Greater City Providence

A look at streetcar rail placement

Photo from District (of Columbia) Department of Transportation Facebook page

As we get serious around here about getting some streetcars running, we should start looking around at what other cities are doing.

No concrete plans of exactly how the rails are going to be laid in the streets have been done yet for Providence, the actual routing is not even nailed down yet. We’ll be spending lots of time working these issues out in the coming months and years. While we start to tackle these issues, The Transport Politic takes a look at the Benning Road streetcar line in Washington, DC and finds it’s design lacking.

Graphic of the Benning Road streetcar tracks in Washington, DC from The Transport Politic

On Benning Road, the streetcars will run in the left lane, which is a popular alternative for streetcars. The problem as The Transport Politic sees it is the left turn lane at intersections which is to the left of the streetcar lane (see photo at top). In the graphic above, and other graphics on thier site, this left turn lane to the left of the streetcars sets up the potential for too much conflict between the streetcars and vehicles trying to reach the left turn lane. They conclude that this design is a design that puts cars first. The very concept of the left turn lane is to keep cars moving as smoothly as possible.

This raises questions about the value of streetcars in general | wouldn’t it make more sense to operate these trains more like light rail? Cities could do just that simply by installing cheap ground-level barriers between streetcar and car lanes, and eliminating the left-turn lanes to the left of the streetcars (or moving the trams to the outside lanes), all while instituting aggressive signal priority. These approaches would dramatically improve the efficiency and speed of streetcars and provide them a relative advantage over automobile traffic, which would be limited by fewer travel lanes than before, ultimately leading to more public transportation usage. That’s a valuable goal.

In the limited area in which our starter streetcar line is proposed for, this geometry is not terribly likely, except for perhaps the small portion between the hospitals and Davol Square along Eddy Street. It does raise an important question for our future planning though. Are we going to design our streetcar routes to avoid inconvenience for drivers, or are we designing streetcar routes to move passengers on the streetcars first and foremost? I think as we start zeroing in on the exact routing and figuring how the tracks will be laid in the street, this is important for us to keep in mind.

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.


  • Ideally, we would plan our system to move passengers first & foremost. One would assume that the line currently under discussion, the first piece of what should (we hope) become a larger streetcar system, would be the most pivotal part of the system — both because its success will largely determine how aggressively we pursue system expansions down the line (no pun intended) and also because, as the central and initial element of the hypothetical expanded system, this starter line would certainly be the focal point of the entire system in the future. Any future lines would feed into it.

    Or to be more succinct, any mass transit system that caters to autos right from the planning stage is most likely doomed. 🙂

  • The street cars should run on the right hand side of the road. It’s too bad the streets are so narrow though. I was just up in Boston the other day on Beacon St. and the Green line runs right down the middle of it. No problems traffic wise.

  • Agreed. The lines ought to be workable for both passengers and autos. There’s no reason a smart design can not incorporate both modes cohesively.

    Tony brings up a great example. Boston is similar to Providence in that the streets are historic and narrow, though they are able to run street-level lines down center corridors, some with center stops (Mission Hill comes to mind), and some with right shoulder-lane usage.

    The Allens Ave portion of the “Meds to Eds” line is currently a four lane throughway which could easily be reduced to accommodate the future track lines. Streetcar ridership will reduce auto usage therefore making additional room for the track layout.

    As for the downtown. We did it before, we can do it again.

  • Will passengers be allowed to embark/disembark anywhere along the Providence line or at designated stations (or both)?

    If it’s anywhere, then center of the road alignment is a pedestrian massacre waiting to happen. Drivers practically run over people in the crosswalks now. Having said that, I’d prefer that the line be constructed along the curb in narrow streets. To give up a few parallel parking spots along certain roads is a small price to pay. It may also provide incentive to build a garage on the scores of parking lots along the new line. Curbside alignment would seem to offer easier and more creative “stations” (I’m thinking weather protecting canoplies, seating, etc.). It could also provide incentive for privatly financed stations by land/building owners.

    If it is to be used at designated stations (or where it is to be used as that), then a center alignment can work on roads where it is wide enough.

    Does anyone know why the starter line is proposed to split between Point Street and the FD – inbound on Richmond and outbound on Chestnut?

