Core Connectors and In-Between Neighborhoods, Redux

Five years ago, I wrote about how American cities’ transit priorities cause them to underrate the neighborhoods with the best potential, which typically are also the poorer ones. Those are the in-between neighborhoods: beyond the gentrified core of the city, which is often within walking distance of the CBD in a small region, but not so far that they’re really suburbs. Instead of serving these neighborhoods, cities that want to look like they’re redeveloping build core connectors, i.e. short-range transit services within the gentrified (or gentrifying) center. I was specifically complaining about two plans, one in Providence and one in New Haven. The Providence plan involved a mixed-traffic streetcar, which has since been downgraded to a frequent bus. It’s this project that I wish to talk about in this post.

First, some background: in the 2000s and early 2010s, Rhode Island realigned I-195. This project, called Iway, rebuilt a segment of the freeway to higher standards, but also moved it so as to no longer cut off the Jewelry District from the CBD (called Downcity). Iway turned the Jewelry District from a post-industrial neighborhood to the next (possibly the only) frontier of gentrification in the city, and state elites needed to decide what to do with all this land. This led to plans to build what was in vogue in the late 2000s and early 2010s: a mixed-traffic streetcar, which would connect the Rhode Island Hospital and Jewelry District with Downcity and continue either north to the train station, or east to College Hill via the East Side Tunnel, a short bus-only tunnel cutting off a steep hill between Downcity and the Brown campus. This was from the start bad transit, and we in the Greater City community were skeptical. The plan was eventually scuttled, and the website’s registration lapsed without any redirect to the new plan, which is BRT.

The new BRT route is going between the train station and the Jewelry District. It’s planned to be very frequent, with a bus every 4-5 minutes, appropriate for the short length of the route, about 2 km between the hospital and the train station. The plan is to build open rather than closed BRT, with several branches interlining on the route. Overall, it looks like RIPTA is doing BRT right. And yet, it’s a terrible project.

The top bus corridor in Rhode Island is the R route (for Rapid), formed from the former 99 and 11 buses, which were by far the top two in ridership. It runs every 10 minutes, between Pawtucket and South Providence, serving some of the poorest parts of an already poor urban area. It has some BRT treatments, including hard-fought signal priority (Governor Carcieri vetoed it six times, and it took until the more progressive Lincoln Chafee replaced him for signal priority to go ahead). But buses run in mixed traffic, and fare collection is on-board. If any route deserves better frequency, it’s this one.

Moreover, the attempt to shoehorn multiple routes through the BRT path is compromising those routes. The R route is already detouring through the train station, which the old 99 route did not serve, and which forces a few minutes’ detour. Another bus, route 1, does not currently serve the train station, but will be rerouted once the BRT path opens; route 1 goes through the East Side tunnel, and making it detour to the train station would give it an especially circuitous path between the East Side and Downcity (the 1 already detours to enter the hospital, which is set back from the street). This, in turn, compromises the usefulness of the tunnel, which is that it interlines several routes between Downcity and Brown, which then go in different direction east of Brown.

There are potentially strong east-west corridors that could receive the R treatment. In the east, off-board fare collection on the buses using the tunnel would considerably speed up service. In the west, there are a few potentially strong routes: Broadway (carrying the 27 and 28 to Olneyville), Atwells in Federal Hill (carrying the 92 fake trolley, which runs through to the East Side and used to use the tunnel), and Westminster/Cranston (carrying the 17, 19, and 31). The highly-branched nature of the routes east of the tunnel makes through-service dicey, and this in turn is a matter of a broken bus network in East Providence. But overall, demand roughly matches that of the strongest corridor on the west, which is either Broadway or Westminster/Cranston, depending on how much branching one tolerates. This would create a second rapid bus trunk between College Hill and Olneyville. So why is the city investing in another route?

It’s not the train station. The train station itself is not a compelling transit destination. It’s too close to Downcity; even with a 5-minute bus frequency, it’s faster to walk from the central bus transfer point at Kennedy Plaza (or to the nearest point on the old 99 route on North Main or Canal) than to transfer to the right bus. It should be served by the routes for which it’s on the way, for example the northwest-bound 50, 56, and 57 routes. It’s unlikely anyone will transfer to a bus to the train station. Nor is it likely anyone will take the 1 from College Hill to the train station: walking downhill takes 15 minutes, and people going to a train station need more reliability than a mixed-traffic bus can provide. Walking uphill is more difficult, and there is less need for reliability, but even then, it seems that most people walk. This means the only real use of the train station connection is for people from the Jewelry District.

