PORTSMOUTH — New signs recently cropped up on both sides of the Mt. Hope Bridge: “NO Pedestrians, Bicycles, Mopeds."
PORTSMOUTH/BRISTOL — New signs recently cropped up on both sides of the Mt. Hope Bridge: “NO Pedestrians, Bicycles, Mopeds."
The decree by the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) has caused some confusion among local bike advocates who thought the 90-plus-year-old span was always open to two-wheelers with pedals.
Not so, said Lori Caron Silveira, RITBA’s executive director. While the sign may be new, the rules have always been the same, she said.
“Bicycles, pedestrians and mopeds have never been permitted on the Mt. Hope Bridge, except for special events,” Silveira stated in an e-mail to The Portsmouth Times. “We recently updated our signage, but there has been no change in policy.”
That said, she’s well aware that the rules have been flouted over the years. However, the bridge in its present state is simply not safe for bicycles, Silveira said.
“Some people choose to bike over the bridge, and over the years several organizations have looked at the bridge in hopes that it could be included in a statewide bicycle system, but it is simply not safe. There is no shoulder, the roadway is uneven and the expansion joints are dangerous for bicycle tires,” she said.
Why then, some local bike advocates argue, have cyclists been given the distinct impression they’ve always been welcome on the span?
John Nery, a biking advocate from Tiverton who pedaled over the bridge daily while attending Roger Williams University in Bristol about 30 years ago, said the R.I. Department of Transportation’s (RIDOT) “Guide to Bicycling in the Ocean State” clearly shows Route 114 over the Mt. Hope Bridge as part of a bike route. (Contacted this week, RIDOT spokesman Charles St. Martin said, “RITBA is responsible for the operations and maintenance of that bridge so they would be the appropriate agency to provide comment about it or the reasons why they did it.”)
Nery also shared a Google street image of a sign on the Portsmouth side that displayed a bicycle graphic along with the text, “BIKES SHARING ROADWAY.” He said it’s from about two months ago.
“So perhaps RIDOT put up ‘bicycles welcome’ signs 30 years ago and RITBA just noticed them recently and decided to take them down,” Nery said. “The thing that bothers us most is that there was no request for comment before the policy change.”
Bari Freeman, founder and executive director of Bike Newport, which encourages and advocates for improved and safer bike routes in the local area, shared a photo of a different sign, published in the Jan. 20, 2022 Portsmouth Times and online at eastbayri.com, after heavy winds temporarily shut down the bridge. The “Share the Road” sign includes a graphic of a car and a bicyclist.
“Bikes have always been permitted on the Mt. Hope Bridge,” said Freeman, who pointed to not only the state bike map mentioned by Nery, but the R.I. State Transportation Improvement Plan 2022-2031 (STIP). The plan says one goal is to further improve the Mt. Hope Bridge’s condition to “better accommodate and improve safety for bicyclists.”
Bicycling across the Mt. Hope Bridge is also featured in the R.I. Statewide Bicycle Mobility Plan adopted in 2020, a component of Rhode Island’s Long Range Transportation Plan, all adopted by the State of Rhode Island in 2020, she added.
Freeman, who still believes RITBA could reverse course on its bridge biking ban at some point, agrees the bridge needs major upgrades in order to ensure safe cycling.
“It’s always been accessible to bikes, and it’s never been good. It’s a bad surface and it’s bad spacing. The bottom line is we need to make it safer for bikes,” she said. “The roadway is too narrow for the bicyclist to ride to the right and allow the car to pass. The car has to be courteous and careful and considerate. Sometimes you have to be patient.”
The new signs, however, can only make things worse because they will empower motorists to not be as cautious with any bikers they may encounter on the bridge, she said. “That sign should never have been put up,” said Freeman.
Daniela Abbott, a member of the Portsmouth Town Council and a biking enthusiast, said Monday she wasn’t aware of the new signs. Unlike Freeman, however, she always believed bicycles weren’t allowed on the span — even though she’s seen people pedaling over. She’s in favor of making the bridge safer so bicycles would be permitted, however.
“I think the bridge is too narrow,” Abbott said. “I think we need a solution to that, to find a way to make it so bikes can get across.”
Now that the East Bike Bike Path is getting extended to Roger Williams University, there’s even more reason to make the bridge safe for bicycle travel, although Abbott acknowledged she’s not sure how.
Nery is cynical that RITBA will reverse course on prohibiting bikes from the bridge, saying people cycling over the span will now be subject to arrest. “It is unlikely that anything presented will change minds or policy,” he said.
Freeman, however, is more upbeat.
“I have high hopes that the silver lining of this debate will be enhanced safety for bicyclists,” she said. “It’s a very important bridge to get across and you’re getting in the way of people getting to where they need to go.”