Plowing the Bike Paths



Plowing the Bike Paths

Will Fairbrother, a commuter and member over at Bike to Brown, posted on Governor Chafee’s forum suggesting that the state make Providence and RI more bike friendly by plowing the EBBP.  If you support the idea, you can add your voice to the cause.

I’ve approached RIDOT and RIDEM about this very issue in the past and all I hear about is liability.   My counter argument of “what’s the liability of not plowing the bike paths and forcing cyclists to ride on sloppy, narrow roads instead” is met with silence.  Aside from the fact that there is no money, the only real concern I’ve heard is that people ski on the various bike paths.  While this is certainly a valid concern, I think there is plenty of width to accomodate both interests without conflicts.

UPDATE: Added some fairly extensive additional info in a comment below.


  • Feb 14, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    I've exchanged a few emails with RIDOT since my original post and have a bit more information about the chances of getting bike paths plowed in RI. Apparently, not all bike paths are created equal. Unlike the highway system, the maintenance of the bike paths falls under the ownership of various agencies, in particular:

    The East Bay Bike Path & the Blackstone River Bikeway are under DEM Parks & Recreation jurisdiction relative to bike path maintenance.

    Washington Secondary Bike Path, Coventry Greenway, West Warwick Bike Path, South County Bike Path, Ten Mile River Greenway, Woonasquatucket River Bikeway (in Providence) – – – the local cities/towns are responsible for bike path maintenance issues, not DEM.

    This certainly won't help our quest to try and get all bike paths treated the same. During our conversations, I was also sent the following email from Robert J. Paquette, Chief of the DEM Division of Parks and Recreation:

    This has been a tough issue to deal with over the years with very different view points on the approach of winter maintenance. Mike Saunders of Colt State Park and I did see that someone had used a snow blower to clear the center portion of the bike path during one of our visits to the Brick Yard Pond Area of Barrington after a storm. As you know the DEM Division of Parks and Recreation does not promote or encourage the removal and treatment of the bike paths under our jurisdiction after winter storms. Our position historically has been not to attempt to remove snow and ice from the paths due to our concern over the liability of inviting patrons to utilize our bike paths when the bike path surface cannot be completely cleaned down to pavement. With large portions of the bike path in shaded areas that receive very little or no sun, ice can become hazardous to unsuspecting patrons. An invitation for patrons to walk, roller blade, bicycle, use strollers etc. on a surface that may not be completely cleaned of snow and ice creates a very dangerous condition and liability to the state.

    Different storms create different challenges for pavement surface treatments to assure complete removal of the snow and ice. Snow removal response, [weekends] along with sand and salt treatments are all critical to the proper and timely removal for clear pavement. With the East Bay Bike Path and the Blackstone Bike Path located in environmentally sensitive areas we would certainly be restricted on chemical treatments in some areas of the path. In addition we believe the use of heavy snow equipment on the bike paths decreases the life of the pavement. Notwithstanding our limitations on staffing and overtime would certainly prevent the timely removal of snow in these areas.

    With respect to the three towns plowing the East Bay Bike Path, we have not encouraged or promoted their involvement and staff at Colt State Park was unaware of any snow removal work being performed by them.

    DOT's input on the liabilities for such maintenance practices is warranted as the property owner. Please call me at 222-2632 if you require any additional information.

    This note was later followed up by another comment that:

    It should also be noted that we do not have enough full time employees to stay on top of our park snow plowing requirements, adding bikepaths would be impossible. Our staff has be reduced considerably in the last four years and its tough to complete what we do on a regular basis.

    I for one believe that bike paths and bike lanes should be treated with the same respect as highways, after all, they are akin to bicycle highways. However, the snippets of emails above do give you some idea of what this petition is up against.

  • Feb 14, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    One last tidbit… it might be interesting to find out how MA funds the clearing of their paths. I was up in Boston this past Friday and noted along the drive that a number of paths off the side of the highway had been plowed.

  • Jesse Hansen
    Feb 15, 2011 at 4:31 am

    In South Kingstown, the South County Bike Path is "cleared" between Curtis Corner Middle School and Route 108 (about 3 miles of the path). The reason I've heard given is that the path is used by children to walk to school. As mentioned by Mark, it is the responsibility of the town to clear the snow, if they so wish.

    I use quotes around "cleared" because I've never seen them actually get down to the pavement this winter (see picture below).

  • Labann
    Feb 15, 2011 at 7:53 am

    You want an ironic laugh, go by "Just Chillin" on Park Avenue, which is next to the 1 foot deep covered WSBP.

    Mark said, "….bike lanes should be treated with the same respect as highways".

    Disagree. Should be held to a HIGHER standard. Bicycling and walking are human rights. Driving is only a privilege.

    Lanes, shoulders, and sidewalks are part of the "safety equipment" in road design. Without them, legally and legitimately using roads for biking, driving and walking becomes extremely hazardous. I watched school kids clambering over mounds of ice in front of CVS on Reservoir Avenue near schools. One slip, fatal tragedy. CVS ought to be fined, as this is illegal in Cranston and throughout most of RI.

  • barry
    Feb 15, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    For me its not just the bike paths but snow removal on sidewalks, at crosswalks, at bus stops. In my town (North Providence) none of that has been done, and despite an ordinance against it, they let businesses pile up the snow from their private parking lots on the public sidewalks, thus blocking sidewalks long after most regular snow has melted. Our pathetic Town Council voted down a propsal to seek enforcement of this ordinance.

