Greater City Providence

Metro Transit Study


Providence Mayor David Cicilline speaks at the event introducing the Metropolitan Providence Transit Enhancement Study. Photo by Jef Nickerson

The time for us to make investment in transit is right now.

Today, RIPTA released their long awaited Metropolitan Providence Transit Enhancement Study, which looks to improve transit within the Rhode Island urban core centered on Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, Warwick, East Providence, Cranston, and North Providence. While the proposal to build a streetcar network in the capital city is getting the most attention, the report actually outlines many initiatives to improve transportation within the metro core.

Video of the Mayor’s speech

New buses

RIPTA’s General Manager, Al Moscola says the agency is waiting on delivery of 24 “clean diesel” buses (same style as the last batch of new buses) and 10 hybrid trolleybuses (to replace existing LINK trolleys). RIPTA also plans to order 63 “BRT Style” hybrid buses this month

Improve RIPTA’s current services

The streetcars, though flashy, and fun, and cool (and expensive) will only be a small part of our future transit system. Now and in the future, buses will be the work horses of our public transit system. RIPTA sees the need for more buses, more frequent service, more service at night and on weekends, and additional lines in new service areas. RIPTA hopes to deliver on those needs, “RIPTA aims to provide a ten percent increase to existing bus service to strengthen corridors that already enjoy high ridership and levels of service.”

In order to offer expansions of service where they are most needed throughout the state, RIPTA plans to conduct a service analysis to identify potential improvements to routes and services throughout the state, determine how to provide the most cost-effective service possible, and develop a plan to prioritize the expansion of service as finances permit.

Provide Additional Bus Service

Introducing, Rapid Bus


Los Angeles Metro Rapid bus. Photo (cc) Metro Library and Archive

A new concept for RIPTA is Rapid Bus . Rapid Bus will function much like a BRT line, except it will not feature BRT’s separate bus lanes (at initially it won’t).

Rapid Bus offers the opportunity to enhance existing bus service to provide faster and more reliable service, a higher level of passenger comfort and amenities, and a distinctive service identity. Rapid Bus transit enhancements include: frequent service, simple routes, limited stops, queue jump lanes, unique identities, distinctive stop facilities, specially branded vehicles, transit signal priority, and real-time arrival information. These features work together to make service fast, reliable, convenient, comfortable and clearly identifiable – characteristics all associated with rail or Bus Rapid Transit service but without the major capital investment and in locations where dedicated lanes are not possible.

RIPTA’s first Rapid Bus line will combine the current Route 11 Broad Street with the current Route 99 North Main Street and Pawtucket. These two routes will be combined to provide continual service through Providence with one distinctive brand applied to the new route. These two routes in their current form serve 10,000 riders per day. Future enhancements to this route may include the reconstruction of North Main Street to provide true BRT service with designated bus lanes in that area.

I suggest that the current routing of the 99 be modified slightly at it’s southern end so that the bus passes by Providence Station, making a direct connection to the MBTA and Amtrak for this Rapid Bus line. The bus should leave North Main, head to Smith, to Gaspee, serve the train station, then use Francis to reach Kennedy Plaza. This re-route also has the benefit of bringing the Rapid Bus service closer to the state offices on Smith Hill. Eventually, Providence Station should be re-designed to allow Exchange Street to pass through the station area, with bus services using the Exchange extension for direct connections to Kennedy Plaza (more about that in a later post about Providence Station).

RIPTA is still working on some final plans for the Rapid Bus. Naming of the combined line, and branding issues need to be worked out, and RIPTA will be asking the community for input on these questions. When branding the Rapid Buses, RIPTA should keep the future streetcar system in mind. The Rapid Bus and Streetcars should share a branding and numbering/naming scheme. Rapid Bus should be thought of as an extension of the streetcar system.

The 11-99 is planned to be the first RIPTA Rapid Bus Route. While most of the planning for, let’s call it, Rapid Bus 1 is in place, now is the time to start planning Rapid Bus 2 and Rapid Bus 3, and 4, and 5… Where do you think the next Rapid Bus lines should be established?

New sub-hubs


The plan also calls for the development of four new sub-hubs around the periphery of Downtown Providence. Sub-hubs will be located at Providence Station, the top of the tunnel on Thayer Street, near Rhode Island Hospital, and on the West Side on Cahir Street.

