Greater City Providence

A proposal for the Core Connector and a Frequent Service network

The City and RIPTA are having a public meeting about the Core Connector Study on Thursday. Before that, I thought I’d lay out some of my thoughts on the issue.

First, let me share my thoughts on having streetcars in Providence. The short story is I support them. Let’s say, for the sake of having a number, that the Core Connector built out as streetcars will cost $80 million¹. Certainly, a lot could be done for $80 million. But the Core Connector is not simply the school bus for Brown that people² are so flippant to say.

I view the Core Connector in large part as a marketing scheme for RIPTA and the City of Providence. Many people who’ve never ridden a bus will ride the streetcars. If RIPTA builds it and runs it properly, with reasonable fares, frequent service, well trained operators, ease of use, etc., it will be a great introduction to mass transit for these new users. Then when RIPTA makes the case for funding, as they will always need to do, the chorus of haters will be tempered. It is also a strong stake in the ground wherein RIPTA and the state leadership are saying they believe in public transit in Rhode Island and are willing to lay out a pile of money and steel rails in the ground to back that up.

For the city, having a streetcar line is a marketing dream. The shiny photos of happy people riding the rails are a brochure makers dream. They’ll be plastered all over the city’s and the convention center’s websites (and this website). It is a strong message for economic developers to send to companies looking to relocate here. ‘Look at us, we have a strong commuter rail line tied to a streetcar line and excellent bus service. Come here, your employees will love it!’

And plus that, we get a streetcar line connecting the two largest employment areas in the state with the train station and Downcity. In addition to serving existing riders and institutions, our proposed routing will help spur development in the Route 195 land, one of the best areas of development opportunity on the East Coast.

Could we save some money and put some rubber wheels on the road and call it a Core Connector? Sure, but we would not get anywhere near the bang for the buck that streetcars will provide. I think it is a worthy investment for our city and our state.

Now, onto where I think said streetcar should go and what service I think could supplement it.

Frequent Service Network
Enlarge image, opens in new window.

This is a serious proposal. This is not one of those times where I have fun drawing a map and imagining what could be if we had a magic wizard for Governor³ and a pot o’ gold somewhere. The routes I’m outlining here are a system that I think RIPTA could very well have in place within 5 years.

Core Connector aka The Streetcar

The streetcar is represented on the map in blue, Line A. Did you read up top where I said $80 million was a worthy investment? Well, if there is anything I don’t like about the Core Connector proposal, it is that I think it is not big enough. City’s around the country have done their 1-2 mile “starter lines.” Screw the starter line, let’s build. My proposal pushes the streetcar east to Wayland Square. With a spur to the train station, it comes to approximately 3.8 miles. At approximately $30 million per mile, the price tag would be in the neighborhood of $114 million¹.

The route starts at Dudley and Prairie in good proximity to a large residential population in Upper South Providence and is (depending how you count) 3 or 4 blocks from CCRI. The streetcars run down Dudley, through the hospitals complex to Eddy then Richmond, then slide over to Chestnut Street.

Some of the current proposals call for the streetcar to run in a couplet on Richmond and Chestnut, this allows for one way trolleys with street parking. I say put it two-way on Chestnut, and eliminate street parking on Chestnut (radical, I know!). Chestnut will feed the cars directly onto Empire, which will by then be two-way. To LaSalle Square then up a two-way Sabin Street for Dunk and Convention Center service. Exchange, divert to the train station. Then make its way to the bus tunnel and up to Thayer. From Thayer it would be in a couplet on Waterman and Angell to Wayland Square.

Why extend to Wayland Square. Well, a lot of doctors, nurses, med students, Brown students, and Brown professors live on the East Side. An extension to Wayland Square puts many of them solidly on the streetcar route. People on the East Side who commute to Boston will also now have a ride to the trains station, and many people who live in the area work in other parts of Downcity and the Jewelry District.

