Greater City Providence

We’re #12!

Photo (cc) Practise

The twelfth highest rate of single occupancy automobile commuters, doh!

According to a new Census Report more than 80% of Rhode Island workers commuted to work in single occupant vehicles (in 2007 and 2008). Chris O’Leary at the On Transport blog asks why, and it is a good question. The survey is based on Rhode Island residents, not people who work in Rhode Island. Our small size and the fact that our metro straddles the state line and interstate public transportation is anemic to non-existant could be part of the reason. Even where pubic transit exists, Rhode Islanders seem to view it poorly (deserved or not).


Of course it is not just buses and trains that Rhode Islanders are eschewing, we could be walking and biking more. But even if you live and work in Providence, walking can be a hassle, especially when it snows. Our roads are often covered with sand, broken glass, and other debris (when they aren’t simply just one giant pothole). The suburban bike paths don’t reach into the center of the city and bike lanes are hard to find. If you live and/or work outside of Providence, well then biking and walking is verging on the impossible.

Maybe our commutes are just too short to make people consider other means than to drive by themselves. When your commute is round about 15 minutes, it really doesn’t seem too onerous.

But as Chris states in his post, it shouldn’t be too hard to fix the physical barriers that are keeping Rhode Islanders in their cars (by themselves):

It may not be that density and transit use are always correlated (see: Los Angeles), but such a dense state would require a significantly smaller per capita investment in mass transit than, say, a sprawling state like Kansas (driving alone accounts for practically the same share of commuting in both Kansas and Rhode Island). Shifting mode share in Rhode Island could be much easier than in places.

What do you think is keeping Rhode Islanders driving by themselves, and what would help to change their habits?

What’s the matter with Rhode Island? [On Transport]
Fun With Data: How Workers Commute StreetsBlog]
Driving Alone: D.C. Is Greenest [NYT | Economix Blog]

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.


  • Here is big reason we have so much transit-appropriate population density and yet so much automobility:

    That density map lines up pretty well with a poverty map. For 60 years, the whole point of highway building and housing development was to leave “those people” behind. Even now, the only transit infrastructure investment underway is for the benefit of air travelers and commuters to the next mcmansion building boom in South County.

    To the continuing dismay of ex NYer me, bus riding around here is widely and firmly associated with loserdom. It became a self-reinforcing phenomenon. The crowd on the buses is undeniably different from the general crowd walking. It is easy to meet people whose sense of self worth and personal betterment is all about getting that car and never riding a bus again. Nevermind that the buses are perfectly safe and no dirtier than in other cities. Ridership is limited to people who truly have no alternative plus a few nonconformist intellectual types whose status anxieties play out on other turf.

    Even in the dense, walkable neighborhoods, decent food shopping and travel to work anywhere but downtown are very difficult without a car. You can’t blame people for wanting one, and once you have one, the easiest thing is to use it for every trip.

    Indeed, driving around here really is easy! Congestion and parking hassles are zilch compared to the big cities up and down I-95.

    This culture will be hard to change, but here’s how. Streetcars.
    The novelty is the key. New streetcars will not be loaded with the cultural baggage of the bus. Plus, the difference is more than cultural. Rail is simply a nicer ride. Show me someone who poo-poos the value of investing in rail transit because buses are cheaper and I will show you someone who has almost never ridden either and has no intention of giving up their own car.

    There are people who can afford to choose, who now choose car over bus, but who will choose rail over car. This is how the transformation of Rhode Island’s travel and settlement patterns will begin to change.

  • The lack of intermodal connections in our public transit system also discourages use. Everybody acknowledges it but nothin’s doin. Think about how much easier it would be to pitch commuter rail to Kingstonites traveling to PVD if they didn’t have to walk from the train station to Kennedy Plaza. Hub-and-spokes gotta go.

  • Just from an immediate practical standpoint, it is pretty damn scary out there if you aren’t in a car. Providence may have the core of a colonial walking city, but that just makes it all the more terrifying to walk or bike around here. Cars just don’t fit in the downcity. With all those narrow non-connecting streets and blind corners, having 3000 pounds of high-speed steel armor almost seems like a rational decision so long as everyone else is doing it.

    Loving the anti-car theme today. Really.

  • Andrew hit the nail on the head for the most part. However, as someone who does use the bus on occasion (no bus route to work from my house, but I do take it downtown at certain times) and someone whose wife uses it daily, I will say that the bus is not necessarily a friendly happy ride. It might be safe for the most part, but you’ve got loud obnoxious kids riding it, fooling around swearing and causing a ruckus. You’ve got people who don’t have any respect for anyone but themselves. You’ve got people who just don’t know how to shower regularly.

    I suppose it depends on the the bus route. The route by PC isn’t bad because it’s mostly PC students (though they fall under the loud and occasionally disrespectful categories). The Chalkstone route is full of loud, obnoxious teenagers who generally won’t even get out of their seat to allow an elderly person to sit.

    I can understand why people don’t like taking the bus. There is a stigma to it, and on some routes, the stereotype of the average bus rider is true. My wife doesn’t like taking the bus anymore (we used to live off Atwells and it was a much nicer ride for her). She came here via Boston and Philly where she rode the bus all the time to get to work/school.

    Certain bus routes are also crowded. That’s a problem easily fixed by adding more buses to spread out the people. There’s also the issue that RIPTA is plagued by lateness. I’ve had buses just never come. I’ve seen 2 buses right after each other. I know that there’s the issue of traffic in the city and buses can break down, but there’s gotta be a way to prevent some of the issues.

  • Sorry. Forgot to qualify that this percentage increase is between 1998 and 2007.

  • Oh Maz, those figures can’t be accurate. I think Pittsburgh is the #1 city, don’t you?

Providence, RI
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