    Also, would it make some sense to stay on Eddy and then to Dorrance (not that that wouldn’t be a future line)?

    Lastly, is the gauge & width of the tracks the streetcars will use the same as ‘regular’ tracks. I.e., could the tracks along Allens be activated for streetcar use down to the Zoo (I think a nice Zoo station could be constructed right next to the zoo parking lot not far from the entrance gates). There looks to be enough room for a second track along the port line if needed minus the underpass near ServPro.


  • I am all for streetcars but most of the streets in Providence are too narrow to support a separate ROW street car line. That is why the line is being split into a loop inbound and outbound. I actually think that is a better layout because the city is small enough that it is not too inconvenient to walk a block or two to catch a street car going the other way. Future development plans for the Jewelry District (i.e. the new knowledge economy district) is most likely why the line is being sent in that direction and not staying on Eddy.

    There will be similar width issues with a Broad St line when it gets near the high school complex. I imagine the line splitting or even diverting over to Westminster St which is much more accommodating and using the Westminster St. overpass to get into the downtown. To make this work people will have to loose the “door to door” mentality of travel and accept that there are different ways to arrive at a destination other than a straight line.

    DC, imho, is not a good choice to look at because the street grid was designed with large wide boulevards that easily accommodate street cars. We should stick with looking at cities that have achieved mixed use traffic patterns on similar sized streets. Beacon St in Boston is a very wide street with an even wider median to accommodate the Green line. The closest thing we have in width here in Prov. would be Blackstone Blvd which once did have a line down the median. Mission Hill and the Huntington Ave. trolley is the better choice. Elmwood Ave and Westminster St are probably wide enough to be configured for that type of a line.

    The type of track being contemplated for street cars would not match the heavy gauge ROW going into the port area so there is no way to piggy back that line to get to the park. I think as the line expands there should probably be some plan as to whether or not it makes sense to feed the line into the park (possibly creating a loop between Broad and Elmwood) or just create stops at the entrance and use some type of alternative fuel trolley within the park itself.

    I am not sure how much automobile traffic would be reduced on streets serviced by street cars but i don’t think it will be enough to offset the possible congestion a street car line may cause. What will most likely happen is that drivers will find an alternate route on other streets to avoid any problems associated with street cars. This is designed to be an inner-city transport system and less a commuter system so it’s replacing local automobile trips.

  • I’ve heard said from people in the city, that when Eddy is rebuilt after 195 comes down, they will be reserving enough room for “transit” use in the corridor. Eddy to Dorrance is a route that I’ve heard talked about, but it is not the one outlined in the report (does not mean that that will not be the routing eventually used though). If we were to use the rebuilt Eddy, I would worry that we could see something like the DC example above. Any eventual streetcars on North Main could have a similar configuration.

    Using streets such as Richmond and Chestnut, I have more faith that we’ll have a side running line. And all the streets Downcity are not big enough for any kind of median configuration.

    Broad or Elmwood south of Trinity Square could support a median running line if reducing auto lanes from 4 to 2 were palatable. Personally, I think that is ideal. The four lane configuration of those streets simply makes traffic jockey for position, it doesn’t really move the traffic any more efficiently in my opinion, and the constant movements of vehicles to get ahead of each other endangers pedestrians. Swinging the remaining lanes into the parking lane to make room for stops, we could probably get two reserved streetcar lanes, two travel lanes, and two parking lanes through most of those two streets. Ensuring the streets are safe for cyclists would also need to be a consideration.

    I think it is a no brainer that eventually we’ll want to have streetcars running to Roger Williams Park and the Zoo. A Broad or Elmwood line could certainly stop at either side. It would not serve the Zoo entrance directly. I think better wayfinding and more direct pedestrian access from wherever the streetcar stops, into the Zoo entrance could solve that (the park could certainly use some wayfinding).

    If we were to ever build an intra-state commuter rail line, that line should have a stop at the Zoo as well, and could actually be built right adjacent to the Zoo entrance.

  • Looking at the proposed starter route and aerial photos, I suppose a future “port” line could run from Allens at Thurber north along Eddy to the extended portion of Memorial (see IWAY project street grid) and then Dorrance to KP.

