Greater City Providence

Automobile induced isolation and loneliness in small cities


Photo (cc) Matt Cloutier

The Bicycle Lobby posted the following Tweet this evening which I retweeted:

Typical Bicycle Lobby of course, but one of the responses to my retweet was:

Wha? The original Tweet did not mention, suburbs, loneliness, nor isolation.

It made me think however, is our auto-centric environmnent actually most harmful (isolating and lonely) not for suburbs, but for small cities? Small cities like Providence?

Looking at the chiefly middle-class conversants which populate Twitter (i.e., ignoring the lower-class people who are being priced out of our urban cores into the suburbs, or the growing elderly population which is more and more unable to drive, which are both the topics for some other posts later), I think, maybe yes.

Also tonight, a friend invited me to a party tomorrow in Warwick. My first thought was, ‘forfucksake, how will I ever get to Warwick, where in Warwick?’ Were I a resident of Boston, and the invite was to say, Somerville. My reaction would be, ‘boo, Somerville,’ but I can make that work. The T runs to Somerville. When I lived in Boston I went (reluctantly) to Somerville. But here in Providence, an invite to Warwick, without a car to get me there, creates way more trepidation.

In fact, from Federal Hill where I live, an invite to the East Side would cause much thought about how I would get there. What is the bus schedule, can I afford a cab or Uber if I decide to stay later than RIPTA runs?

It is the small size of our urban core compared to the rest of our state dominated by the ‘automobile lobby’ which creates a situation, where I, who lives in the diminutive urban core, without a car, feels lonely and isolated, due to our lack of investment in robust transit and cycling infrastructure.

Were I to live in say Coventry or Cranston, and recieve an invite to a party in Warwick, a person at my economic class level, would likely own a car and not think twice about the invite. Sure, I’d go. But living in a small city, without a car, and anticipating that I’d like to get a bit wasted at a friends party, I’m left feeling lonely and isolated, in the city.

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.


  • I think it’s weird that Warwick has subpar transit even when Mayor Avedisian is the board chair of RIPTA. You’d think that being board chair would come as a benefit to Warwick. Mayor Avedisian isn’t really a Public transit and bicycling minded mayor even when he’s board chair of RIPTA. That says a lot about the leadership of RIPTA. I know that RIPTA is very underfunded and does have great people with an Urbanist mindset but don’t you find it weird that someone who is mayor of a very unwalkable city (if you even can call that) that is the antithesis of Urbanist is board chair of a Public Transportation Agency?

  • Jason may be over Gabe, but I may not be. Great call to actioin. Mark’s comment about the Mayor reminded me of this. The Mayor interviewed Gabe after his talk last year although I can’t find that video.

  • Weird? Don’t you know that the purpose of transit is to encourage enough other people to not drive to work so that traffic and parking can be less of a hassle for you?

  • When I lived in Providence, I made sure to not need to go anywhere in the city except the East Side (where I was already living) and Downcity. Going to Pawtucket was an arduous multi-hour roundtrip. Boston was much easier, because I could just walk to the train station.

    Except, well, the one time I forgot my keys in my apartment and had to get spares from my landlord, who lived in Coventry. I had to ask around about buying a bicycle and using one of the trails (the advice was “don’t do it”) and eventually convinced a coworker to drive me there and back.

    At the same time… the Boston-area people I know include a lot of suburbanites who complain about city parking. They’ll pay it if they have to, but they’ll still request that meetings and events happen in areas where they can park, i.e. certainly not Downtown Boston or Back Bay, or even Somerville. (My recollection is that Cambridge is easier to park in than Somerville, but maybe it’s the other way around.)

  • We had to consider how to get to the West Side the other night for a warehouse concert. We took RIPTA there but ended up getting a ride back with a friend who really didn’t live anywhere near where we lived. Besides the fact that RIPTA connections between the East and West Sides suck, the walking and biking conditions also are horrible. It was only raining a little bit, but it gave us serious pause about getting on our bikes, because the routes are uncomfortable as it is in the day with good weather.

    I long sometimes for the days when I lived in a city where I could walk for miles without crossing a highway.

  • Sometimes (all the time) I wished RIPTA had at least night owl service. Sometimes I don’t mind the walk back to Elmhurst after concerts, it’s strangely peaceful but I hate crossing the dean st bridge, but other than that, the walk back isn’t too bad. Elmhurst and smith hill are lucky in that they were spared from overbuilt streets. Sometimes I backtrack to the state house and go through Smith hill to get a Hot Weiner at original NY system.

  • I do own a car, but even as a car owner in the city, I often find myself wanting to not use my car. I live in a more “suburban” part of the city, but it’s still very walkable and livable without a car. However, I have found that it’s difficult to not use my car for certain situations. I often want to go downtown and not have to worry about parking or driving (like let’s say I want to drink and not worry about cutting myself off). I can get there via RIPTA, but coming home is an issue.

    Unlike Mark, I won’t walk back to Elmhurst after a concert. It’s a long walk. It’s almost entirely uphill. And, to be honest, there are some areas that I just don’t want to walk through, especially alone at night (though maybe I’ll have to start going to the same concerts as Mark). So I drive downtown and make sure I don’t drink too much, which means I’m not spending as much money in the city as I would otherwise.

  • Speaking of Night owl service, my Dad used to take the bus to work at TF green but he stopped doing that since his work schedule changed to hours when RIPTA wasn’t running (either going to work at 3 am or getting out past midnight). I think It makes more sense for there to be a night owl service to at least TF Green since There are flights that arrive past the RIPTA schedule. It’s a shame that the Commuter rail service to TF Green isn’t that frequent. I don’t even think there’s an express bus to TF Green.

  • Also how hard is it to have a world class Public Transit system especially factoring Providence’s and RI’s population density. It should be pretty easy in RI.

