Greater City Providence

Could the schools help provide needed transit for Downtown?


In the comments section of the post about the Route 195 surplus land redevelopment report there is an interesting discussion (recommended reading) going on about dividing the parcels into smaller lots to create a more granular Downcity-like development pattern in the Route 195 land. Part of that discussion is the realization that we need better transit options throughout the Downcity area to allow for less parking for these smaller development parcels. Current zoning calls for parking densities that are not realistic for smaller buildings to support. Parking can be created off-site, or better yet, we can hope that people will leave their cars at home, but we need good options to move people throughout the Downcity area to make that realistic.

David Segal posted over on Daily Dose about the perennial issue of the city losing out when non-profits expand (as is a large part of the 195 surplus land report).

It sees expansion of the universities as the engine for much of this growth - the city is branding a new “Knowledge District” through much of Upper South Providence (the Jewelry District, Hospitals, etc.). It’s easier said than done, because the interests of the city and state are not aligned: The state sees expansion of non-profits as a boon, because it gets to collect taxes from new income that they generate; the city sees it as a potential burden, as new land gets eaten up without providing new property tax revenue, the city’s major source of income. We desperately need to reconcile this conflict.

We can go round and round on this point. Undeniably, the city benefits in many ways from having the schools here. They provide a large, relatively stable, pool of jobs for the city’s residents, provide income to the city’s restaurants, hotels, entertainment venues and retailers through the influx of students and their parents, and they provide a general essence to the city that makes it much more attractive than many of it’s college-less peers. However, between schools, hospitals, and state and federal property Providence has a vast amount of it’s land that is not generating tax revenue for it. Here I propose one way that the schools and the city could work together to solve an issue for both of them, a way for the schools to save money while providing for the city and a way for the city to reap a benefit.

The map above shows the Brown, RISD, and Johnson & Wales shuttles as well as the RIPTA trolleys that run through the Downcity and Jewelry District. The RIPTA Trolleys started out well. They were designed to provide quick, reliable, inexpensive transportation to a number of the city’s attractions, primarily for visitors. The trolleys linked Brown, RISD, J&W with Downcity, hotels, and other area attractions such as restaurant Row and the Children’s Museum. State budget crisis after state budget crisis, service was cut and fares were increased on the Trolleys. Today they run at headways of a half hour or worse, cost the same as all other RIPTA buses, and according to RIPTA, primarily serve city residents as a bus in trolley clothing.

Meanwhile, the major Downtown schools each provide their own private shuttle services for their students and staff. Brown’s BrownMed/Downcity safeRIDE shuttle runs with 12 minute headways, RISD’s RISD Rides runs into the evening after RIPTA shuts down, and Johnson & Wales’ JWU Ride covers a service area from Federal Hill to the Cranston line. Each school pays for these services on their own, while RIPTA buses are running around on the same streets. Each school also is part of RIPTA’s UPASS program allowing students, staff, and faculty to ride RIPTA buses for free.

So the schools need quick, efficient shuttle services running late into the evening and shell out the money to make it happen; even as these shuttles often run on the same streets as each other. RIPTA does not have enough money to keep quick, efficient shuttle services running late into the evening. Hey here’s an idea, how about the schools put their chocolate in RIPTA’s peanut butter?

The schools can divert the funds (both direct and indirect) that they are using to operate what basically amount to three independent transit agencies to RIPTA, and RIPTA can provide a service that meets the schools needs and is also open to the public providing efficient mobility throughout the Downcity area for Providence’s residents, workers, and visitor.

The schools would benefit in many ways. Currently each school needs to have staff working on running the shuttle systems and all that goes with that. At the same time, the schools have all outsourced other transit to RIPTA through the UPASS program. Putting their shuttles under RIPTA, the schools would dispense with most of the headaches involved in running the shuttle programs. Presumably, there would still be some sort of committee or commission to review the performance of the shuttle system. The schools are land poor and do not have the luxury of building their way out of their parking problems. Streamlining these disjointed shuttle systems into a public service helps all the schools deal with their parking issues. For example, Johnson & Wales has a shuttle to Federal Hill, but Brown and RISD students and staff cannot ride it. So a RISD student living on Federal Hill can watch the J&W shuttle ride by, but can’t get on it, this means the student will be looking to RISD to provide expanded service, service that already exists, but is not available to the RISD student.

The city benefits by RIPTA getting a dedicated funding source from outside the state budget to apply to Downcity shuttle services (government funding would likely still be needed in part). When the Assembly again looks to make cuts to RIPTA, the Downcity service would not get the cut, since a large portion of the funding is not coming from the state. The shuttles would provide the needed service with frequent headways which would make off-site parking and car-free living and working in Downcity possible.


DC Circulator photo by Jef Nickerson

The service I envision is similar to Washington’s DC Circulator. The Circulator has five lines running through DC connecting visitors to attractions with stops that are much more granular than either Metrobus or Metrorail. The buses run at 10 minute headways, cost a dollar, and provide discount or free transfers for those using Metro’s SmarTrip fare-card.

Having a system to move people about the Downtown area makes it more likely that students will feel comfortable leaving their cars at home, that suburban workers will be comfortable take the bus or the T into Providence, and that people living in or on the edge of Downcity will be able to move about quickly and easily without cars. It will assure businesses that they do not need to invest in the expense of building and maintaining parking and allow us to zone for smaller buildings that don’t have minimum parking elsewhere, as the residents and workers in these future buildings will be able to leave their cars elsewhere, or not have cars at all.

Jef Nickerson

Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.


