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The Central Falls Bike Route Sucks

I've been writing more about Central Falls and Pawtucket, and intended to cover this in a later post, but a reader comment came in:
"I have words about the route: East Coast Green Way showcasing the East Coast and you route it through INDUSTRIAL-PRISON (Pawtucket) [sic, Central Falls] and REFUSE COLLECTION (Woonsocket) [sic, actually Central Falls]? No one will want to visit your city!" 

This comment may be rude, but it's truthful*.   :-/

How should we judge a bike route?

*Does it take you someplace useful?
I think there should be bike access everywhere, and there are some things that a person could go to here, so for some people this might serve a purpose. But for the vast majority, this is a useless route. The river cuts off access from the eastern part of Pawtucket, and the railroad cuts off access to the rest of Central Falls. 

*Is the route easy to follow?
Looking at this on a map, it's really clear that because of what I said above in point #1, in a sense it's impossible to get lost on this route (it's all technically on High Street, a prime example of a Rhode Island Street that goes a million directions getting one name, while some other streets that are completely contiguous and straight get six). There is nowhere useful to branch off to, so where could you get lost? At the same time, for a new person on this route, or even someone who's taken a few times, the constant bends back and forth are disorienting. Imagine this from the perspective of a visitor: do you want to give this route your trust? The answer is no.

Does this route keep you safe from cars?
This route meets a very minimal standard of safety from cars. As we've pointed out in other posts, the literal chances that a person will be injured by a car on a bike are very small, although larger than the per capita chances that a person will be harmed while in a car. Nonetheless, this route does not create an environment where an unenthusiastic cyclist would feel protected from cars. Much of the route has sharrows on lanes that are too wide to slow traffic to 15 mph. Other points have non-separated painted bike lanes. Meh.

In addition, the section of Broad Street entering Valley Falls, where this route intersects with the bike path, is extremely hard to get across. When we consider the types of riders who ride bikes only on "Dutch style" facilities, i.e., those who ride on the bike path, this intersection does nothing to give a sense of safety from cars. From the perspective even of a more daring cyclist like myself, this route does very little too. 

Does this route give you a sense of social safety?
In other words, would you ride this at night? Or would you fear that someone might mug you? This route goes past a razor-wired prison complex, which does not breed a sense of social safety. Its isolation (see point #1) from more active places in Central Falls also means that at night, it's going to feel isolated. And while there are some nice points along this route (Chocolate Falls stand out), much of this northern stretch is ugly. 

What would a more sensible route be?
I'm of the opinion that especially in Central Falls, which is 1.3 miles square and around 20,000/square mile in population density, it makes sense to invest in protected bike lanes on all major avenues. However, if I was to choose the first place to put such an investment, Broad Street would be it.

Broad Street passes each of these tests:

*Useful? It's the heart of town, and also comes directly into Pawtucket's downtown. Bringing bicyclists here makes sense. They can stop and buy things, instead of being shunted away like an after-thought (I also think Dexter Street should get a protected bike lane, but its entrance into Pawtucket is a lot hairier than Broad Street's, so I think that route should come later, with funding. The Broad St. route could be done with plastic bollards or planters).
*Easy to follow? With appropriate planning in Pawtucket's downtown, one-ways can be narrowed to allow for two-way protected bike lanes (the Pawtucket Foundation calls for streets to be turned back to two-direction traffic, but I would favor an approach more like Pittsburgh's State Street, where two-way traffic was prioritized for bikes, with only one-way access for cars). Broad Street is a very straight, direct route, and is where the bike path entrance comes off of.
*Car safety? With adequate protected bike lanes in the parking lanes, Broad Street is a perfect fit.
*Social safety? Eyes on the street make this a great route. Broad Street is beautiful and active.

Mayor Diossa and his planning department have been aware of the need to address this since May. I initially felt sure that Central Falls was going to take a non-bureaucratic approach to this problem and fix it right away, but have since become convinced that it's been pushed to the back burner. It's time for Central Falls to step up and fix this. I wanted to work behind the scenes to try to improve CF, but I don't feel like anything is going to get done without a little tough love.


*Being from Pennsylvania as I am originally, I am aware that prisoners in that state are sometimes taken very far from their (often urban) homes and put into prisons hundreds of miles from where they live in the boonies of Pennsyltucky, where it's hard for anyone to visit them. The jail in question is actually not a "prison" but something more like a holding cell (Cranston has the only prison facility in the state), and in any case, Rhode Island doesn't have any locations that are hundreds of miles away. But I don't want anyone to think I'm unaware/unempathetic to the need to have safe routes to a jail facility. That said, this should not be the showcased route for the "East Coast Greenway". This is clearly the backside of the city of Central Falls, and it shouldn't be where people go when they're not trying to access that area intentionally.


  1. The current designated path for East Coast Greenway is likely a simple derivation of the on-road route followed by the Blackstone Valley path. I wasn't around when the old Greenways Alliance and ECGA Trail Council would have designated and approved this, but my guess is that 1) colocating along an existing route is preferrd and 2) given the tradeoffs of riding on a low-traffic stress street on a suboptimal route or on a busy street with lots of lights, the low-traffic stress won out. Having gone both ways, if I'm riding for transportation and a time constraint, I'll use Broad, if I'm out for a pleasure ride, I'll use the path route to get away from traffic. I'd argue the zig-zagging through the neighborhood on the cumberland side is worse than following the convoluted route of high st.

    I'd also argue that the intersection of Broad/Exchange in Pawtucket is not a great experience on a bicycle. Too much pavement, complicated traffic movements, non-rectilinear layout.

    If both CF and Pawtucket were to somehow get traffic calming and improve the experience of Broad Street, I'd be willing to recommend to the Rhode Island ECG Committed (RIBIKE) and the ECGA trail committee that the route be changed. As it stands now, I think its an okay compromise.

    You could add the Woonsocket routing of the Blackstone path as well. It's doesn't show off the nice parts of downtown Woonsocket and routes past some boarded up industrial buildings and other industrial facilities.

    Being from PA and the abundance of rail to trail conversions there, I feel like seeing sewage treatment, industrial buildings and other less than pastoral scenery is part and parcel of the pattern of development of bike paths along old rail corridors.

  2. Low expectations breed shitty results. No pun intended on the waste treatment plant.

    Broad is not a good road to ride on necessarily as is, but it would be easy to make it that way. It would not cost a lot, and it would not take a lot of work. A handful of ordinary people with a few hundred bucks went ahead at night and put some plastic bollards in the street in Seattle. They said it took them ten minutes to do, and they used the kind of power drill that a lot of us have in our closets. Changing Broad over would be a somewhat longer route than the short underpass that the Seattle people changed, but we're talking about a one-mile stretch. Not a lot of money. And as you know since you've been at the meetings when I've talked about this, I've told CF that the RI Bike Coalition would be more than willing to get together and try to fundraise for costs if needed. The cost of doing this is minimal.

    Biking won't become something people (other than a handful of enthusiastic hobbyists) do until we treat it seriously. The apparent attitude among some advocates that we can let something like this slide as a compromise is why Rhode Island continues to falter.

    This morning I passed a gaggle of men in reflective vests looking at a street signal on Cross Street & High Street. It's been on blinking red for a week or so, making the intersection actually much safer and more convenient. The men were talking about signal timings, so I presume they're going to fix the signal, or maybe even replace it. A signal costs $100,000 to put in, and $1,000 a year to operate, and who knows how much money to service when broken. If CF and other Rhode Island towns opened their eyes and saw that expensive things that that aren't needed, they'd have the money for improvements to Broad.