
“This is my favorite bike path for scenic water views! … Bring cash to buy an iced Lemon drink at Dels.”
“Rode the length and back at height of peak season at peak time of day, a Saturday evening, while trail was crowded, everyone was cooperating with rules of the road and apparently having a nice experience. This is my husband’s favorite trail, as he says, great trail, paved, scenery and an ice cream at the end, what more could you want?”
“Love everything about this bike path.”
The 10-foot-wide path connects neighborhoods and business districts. The entire path follows a route taken by trains starting in the 1850s. The rising popularity of automobiles, however, put an end to passenger service in 1937. Freight service continued until the mid-1970s. Some fragments of railroad track remain.
The out-of-service tracks could have remained as a memorial to the region’s transit and industrial past, but Bristol state Rep. Thomas Byrnes Jr., with support from Matthew Smith, the Rhode Island speaker of the House, proposed transforming the railroad into the state’s first big bike path.
In March 1980, a few years after the oil and gasoline shortage caused panic, Byrnes filed a bill that called for a study of bicycling as an alternative form of transportation and as an energy saver. The idea of the East Bay Bike Path was born.
The longtime popularity of the path gives a false impression it was a beloved idea from the beginning. It wasn’t. The lawmakers’ plan faced ferocious opposition from people who prioritized road maintenance over bicycle infrastructure and ignorant residents who claimed there would be an increase in crime, brought to their communities from urban dwellers in Providence and East Providence.
When the 50 or so people gathered on a walk organized to give them an idea about what the bike path could look like, they were met by the manager of the Squantum Association in East Providence who had German shepherds and cars designed to prevent the group from passing anywhere near the waterfront property.
A member of the East Providence club who was friends with President Reagan’s chief of staff, James A. Baker III, wrote him a letter begging the federal government to withhold money for the project.
Transit advocates, such as Byrnes, Smith, Robert Weygand, Ed Wood, and George Redman refused to be intimidated and the proposal eventually prevailed. Redman’s name and portrait is featured on the section of the bike path that crosses I-195’s Washington Bridge.
On May 22, 1986, ground was broken at Riverside Square. Construction took place from 1987-92. In 1992, the East Bay Bike Path opened.
For the past three decades, this Rhode Island biking jewel has helped reduce the state’s carbon footprint, lessened traffic congestion, and provided some much needed physical activity and mental health therapy for many.
Note: The Trek Powerfly recently bought by Tiffany Rhodes is a Class 1 e-bike with pedal-assist, which means the engine only helps propel the rider while pedaling, and the function stops when the bicycle reaches a maximum speed of 20 mph.