With new smaller hubs, taking the bus will take less time. Extending RIPTA bus routes beyond the primary downtown destination of Kennedy Plaza to other hubs just outside of downtown will eliminate the need for many passengers to transfer to reach their final destinations. In this plan, RIPTA will develop new hub locations in the West Side, College Hill, Capitol ill and the Hospital District areas. These will attract riders because trips will be more convenient, accessible, and highly visible in new key locations. Additionally, dispersing waiting buses to these new hubs will help the reinvention of Kennedy Plaza by decreasing its congestion.

The first sub-hub developed will be the West Side Cahir Street location. This sub-hub will include new bus shelters, map and schedule information, bike racks, and in the long term real-time arrival information, public art to relate it to its local neighborhood, and new branding of bus service. The 49 Camp Street, 52 Branch Avenue/Bryant University, and 90 Park and Ride buses will be extended from their current termini in Kennedy Plaza to the new West Side sub-hub. The second sub-hub to be developed will be the College Hill one with Providence Station and Rhode Island Hospital to follow later.

This is what the community needs, this is what the community deserves, this is what the community’s gonna get.

I wrote earlier about the potential this sub-hub has to revitalize the upper Broad Street area, which is currently plagued by many vacant buildings. With the high schools and Crossroads RI being this site’s primary neighbors, and the fact that high school students and the homeless are often labeled as (sometimes rightly so) a nuisance in Kennedy Plaza and a reason that people eschew the bus system, careful thought will have to be given to how to develop and police this area.

Recent improvements to the Kennedy Plaza area have resulted in a dramatic reduction in crime. Police stated at a meeting I attended recently that arrests in Kennedy Plaza were down 90% in the last two years. This while more people than ever are riding the buses. The reduction can be attributed in large part to the mix of uses in the plaza. Lessons learned in Kennedy Plaza should be applied to the new sub-hubs to ensure the past bad reputation of Kennedy Plaza does not manifest itself at the sub-hubs. Vibrant mixed use environments coupled with a health police and security presence will go a long way toward making these sub-hubs attractive urban environments.

Reinvention of Kennedy Plaza


The Greater Kennedy Plaza Working Group has been doing great work to improve the plaza (Deb Dormondy should be thanked for her hard work in this area). Kennedy Plaza and surroundings now feature great urban amenities such as cafe seating, Thursday night beer garden and music (during summer months), vendors, frequent festivals, and more. The Greater Kennedy Plaza work really deserves its own post and I will get to that soon, I promise.

Planning has started (some of which I have been involved with) to reinvent Kennedy Plaza , de-emphasize the bus functions, and make it a compelling urban space. The dispersal of the buses during the recent paving project give a glimpse of where the buses could go, freeing up the central plaza.

I will write a more in-depth post about all this soon.

Did someone say something about Streetcars?


Yup, streetcars , just like a real city! Let’s take a deep breath for a second and acknowledge that streetcars are going to be hella expensive. $76 million of the $126 million projected capital budget for the entire set of recommendations is allocated to streetcars. And the streetcars would incur $2.7 million in annual operating costs (costs which the federal government does not (currently) fund). This is all for just the approximately 2 mile starter line. The Mayor today presented a vision of a network of streetcars covering the entire metro area stretching beyond Providence’s borders (I get a little light headed just thinking about it, someone pinch me).

But yeah, streetcars, pretty awesome, huh? The starter line will cover the so-called “Meds & Eds” route running from Rhode Island Hospital to the Kennedy Plaza area then splitting into a branch that goes to Providence Station and another which goes up the bus (guess we’ll have to start calling it the bus & streetcar) tunnel to the Thayer Street area near Brown (get it? Meds & Eds?). Even this small line is projected to carry 1 to 2 million passengers per year. The streetcar line is designed to make Providence a more walkable city, spur economic development (especially in the Jewelry District and along the 195 land), and help put a better face on transit in Rhode Island.

Honestly, I’m excited about Rapid Bus and can’t wait to see that in action and eventually expand, but let’s admit, most people poo poo buses and only get excited about transit when it has steel rails beneath it. Getting RIPTA into the streetcar business will go a long way to change public perception of RIPTA. RIPTA will morph from the current perception of “the poorly funded agency that runs those smelly buses that poor people ride for free” to “that wicked pissah agency that runs those super cool streetcars (that also operates a highly efficient system of buses that operate across the state).”

