There were two important takeaways from last week’s symposium on making mass transit work for Rhode Island. The first, made by Grow Smart RI’s Executive Director, Scott Wolf, was that only 2.7% of Rhode Islanders use public transit, about half the national average, despite being the second most densely populated state. According to the U.S. Census, only 8% of commuters in Providence took public transit in 2010, compared to 33% in Boston, 27% in Cambridge, and 21% in Hartford – even New Haven has 50% more transit commuters than Providence does.
The second key takeaway, made by leaders from the Minneapolis, Denver, and Hartford transit systems, was that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to public transit. Here again, Rhode Island seems out of step, with a bus-only network that only meets the needs of a small percentage of its citizens. With nearly 80% of the state already living within 10-minutes of a transit stop, it seems unlikely that RIPTA will be able to really move the needle on ridership unless it is willing to consider other approaches.
Bus transit offers many benefits: up front costs for infrastructure are low, and rerouting bus routes in response to changing rider demand is relatively easy. But RIPTA’s single-hub bus network hasn’t worked well for Providence. Kennedy Plaza feels like a barren, bus parking lot, adding to congestion and discouraging downtown development, and it is nearly impossible to get from one place in the region to another without passing through Kennedy Plaza. Other modes of transportation have been considered, most notably a downtown streetcar system and BRT along the 6-10 corridor, but both of these are expensive for the limited benefit they provide. In addition to growing its ridership, RIPTA should be looking for new ways to reduce congestion and pollution, to stimulate and support targeted development, make the region more competitive for jobs, and improve the quality of life for all Rhode Islanders. It needs to seriously consider light rail.