This brings me to the Jewelry District itself. The city wants to redevelop it, but it is not yet much of a destination. Nor is Providence itching for new development sites: residential rents are affordable on the East Side, and Downcity commercial property values are so low that the city’s tallest building is empty and was said at appraisal to have no value. So why the rush to give the Jewelry District better public transit than existing neighborhoods that direly need it, like South Providence, Olneyville, and Pawtucket?

The answer is contained in the title of this post. South Providence and Olneyville are in-between neighborhoods. Pawtucket is far enough away that it is getting a $40 million infill station on the Providence Line, but the state is not going to fund frequent service or integrated fares between the line and RIPTA buses. As far as Pawtucket’s predominantly poor and working-class residents are concerned, the train might as well not be there; nor will any gentrifiers move to Pawtucket for service to Boston (they get about the same travel time out of Providence and far better amenities). The focus for the city and the state is on redevelopment, and one can almost see the dollar signs in the eyes of the power brokers who passed this deal.

This neglect of the working class and of Providence’s nonwhite neighborhoods (South Providence is black, Olneyville is Hispanic) is not deliberate. But there is clear disparate impact: the Jewelry District gets BRT, South Providence and Olneyville can drop dead. Like everywhere else in the US, the power structure in Providence discourages investment in the in-between neighborhoods, even comfortable ones like the East Side. The in-between neighborhoods are intact enough that building something there is about providing transportation services, rather than about development and renaissance and the creative capital and other buzzwords. And providing services is too boring, too political, too underappreciated. Better to build something shiny and say “I did that,” even if it’s useless. What the elites consider shiny changes every few years – it was streetcars last decade and is frequent buses today – but the principle is the same: instead of investing for the benefit of residents of Providence and its inner suburbs, the state invests for the benefit of ribbon-cutters.

22 comments

  1. Tom Hoffman

    Right on. Only South Side has about twice as many Hispanic residents as black at this point.

  2. Eric

    Often these “in between neighborhoods” are not only poor but rapidly depopulating (none of the residents want to deal with the crime, so they leave as soon as they are able to). Is it a good idea to invest in an area that will soon have much less demand than at present?

    • Ian Mitchell

      “the state is not going to fund frequent service or integrated fares between the line and RIPTA buses”
      What’s the balance of who pays what in this post? Are all of these, the frequent buses, the streetcar, state, local, or fed money?

      • Alon Levy

        Capital cost for BRT is mostly paid by a federal grant of $13 million (total cost is $19 million), operating costs are all paid by the state.

    • Alon Levy

      Providence’s population is rising, albeit at a glacial rate. At the zip code level, the population of Olneyville (02909) went up 5% between 2011 and 2015 (these are the years I’m getting from the Factfinder), while that of South Providence (02905, 02907) went down by 1%. This isn’t rapid depopulation.

      • EJ

        If the inner suburbs really are depopulating while the outer suburbs are stable or increasing, that’s a problem that should be solved. Not saying transit is the entire solution, but it’s at least part of it.

        • Eric

          To be less politically correct:

          The “in between neighborhoods” with high transit ridership are slums, almost exclusively black, with high crime and horrible schools. Anyone who can leave them does leave them. Generally only the fringe of these neighborhoods is gentrifying.

          This pattern can be seen in most American cities, except the most expensive ones. For example, Detroit as a whole is depopulating, even though the city center is gentrifying.

          • Alon Levy

            Is it really seen in most American cities? South Providence has stable population (and is more Hispanic than black nowadays, but, separate argument). This is Providence, not New York. If anything, the most expensive cities are losing black people more than the cheaper ones, because of gentrification; San Francisco’s black population went down 6% between 2010 and 2015, where over the same period Providence’s went down 0.6%.

            And as for horrible schools, that’s all of Providence. People who want better schools leave the state and go to outer suburbs in Massachusetts. It’s not even about race, because Providence was until recently majority-white, and the middle class still left because it was a poor city in a poor state. (In general, white flight is the cause and not the effect of growing minority population share.)