An extension to Wayland Square also brings the Wayland Square retail district into the Core Connector service area. Wayland, Thayer, and Downcity retail districts are now all connected. Imagine a rail program for the retailers. ‘Ride the streetcar to savings!’ And then the retailers provide discounts to shoppers with a streetcar ticket. The city can advertise park at the mall and hop the streetcar to our local retailers, and so on.

Wayland Square also creates a good connection for transit coming from points in East Providence and the East Bay. Buses could come over the Henderson and people who are going to the Hospitals or the train station can switch in Wayland Square while the buses continue elsewhere. We could even have GATRA service from Taunton meet the streetcar in Wayland Square.

Additionally, there are some areas, especially south of Wayland Square, that could benefit from transit oriented development, which a streetcar line could spur.

This proposal pushes up the current proposed cost. The climate in Washington may put the kibosh on the entire Core Connector project if we can’t get anymore funds out of the feds. But if we can get money out of the feds, I think it is worth making our delegation hustle to get the best streetcar system we can as soon as possible, and not wait for some mythical future extensions.

Rapid Bus

Rapid Bus [.pdf] is in the works now. RIPTA will introduce Rapid Bus service on the Routes 11/99 corridor. On my map it is red, Line B.

The rapid bus route is planned to use special branded BRT style hybrid buses, which RIPTA just began taking delivery of. RIPTA has General Assembly approval for the Rapid Buses to have signal prioritization technology, which means, green lights will stay green when the bus approaches. Stops will be spaced further apart to keep the buses moving and stops will be specially designed for the Rapid Bus route. Buses will also have transponders allowing for real time tracking of buses by signage at the stops as well as online and via mobile devices. RIPTA has the transponders and the staffing to initiate the tracking systems in place. RIPTA will also look at the possibility, where space permits, to create special lanes where buses can jump the traffic queue and perhaps where applicable, bus only lanes on segments of streets.

This is not true BRT. There will not be a continuous separate lane for buses and there will not be off-board fare payment, which are hallmarks of Bus Rapid Transit and would make for the speediest of service. There is simply limited space available in most of Providence for RIPTA to do that. The proposed plans should make for a more rapid trip on the lines that get the Rapid Bus treatment however.

The Line B I propose above would push the Rapid Bus south into Cranston, Line B would be the Pawtucket-Pawtuxet Line (which could create no end of confusion for out of towners I know!). A southern extension south to Pawtuxet adds more ridership possibilities for riders in the relatively densely populated Edgewood section of Cranston and also allows for convenient access to the Pawtuxet retail district.

My proposal above shows a second Rapid Bus line, reddish brown on the map, Line C. This is the current 28/50 RIPTA route. This brings the frequent service network to the western and northwestern areas of the city. Frequent rapid service on Broadway to Olneyville Square and points west. And the same service along Douglas Avenue.

The Trolleys

The current green line service to Federal Hill should be improved to make service similar to what the Rapid Buses will provide, only instead of a bus, the line will be served by the new trolleys.

The Federal Hill line is represented on the map in light green, Line D.

With the streetcar now serving the Tunnel and the East Side, we can move the far end of the Federal Hill line someplace else. RIPTA currently has plans to run Trolleys to the Zoo. I am not sure how that line would be routed, but I am proposing putting it on Elmwood Avenue. The line would make connections to the streetcar and Rapid Buses downtown then head back out along Elmwood to the Zoo. This Elmwood Avenue service, like the Rapid Buses would be frequent, with widely spaced stops, signal prioritization, special stops, and real time tracking. Provide a high level of service to the South Side along with the Line B rapid bus on Broad Street.

The current gold line trolley is made redundant by the streetcar, but we just bought all these new trolleys, so let’s make a new line. The Hope Street Merchants are currently petitioning for a trolley line so I’m proposing that.

The dark green on the map, Line E, would be the Olneyville-Mt. Hope/Oak Hill trolley. Same as the rest, frequent service, traffic priority, the whole lot. Line E would serve the Valley area bringing transit service to the businesses moving to places like Rising Sun, ALCO, and the Foundry as well as providing service for residents nearby. It would run behind the mall past the State House down Francis to Kennedy Plaza where connections could be made to the Rapid Buses and the streetcar.