The Providence Streetcars already have a Facebook page.

Show me the money!

Recommendation Capital Cost Annual Operating Cost
Provide additional bus service $12.8 M $8.2 M
Improve the transit experience $4.3 M $134 K
Reinvent Kennedy Plaza $950 K $0
Introduce new transit hubs $5.7 M $3.3 M
Increase Park and ride capacity $2.6 M $12 K
Initiate Rapid Bus service $14.2 M $0
Build a Providence streetcar system $76 M 2.7 M
Strengthen intermodal connections $10.2 M $4.4 M
Expand programs for commuters $0 $113 K
Capitalize on transit-related development $0 $0
TOTALS $126.7 M $18.9 M

The money is substantial, and as noted above, a large portion of it goes to streetcars. The Mayor says that 10% of the funding is in place. Some things have been paid for, such as some of the new buses RIPTA is looking at. But there’s still a lot that needs funding. The Mayor said they would be looking for federal, state, private, and yes local (local as in City of Providence budget, though the Mayor joked he’d be happy to find a funding arrangement that did not include the city having to pay anything). Funding will no doubt be complex with a myriad of sources. To that end, a Transit 2020 Action Group has been formed which includes mayors from some of the municipalities within the study are and others to work on the funding issues.

The Mayor pointed out that we are in a good position as the current Administration in Washington has indicated strong support for transit and this plan has the full support of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation, who will be tasked with chasing down federal funds. This week the President proposed $50 billion for infrastructure spending. The pot of available federal funds is growing, this is of course good news.


Cities planning streetcar lines, from Infrastructurist

Infrastructurist posted the above map this week of all the cities looking to build or expand streetcar systems. We are not alone it seems. But I think we are in a good position to get access to those federal dollars.

Our built environment is ideal for a streetcar system. We have a very dense urban core that is small in area, making for a streetcar system that will quickly serve a large number of people. This proposed system, though it will help spur development in areas that are currently unbuilt or under-built is not being built solely as a means to spur future development, such as in some other cities, but will serve existing jobs and residents. Also, our streetcar proposal is part of a larger push to boost all modes of transit in the metro area, buses, commuter rail, bike, and even allowing cars to become part of an intermodal system by expanding park and ride facilities. It also doesn’t hurt that we are being absolutely brutalized by unemployment and the Administration in Washington would get good PR out of jobs projects that help turn Rhode Island around. We shouldn’t be too proud to play the sympathy card.

The Transit 2020 Action Group is going to have to hussle, but Providence does seem well suited to receive federal funds and get these projects moving.

As I continue to digest all this information and as you our readers digest it and comment on it, I’m sure we will have many more posts and much more to talk about here.

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.


  • As far as percentage of capital expenditure, yes the street cars suck up a full 60% but operating cost wise they eat 14.3% of the total outlay for new projects. The street car line is eclipsed by the operating costs for the additional bus service (43.5%), Intermodal connections (23.3%) and new transit hubs (17.5%)

    It really is a doable scheme to get streetcars back in the city.

    But just imagine, had they never ripped out the tracked system we had up until 1948, imagine what it would be like today if it had regular maintenance and upgrades.

    Buses were the worst thing to happen to the metro area of RI.

  • I was pleased with the report and energy at the presentation today. There is definitely a growing movement and understanding to make these types of investments. To the extend we can start coordinating high density land use policies in coordination with transit investments, I think we can really transform the Providence Metro area into a regional destination that can better compete with our neighboring metros.
    Shout out to Pawtucket.

  • I don’t get it. A year ago we were cutting RIPTA service in spite of increased demand due to the State basically cutting its share. What is Governor Ghoul’s position now, and what has changed since then? Is this another Monorail like the one in Shelbyville?

  • Wouldn’t the streetcar line relieve pressure from some of the existing RIPTA bus service along those corridors? That should be factored into ‘savings’ and allow for some redeployment of the exisiting rolling stock to other routes that need more service now.

    I think it will be a proud day for the city when those streetcars start running.

  • I don’t think the initial line will provide much relief to bus routes, it would only cover the in-town portion of several routes. The 1 to the hospitals gets the most coverage, but the 1 still needs to provide service south of the hospitals. The 1 could terminate at the hospitals and have passengers transfer to the streetcar, but I don’t think that is a very equitable service option, everyone else has a one seat ride to Kennedy Plaza.

