A message on a screen that says aarp rhode island.

Institutional Ageism alive and well in tweets of group funded by AARP-RI

No time for the “older, whiter wealthier…”

RINewsToday has been following the progress of installing a bike lane “trial” on East Side’s Hope Street. While the project is one more in a series of bike lanes being installed in and around primarily the Providence area, this one has taken on a particular backlash from some of the members of the Hope Street Merchants Association and residents in the community. Approximately 24+ of the 40 businesses have signed a letter to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza asking that the one week trial not take place and the project be abandoned because of safety concerns on this congested, narrow roadway – and also because it would eliminate over 120 parking spaces for their small businesses. Some business owners told us they oppose it but are afraid of retribution so they did not want to be public in signing the letter or speaking publicly.

There have also been concerns that the trial designed to gather data to determine if a permanent bike lane would work was being held during the High Holy days of Yom Kippur next week and that several Jewish owned businesses would be closed for a day or two, and the observant would not be driving or would be now walking rather than driving – all factors that would skew any professional data collection.

Mayor-elect Brett Smiley supports small businesses/residents

In several interviews, Mayor-elect Brett Smiley has stated that if the businesses and residents of Hope Street don’t want a bike lane, it won’t happen. And that he intends to take a look at the entire city plan about bike lanes, especially focusing on those that are unconnected and go nowhere. Concerns about street sweeping, safety, snow plowing, being small business friendly, etc. were mentioned. The community members have felt heard by the mayor set to assume office in January, after having no response from Providence Planning or Mayor Elorza.

No funds for permanent bike lane

Both the Providence Planning Department and PVD Streets Coalition have stated there are no funds to install a permanent bike lane, even if one proved desirable.

Community speaks out

A community meeting was held for the PVD Streets Coalition a few weeks ago to talk about their project and to take questions. People were first asked to write their questions down, and eventually, frustrations resulted in more of an agitated back and forth, with many store owners and residents talking about why the city didn’t move to fix the decaying condition of the sidewalks first – or repaint the crosswalks that are torn up. That meeting seems to have inspired the tweet litany of yesterday.

The opposition to the bike lane project was never on principle, but on the choice of the section of Hope Street that seems to lack common sense.

The Providence Fire Department would be instructed to “drive over” the white poles that will be installed if there is an emergency because cars will be unable to pull over. There are also bus platforms being planned in the lane of travel.

PVD Streets Coalition goes dark

RINewsToday began questioning the PVD Streets Coalition, and Liza Birch Burkin, the director of this 1-person group, when the controversy began. We asked for their data, or to see their project proposal. We asked where their funding was coming from. All normal investigative questions nonprofits and other groups usually respond to in a spirit of transparency. The result was both Birkin and PVD Streets Twitter accounts blocked us – and 14 email requests for information have not been answered.

PVD Streets Coalition is part of PeopleForBikes. PeopleForBikes merged with the Bicycle Product Suppliers Corporation and is based in Colorado. It has over 375 bike industry members – from Canyon Bikes, and SPIN, to Walmart.

Birkin is a registered lobbyist both at the state level and the city of Providence level. Her Secretary of State registration lists all the bills she is following, the great majority of which deal with bike industry issues. She was named to the Bike and Pedestrian Commission in Providence by Mayor Elorza as early as Sept. 15, 2020.

Tell us how you really feel

As we were preparing a follow-up story for Friday, which is still planned, we came across a series of tweets from PVD Streets Coalition director Birch (Burkin) expressing frustration at community engagement with the “older, whiter and wealthier communities” and lamenting if there was not another way to make change happen.

AARP-RI goes silent

We asked the AARP for information about why they were funding $13,000 to PVD Streets Coalition to conduct this one week program. They confirmed the funding, but both their communications staff and Executive Director, locally, refused to answer multiple questions we posed. Their regional office and their national office also refused.

In full disclosure, over the past 6 years, RINewsToday has done 20 positive stories with the AARP-RI, either responding to press releases they have sent, or at our initiation, and have always had a good, professional relationship with the group.

Best predictor of the future… remembering the Eaton Street debacle

Over a year ago, a bike lane was installed on Eaton Street in Providence by PVD Street Coalition. Residents complained about the lack of communication, and the inappropriateness of the bike lanes for such a narrow and congested street. So did Providence College. The cost of the installation was approximately $75,000. Less than a month later the entire bike lane was removed – for another $75,000.

Questions for the AARP-RI

Why is AARP-RI funding a registered lobbying group – PVD Streets Coalition, via their fiduciary agent, GrowSmartRI – for a one week trial project that the small business community doesn’t want – and Mayor-elect Brett Smiley has publicly stated several times will not happen? Is it not a waste of donor dollars – and has created divisiveness in the Hope Street business community – if not their 130,000 members in Rhode Island. Will they ask for their funds to be returned – or redirected to a different project? AARP lists itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that empowers people to choose how they live as they age.

As a key supporter of AARP said to us, “AARP HQs needs to review this funding with PVD Streets Coalition and determine whether AARP principles are being violated by the Coalition’s community engagement actions and characterizations of older adults.  AARP’s investment should be bringing people together to identify common ground – not to exclude or demean older individuals who wish to be civic participants”. 

Will the AARP take any action – or make any statement – about the Tweets and actions of their funded project manager that promotes institutional ageism?

This is a developing story

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  1. Mieko Yasuhara on September 29, 2022 at 12:43 pm

    Well-researched story. Great work. Please keep digging!