Greater City Providence

Guest Post: Exit-stential Problems for Federal Hill & Smith Hill


Dean Street interchange with Routes 6/10 center, Federal Hill to the left, Smith Hill to the right.

[alert type=”warning”]Reader James Kennedy writes about establishing better non-automobile connections between Federal Hill and Smith Hill. Follow James on Twitter: @TransportPVD.[/alert]

Providence has too many highways, and I wouldn’t be an opponent of removing some entirely. But if we’re going to have a highway system snake through the city, let’s at least make it useful. The Dean Street exit ramps should be removed, in my opinion, and a multi-modal boulevard should replace the highway-let that the street currently is.

As a bike commuter, I hadn’t really experienced rush hour traffic on Routes 10 & 6 until I had the recent occasion to sit motionless on a school bus with the kids I was transporting from Nathan Bishop Middle School to Del Sesto M.S., for a basketball game. It seemed an oddly short route to have to be taking a highway, I thought, and seeing how traffic was, I thought I’d probably could have gotten the kids faster there on bikes moving down local streets.

The Dean Street exit can’t possibly be doing any motorists any favors. It’s only a stone’s throw from several other exits in Smith Hill, Federal Hill, and Downcity.

When we design a highway, it’s supposed to be fast. With so many exits, we’re encouraging people to use the highway for local travel, and that’s probably a big part of why speeds at rush hour are so slow. If you’re only going from Downcity to Federal Hill, or from Smith Hill to Federal Hill, you don’t need a highway to get you there. The nearest I could possibly imagine someone needing to have an exit on the highway from Downcity would be somewhere near the edge of town along the Cranston border. Having all these tiny little exits scattered everywhere makes the highway useless for it’s stated purpose.

If that was the only problem to having exit ramps on Dean Street, maybe it wouldn’t be a big deal. But the ramps are huge, and eat up prime real estate in Federal Hill that could be developed. With a generous tree sound buffer planted between it and the highway, the remaining land from the former exit could become a new section of historic Federal Hill, designed to be walkable and small business-friendly.

Once, on a whim, my partner and I took Exchange Street from where it intersects with Sabin, to see whether it was a bikeable route. It was beautiful until we got to Dean Street, and then it felt almost like there was nowhere to go. Exchange Street could be carried through this new neighborhood as a bike-friendly route, and bring Federal Hill a tourist-friendly connection to the convention center area.

Providence doesn’t have all that many options for traveling between Smith Hill and Federal Hill, so Dean Street is also a prime target for change because of how important it could be to connect multimodal transportation between the two as yet alienated neighborhoods. Dean Street is wide enough that it could maintain a car connection north-south over the highway, while bus-only lanes and protected bike lanes could be put into a new Dean Street bridge to speed traffic for non-car users.

James Kennedy


  • Part of the problem is the I-95 through Providence and Pawtucket is a local access road. So that’s why all the exits.

    Now interestingly – when they relocated I-195 they did move the on-ramp to I-95 and I-195 further south. Used to be you could just get right on, now you have to travel down the service corridor to get to the highway.

    The exits and on-ramps on Dean St. are a fairly recent phenomenon. I can remember a time when they weren’t there, or in modified form from what they are. You’d have to exit I-95, track through the city, and then get on RI-6 or RI-10 from there.

    And we’re still very much a car culture. To curb that the price of a gallon of gasoline has to rise to a point between $6 and $10 per gallon to discourage usage of private motor vehicles.

    But that’s just a short term solution – cars will ALWAYS be with us, but with a few caveats. Research into graphene based super capacitors is interesting. Quick re-charge, high energy density. It will change cars dramatically. Plus the 800lb gorilla in the room is the autonomous vehicle. Its real and features from true autonomous platforms are starting to work their way into production automobiles.

  • Hey Tony P,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I’ve heard people saying that the Dean St. exits are fairly new, but had some difficulty finding documented proof of that. Do you have any thoughts on where might be a good place to see that? I’d be interested in what you know.