  • RIPTA’s difficulty in establishing a “world class” service for Providence may be related to their commitment to serving as much of the state as possible. If they could designate their limited funds to their most dense/transit-dependent areas, it would benefit those areas greatly. Instead, they are a statewide service that spends a lot of money reaching lower-density areas in the suburbs.

    It kind of reminds me of Amtrak and the Northeast Corridor. If they just had to run the NEC, funding would never be an issue. But if you’re subsidizing routes cross-country, you’ll always be running a deficit.

  • Some observations: there is some fairly late night service, the last bus to Newport leaves about 12:05am, to Pawtucket 12:30am, down Cranston St 11;56pm, out Manton to Centerdale 11:25pm, out Admiral to PC as late as 1:07am on PC party nights, and out Smith thru Elmhurst 11:35pm. The last trip from the airport is too early 10:45pm, (all weekdays)

    There is express service on the 14 line, about 14 times a day weekdays each way between PVD and TF Green.

    Ripta’s marketing department is chronically underfunded, an easy place to cut to keep service going so even where service is good, most people are unaware.

    Politically, its just not possible to concentrate bus service in the metro area since those cities don’t pay for transit, its only subsidized at the state level. Already suburban communities sometimes say there’s too much service in the metro area that they pay for. There has to be a balance.

    I’m in the category of my wife and I long ago agreeing to share one car while the other can use transit, walk, or bike, (or cadge rides,) somewhat unusual for a professional couple in the suburbs.

    I think two key reasons we’ve failed to build a better system is that bus service is seen by too many as just for the poor (especially with our unique policy of giving “free” rides to seniors and disabled, about 30% of all riders) and because there is so much “free” parking available, even downtown for so many. If these are not addressed, no tinkering with routes will help much.

  • @Mark – Technically, the 14 serves as a de facto “express” to TF Green. The airport is the first stop after KP. It’s still terrible, however, since the last bus to leave TF Green on Weekdays is 6:45 PM, 7:44 PM on Saturday, and no service at all on Sunday.

  • I think the state hasn’t done much to encourage communities to have zoning that encourages walkable urbanism and car free living (I know, there’s Rhodemap RI but that is Kind of sub par IMO). I understand that some places In RI will always car dependent (sadly) but proper zoning is an integral part of the success of Public Transportation. You can have Public Transit that’s on par with NYC but there’s no if point if there’s nothing to walk to.

  • At least not having a car prevents you from getting ” a bit wasted at a friends party” and then drrving home drunk and possibly killing yourself and others.

  • I think the “statewide” versus “metro” argument confuses some of the issues. It’s definitely true that we should be focusing on frequent transit in walkable areas, but some of those areas also happen to be outside of Providence. So I would support cutting some exurban service and redirecting some other suburban services to make it so that RIPTA runs more for “ridership” than “coverage”, but not exactly in a way that would draw on that binary.

    Example: The 54 is a horrible route. Woonsocket should have a decent, efficient bus route to Providence, and as a matter of fact it would be nice to have one (either as part of that route, or separately) that goes to Pawtucket/CF and other population centers from Woonsocket. A lot could be done to make the 54 more of a ridership service by cutting excess stops in the exurbs (Walmart, etc.) and focusing on getting that bus to the city more quickly. RIPTA did cut some stops off of the 54 to make it faster, but the stops they cut were the Charles St. stops, which to me is a sign that RIPTA doesn’t have good priorities in terms of how to decide where to stop a bus (you can still get to the Charles St. stops, but you have to take a separate line, the 51). Connections to outer-edge stuff like Walmarts would actually be better accomplished through bike paths or protected bike lanes on major roads, rather than bus service.

    Another example: Newport has decent-ish service on the 60, but it could be way better. The frequencies should be increased on weekends and at nights when people are often crammed into buses like sardines. I think Newport is one place in the state that could actually start alternating buses on different fares. Every half and hour could be the normal $2 fare bus, and in between on the 15 minute intervals could be one that’s a bit more expensive but goes straight to Newport from Providence. I think the typical bus gets about 20% of its cost from fares, so you could imagine even having a $10 bus directly to Newport, and that bus would be completely free of subsidies. Because parking in Newport is actually reasonably expensive, you’d do well as someone who drives to still take the bus, regardless of price. And the $2 service would still be there, for local trips and for people who don’t want to spend the extra money (I would also pay extra for a bus that had half of the seats taken out and had places to hang bikes, because a big thing that keeps me from going to Newport more often is that it’s hard to take your bike with you there given the demand for the racks, and it’s hard to get to most beaches and so on without a bike once you’re there–bike rental is like $30 a day).

  • As I understand it, there were several reasons why the 54 was cut from Charles Street.

    1) To speed the route between Woonsocket and Providence,

    2) To reduce the “horrific” overcrowding, when Charles Street passengers used that route for local service, which made the crowding on the 60 or the R seem insignificant. I still ride the 60 and used to ride the 54 before the changes. On the 54 often people would not only be packed standing in the aisles and door wells, but also would be standing in front of people that were seated (and these were not the bench seats that face each other).

    3) To better fill the empty-ish 51 Charles Street buses. I have not ridden the 51 or the 54 since the changes, I can’t comment on current overcrowding.

    Regarding Walmart type stops, many who live in Woonsocket, who don’t own cars, use the 54-inbound to get the just over the line Walmart in North Smithfield, also the Target in Lincoln, to shop then return to Woonsocket on the 54-outbound. The same is true for retail local travel on Aquidneck Island between Newport and Middletown or Portsmouth, though passengers have two choices there the 60 or 63.

    $10 might be steep for an express between Newport and Providence though I agree more accommodation for bicycles would be helpful.

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