Then down Dorrance to Eddy to Davol Square. Over the Point Street bridge to Wickenden, then all the way up Hope Street through Brown and Hope Village to the Oak Hill Plaza.

This is three different modes, but I’ve given them one A-E naming convention. I think it would be ideal that these services, though provided by different vehicles, be branded as one Frequent/Rapid system. They would have the same kinds of lines on RIPTA maps, they’d have one brand name that they all lived under. The fares would be the same on all of them.

This would be a way to ease people into the transit experience. Someone who rides Line A, the streetcar, and likes it, may then consider riding B, the Rapid Bus. It has the same name, and looks the same on the map, the streetcar was painless, check it out.

This is a 5 line rapid service system that is within RIPTA’s means to realize within the next 5 years (if we get federal funds for the streetcar and find a way to end the cycle of not having enough operating money at the end of each year, i.e. our gas tax conundrum). This system provides good coverage to many areas of the city (the shaded areas on the map being the 5-7 walk radius from the service). If we put a third Rapid Bus in there, we’d cover even more of the city. This proposal provides service for Providence’s residents, people who work in Providence, and visitors to the city.

¹ Remember that the Iway cost approximately $446 million and the Pawtucket River Bridge will cost in the neighborhood of $100 million.
² I may have said this once or twice.
³ It would help if Linc turned out to be a magic wizard though.

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.


  • For suburban commuters, the “First mile” is inevitably by car. To give them an option besides driving all the way, better park and ride facilities should also be part of the plan. Excellent core service increases the utility of park and ride lines as it does commuter rail. As things are now, park and ride is a decent option only if you work within a few blocks of Kennedy Plaza.

    Acres of parking remain empty weekdays at suburban shopping centers. One would think something could be worked out. Those commuters would be customers for the shopping centers smart enough to work with RIPTA this way.

  • Do we know how many streetcars can be on the tracks at a time? Is it one set of cars/tracks that goes up and down the tracks, or is it configured such that multiple sets of cars can be running at a time?

    If only one set, the longer the line, the longer the wait, right?

  • As far as I know, the plan is to have the line double tracked, so trains could move freely in either direction, and that is what I would what to see personally. I do not know how many trains need to be in operation over the 3.8 mile proposed route to get optimal headways. That adds to the cost of the system and is a substantial part of the $30 million per mile cost.

    For out of town commuters, I would like to see RIPTA work on an express bus system. I think we cannot be providing the entire (or most) of the state with slow local bus service as we do now. At some point, we need to cut of the suburbs to provide optimal service to the core. Suburban buses would have a number of stops in the outer reaches, then get on the highways to come into Providence. Optimally, they would have express lanes on the highways as they approached Providence. I think express bus service should have a premium fare as well.

    In the system proposed here, there are opportunities for park and rides to feed into the frequent network. Notable, Line C has terminals on Mineral Spring and in Johnston near the 6/295 interchange. There is plenty of room for park and ride lots at those terminals.

    This system should also allow people coming in on buses from the suburbs to make transfers to the Frequent System to get to their final destination, rather than being dumped off in Kennedy Plaza. If the suburban buses are routed right, and we take advantage of the sub-hub concept, suburban riders should have multiple opportunities to transfer to the Frequent System to get their final destination.

    The key is frequency. You can’t drop someone off and have them waiting 20 minutes for a transfer to take them the last mile of their trip.

  • My hope is that the street car line has headways of 15 minute or less, making transit as easy as possible.

    With regards to the rapid bus routes, you have all of the most densely populated areas covered by them except for the Chalkstone area. While I am a bit biased, living off Chalkstone, the current bus route is always packed and is one of the more frequent ones. It would greatly benefit from a rapid line. Not only that, but it would service 2 other hospitals as well – the VA and Roger Williams.

    If you extend the D line trolley down Atwells to the Stop & Shop at Manton, it could meet up with this rapid bus route. And since the 56-Chalkstone and 31-Cranston St/Brewery Parkade are the same route, it would service yet another densely populated area in the Armory District. You’d then have all the most densely populated neighborhoods in the city covered by the rapid bus routes with easy connections from neighboring cities.