    Your point about gas is good. Not only that, but I’ve also recently been reading and writing heavily about parking, because, as it turns out, parking costs are a huge part of the driving picture as well. Where people actually have to pay for their spot, it’s an average of 70% of their cost of commuting. Check out the article that Eco RI just published, by me, about how this relates to Rhode Island College’s “free” parking:

  • The entire 6-10 connector is a frequent enough offender as far as traffic jams and miscellaneous incidents are concerned to get itself a permanent position on most traffic reports. The Dean Street exit is only one piece of a rather large puzzle, and with respect to the thrust of the guest post’s argument – the turbine interchange between the end of the Connector and I-95 a scant 500 feet away should be a far more immediate target for removal or reconfiguration.

    Far more generally, going after Dean Street is a great example in my mind of winning a battle and losing the war. The entire Connector can and must be downgraded into a boulevard – as long as it exists, Smith and Federal Hills will never truly be connected, and neither will Federal Hill and Olneyville. Downgrading 6-10 is the only way to deal with every single problem caused by some facet of its existence in one fell swoop. Instead of fighting to win a small victory by removing the Dean Street exit, we can reconfigure the horrid turbine interchange overwhelming Downcity and the horrid merger between 6 and 10 in Olneyville by nullifying the reason for both to exist, as well as eliminate the Dean Street exit, provide more than enough room to add another Commuter Rail stop for Olneyville at Broadway/Westminster, and allow for people arriving into the city by train to walk directly to Federal Hill.

    I honestly can’t think of a reason for the connector to stay even if I was rabidly pro-car. It’s not like it’s a bastion of highway engineering – in fact, from a driving standpoint, I think it’s fair to say it SUCKS.

  • Ryan,

    If you run for mayor, you’ll have my vote. I think that’s exactly what should happen with 6 & 10.

    I disagree with you (only slightly) insofar as I think that fixing Dean Street might give a big boost to bike ridership and RIPTA use, and that that, in turn, could strengthen and broaden the constituency that would advocate for 6 & 10 to be turned into boulevards.

    And right now, the traffic standstill that is created by this situation is such that when I take the 92, I could pretty much jump off and granny-crawl alongside the bus, and get to my location faster, except that I’d be worried about being hit by a car.

    Perhaps Providence could do as Portland, Oregon did with one its removed freeways, and turn the former on-ramps into entrances to a bike path, that would run along the future boulevard.

  • As far as I’ve heard RIDOT hasn’t actually or fully designed the Olneyville viaduct replacement yet. The concept is to redesign/replace the viaduct (the Olneyville 6/10 interchange), but also to include the entire length of Route 6 between Olneyville and 295. I also heard that RIDOT is interested in public engagement, especially as to how Olneyville Square and the historic district would be effected and how the neighborhood could be improved by this project, which could be through a public-private partnership. Right away Jef’s Olneyville diagram comes to mind as a beginning. The 6/10 connector itself should be added to the Olneyville viaduct project.

    The Providence viaduct (Route 95) will happen first. There should be enough time to come up with a rational Capital Center-Olneyville boulevard concept that would relieve traffic, encourage pedestrians and bicycles, and offer opportunities for new development along a new boulevard, at least on the Federal Hill side of the existing highway. Perhaps there even could be an Olneyville train station worked in.

    Since Route 6 (between Olneyville and 295) is a freeway to nowhere, why not create another boulevard from Olneyville to Johnston? Since they killed the I-84 project in the 70s, why does the current Route 6 still need to be a 6-lane freeway? A replacement boulevard could be 4-lanes with parking, the median could be reduced or eliminated, and sidewalks could be built lined with trees. At least along portions of the road, probably more in the Hartford section or in Johnston, if the roadway becomes narrower, the adjacent unused land at the sides of the right-of-way could be sold off as development parcels.

  • As a frequent user of Dean St by car, its use as a connector between the Federal Hill and Smith Hill areas is compromised by the Dean St interchange that leads to congestion, too many light many with multiple phases,s, left-turning vehicles blocking thru traffic and the like, sometimes backing up all the way to Smith St. Perhaps metro area people need this connector more than motorists from farther suburbs need the interchange. There is some talk of widening Dean St to accomodate the flow, a project likely to make it even worse for epdestrians and bicyclists, and take limited potential resources away from the more imaginative ideas posted above.

