Providence Streets Coalition Hopes to Remake Transit
July 16, 2020
Congested, disconnected neighborhoods. Broken sidewalks. Streets filled with traffic. Cars polluting the air. Sounds like many U.S. cities. But things are beginning to change, including in Providence with the city’s Great Streets plan and a vigorous campaign to promote that plan led by the Providence Streets Coalition, an alliance of neighborhood and activist groups, businesses, and nonprofits.
The coalition, which generally promotes safe streets, has begun advertising across media and on billboards to promote improvements to the city’s neighborhoods outlined by the Great Streets plan initiated by the administration of Mayor Jorge Elorza and adopted by the Providence City Council. That initiative proposes an Urban Trail Network with off-road separated paths, separated on-road trails, low-stress neighborhood greenways, and other improvements designed to make Providence more livable and revitalize and connect its neighborhoods with a safe transportation system that serves everyone.
Liza Burkin, the director and driving force behind the Providence Streets Coalition, said the promotional campaign’s goal is to spread the word about the plan and to encourage residents to engage in government and public processes.
“The Great Streets plan shows the need for a separate transit network for bikes, scooters, walking, and busing,” she said. “There is a consciousness now of how destructive a car dominated mindset is because of pollution, unsafe streets, disconnected neighborhoods, and congestion.”
The Great Streets initiative includes 150 different projects, including 11 miles of off-road paths, 32 miles of separated on-road trails, and 15.9 miles of new greenways. It also envisions traffic-calming measures, more raised crosswalks, and another mile-plus of bike lanes. Some of the work is already under construction in several neighborhoods. In all, 25 different neighborhoods will see these kinds of improvements if the full plan is implemented. Much of the funding is coming from the city’s five-year Capital Improvement Plan.
The Providence Streets Coalition launched in December 2019, after six months of groundwork by Burkin that has resulted in more than 30 supporters and 25 partners, the latest of which is the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“The plan provides a sense of relief and hope for me because families in the city are so concerned about their children’s safety,” said Olubunmi Olatanji, program director at Providence-based Youth In Action, one of the coalition’s partners. “It shows young people of color that the community cares about our people to invest time and money to improve their neighborhoods. It fits with our program goals of helping young people become leaders in their community.”
Olatanji stressed the importance of transportation safety, and her sentiments were echoed by four other representatives of coalition partners, each with a slightly different but related perspective.
“Not everyone can afford a car, but they still have a right to get around the city safely,” said Helene Miller of the Partnership for Providence Parks, a nonprofit that provides programming in the city’s parks under a contract with the city government. “Kids need safe routes to and from parks, and we need an equitable system for that. They can’t get there safely with cracked and broken sidewalks and other obstacles, including car traffic. That’s also true for elderly residents. We believe parks are platforms for equity and social justice. Making streets safer is part of that.”
Victoria Strang, director of community impact at the American Heart Association’s Rhode Island chapter, said a lack of safe infrastructure hinders people in low-income neighborhoods from being active. She noted that obesity rates are above 30 percent among adults in Providence and 32 percent among children, with higher rates in certain neighborhoods.
“Complete streets policies aim to create a safe transport network for everyone by requiring that every future road construction and reconstruction makes a street safe and comfortable for all users: kids, families, older adults, or people with disabilities, whether they are walking, pushing a stroller, using a wheelchair, riding a bike, driving a car, or taking public transit,” she said.
Patricia Raub, an Elmhurst resident who has been active in Rhode Island Transit Riders for a decade, said the Great Streets plan would encourage increased public transit use because it would make it safer and more convenient to take the bus.
“This would benefit bus riders in many ways including having a clear, safe path to the bus stop, especially for the elderly and for everyone in winter,” she said.
Another coalition partner, Venture Café, an innovation hub in downtown Providence, said the Great Streets plan and the work of the Providence Streets Coalition have started an important conversion that could help innovate business and create social equity.
“The plan is all about innovation, and that’s what we are all about,” said Avi Mallinger, program director at Venture Café, which is part of a network of nonprofits in several cities that provides space, advice, and opportunities for innovation in many realms. “The plan creates opportunities for people to innovate in transit and to engage in new thinking about what a street is for.”
Burkin, along with the coalition’s partners and supporters, see this work as an opportunity to remake Providence’s neighborhoods, perhaps in a similar way that the Capital Center Project remade downtown Providence in the 1980s. The promotional campaign is expected to continue for 18 months.
John Pantalone is an associate professor and department chair at the University of Rhode Island’s Harrington School of Communication and Media.