  • Yes, I was thinking Brewery Parkade/Cranston Street as the third Rapid Bus line, I didn’t go so far as to check what it through routed as. I didn’t add a third (or fourth) Rapid Bus as I was trying to do something realistic that could be accomplished in 5 years.

    A third Rapid Bus might be able happen in 5 years with the rest of this, but maybe it is ready in year 6. If I started adding where I think transit *should* go, then I start to lose sight of economic reality.

  • If you want a general idea of how to figure out the amount of cars you need to run, you can start with the aniticpated headway and work back from there. If you want a headway of approx. 10 minutes you look at the travel time it takes for a set of cars to go up and back on the line. If it takes 60 minutes to make a full circuit (from leaving a stop to arriving back at that same stop) then you have to have to have at least 6 sets of cars on the line to ensure a 10 min. headway. The first trolley leaves the station (call it 0 minutes). You have new trolleys arriving at 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50 minutes with the original trolley arriving at 60 minutes.

    Using the example of a 3.8 mile route and use an aveage speed of 10 mph it would take a train approximately 45 minutes to do the 7.6 mile loop. Leading your to a “very” approximate:

    15 minute headway – 3 streetcars
    10 minute headway – 5 streetcars (technically 4.5)
    7 minute headway – 7 streetcars (technically 6.4)
    5 minute headway – 9 streetcars

    Of course its a lot more complicated than that as you have to take into account ridership (peak and off-peak) and car size. You don’t want to have more people waiting at a platform than a streetcar can carry. Nor do you want to be driving a lot of empty streetcars back and forth. A lot of innercity rail systems have one headway for peak and another for offpeak. Add GPS on all your streetcars and you should be able to see your wait time till the next train regardless of the headway.

  • Yay, math! So 5 vehicles would be slightly less than a 10 minute headway. That seems good to me.

    I would also imagine that the system would want at least one extra car to allow for breakdowns and to pull cars out of service for routine maintenance. So we would be looking at at least 6 cars. Maybe only 3 or 4 of them running at off-peak.

    The original study also looked at having a service pattern that sends every other train leaving the hospital to Brown, and the other to the train station. So a train would leave the hospital at 0 minutes to the Brown, then at 10 minutes to the train station. So the train station and Brown would end up with a train every 20 minutes.

    To me, 20 minutes is too long to wait, but diverting from your path to the train station is annoying for those not going to the train station. So, which is the lesser evil.

    They also looked at the fact that there is not always a train at the train station, so timing that diversion to the train schedule, so Brown would have more or less 10 minute service, but every so often a train would divert to the station.

  • A 15 minute headway time is not frequent service. With a transfer and 15 minute headways as much as half hour could be added to a trip, which would do little to convince the public this new service is any different than RIPTA current service frequency.

    Every 4 to 6 minutes for daytime hours and evenings every 10 minutes or less, would be frequent service. Late night or early morning hours could be as much as 20 or 25 minute headways maximum. New York and San Francisco has this rate of service frequency and not only on subways and trams, but buses as well. This frequency is a major contributor to the success of those two systems.

    Jef, this is a great plan. Maybe this entire plan should be considered the “starter system.” There are some gaps, but that’s due to Providence’s spoke and hub street layout, which there’s no easy solution for.

    Maybe rather than future route expanding out, new routes could extend in from outer regions to terminate or intersect with the framework you’ve suggested in this plan along the missing street spokes. Those spokes could include Charles Street/Woonsocket, Chalkstone/Cranston Streets (as mentioned earlier), Reservoir Avenue, and Smith Street. A stronger concept for linking East Providence and the East Bay should be developed. A few high-density education/employment districts, such as RIC and PC should be addressed in later phases of the system. Both institutions have thousands of students and employees should have direct access to a high frequency system. The “C” route could terminate at Bryant with a major stop in between along the Washington Highway office corridor.