    The 1 could perhaps re-route north of the hospitals. Perhaps move the in-town section of the 1 over to the service roads via Point Street, hit the new hub at Cahir, then into town along Washington. Would provide a new route from the near West Side to the hospitals.

    The 1 should probably become a Rapid Bus maybe paired with the 56 to allow for a direct Rapid route between the RI Hospital area and the VA/Roger Williams.

  • “But just imagine, had they never ripped out the tracked system we had up until 1948”

    I see no mention of how these streetcars work. Are they talking about putting in tracks?? Overhead electric lines?? That would be crazy. Once the infrastructure was ripped out there is no going back. Is it a coincidence that 2 years after demolishing the Cranston trolley barn, a last vestige of the era, we finally get a proposal like this?

    Buses may be fugly but they are far more tweakable. An accident doesn’t take out a whole line for hours. Schedules can be changed on the fly and routes detoured for emergency reasons. On a long term basis routes can be altered, concatenated, split, sped up or slowed down and don’t need dedicated street space or lanes. But buses aren’t sexy. We need bright colors and alt fuels and weird vehicle shapes and racing stripes. So, if they are going to lay new rail, why not go all the way to that fabled unicorn, the monorail and get our congressmen and senators to get some real pork from the stimulus?

    This thing smacks of a poorly planned, one from column A, B, C, etc, set of loose fitting vanity projects. Yeah, that’s the ticket, why don’t we do this scheme like that successful RIPTA side venture, that water taxi ferry service? This plan, this whole, is decidedly smaller than the sum of its parts.

  • To Yacko:
    The flexibility of bus lines you refer to is exactly what prevents them from being attractive in spurring development. Why sink a ton of money into building an apartment building on a street on a bus line when the city can yank it away at a moment’s notice? A streetcar line, with more permanence, is a different story.

    I lived in Minnesota when their light rail line got up and running and I watched that new line absolutely transform the blighted Minneapolis neighborhoods along it that had been served capably by buses for over 60 years. New housing, restaurants, shops, etc were drawn to the line and other parts of the city were begging planners to extend lines to their neighborhoods next. Look at the development proposals near the TF Green that the under-construction intermodal station is already attracting in a recession.

    Every study also shows that buses have been, are, and likely always will be associated by the US population as penalty boxes to be used by the urban underclass… In most people’s eyes, you can’t sink lower than to have to use a bus. It’s wrong, it’s almost certainly racist, but it’s also very real and streetcars don’t have this stigma and we live in a city that already was designed FOR streetcars. It makes sense.

    The city wants to spur development of the 195 line and bring people to their new park. A streetcar system will do that beautifully.

  • They are indeed tracked streetcars. There are two ways to power them either through overhead catenary or through underground hot lines.

    You can in fact lay track. It’s a bit on the expensive side, hence it eating up 60% of the budget. But as has been pointed out, buses can be taken way at a whim while tracked systems are there for the duration.

  • Yacko, Are you kidding? Your “tweakable” notion about busses is exactly the propaganda spewed out in the mid 20th century by General Motors that directly and indirectly contributed to the elimination of streetcars from most American cities, so that they could sell more cars. There is over four decades of American data that confirms when rail transit of any kind: streetcars, light-rail, subways, and commuter rail are introduced to a city or metropolitan region high-paying jobs, population, and real estate values greatly increase where those rail lines and stations are located. Also, unless it’s an express bus or BRT generally people don’t like busses, including in Manhattan. Streetcars and Commuter rail will entice large numbers of middle and upper-middle class people to use transit who currently will only drive. Providence and the state desperately need all of the proposed transit improvements outlined in the report. The Mayor, the Transit 2020 team, and all other contributors to this report should be commended.

  • it would be great if the 1 to the hospital went all the way to the zoo? or does not not make sense?

    I lived in Portland, OR and the light rail was so important to the vitality of the city. At the time, the only place they really didn’t go was where I worked, in the industrial area of North Portland but i would hop on downtown all the time and ride “fareless square” all over the city.

  • “and we live in a city that already was designed FOR streetcars”

    Just thought that deserved to be repeated. Don’t mind me.

