On a once-vacant lot abutting Miantonomi Park in the North End of Newport, now two bright blue 40-foot shipping containers reside, among a flurry of bike activity. Inside is all the equipment a rider could need, bicycles for all ages to try out, and a roster of specialized programming. Surrounding the structures are community garden plots feeding neighbors, and a soon-to-be-constructed canopy will shelter cyclists from rain and sun. Paths branch into the park’s existing mountain bike trails and feed into a half acre of pump track built for kids to pedal over valleys and berms, testing their skills on two wheels.
Bike Newport’s Big Blue Bike Barn is an expansion of the former North Side Bike Library, which was just a single small container posted up at the Florence Gray Center parking lot between two dumpsters. “On weekends and after school, we would open it up and set up an obstacle course, and kids would come and borrow bikes. The neighborhood would be buzzing with kids on bikes,” says Bike Newport executive director Bari Freeman.
The community’s interest in cycling soon outgrew the tiny library, and in 2017, a visit to the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council’s Red Shed at Riverside Park in Olneyville had Freeman and other community stakeholders thinking about how they could recreate something similar in Newport.
In a true example of neighborhood pluck and grit, Freeman and Bike Newport secured the half-acre lot for temporary use from the Newport Housing Authority. Funds were raised for the two containers and work began on leveling the ground. Now there are gardens run by Aquidneck Community Table, a grant from the Rhode Island Foundation brings in solar power and water collection, a wooden canopy designed by architecture students at Roger Williams University is funded by Bank Newport and The Champlin Foundation, and East Coast Construction supplies all the dirt they could ever need, among other partnerships. Says Freeman, “it’s just an endless stream of goodwill and partnership creating safe spaces and getting our kids out of traffic and greening a vacant lot.”
And it couldn’t come at a more critical time. “Newport is all of seven square miles – you can get where you want to go economically and dependably and independently with a bicycle and everybody wants to be able to do this,” says Freeman. “Many many more people want to ride than do ride. The reason people don’t is because they’re concerned about riding with cars.
“The city is currently in the process of its first ever Transportation Master Plan, which is elevating these concerns – how to reduce traffic so we don’t have so much congestion and how to make it easier for people to bike and walk.” Three things Bike Newport hears consistently is that people need equipment, education, and a safe place to ride close to home to build confidence – all things found at the Bike Barn.
Also significant is the Bike Barn’s location on the North End, the most densely populated part of Newport and highest rate of non-car ownership. It’s separated by the high-traffic Admiral Kalbfus Road from the rest of the city, though Freeman is optimistic about pedestrian-friendly changes being made to this road and JT Connell Highway to bridge the gap for residents without cars: “The Bike Barn being on the North End and all of the work that’s being done on the Pell Bridge ramp realignments and the addition of sidewalks and shared-use paths for biking and walking is having significant improvements to unifying the city.”
Along with pushing for the infrastructure needed so cyclists feel comfortable sharing the road with cars, accessibility is at the core of Bike Newport’s mission. “The whole concept of biking for everyone is about removing all kinds of barriers, whether it’s cultural, connectivity, equity, language, and one of the things we test ourselves against all the time – asking ‘is this successful to everyone?’ – is mobility,” says Freeman. They partner with Bike-On in Warwick to offer adaptive bikes, from electric assist technology to hand-pedaling. All programming is bilingual for Spanish-speaking bike users. “It’s really about making sure that anybody who wants to ride can, and sometimes that’s language, and sometimes that’s equipment, and sometimes it’s having somebody to talk to.”
Though it continuously grows, Freeman looks forward to commemorating the Big Blue Bike Barn with an official launch this May, in time for National Bike Month. “It just keeps getting better and better. And you know, there might have been once or twice that I walked through this campus onto the trail into Miantonomi Park that I didn’t actually get emotional enough to cry,” she shares. “I can’t believe we actually pulled it off.”
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