  • Here’s an idea… why not just send them all by the train station? That way you can plan to be early. It would really suck if you were planning on taking the street car and it broke down or was late when it was planned to go along with the train schedule. If they all went by the train station, that street car could be moved off the track and you could get the next one or a bus.

  • Realistically, how frequently would streetcars breakdown, especially when vehicles are new? Even with older vehicles, if well maintained, it would be rare. That logic is like deciding to build an extra parallel freeway for the couple times a year when there’s a three or four hour traffic jam.

  • I’m not really sure why the first streetcar has to hit the train station. If a streetcar was eventually added in the direction of Pawtucket or NP, then it could stop at the train station. In the meantime, I think that a shuttle from KP or another stop downtown would do the trick. The train station is only a few blocks from KP. The shuttle schedule could be tuned finely enough that as soon as the streetcar showed up at KP, people could step right onto the shuttle and up to the station. people not heading to the train station wouldn’t be inconvenienced, and the trip is barely less convenient for those who are.

  • PS I’m envisioning something like the RIDE vans, but with a catchy name and paint maybe. Also, excellent post, Jef. Nickerson 2014.

  • I still assert that you do NOT drop track into already developed areas. You drop them into economically distressed areas.

    Every transit study I’ve read has shown that the minute you do that, those distressed areas suddenly become attractive for development.

    I’ll be there tomorrow night and making this point.

  • I’m not sure that even if you connect the most densely populated parts of the city that you are going to get to a place where 4-6 minute headways make any kind of economic sense.

    NYC has 28000 people per square mile with 8.3 million people

    SF has 17000 people per square mile with 7.7 million people

    PVD proper has 10000 people per square mile with 171,000 people.

    There is obviously an “if you build it they will come” mentality that would have to go with a system, but if you try to get 4 minute headways even if you double current ridership level you are doomed to the same cycle of begging the GA for funding.

  • I agree with you to a point, brick. However, one of the biggest reasons people don’t use the system is because the 20-30 minute headways are beyond inconvenient for most. Sure, if I’m taking the train or bus to Boston, I will take RIPTA downtown. If I’m planning a whole day of drinking downtown, I’ll take RIPTA (like for the beer fest). If I’m going to something for a specific time and have absolutely nothing else to do downtown and known I can’t get into the thing I’m doing at that specific time, I drive and park. If I know I’m going to be closing down a bar downtown but not drinking a lot, I drive and park.

    RIPTA with its current headways does not make for spontaneous trips downtown. It requires some amount of planning.

    I don’t care if we have 4 minute headways, but get them down to 15 min at the most. Sure, it still makes transfers a bit of a headache, but not as bad as they are now. Plus it makes it easier for people just looking to head downtown for a bit.

  • Tom, I agree with you to a point, though I can argue the issue from both sides. The question of serving the train station directly is one the Core Connector Study is to address.

    On the one hand, people are lazy. If the streetcar does not serve the train station, and people have to walk 2 blocks, they’ll DIE! There are people who will not take the streetcar because of this “inconvenience.” However, these people will think nothing of spending half their life in their car, stuck in traffic, stuck in snow, searching for parking…

    But, are these people going to ride the train and transfer to the streetcar at all? Some people will just never do it, even if porters bodily carry them from the commuter rail to the streetcar, and tuck them into a blankie and give them a lollipop. How many people do we lose by introducing that 2-block walk and is it worth the money and hassle to have the streetcar make that run to retain them?

    Having the streetcar serve the train station directly vastly increases the footprint of the streetcar’s service. There are people all up and down the NEC from Wickford Jct. to Boston, who are potential streetcar customers if the streetcar makes a Providence Station stop.

    Conversely, how many people do we lose by making that run? That diversion while on the way from the Jewelry District to the East Side is not too minor. It is a two-block run, both ways, the train has to sit at the station and unload and reload passengers. It runs in the street, and though it should have signal prioritization, it still is affected by whatever is happening with traffic. Will people who would use it get fed up with this lengthy diversion?

