At a meeting of some of the Greater City people about the Providence streetcar proposal, many of us had severe criticism of the current plan. The line is too short; it is S-shaped; it detours to serve a hospital that’s close to but not on a straighter route; the frequency is mediocre; RIPTA does not have a clear plan of where subsequent lines would go. The discussion quickly turned to alternatives, involving frequent-stop commuter lines to the inner suburbs on existing trackage and perhaps a new connection to the rail tunnel, and streetcars along major corridors to fill in the gaps. It is the streetcar corridors that I want to discuss.
In brief, the existing streetcar proposal only links downtown with near-downtown job centers in College Hill and at the Rhode Island hospitals; secondary centers and neighborhoods would be served in the future, along undetermined routes. People at the meeting who know more than me believe that the western leg, serving Olneyville, is likely to be on Broadway by default, as it is a wide street, and likewise a future westward expansion would follow Manton, a similarly wide street. Instead, they propose, the streetcar should follow Westminster Street.
The issue at hand is, partially, development. Broadway looks a little more developed than Westminster (excluding the portion within downtown proper, where Westminster is a major commercial street), but this development is not dense. Westminster has developed parts and undeveloped parts that could be used for TOD. This is more than just development-oriented transit – Westminster is on the way to Olneyville – but it’s a partial reason.
But the main issue is location. The proposals that we developed at the meeting hinge on using major streets that are centrally located within neighborhoods. We prefer Hope Street to Main Street on the East Side, even though Main Street supports a higher frequency on the 99 bus than Hope Street does on the 42, because Hope Street is accessible from the entire East Side. (Both have auto-oriented commercial development that could potentially be densified.) Likewise, Westminster is closer to parts of the West End; the idea is to run down Westminster and Broad in that direction to serve the western and southern parts of the city.
This is not how I’m used to thinking about where to put favored routes, whether they are light rail or BRT. Usually I think in terms of how developed the immediate area around the street is, what destinations there are, and so on – in other words, spiky density near the route rather than general density within half a kilometer in each direction. That said, this thinking is informed by rapid transit, which is at much larger scale, and bus-oriented density is more diffuse.
The question is whether the rough sketch that came out of the meeting makes sense, or whether it’s just lines on a map. At several places, there’s tension between serving the immediate street and serving a broader neighborhood. At others, some routes are good for only part of the way: for example, in Pawtucket the streets feeding into Main are actually more central and more densely populated than that feeding into Hope, a reversal of the situation in Providence. For another example, Atwells is highly developed but not centrally located in Federal Hill, and is the opposite in Olneyville.
I’m interested to hear what existing successful practices are. Do good streetcar (or rapid bus, etc.) corridors just follow the most successful bus lines and the most developed individual streets, or do they instead serve a broader swath along the routes?