  • Feb 19, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    I am a cyclist, but I also cross-country ski regularly (conditions permitting) on the Woonasquatucket River Bikeway in Providence. I encourage others to do the same via my website and ski-oriented Facebook page.

    Can we explore the idea of grooming bike paths rather than clearing them completely? This means, at a minimum, creating a packed surface that is easy to walk on. If ski tracks could be created, that would be a bonus. A packed surface can be created with a snowmobile, and tracks can be created using a device that is towed behind the snowmobile. (This is how trails are groomed at Pulaski Park in Glocester, the only groomed cross-country ski destination in the state.)

    Grooming could benefit several path users, including pedestrians, skiers, and even some cyclists, as follows. First, pedestrians would benefit from the packed snow area since they wouldn't have to slog through deep drifts, and they would find packed snow safer to walk on than icy pavement. Second, off-road cyclists would find the packed area usable as well. I know people who mountain bike on snowmobile trails, and I assume a groomed bike path wouldn't be much different. Finally, skiers would find traveling the paths much easier because walkers wouldn't constantly demolish any tracks that are created by skiers, and a packed surface makes planting a ski pole much easier.

    I feel that true road cycling on winter bike paths is not safe once the snow flies. It would be very difficult to keep cleared paths free enough of ice — it would require constant and expensive attention that is unlikely in the current budget climate, and perhaps unwise given the arguments presented earlier regarding environmental impact and impact on the lifespan of the pavement. Grooming, on the other hand, need only be done once after each major storm — not each time there is the potential for icing.

    It would be interesting to know what other northern communities are doing with their bike paths in the winter. I will research this and report back. In the meantime, please consider groomed paths, rather than cleared paths, as a possible alternative in this debate.

  • Ibiketowork
    Feb 20, 2011 at 4:42 am

    I'm a regular bike commuter, but in the winter I break out the car. Plowing the bike paths is not a priority for me, because I cannot use them exclusively and it's just not safe to bike on the roads when they are narrowed by snow. A much higher priority is widening roads and including bike lanes, as well as keeping the bike lanes clear of debris. The existing bike lanes are often not plowed and many roads don't have them, so plowing bike paths would not increase my ability to bike commute at all.

  • Feb 20, 2011 at 11:14 am


    Interesting suggestion about grooming instead of plowing the bike trail. How hard packed can you get a groomed trail? I know from past experience, at least for a heavyweight like me, that a snowmobile doesn't pack down the snow enough to ride on it. It certainly helps, but it's still far too loose to get up to any sort of speed. If you could, perhaps, double how hard the snow is packed, then this might do it. Of course, there is a downside to grooming the trail. The more you pack it down, the longer it will take to melt.

    As far as plowing goes… I personally never imagined running a full sized plow down the trail. I was thinking more along the lines of a sidewalk plow… enough width that you could have a couple of cyclist pass or a pedestrian and cyclist pass. I think this type of width would be enough to allow people to still commute via the bike path.

  • Feb 20, 2011 at 11:18 am

    @ibiketowork… we brought up this very topic at the last RIDOT director's meeting just about a week ago. RIDOT acknowledged that their

    policy is to plow curb to curb, but this winter has been a special case. The maintenance guy says that roads with bike lanes (ie Allens Ave) have moved to the top of the spring sweeping list.

    While I realize this Winter has been a bit more harsh than past Winters, it still doesn't excuse the fact that they are leaving a portion of the roadway buried under snow. If they don't want cyclists coming out and taking control of a travel lane, then they need to be plowing better.

  • Feb 20, 2011 at 12:04 pm


    I'm not sure how much packing it would take to make a trail rideable. I expect it would require multiple passes with the snowmobile, but I'm not sure how many. The fact that you're starting with a concrete surface instead of dirt probably helps.

    I do know there are an awful lot of Youtube videos showing mountain bikers on snow. There's also this guy, who my husband met while skiing in GW Management Area a few weeks ago:
    but he has a purpose-built snow bike.

    Side point: I'm with ibiketowork; if the roads aren't passable by bike, there's little point in making the bike paths passable. And "bike-passable" is a much higher standard than "car-passable" — cars do not need to balance. Winter cycling, while certainly possible, is definitely not for the faint of heart, plowing or no plowing. That's why I ski 🙂

    – Glenda

  • Labann
    Feb 20, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    WSBP just beginning to show signs of mtbikers and walkers. The hard cover is down to ~3 inches with patches of bare, not roadie riding yet, but getting there. Problem has always been that thaws refreeze into long sheets of black slick, especially on North side of underpasses. Even if routinely plowed along with roads, they'd have to be additionally salted and scrubbed for safe use.

  • Labann
    Mar 9, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    As an update, WSBP is now bikeable… er, sort of. Cranston section is so beset by twigs you can hardly find pavement. Warwick is better, since there's not as much tree cover. The usual ice in the shadows North of bridges requires some dodging, but all this will probably be wiped by rain over next few days. Wondering about Blackstone Bikeway after river crested Monday. Haven't been that way in months with all the snow.

    If I had to compare difficulties, riding WSBP today was easier than trying to find ReCAPTCHA passwords that you can actually read. Sometimes have to go through 15 – 20 to find 1 legible set.