  • Here’s aerial view of Baltimore Ave in Philly. you can see on the right side where the tracks come and go from the tunnel into Center City. If you move towards the west on the map, eventually you can see a trolley car.

    On this street, the trolleys run with traffic and there is parking on each side of the street. There are trolley stops at either every block or every other block. It works much like a bus, but doesn’t have the stigma of the bus. The difference between this and what Providence is getting is that it goes underground and goes high speed through the tunnels.

  • Dan, There are a few exceptions in some cities, typically American streetcars use the “standard” 4′-8 1/2″ gauge, which is the same gauge as used by other train vehicles. The difference comes in with the capacity of the track steel; heavy-rail for intercity, freight, commuter, and subway trains; light-rail for light-rail and streetcars.

    If Allens Avenue is suitable for heavy-rail trains RIPTA should be able to order streetcars that can utilize the same tracks. I suspect that Transit 2020, RIPTA, and RIDOT have considered this since some early documents for a streetcar system showed service down Allens Avenue and even the rail spur adjacent to 95 next to the zoo.

    On Taraval and Judah Streets in Outer Sunset, San Francisco there is no median. There are 4 tight travel lanes plus 2 parking lanes. The streetcars share the 2 center lanes with car traffic. Those streets are the same width, 75′, as Broad Street and Elmwood Avenue below Trinity Square, Broadway and Allens Avenue. Most of Providence’s other main streets outside of Downtown are around 65′ and North Main, Pleasant Valley Parkway, Narragansett Blvd and Blackstone Blvd are significantly wider. The old streetcar system that was ripped out 60 years ago was located on every major street and a lot of minor ones in the city.

    The thinking of how to reintroduce streetcars in Providence is auto-centric. San Francisco never abandoned its streetcar system and other than in parts of downtown and on its freeways there isn’t much traffic at all because the streetcar system is heavily used. Really, how often is anyone in Providence stuck sitting in traffic on any major street other than downtown? This should no longer be a discussion of how streetcars should accommodate cars, but rather how cars can accommodate streetcars, bicycles and pedestrians.

  • Firstly, a line down Broad Street south of the Elmwood Ave/Broad St split is not a good idea. There’s simply not wide enough. Use Elmwood Ave. However, Elmwood is getting its facelift (from the park to Trinity Square) during the next two years, so will all that work be torn up again if this project gets off the ground?

  • Funny how Broad and Elmwood were wide enough for streetcars 60 years ago and they’re not now. Even Douglas Avenue less than 50′ wide had streetcar tracks with streetcars running in both directions. Perhaps car culture is so entrenched in Providence’s psyche that to propose sharing streets with multiple mode of transportation is unthinkable, since cars rule everything else. There may also be confusion about the difference between light-rail and streetcars. Light-rail typically is situated on isolated rights-of-way including within curbed medians. Streetcars like that being proposed for Providence are lighter vehicles that usually mix on streets with car traffic. As for tearing up new work, it’s done all the time if adequate planning isn’t in place. How many times has Kennedy Plaza been redone?

  • I think the first line being proposed will work. There is the potential to give thousands of workers in the jewelry and hospital districts easy access to downtown and college hill. These will most likely be commuters who drive into the city and have parking available to them where they work. I can see them hopping on a streetcar to head downtown for lunch or maybe shopping or after work events. I think it will also be heavily used by Brown and RISD students as a quick way to get downtown even though most of the students i have met have no aversion to walking (except on days like today).

    The blog referred to in this post (Transport Politic) brings up many of the questions I have with a streetcar line in general. Sharing the road with cars subjects the street car to the same congestion and traffic patterns as cars. Like a bus, its just a way to move more people up and down a route no faster than the cars around you. You can use signal priority for the streetcars to increase their efficiency but its not an overwhelming time savings that will move people out of their cars.

    While i applaud the idea of going “streetcar-centric”, I am not sure it will have enough impact to reduce volume of traffic on any given street. I would think that most of the streetcar riders would just be bus riders who have to shift when bus service along that street is most likely ended. Will the cache of the streetcar be enough to lure people out of their cars when they realize that the same person they didn’t want to sit next to on the bus is now sitting next to them on a streetcar. Personally, who I ride with makes no difference to me but it seems to be always brought up as a reason why people don’t use buses.