  • Yeah, I would say the biggest issue on Dean St is the traffic lights and the fact that the police don’t enforce a “don’t block the box” policy at intersections. The traffic lights at West Exchange and 6/10 are horrible because there’s no way to get them properly synced due to the large amounts of traffic on Dean and on the off ramp. Unfortunately, Dean is the only connector between Smith Hill and Federal Hill without having to go through downtown by the mall. Widening Dean won’t help. If anything, Dean needs to be reduced to 1 lane in each direction, which will cause many motorists to find alternate routes to the highway.

    Now… I just really have to wonder… is the problem the road design or is the problem simply that there are too many cars? Because the more I think about this whole thing… if you move the cars off Dean St, they back up on the Service Roads, Broadway, Atwells, and Harris Ave.

  • Runaway Jim

    I’m really glad you asked the last question in your post, about where all the traffic would go if not to Dean Street. A lot of other cities have experimented with projects like this, so there are some pretty clear answers. Much of the traffic would simply disappear.

    When the West Side Highway fell due to neglect in the 1970s, New York’s department of transportation lined every avenue in Manhattan with counters to keep track of where the north-south traffic would go in lieu of the highway. A very large portion of it just reverted to different modes of transportation. Other people changed the times they were going to drive. The remaining traffic flowed steadily through the grid.

    San Francisco had the Embarcadero Highway collapse after an earthquake, and found similarly that the lack of highway did not create problems on other roads. They actually removed the highway entirely, after a lot of debate, and put in a multimodal boulevard, complete with bike lanes and streetcars, and they’ve since done it with other highways in the Bay Area.

    Portland removed the highway along its riverfront, and as I said above, used the on ramps that had gone to the highway from the Hawthorne Bridge to connect to a new bike path that paralleled a park and a multimodal boulevard. No traffic problems.

    There was a really good TED video made about Stockholm’s congestion pricing, where the speaker pointed out that traffic standstills often result from the last 10 or 20% of traffic, so that if you remove only that small part of the drivers, you get rid of all the jams. If we assume that a modest 10 or 20% of the people going up and down Dean are local drivers who are just going between the neighborhoods (which seems reasonable to me, since there’s certainly no way to bike between them directly), then I think we can expect that fixing Dean Street will not bring more traffic to other streets, but will just allow people to take advantage of different modes of travel so that people who really need to drive can get by.

    TED video here:

  • I don’t want to come across as a negative nancy here, but I’m trying to be a realist and I’m actually curious. NYC doesn’t make a great comparison because they’ve got other modes of transportation that we just don’t have. Sure, we’ve got RIPTA, which is good enough when staying within the city limits, but RIPTA isn’t all that great for getting in and out of the city and doesn’t connect Smith Hill to Federal Hill (something I’d like to see happen, but I’m not holding my breath).

    Most of the people who get on and off 6/10 at Dean St are coming from or going to places outside of Providence. They’re most of the cars on Dean St (I used to live on Federal Hill and commute to Elmhurst via Dean). Now let’s assume that 10-20% of those who drive up Dean St are just going between neighborhoods (Dean St isn’t really the cause of the traffic though, it’s the connector and the fact that there are 3 on ramps to 95 all right there behind the mall, convention center, and Dunk (Atwells/Service Rd, 6/10, and Memorial Blvd, not to mention 146 dumping onto 95 South). That right there is really the issue. You’ve got all these people from several different neighborhoods all taking quick short routes to 95 (I’ll ignore 6/10 going out of the city, because that’s really not all that bad and opens up as soon as you pass the split). So the reason Dean St gets so backed up is because the highways are so backed up. Removing the cars to other modes of transportation (if that’s even possible) is unlikely and they’ll just be diverted elsewhere. Yes, some of the people will pick different times to travel and possible alternative routes (taking River Ave to Valley St to Eagle St or Broadway, for example), but I don’t see enough drivers switching to RIPTA or bikes (the only 2 alternative modes of transportation available to us). This all assumes, of course, that RIPTA remains as is and doesn’t increase service within the city (including my dream connection down Dean St with a transit-only lane) and outside the city.

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