  • Maybe GC: PVD could initiate a “shuttle transit meeting” or conference inviting; RIPTA, Brown, RISD, JWU, the Mayor’s office, City Planning, the State Division of Planning, RIDOT, and the various hospital groups or other large employers.

    To create an integrated shuttle system one idea might be to develop a series of opposing transit loops for maximum coverage that intersect at transfer nodes. If service is on an accelerated schedule of every 5 to 10 minutes, then transferring to another line would be reasonable.

    In Miami Beach there is a linear shuttle system that utilizes inexpensive small busses that seat about 12-16 plus standees, which are the same style as used by rental car companies at airports. Miami Beach charged 25 cents per ride as recently a few years ago. Those shuttles were always full and ran every five minutes or so.

  • Matt:
    A Circulator hitting the areas that the University Shuttles and current RIPTA trolleys hit, with some expansion to other limited areas, funded in part by the schools.

  • Bringing Providence College and the Hospitals into the fold could expand the areas covered. A route heading up to PC via the VA and Roger Williams for example, or a route heading to Miriam via Hope Village. Another funding source could be the creation of Business Improvement Districts in the areas served and part of the assessment going toward the Circulator.

  • The overlays reveal how Weybosset Hill and the Jewelry District core, as well as, the downtown edge of Federal Hill to the high school district to Lockwood-Upper South Providence are underserved by shuttles, especially in a north-south direction.

    A connection or continuation of a loop could be added starting from La Salle Square to Empire Street to Chestnut Street to Point Street. Another could be from Dean Street to Cahill Street to Stewart/Prince to Point Street or even beyond to Prairie Avenue. Also from Dean Street north Roger Williams and the VA Hospitals could be linked directly to RIH district.

    RIPTA routes could remain on their typical mostly half hour schedules and feed into a high-frequency shuttle system. People living in residential neighborhoods can plan around a half hour schedule. Both RIPTA and the shuttle system would benefit. RIPTA ridership would likely increase, because once you get off the bus it would be easy to get anywhere in the “greater CBD” quickly. People would begin to trust the system because they would no longer subject to lengthy delays with infrequent transfers, further increasing ridership.

    The key to the success of a shuttle is maximum connectivity with multiple high-employment zones. A connecting high-frequency shuttle system has the potential to transform Providence from auto-centric to a transit-oriented city.

  • Weybosset Hill is currently problematic due to one way streets. When Weybosset and Empire get converted to two-way streets next year, making a shuttle run on Empire will be more feasible. I could see a shuttle coming up through the JD to Weybosset and Empire, running into Downcity via Washington.

  • Here’s a quick idea for making the Johnson & Wales Harborside Shuttle do double duty as a Zoo Shuttle.

    View Zoo Shuttle in a larger map

    This route would provide service to the following areas:
    • RWP Zoo
    • Botanical Gardens
    • Washington Park Neighborhood
    • Johnson & Wales Harborside Campus
    • J&W Culinary Museum
    • (optional) Save the Bay HQ
    • Newport Ferry at Providence Piers
    • RIH, W&I Hospital, Hasbro Hospital
    • Providence Chidren’s Museum
    • Richmond Street nightclubs
    • PPAC
    • Johnson & Wales Downcity Campus
    • Perishable Theatre
    • AS220
    • Trinity Rep
    • Hotel Providence
    • Biltmore Hotel
    • Kennedy Plaza

    J&W gets a direct connection between it’s Downcity and Harborside Campuses, it also gets to attract visitors on the way from and to the Zoo to it’s culinary museum. The city gets a shuttle hitting many attractions that runs frequently and is easily identifiable. Image someone asking how to get to the Zoo and the answer being, “get on the Zoo Shuttle.”

  • A shuttle system with 18 to 20 hour a day service could help to reduce driving my the late-night bar crowd or at least for some that live within the city. If only a few shuttles extend beyond the CBD, even if it were a long walk from the shuttle stop to home, it could be an option to reduce driving by people in no condition to so. The Zoo Shuttle would be an example for Washington Park or upper Edgewood residents. The current RIPTA green line could do the same for several neighborhoods west and east as well.

    How could PC and RIC be integrated into the shuttle system? All of this can’t be done at once. It would have to be phased building off of the current five systems to get all parties to buy in at the start.

  • Would the Transit 2020 group be interested in looking at this shuttle idea. There has been little in the media recently about them. It was reported that the group had met last February regarding a Metropolitan Providence Transit Enhancement Study that was to focus on transit within the metropolitan core. Is this group still active?

  • Currently, the PC shuttle is not a general route. It’s an on demand service that only services certain areas and, I believe, won’t serve drunk students (which is basically a waste, if you ask me).

    I would rather see this service used less and have a kind of circulator service as you suggest up in that area. Ideally, the PC branch of this would hit Federal Hill as that connection is difficult for PC students who are about a mile and a half from the Dean/Atwells intersection, but twice as far from Kennedy Plaza, where they’d have to go if they want to go to Federal Hill.

    I know there’s something in the Providence Tomorrow plan to build a business district along Chalkstone to better bring the businesses together to form a more cohesive business district. I also think there’s something for the businesses along Admiral St from about River Ave down to Eagle Park Sq (intersection of Admiral and Douglas Ave).

    These improvements along with a bus that connects them all would make for an awesome service. I can picture a bus that maybe starts at Kennedy Plaza, goes up to Atwells, takes Dean St to Chalkstone, takes River Ave up to Admiral St, goes down Admiral (a section of Admiral not serviced by the 55) to Huxley, goes down Huxley to Smith, and takes Smith back to Oakland and goes back to Kennedy Plaza.

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