As Rhode Island emerges from COVID-19’s shadow, Burkin and her collaborators have big plans for the state capital.
“In Providence, we are so lucky,” she says. “Any city that was built before the car is inherently a good city for cycling.”
Burkin is excited about several major developments in self-powered transportation in Rhode Island. First, there’s the revival of an urban bike-share program, with Spin replacing the ill-fated Jump bikes from two years ago. Spin, a subsidiary of the Ford Motor Co., is best known for its national network of electric scooters. In Providence, Spin is testing a new fleet of electric bikes, available to anyone with the Spin app.
“It’s kind of a big deal for us, and really exciting,” says Burkin. “You can say what you want about Jump, but it was popular. It had about 300,000 rides going about 500,000 miles in less than a year of operation.”
Mobility is a major theme for Burkin, who has loved cycling since her childhood in Sudbury, Massachusetts. She recalls pedaling an “extremely dangerous road” to Walden Pond.
In 2011, Burkin earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and communications from the University of Wisconsin, and she was impressed with the bike-friendly infrastructure of Madison.
She returned to New England after college, and her family’s strong connection to Rhode Island led her to live in Newport, where she was a pedicab driver for several years.
While pedaling tourists around town, Burkin became strongly invested in bicycle safety, and she served as program manager for Bike Newport.
Burkin is personable and loves to laugh, but she is also a fiery activist, and she has increasingly popped up in local media. She credits her passion for social change to her Judaism: As a child, she lived for many years across the street from Temple Shir Tikva, in Wayland, Massachusetts, where she worked at her first job, as a music teacher. When a local cantor invited her to a demonstration in Washington, D.C. – advocating for human rights in Darfur – Burkin permanently intertwined her spiritual background with political action.
“I’m not connected to the established synagogues [in Providence],” she says, “mostly because I’m still pretty connected to my synagogue at home in Massachusetts. My Jewish community here is mostly of the activism community.”
This includes heavy involvement in Never Again Action, the national movement organized by Jewish leaders to protest the more militant practices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Burkin herself was arrested during a demonstration at the Wyatt Detention Facility, in Central Falls.
Burkin says she was frustrated by her experience in Newport, where locals were often resistant to bicycle-safety measures, so she returned to school, earning a master’s degree from Tufts University in urban and environmental planning and policy. She then moved to Providence, where she established the Providence Streets Coalition in 2019 to advocate for “people-friendly streets.”
“People never lived in suburbs before 1950,” Burkin says. “This was all an experiment to see if we should design a society around the automobile, and it really hasn’t worked out too well for us.”
She compares the many types of transportation available today to tools in a toolbox, but says cities are only designed to accommodate “a sledgehammer” – her phrase for motor vehicles.
Burkin says a bike-share network is a great start, but she envisions a much broader metamorphosis.
The Providence Great Streets Initiative is the city’s plan to create 78 miles of walkable paths and bike lanes, which will connect well-traveled paths – like the East Bay Bike Path and the Woonasquatucket River Greenway – into a single car-free system. The resulting Urban Trail Network is intended to encourage physical activity, reduce the number of accidents and combat air pollution, among other civic goals. Instead of driving to a trailhead for an afternoon ride, urban workers could feasibly commute by bicycle.
Burkin hopes for policy changes as well, to (literally) cement this new way of thinking.
“We also have to build the legal infrastructure,” she says, referring to the Green and Complete Street Ordinance, which was first implemented in Central Falls. If passed in Providence, the ordinance would promote multi-use access and sustainable building practices across the city.
“Every single time there’s a major reconstruction project or we’re repaving the road, we have to consider the design of the street and how it affects all of the users of the road, whether that’s cyclists, pedestrians, transit users [or] drivers. So it’s just systematizing and normalizing these types of urban-design interventions for the long haul.”
Despite all of her serious pursuits, Burkin still makes time for fun; she is co-organizer of the Providence Bike Jam, or PBJ, a monthly group ride through the city, peppered with music and lights. More than 600 people follow the PBJ rides on Facebook (facebook.com/PVDBikejam), and the event attracts a crowd, including about 150 riders in June.
For Burkin, all these pursuits are spokes in the same wheel; immigration and urban mobility are overlapping themes; bikes, Judaism and urban design all enrich each other and culminate in great things.
“I’ve always felt deeply that being a Jew means being somebody who is working for change, and tikkun olam, and making the world a better place,” Burkin says.
Want to take a ride around Providence with Liza Burkin? Check out JewishRhody.com for our video profile.
ROBERT ISENBERG (email@example.com) is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and he writes for Jewish Rhode Island.