Consultants say ‘West’ route is the best route for Bristol biking

Engineers studying a new downtown bike route suggest using Thames, High and Ferry

By Scott Pickering, EastBayRI

The people have spoken, and the consultants agree. The best route for bikers to keep pedaling between the terminus of the East Bay Bike Path and the southern end of Bristol is along the Thames Street waterfront and historic Ferry Road, with a cut-through along a wide, scenic stretch of High Street.

After months of analyzing the various options routing bikers through downtown Bristol, the town’s hired design team is recommending a route that hugs the west side of town, staying close to the waterfront, as it weaves between Independence Park at the north, and Roger Williams University and the Mt. Hope Bridge at the south.

Arnold Robinson and a team from Fuss & O’Neill and Toole Design — engineers and urban planners hired by the Town of Bristol courtesy of a state Department of Environmental Management grant — will be making their recommendations to the Bristol Town Council next Wednesday, Nov. 18. There will be a public hearing on their proposal, and if the council endorses this plan it could push the project into the next phase of design schematics — providing detail to what is thus far a high-level concept.

Months ago, after doing preliminary rounds of research and analysis, the consultants unveiled four possible bicycle routes. Three utilized busy Metacom Avenue. Two sent bikers along quiet Griswold Avenue. Two almost completely bypassed the downtown commercial district. And all of those were factors in why those did not emerge as the favored option. But there was a reason that trumped all of the above: bikers are already using the western, water-hugging route.

“That was clearly the route that most people preferred,” Mr. Robinson said, “and one of the biggest reasons was, they already use that route.”

Because Covid thwarted some of the usual options for public input, such as face to face meetings and public hearings, the consultants turned to new options. They built a robust website that detailed the routes and invited comments. The hung posters with QR codes. They bought online ads with links to the website.

In the end, they had about 1,500 visits to the project website by about 950 distinct users, and they received 187 written comments. They also held two virtual public hearings and listened to Bristol residents give live feedback.

“It was really exciting to have that much engagement about it,” Mr. Robinson said. That was also satisfying for Bristol Director of Community Development Diane Williamson, who was thrilled with the level of public engagement.

The final result is a favored route and recommendation that all parties agree is the best option. Mr. Robinson said they heard from many bikers, as well as business owners and residents. They doubted whether biking along Metacom Avenue would ever be safe, or feel safe. They strongly recommended bringing bikers into the downtown district, not around it. And they said they already bike along High Street because it is wide, feels safe and has less traffic.

The favored route is also the least expensive to design and create. The consultants estimated project costs of between $1.5 million and $3.5 million for the four designs, and this “West Route” is the most economical.

The route itself

Mr. Robinson said their preferred route has three phases:

Beginning at the south, the route travels from the Mt. Hope Bridge, along the west side of Ferry Road, and arrives at the intersection of Hope and High streets in front of the Lobster Pot restaurant. This would most likely keep the actual roadway the same for motorists and use a wide, shared shoulder for pedestrians and bikers
The route then crosses Hope Street and moves north along High Street until it reaches either Constitution Street or Church Street (final design requires more study of which is a better option for crossing Hope Street once again). This stretch of the route would become a shared street for motorists and bikers, with off-street parking not likely to be impacted. Mr. Robinson said there would be changes along High Street with “robustly marked crossings” at the various intersections.
The final phase occurs once bikers reach Thames Street (via either Constitution or Church). Consultants have suggested this could ultimately become a “shared street,” meaning pedestrians, bikers and motorists have equal access to the roadway. Mr. Robinson said data shows these designs improve safety and vibrancy. “You actually blur the lines between where walkers, cyclists and motor vehicles go,” he said. “You might even eliminate curbing and expand sidewalks … you use striping to show when you’re in a pure pedestrian zone versus a shared street.”
However, this Thames Street “shared street” concept needs a lot more work and consideration. It is not factored into the $1.5 million estimate thus far. As considered, the base project would involve better signage, markings and safer street crossings for bikes along Thames Street; a true “shared street” would require more design and most likely more funding in another phase.

“We think Thames Street can be a really successful shared street, but it’s not a phase one concept,” Mr. Robinson said. “It would definitely come later.”

Ms. Williamson is happy the process went where it did.

“This is the route that people selected, and I support it,” she said. “It’s direct, it travels through areas where it’s very attractive, and there are already a lot of bikers riding along Thames Street and along High Street. This process really opened my eyes to the fact that there are a lot of people using these roads today, where we can make it better, and we can make it safer for them.”

What’s next

The council will get a chance to review the consultants’ recommendations next week. It can table its response, or it can endorse the plan and move it to the next phase of detailed designs. Once that’s done, the town would then work on getting the project permitted and approved, particularly at the state level, as many of the roads belong to the state.

Funding is another matter. “Our goal is to get this to the point that we have shovel-ready plans, then look for funding,” Ms. Williamson said. Sources could be state or federal grants, and that would be the town’s first choice.

Another tangent from this process is the high volume of comments from people who would like to see better east-west bike routes in Bristol — specifically, safe ways to bike, or walk, from one side of Metacom Avenue to the other. Vast populations live on the east side of Metacom Avenue and have few options to travel safely by foot or bike into the downtown district.

Both Ms. Williamson and Mr. Robinson said the feedback surprised them and stuck with them. “I’m really getting motivated to do a study of east-west routes,” Ms. Williamson said.

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