Providence Transit Doesn’t Need a Streetcar


Maybe we should cut some bus routes, and nix the streetcar idea.

You're probably pretty surprised to hear me say that. I'm a little surprised to hear me say that too. I just finished reading “Human Transit” by Jarrett Walker and the book has convinced me that in Providence consolidating and eliminating some of our bus routes into coherent, easy to understand, frequent lines would be better.

Walker says, “Transit debates ... suffer form the fact that today, in most of our cities, most of our decision makers are motorists. No matter how much you support transit, driving a car every day can shape your thinking in powerful, subconscious ways. For example, in most debates about proposed rapid transit lines, the speed of the proposed service gets more political attention than how frequently it runs, even though frequency, which determines waiting time, often matters more than speed in determining how long your trip will take. Your commuter train system will advertise that it can whisk you into the city in 39 minutes, but if the train comes only once every two hours and you've just missed one, your travel time will be 159 minutes, so it may be faster to drive, or even walk.

“One of the car-based notions we have about transit is that it's good to have a lot of routes. That's because it looks good on a map, as if there's a lot of coverage. In reality, though, transit operates very differently than roads. With roads (or perhaps, bike routes) you want a lot of options, because you're at the helm. With transit, you really just want a simple, reliable, constant service that helps to supplement how far you can get as a pedestrian. The ample routes on a map trick us into thinking we're moving like a car, when we're not.”

So on Providence’s West Side, we have Routes 92, 27 and 19, and any one of these could be used to get to Downcity. In fact, these are just the routes I happen to use. I’m fairly sure there are even more.

On the map, this looks like lots of options. In reality, none of these options is good though, because they're all infrequent and unreliable. The 92 moves at glacial pace through Atwells Avenue traffic, while the other two, although faster, are still fairly infrequent. It's like a Sophie’s choice trying to decide whether to risk missing one route for the other, especially when on any given day the schedule may not even hold to be true.

Instead of the illusion of three routes, why not just have one line. We call it a “line” because it's actually pretty permanent. By combining these three routes, we could triple the frequency, which means riders won't have to worry about a schedule. Instead of using Atwells or Westminster, we’ll put the line on Broadway, because that’s no more than a third of a mile from Atwells at its farther point, and no more than a quarter of a mile from Westminster at its farthest point.

The 92, 27 and 19 don’t go to the same places beyond my neighborhood, but another point that Walker makes addresses this. Walker says its far better to have short routes that connect with others than to rely on complex routes that branch out and dilute service. If RIPTA ran a consolidated east-west route between the East Side and Olneyville, and relied on connecting services to branch out in different directions, it could make all of the routes more frequent.

You might say, as I did, “Don’t transfers suck?” I sometimes take the 92 even though it’s the farther walk for me, and moves the slowest of any of the bus routes, because at least it means the route will go straight through to the East Side. The idea behind having a simplified transit map is that it allows the routes to run at high frequency, so the amount of time waiting at Kennedy Plaza to transfer would be much shorter. I’m not certain that we should force people to transfer for east-west trips at Kennedy Plaza, because I don't think that makes that much sense. But if you were going north-south at some point, you'd get off of the main east-west line, and use any number of north-south routes at a transfer point.

Walker says the best systems work essentially like a pulsating grid. RIPTA’s current model is more like a labyrinthine octopus, trying to deliver a strange variety of specialty routes, none of which runs often enough to compete with cars for ease, rapidity or spontaneity of travel. We could have one simplified north-south line running along a transit-only Thayer Street, and along Hope Street, instead of a rather odd 42, which comes all the way down a car-cluttered Thayer, and then turns down the tunnel and gets stuck in Downcity traffic. Having a solid east-west route that connects with the Thayer/Hope one would mean that both ran more frequently and efficiently, but without greater cost. The transfer would be worth it.

Likewise, parts of the Dean/Potters/Cahir/Prairie/etc. north-south route could be made transit only, or at least have transit-only lanes, in order to connect a useful north-south route connecting a variety of neighborhoods. Instead of running several buses from Kennedy Plaza each to neighborhoods that could only justify their service by their own ridership, RIPTA could run a consolidated north-south line that could be justified by ridership from Smith Hill, Federal Hill, the West Side, Upper & Lower South Sides, and perhaps even parts of Cranston. By alleviating choke points so that the bus can run efficiently through traffic, RIPTA could make the service useful and reliable. This would also be worth the transfer, and would add the usefulness of the east-west line.

There would be other routes, besides these, but the point is that there would definitely be fewer routes than today. And there wouldn't have to be streetcars. In fact, in terms of cost, it might be better if they weren't.

Providence resident James Kennedy runs the blog Transport Providence.