How the Providence Streets Coalition is redefining “Share the Road” for a safer and more inclusive city
September 14, 2021
On any given day in Providence, Rhode Island, you wouldn’t be surprised to find Liza Burkin, founder ofProvidence Streets Coalition, canvassing neighborhoods with her crew advocating for inclusion for all on the roads of Providence.
In an interview with Burkin, she details the beginnings of the Providence Streets Coalition and where they are headed—making the roads of Providence safer, more sustainable, and more equitable places to travel for everyone.
Q: What is the Providence Streets Coalition? Tell us a little bit about its origins and goals
A: The Providence Streets Coalition was launched in December 2019 as a response to the City of Providence and the State of Rhode Island putting out four different transportation planning documents in 2019 and 2020. We aimed to become the community movement that would accelerate those plans from words into actions.
In 2019, the City of Providence and the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee of Providence published their Climate Justice Plan, which has a whole chapter on transportation and mobility. The City also created the Great Streets Plan, which outlines a 75-mile urban trail network that will connect all neighborhoods of Providence back to one another with a system of trails for people of all ages and abilities to walk, bike, scoot, skate, use wheelchairs and push strollers.
“We are a coalition of community groups, nonprofits, local businesses, schools and leaders who are trying to see those plans implemented rapidly—not just gather dust on a shelf.”
At the same time, the State of Rhode Island was working on its first-ever Transit Master Plan and Bicycle Mobility Plan, which were both formally adopted in December 2020. So the Providence Streets Coalition formed in response to those plans being formulated, published, and announced. Our role is to push those plans off the paper and into the streets.
Q: What is the Streets Coalition doing to put words into action?
A: Some of what we do is indirect movement building around community organizing and solidarity with other social movements. Some of what we do is directly working on getting these plans implemented. Each of the four plans have different capital projects and policy changes that are recommended, and each has additional public processes that they have to go through.
Take, for instance, one of the urban trails. That project has to have a community input process and go through the City Council. It has a whole life of development. What we do is try to engage community members in that process as much as we possibly can—we go above and beyond what the city does for its own engagement process.
“We canvas and door knock. We have a yard sign campaign. We do digital outreach and drive attendance to the city’s public meetings. We have a creative digital campaign that goes on bus ads and radio.”
All of that is to try to build an audience and a following that alerts people when projects are happening in their own neighborhoods, get them to come to the meetings, and make their voices heard as the city is implementing the projects.
Q: What motivated you to work in the mobility field?
A: I've been riding bikes my whole life, mostly for recreation—up until college, when I went away to school and became an everyday rider in the city of Madison, Wisconsin. It’s a common story because college campuses are typically built to be extremely walkable and bikeable. Then I came home to New England where I grew up, and it was back to the “real world” where we have to drive a car for every single trip.
As pollution from cars and trucks is the single largest contributor to climate-change causing greenhouse gas emissions, we all need to reduce the amount we drive and start using other ways of getting around. Also many, many of our neighbors can’t afford a car, or can’t drive due to disabilities, their age, or their legal status. And it’s just not fair for private automobiles to completely dominate the mobility landscape.
To be clear, I am also a driver. I have HiRoad insurance. I also have a visually impaired partner who I drive to doctor's appointments. But I also bike for many trips around the city, walk a lot, and take the bus and train around the region, in addition to driving. I do it all.
“And that's what the Streets Coalition really is about—more choices.”
It shouldn't be a necessity to get in your car if you're just having to go a couple blocks away to get a gallon of milk. But if the road to get from your house to get that gallon of milk is too dangerous to walk or bike on because it's a really high-speed, high-volume road, and there’s no sidewalks, bike lanes, or transit stops—then you’re basically forced to use your car for everything.
That’s what has put us in this dire situation with the climate crisis, rising traffic violence on our streets, and lack of choice in our everyday lives. The Streets Coalition is all about promoting choice. The car shouldn’t be the only option.
Q: What are some of the big initiatives or activities that the Providence Streets Coalition has coming up?
A: This year, we’re in construction season—finally! The pandemic unfortunately delayed a lot of the projects but we’re finally starting to see the city build out its Urban Trail Network. Some of the projects are underway and every day they’re laying down new striping, retiming the signals—doing all of this work. And repavement, of course. Smooth surfaces are really important for everybody, and something we can all agree on.
Right now, we’re in an intensive outreach phase to make sure that folks in Downtown Providence and Olneyville—which are the first two neighborhoods that are going to see some new trails—know about what’s happening and the projects that are coming. We’re also getting ready for some big trail projects to start being built in the fall, including a digital and in-person campaign that is going to explain what is happening on Broad Street, which is the cultural and commercial backbone of South Providence.
We’re also busy advocating against the Governor’s plan to dismantle the bus hub in Kennedy Plaza, which transit riders have not been engaged in and which is not a project that’s included in any of the four plans we support.
There’s also our creative campaign which primarily speaks to and conveys the message that drivers have a lot to benefit from separated urban trails that give everyone their own safe piece of the street and help us stay out of each other’s way. Currently, the landscape around sharing the road with cyclists and people on e-scooters, skateboards and wheelchairs can result in a chaotic, frustrating and scary situation that drivers and those on medium-speed devices aren’t sure how to handle.
“For decades, the message for cyclists and drivers was: share the road. But what we’ve learned is that sharing the road really doesn’t work––cars and bikes really do not mix well. Instead, we all need dedicated, separated space on the street to get where we’re going safely and easily.”
Providence’s Urban Trail Network is going to be so amazing and beneficial for everyone on the street because it’s going to get us out of each other’s way in the nicest way possible.
Q: What do you want people to take away when they hear about the efforts of Providence Streets Coalition? How can they show support?
A: Our brains are hardwired to show up when we want to oppose something, when there’s something bad happening in our community that we don’t want to see. It’s a lot harder to get people to show up for something that they support, and that’s what we’re trying to do because the changes we are making—that the city is making—does garner some loud, minority opposition. There are people who just want to drive their cars as fast as they can through the city, and want there to be parking spots—they feel it’s their right to have that and any threat to that feels like the sky is falling down.
“We’re uplifting the voices of transit riders and calling on the governor to listen.”
What we’re all about is getting people to show up and support. It can be hard because we’re all limited to where we put our time and energy, but the voices are needed. They’re needed to give our leaders the confidence they need in order to make the bold changes that are necessary to create safer streets and more transportation options. We need our leaders to feel confident, and in order to do that, they need to know that the people are behind them. We’re trying to mobilize voices to show our support.
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