    I tend to lean toward, don’t serve the train station, but make significant streetcape improvements to the 2-block transfer. Exchange Street is much wider than it should be for example. It is four wide lanes, 2 of which are usually occupied by parked cars. Why oh why oh why is this a four lane street? It doen’t really go anywhere. Reduce the lane widths, make the outside lanes permanently parking, and give the area taken from the street to the sidewalks. Then through sidewalk treatment, lighting, landscaping, clear pedestrian oriented signage, and well drawn, well placed area maps; make it abundantly clear where to walk to get the streetcar and buses.

    Also, the Memorial Highway Boulevard intersection needs to be addressed. Every single time I walk through there, I nearly get mowed down, usually honked/yelled at, and more than once have had something thrown at me, by an asshole driver who insists it is his god given and constituional right, to make a right across my crosswalk, while I have the walk light. And Memorial Boulevard needs a diet to make it stop being a highway. I avoid crossing there at all costs, and I am a non-car owning hardcore pedestrian. People from the suburbs will not attempt to cross there more than once, they will give up on transit and get back into their cars until gas exceeds $10/gallon, and I wouldn’t blame them.

  • Also, skipping the train station. In my proposal, the 11/99 Rapid Bus (Line B) directly serves the train station and runs through Downcity to Weybosset and Empire. Weybosset and Empire is very walkable for much of the Jewelry District, so people looking to get there, don’t need the streetcar link. People heading to the Hospitals or Brown would want to walk the two blocks to Kennedy Plaza to get the streetcar though.

  • I like it! It’s definitely going to take a huge commitment on the part of the government and the general public. Though there is precedent to committing to large projects on the part of the city and state. The Woonasquatucket River Project for one.

  • The only potential problem I can see with maintaing headway is the inevitable streetcar vs. car incident. I don’t have that much faith in my fellow RI drivers acclimating to this “new-fangled streetcar system” very quickly.

    The final track layout will probably have some crossovers for getting around such things but it always slows things down when you have to.

  • At Thursday’s Core Connector public forum, Amy Pettine and Mark Therrien both made a convincing case for the limited length and reach of the proposed Core Connector starter system. Reasoning that if the project were planned too big in its initial phase, there would be a fair likelihood that federal funding could be denied.

    There was a question regarding if 24-hour service was considered. The answer was no. The reason is that operating costs would be increased with the need for added operator shifts. The hours between 6:00 a.m. and midnight are what the study group is considering.

    An alternative might be to offer 24-hour or even 20-hour service on Fridays and Saturdays only, plus Sundays if it’s a three-day holiday weekend. This would allow people to use the system during and after bar hours on peak bar business days. Later service could be expanded to Thursday and other days. The late service could have longer headway times to reduce operating costs.

    The study group is considering headway times of 10 minutes, which is better than 15 minutes suggested earlier, though not as good as the country’s most successful transit systems that typically have 4 to 5 minute headways.

    Several people made the point that the Federal Hill and the East Side “trolley” headway times were around 10 minutes when the lines were first initiated. However, as years went by, headway frequency decreased making the service less desirable. Concern was expressed that with the proposed 10-minute headways, the Core Connector in the future could experience a fate similar to what happened to the “trolleys.” If logistically possible maybe a target headway time range of 7 to 8 minutes could be considered.

    The west is best. Most people agreed that the West Option was the best route choice. It gave maximum coverage to a high number of activity centers and was more intuitive that people could easily understand with mostly two-way routes along fewer streets.

    What the West Option misses is a connection to the Convention Center, The Dunk, Westin complex with the skybridge link to the mall with its 8,000 parking spaces. If the east-west part of the route were shifted from Washington Street to Exchange Terrace and Sabin Streets, a stop could be located at the Convention Center, serving it and adjacent properties. The mall would have a closer connection to the Core Connector at this location than it would to the train station.

  • Providence Place Mall: 8,000 parking spaces
    RI Convention Center: 2,400 parking spaces
    Westin: 800 parking spaces

    Nowhere else in the city is there such a high concentration of parking spaces in such a compact area. Core Connector: Convention Center stop?

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