Providence’s Underused BRT

Providence’s best-kept transit secret is its BRT tunnel. Converted from a trolley tunnel in 1948, when the trolleys were replaced by buses, it’s a bus-only tunnel connecting Thayer Street in College Hill on the east with Main Street on the eastern edge of downtown on the west, smoothing out the steep grades of the neighborhood. On the surface, the slope from Main to Benefit, the next street to the east, is 15%; in the tunnel, it’s only about 5%. It’s decades older than the systems generally considered the primogenitors of BRT, such as Curitiba’s. It functions as normal open BRT, with six bus lines sharing the tunnel and branching out on the surface.

Whereas other cities do everything within their power to emphasize their BRT lines, sometimes even drawing them on maps as if they were rail lines, Providence keeps its BRT tunnel hidden. Instead, it emphasizes two bus lines – one using the tunnel, one not – by painting them to look like streetcars and calling them trolleys. On the Rhode Island bus map the tunnel does not even appear, but instead the two fake trolleys are given their own inset; the downtown Providence map does show the tunnel, but makes it impossible to trace the bus routes and see which corridors they serve outside the tunnel.

This carries over to developer and landlord blurbs, which can be taken as indications for how much development transit induces. When I looked for apartments in Providence, several listings noted the apartment was close to the trolley; none said anything about a bus tunnel.

The bus tunnel is equally hidden on the surface of the city’s streets. On Main Street, signs direct the traveler to the train station; I have not seen any that even tell one a bus tunnel exists. The station entering the tunnel is prominent once one knows where the tunnel is, but it’s at a location that’s easy to miss – too far north to be the best route from College Hill or Fox Point to downtown, and on only one of several reasonable routes to the train station.

At the Thayer Street portal, the situation is reversed – it’s easy enough to find the tunnel, but there’s no indication that there’s a bus stop in front of the tunnel, much less a shelter for said bus stop – see some vague photos on my photostream. I found out about the existence of the bus stop only when I saw a bus actually stop there to discharge and board passengers. There’s a well-hidden bus schedule at the east portal of the tunnel, but it inexplicably only lists the eastbound schedule; the passenger is supposed to guess when the next bus will head into the tunnel.

Unsurprisingly, the buses aren’t very well-patronized. The combined frequency of the six lines is 12 buses per hour at the peak and 8.5 in the midday off-peak – reasonable for a single frequent line in a large city, albeit in this case the buses are not spaced evenly – but the buses do not look very crowded to me.

If Providence forwent the specially branded fake trolleys and instead adopted the emerging practice of a frequent network map, including letting people know that there’s a segment of busway that is grade-separated, it could see ridership on the bus tunnel increase dramatically. Thayer Street is a busy commercial street, with ample foot traffic until 10 or 11; while downtown is urban renewal hell, it still has retail at the mall that isn’t found anywhere else in the city, while making it easier to connect from the rest of the city to College Hill would let people commute uphill more conveniently.


    • Alon Levy

      The tunnel has two lanes; on Google Earth the internal width looks like 7.3 meters, so the lanes are fairly wide. It’s a single-bore and therefore probably won’t fit duplex buses except in the center, but the buses in Providence are all single-level, so it’s not an issue.

      • EngineerScotty


        Of course, this goes to help point out the stupidity of the term “bus rapid transit” in the first place, as though it is (or should be) a separate product from ordinary bus service.

        • Alon Levy

          Yes, true. My issue with Providence isn’t that it should be making BRT a separate product from regular buses. I hope I’ve made it clear in past posts and in my choice of Human Transit links that I think the strength of BRT is precisely that it can be open and benefit ordinary buses. (But note that Providence is branding two lines separately – those are the fake trolleys, which are in a near-tie with a few other routes for fourth highest frequency). Rather, what I’m complaining about is that Providence doesn’t advertise the existence of the special infrastructure for buses. Brisbane displays the Quickway on maps; Providence doesn’t display the tunnel at all on its statewide map, and displays it but not prominently on the city center map.

  1. mulad

    Developers advertise their proximity to a fake trolley? Wow.

    I remember being profoundly disappointed as a small child when was taken to a “trolley” only to discover it was a bus in disguise.

    Oh wow, looking up the RIPTA page for it, I see how amazingly ugly this one is. That’s a grotesque vehicle.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, they do. I forget whether it was on Craigslist or on the phone, but more than one potential landlord advertised the apartment as “close to the trolley.” I had an idea it was a bus painted like a streetcar so I ignored that part of the blurb, but yes, they said it.

  2. Wad

    I have a funny/sad RIPTA anecdote from the late 1990s. On its website, if you filled out a transit user survey, you had the option of entering into a sweepstakes to win a new car.

    • Alon Levy

      I didn’t know that. I’m surprised and glad that RIPTA took your idea and hung the map.

      Too bad it hasn’t produced a similar map for the other side of the tunnel…

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