    I understand that Providence like other cities had thriving streetcar lines up to the end of WWII until GM and others basically put them out of business. But it was also a time when the number of cars per capita was substantially less than it is today. The idea of more than one car per family was unheard of back then. Ironically, the city had a bigger population then too and going “downcity” was the only option for work and entertainment.

    I am not saying that preference be given to cars when designing it and I have no issue with reducing vehicular lanes on streets where its practical and safe to do so. I think drivers will adapt to sharing the road just as they do today with buses. But you do have to take current traffic volumes into effect when you plan. And if you plan to reduce auto travel lanes you should be prepared to deal with traffic volumes now utilizing less space whether it be congestion or the increased volume moved to secondary streets. I like streetcars, but i don’t think they will result in substantially less trips per day when it comes to cars if the alternative proves to be no more convenient for them than the metal box on wheels sitting outside their door. Just because i don’t like that prospect doesn’t mean i am going to ignore it. I don’t think that is giving into a “car culture”, its just good planning.

    The question of track gauge and rolling stock is going to come down to cost. I am not sure using the current spur to RWP will be worth the cost. You also have to add in the fact that that spur is single line which means that preference will always be given to freight traffic. There are many times where long lines of freight just sit on that line waiting to enter the port.

  • It could be a decade after service is re-introduced within the proposed two-mile College Hill/Downtown/Jewelry District corridor that service will be extended to other main streets and avenues or even on freight or abandoned rail rights-of-way.

    The point regarding non-Downtown streets was that the city’s existing street network generally has enough width and potential capacity to re-adapt to a mix of cars and streetcars as the population shifts from mostly auto-culture to transit-culture. As more ride transit the in-city traffic issue should be reduced. San Francisco is one example. Streetcars and light-rail spend less time at stops or stations than do busses, which is less frustrating to passengers getting on and off and drivers who might be behind. Prepaid tickets and multiple entry doors both make for faster entries and exits, plus the ride is smoother and less jerky. As for the 95 rail spurn there may only be one track today, but the bridge spans going over the spur would allow for two tracks in the future.

    As Dan points out, when the streetcar system was abandoned in the late 40s most employment, retail, and entertainment was Downtown. Within the city today employment and entertainment areas, in particular, are more widely dispersed throughout the city, but generally located along linear corridors. The starter line’s range is limited, but it’s just the beginning. Transit 2020/RIPTA needs to adjust or add to the current bus line network to link less traditional corridors where employment and entertainment exist. Two possibilities are (1) the Woonasquatucket Valley from Olneyville Square along the river to the Foundry to the train station (mentioned previously) or (2) PC to Roger Williams /VA hospital district to Dean Street to Point Street ending in Fox Point. There are a lot of people that work in those two corridors and driving usually is the only option to cross within these corridors, since the primary focus for Providence transit continues to revolve around spokes emanating in and out of Downtown, even as peripheral new hubs are proposed. Key to a successful transit system is connectivity.

    All who are responding to this post, including myself, clearly are passionate about rebuilding a streetcar system in the city. Hopefully this dialogue will bring these issues to the forefront as decisions about proposed or future transit options are made.

  • how will the thayer street sub-hub work? is there room for the streetcar to have a terminal to reverse direction as well as a place for buses to layover in addition to bus/streetcar stops?

  • That poncho, is a very good question, one I’ve been thinking of, and something I’ll probably do a post about.

    In the short term, I think there will simply be minimal additional amenities at the top of the tunnel, but the trains will need to go somewhere. I’ve heard murmurs about some Brown land being in play for the sub hub, but I don’t know what land or how it will work.

    Historically, streetcars did go through the Hope Tunnel, so it can be done again. But how best to do it today is still a question that I’m not sure anyone has answered yet.

    Here’s an historical photo of a trolley coming up through the tunnel.

  • Interesting article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle about Bob Diamond, who 30 years ago rediscovered the world’s first rail tunnel in Brooklyn that had been thought to have been filled-in and lost back in the 1860s. Anyway, this article focuses on his attempt to bring electric trolley service back to Brooklyn. Thought it might spark some discussion and ideas about how to apply his experience to reviving trolleys locally.

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