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League Birthplace Becomes a BFC

Newport, R.I., has “returned to its roots” as a hub for bicycling.  The birthplace of the League back in the late 1800s, Newport was named a Bronze-level Bicycle Friendly Community yesterday. Newport is also now the first BFC in Rhode Island, growing the network of BFCs to 48 states.

“No question our ‘City By The Sea’ is best enjoyed and appreciated up close and personal – out of the car and into the saddle!” said Bari George, Executive Director of Bike Newport. “Thanks to the dedicated collaboration of the city’s stakeholders, and the blessing of our City Council, we’re on the road to ‘more and better’ bicycling. It’s an exciting ride –- and we’ve only just begun. We could not be more proud to see the birthplace of the League joining the Bicycle Friendly America movement.”  

Because Newport holds such a special place in our history, we decided to look back at Bike Newport’s quest for the BFC designation. The story, written by Stephen Miller, appeared in our March/April issue of American Bicyclist. Congratulations to Newport!


Stepping up to History

The birthplace of the League aims to become Rhode Island’s first BFC

After moving to Newport, Rhode Island, in 2009, Bari George quickly found that this historic coastal city, at the tip of an island about the same length as Manhattan, also has enough summer traffic to rival the Big Apple. While tourists clogged the streets, she discovered bicycling as the easiest way to get around. Looking for a job in her field of non-profit communications during the recession, George began riding her bike to community meetings to get to know her new hometown.

“I was just sitting in the back of the room and knitting,” she said. But the wheels of bicycle advocacy had started churning. Within a year, that knitting turned into action. That action turned into Bike Newport. And Bike Newport is now leading the way to make the coastal city the state’s first Bicycle Friendly Community.

For Newport, becoming a BFC has special meaning. For this Rhode Island community, bicycle advocacy is a return to its roots. The national bicycle advocacy movement was born here, with the first meeting of the League of American Wheelmen in May 1880. At that inaugural gathering, founder Charles Pratt rallied the ranks of an organization that, more than 100 years later, would create the Bicycle Friendly America program.

“We are banded together for promoting good wheelmanship, for defending the rights of American wheelmen, and for the encouragement of touring,” Pratt said. “We are entitled to the privilege of riding in the parks or public highways of the United States as much as the owners of other carriages, and we will not rest until we and our brother wheelmen have the freedom of travel on our choice of wheels anywhere from Penobscot Bay to the Golden Gate.”

When George started traveling on two wheels, there was no hub of local advocacy. Although local leaders were aware that the city needed to become more bike-friendly, there was no coordinated effort — so George connected with others already working on the issue. Tina Dolen, at the island’s planning commission, was putting together a bike path proposal. Steve Heath and his students at a high school in the city’s north end were creating a bike repair and riding curriculum. Deanna Casey, from AARP, worked for Newport’s city council to be the first to support a statewide Complete Streets bill. Along with others from all over the city — historic preservationists, hospital administrators and everyday bike riders — they came together in 2010 to form Bike Newport.

The city has already taken many small steps on the road to becoming a Bicycle Friendly Community. In May 2011, Bike Newport organized the city’s first Bike to Work Day, promoting the event with posters featuring well-known locals on bikes. After months of preparation, it launched with a bang by revealing the results of a survey of the city’s public school students, announcing a project to partner with local businesses to install bike racks and handing out copies of the city’s first bike map.

Later, Bike Newport built bike racks for jazz, folk and sailing festivals held at a historic fort a few miles from town — and painted temporary road markings to guide the way. “Every day it kept increasing,” George said, with volunteers counting up to 600 bikes per day. “It was like Copenhagen, with bicycles all over the place.”

As Bike Newport was making big strides, the sudden deaths of two experienced bicyclists shook the community and scared many away from riding. In response, Bike Newport trained 12 new League Cycling Instructors and began offering free classes to all island residents. “What this really is about is teaching motorists and cyclists what it means to share the road,” George said. These efforts were rewarded with a challenge grant from a local foundation to support the organization as it became a non-profit, with George as its full-time staffer.

Despite its fast progress, Bike Newport is just getting started. A major goal is to build a bike path parallel to a tourist railroad running up the island’s scenic western shore. In addition to being a tourist draw, the path will connect the city’s lower-income north end with its historic center.

“In an ideal world, I would like to see as many people on their bicycles and out of their automobiles as possible,” said Mayor Henry F. Winthrop, who is working with the city manager and Bike Newport on the city’s BFC application. In an echo of Charles Pratt, he added, “Bicyclists have as much right to be there as any vehicle.”