Anyone who uses the streets of Providence – via bike, car, or public transit – has likely seen the impacts of two City transportation plans published in 2019 and 2020. The Climate Justice Plan includes a chapter on
transportation mobility, while the Great Streets Plan introduces a series of linked two-way protected bike paths that make up a comprehensive Urban Trail. The state also adopted two long-term plans in 2020 – Transit Forward RI 2040 and the Bicycle Mobility Plan – and this past year, a unanimous vote ushered in the Green and Complete Streets Ordinance ensuring all future road repairs are made following guidelines that consider climate concerns and the safety of all users.
Needless to say, bicycle and transit advocates are having a moment, and Liza Burkin is at the center of it.
“I founded the Providence Streets Coalition as a response to those plans, to see them off the paper and into the streets,” says Burkin. PSC takes on the task of robust community engagement, going street by street to start mobility conversations in neighborhoods and solicit feedback for upcoming projects mapped out by the Great Streets Plan and other initiatives.
“The streets are designed primarily for private car use, but that leaves out a huge portion of the community,” Burkin explains. For those who don’t have cars, do gaps in the network of bike paths prevent them from getting to work safely, or families from enjoying spots like the East Bay Bike Path? Are roads ADA-accessible? Who’s facing the harmful effects of tailpipe emissions (in a city that has the ninth highest asthma rate in the country)? These are the multifaceted questions Burkin and PSC are tackling: “We’re trying to rebalance the design of streets to serve all users.”
Coming from a background of four years with Bike Newport, many summers as a pedi-cab driver, and a master’s degree in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning from Tufts University in Boston (noting that, regrettably, no RI universities offer accredited professional masters degrees in the field), Burkin acknowledges the cultural shift it takes to fathom our built environments with less cars, to accommodate urbanization and folks flocking Providence, which doesn’t have space for their vehicles.
To Burkin and other safe street advocates, the solution is clear: alternative transportation methods. Urban Trail projects slated for this year begin to close gaps in an expansive network of bike lanes. The Woonasquatucket River Greenway, for instance, will be extended to connect the Valley neighborhood to the mall. Broad Street is already under construction, and feedback on the Hope Street section of the trail is well underway, with a trial period slated for spring. By the end of the year, 30-40 miles of the anticipated 75-mile network will be complete.
“This stuff can seem very contentious, but it’s actually pretty universal,” says Burkin. “Everyone wants the same things. There’s some disagreement on how to get there, but everybody wants less traffic. Everybody wants more safety.”
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