  • The number 1 to the zoo makes a lot sense. They will likely be upgrading the single track on Allens Avenue to the rail spur that’s south of Thurbers Avenue and adjacent to 95 to bring the streetcars in to begin with. A stop on the rail spur adjacent to the zoo and Elmwood Avenue would offer easy access. Later stops could be placed below the Broad and Eddy Street bridges, which would connect Washington Park, Lower South Providence, and Elmwood to the system and Downtown.

  • Most Route 1 buses terminate at Broad and Montgomery. They could certainly bang a left and swing through the park to the zoo.

  • You’re right the #1 (#11) is about BRT not streetcars. Maybe the zoo is on another line or mode occurring during a later phase.

    As for the people complaining about the expense of a streetcar system, implying extravagance, why is it that no one complains or even gives it a second thought when a highway bridge requires replacement (i.e. Pawtucket, Sakonnet)? What are those costs?

  • “and we live in a city that already was designed FOR streetcars”

    Bears repeating indeed! When the oldest people living today were children, Providence was home to 250,000 and almost all of them got along without cars.

    The class/race issue people have with buses varies from place to place and person to person, and can be changed. What does not change is that almost no one enjoys a bus ride but plenty of people consider a train ride the best part of their day. Show me someone who tosses out how streetcars are too expensive because buses will suffice and I will show you someone who has no intention of habitually riding either.

    I was especially encouraged to hear the Mayor state the goal that it become unnecessary to own a car in order to travel to a job anywhere in the metro area. That used to be crazy talk! You mean every normal person who does not already have a car is not working to get one ASAP?

    Once, watching from a highway overpass I realized that a million dollars worth of vehicles was passing under me every few seconds. Now that’s extravagant. Buying and maintaining automobiles is a huge part of our economy but I am not worried that we will find other better ways to dispose of our incomes and keep one another busy when cars once again become luxuries, not necessities.

  • Very good point. An estimate of $76m sounds like a lot of money, but it’s all relative. Start comparing that figure to the costs of other capital works projects around the state, and you get a new perspective. From the ProJo earlier this week:

    “Comparing the transit plan costs with other expensive public projects, the total capital costs are somewhat less than the winning $167.3-million bid for the new Sakonnet River Bridge now being constructed. The streetcar system would cost somewhat less than Providence’s new $90-million Career and Technical High School.”

    Nobody questioned the need for a new Sakonnet bridge. Nobody questions the need for a new Pawtucket bridge. This of course is because we’re an auto-centric society. Nobody questions the need for good, modern school facilities. But because we ripped out our own streetcar system 50 years ago and spent the intervening time getting around primarily by automobiles, we have trouble fathoming a relatively minor expenditure on a streetcar system. Well, some of us do, anyway.

  • The only thing that I hope regarding Street Car Service in the Providence Metro Area is I hope it works out. I hope that RIPTA is involved with the operation of this service. With a transit system about the same size as its’ Boston Counterpart it needs some type of Street Car/Light Rail System. There are many Metro Areas in the US that have or planning Street Car/Light Rail Systems. The MBTA is also planning to expand its’ Green Line to Somerville and Medford (where I live). Maybe someday I will ride a RIPTA LRV. I have already seemed to maxed out the RIPTA buses in Providence and Newport, as well as the Newport & Providence Ferry, as well as the former Interstate Navigation-Block Island Ferry Run between Providence, Newport & Block Island (Now Point Judith, Newport & Block Island).

  • With the current discussion that “Sometimes, you need a map” and a competition for an improved RIPTA system map, it might be worth expanding on findings in the Metro Transit Study. The study proposes four sub-hubs beyond Kennedy Plaza.

    Another fifth downtown sub-hub could be Moshassuck Square (aka: Randall Square).

    There are other sub-hubs or major transfer points beyond downtown that should be identified on any new map. They might include: Olneyville Square, Wayland Square, the Charles at Walmart split, Marieville in North Providence, Taunton Avenue and Broadway or Pawtucket Avenue in East Providence, Apponaug and the Malls in Warwick, and Woodlawn and downtown in Pawtucket.

Providence, RI
Mostly Cloudy
5:10 am8:22 pm EDT
Feels like: 75°F
Wind: 9mph S
Humidity: 80%
Pressure: 29.83"Hg
UV index: 1
79°F / 52°F
75°F / 57°F
79°F / 64°F