Small Steps on a Long Path

by Liz Oakley '16
July 27, 2015

Liz is working at East Coast Greenway Alliance through the iProv summer internship program

One day during my internship at the East Coast Greenway Alliance, we spent a few hours biking around Providence: on Promenade St, around Eagle Square, along parts of the Woonasquatucket Bike Path, through Olneyville Square, down Broadway, through downtown, and east to Wickenden and India Point Park.

Over and over again, my supervisor and I stood on milk crates, pressed against Providence traffic poles, with sweat running down our backs, using a tiny wrench to bolt or unbolt a metal East Coast Greenway sign. Mostly we took down old signs. Some had been covered with stickers and tags and were illegible, so had to be replaced. Others were located in places through which the East Coast Greenway is no longer routed. Some were new, and it was exciting to figure out where to place them, and seeing what combination will best let users know they’re on the ECG.

Dealing with the signs is a fairly simple task, but the implication feels much larger. By taking down old signs, and putting up new ones, we are rerouting the East Coast Greenway. The greenway is a 2,900 mile route along which bicyclists and pedestrians can travel from Key West Florida to Calais ME. The ECG vision is to make this route off-road and completely separated from traffic. “Off-road” means anything from a separated bike lane on an urban street to rural rail trail. Currently, 30% of the route is off-road, with the rest going along low-traffic roads or bike lanes.

Signs are not the only way to find the ECG route; the most up-to-date version can be found on the interactive Trip Planner map. The section we are populating with new signs (along S Water and Point St.) has already been updated online, so we’re not rerouting. But this action is much more tangible than looking at a map. Putting up new signs along the newly paved multi-use path along Point Street, I get a little window on the ECG being built. So much of the work the Alliance does is forming long-term relationships with local partners--municipalities, state DOTs, other non-profits--and making them partial to improving bike infrastructure. Progress happens in small increments and over a considerable amount of time. A moment like this, when we can put up a new sign and affirm the presence of new infrastructure, feels special.

Biking around Providence, whether to change out signs or just to explore, has made me feel much more in tune with where I am. I don’t have a car, or even a license, so our sign expedition included more of Providence in one day than I had seen in a while. On our bikes, we were fast enough to touch many areas, but we could always stop to smell the roses and touch the rusty traffic poles along the way. By the end of that day, my vision of Providence expanded from the shortest-path-from-A-to-B outlook I usually have, to a more comprehensive appreciation for all of Providence’s neighborhoods existing at once.

But then I remembered that we had been stopping at points along the East Coast Greenway. Which is a 2,900 mile route. That is mind-boggling. My awareness suddenly shifted from the richness of Providence to so many more places along the East Coast I could go, on my bike or feet. A sentiment I’ve heard from many friends who have cars in Providence is that having a car makes them aware that they can get anywhere. That is a very special feeling, and cars are a hugely privileged mode of transportation in our society. A great amount of space and resources have been dedicated to cars, making them (in many areas and for many distances) the only viable form of transportation in America. It hasn’t always been that way. The interstate highway system, for example, is a fairly recent innovation. Imagine if the next large-scale transportation project was facilitating non-motorized travel across the country.

There are so many benefits of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure: equal access for people who cannot afford cars, the creation of people-friendly places, the potential to undo urban blight caused by highway construction, and a way reduce carbon emissions from cars. The East Coast Greenway Alliance is bringing together stakeholders throughout the country. State by state, trail by trail, even sign by sign, it is turning its vision into reality.