            The schools-and-crime argument also really doesn’t work for middle-class black flight. Black people who are leaving the Northeast entirely end up in various Southern cities, especially Atlanta. Atlanta does not have better schools than New York or Boston. Its crime rate is far higher. In Chicago, the situation is dicier, because the South Side really does have a big crime problem, but again, the alternative to Chatham or South Shore is not a favored quarter suburb but a lower middle class southern suburb (or Atlanta); the big problem with the South Side is poor job access. That’s even the same problem in Detroit, except in Detroit it’s the entire metro area that’s bleeding jobs rather than some neighborhoods having terrible rail access to the core.

          • Ian Mitchell

            I’d argue metro chicago is bleeding jobs and people unless you repeat the census’ mistake (or deliberate misrepresentation) of keeping steady/growing numbers by adding counties to the metro area that don’t belong there (like Rockford and Kenosha).
            Cook county itself lost nearly 200,000 people between the last two censuses.

            Also, is San Francisco actually losing blacks by number, or only by percentage?

          • Alon Levy

            All of the numbers I’m citing in this thread are absolute numbers, not percentages. SF was also losing whites until very recently.

          • Eric

            The southern half of Chicago city is a good example. Look at the ridership of the Green Line compared to a few decades ago.

            The northern half of St Louis city is another good example.

            I assume most US cities have an area like this.

          • Alon Levy

            The Chicago Green Line is a bad example, because its role as the main spine on the South Side has been supplanted by the Red Line, which is faster and goes farther south. The entire South Side bus network is oriented toward serving the Red Line, to the point that bus routes on east-west streets beyond the terminus deviate to serve the Red Line. Simultaneously, commuter rail service has been gutted. The Illinois Central ran commuter trains every 10-20 minutes all day; upon takeover, Metra slashed off-peak service, so that now it’s every 1-2 hours. It’s not the ghetto that created bad transportation services so much as bad transportation services that created the ghetto.

          • adirondacker12800

            The Census Bureau doesn’t add counties to a metro area or combined statistical area ‘cuz it would look pretty on the map.
            Ghettos exist in places without subways/elevateds. Once the black middle class was able to get mortgages in the suburbs they took off for them just like all the other middle immigrants before them had.

      • adirondacker12800

        That could be a sign of gentrification. The family of four decides to move out to be replaced by a single yuppie or a pair of dinks. Or commercialization. The apartments over the store are being converted to office space. Or both.

        • Ian Mitchell

          It also might reflect that you have different outer suburb environments from inner suburb environments.

          If your inner suburb is close to the core, but is 100% residential, it may be losing residents to the factors you mentioned closer to the core (fewer occupants per unit, commercial properties replacing residents), while losing residents who are moving to the core, and also losing residents who are moving farther from the core.

          Why might residents be moving farther from the core?
          More recent suburbs more commonly include office parks, outlet malls, basically, the inner suburb is just homes- people get what they need (employment, consumption) from the city center or the edge city.
          The new suburb includes more of what people need.

          In this kind of a situation, there’s not a clear solution for the entirety of the inner suburbs. Because you aren’t going to economically produce large-lots for edge city-type developments (those also aren’t really fiscally smart over time- Strong Towns has the math as to why those suburban developments make very bad municipal investments).
          You aren’t going to make a new core where you already have NIMBYs and zoning restrictions on densification and mixed use. Those places will remain primarily single-family homes.

          The existing housing stock is old, and often functionally if not structurally becoming obsolete (bedrooms too small for king sized beds, fewer parking spaces available than adult residents, bathrooms linked to kitchens or hallways with no easy master bathroom possible- plus the inside could include everything form aluminum wiring to asbestos to lead paint- making renovation nonviable).

          In a metro with growth (rather than contraction), these places will get filled- but they tend to become become the new slums. They’re close enough for bus service, but not good bus service. They’ll attract residents who are too poor for reliable cars, but whose employment options are diffuse and functionally necessitate driving. Some inner suburbs are close enough for bike commuting to the core, or have a decent main street of local businesses, and can subsist due to decent livability- though “affordability” is still a bigger selling point than desirability.

          The inner suburbs are where we’re likely to see the worst issues in the coming years- Ferguson isn’t unique. To make it worse, most of those places were built starting from 70 years ago- the pipes (water, sewer, gas) under the streets get maybe 80 years.

          • Alon Levy

            I think this discussion is mixing three different things, which sometimes co-occur but not always.

            1. In-between neighborhoods, defined as neighborhoods too far to be gentrifying but too close to be suburban. In smaller cities like Providence and New Haven, these are usually outer-urban, but in bigger ones, like New York, these could be nearly the entire city and many of its suburbs.

            2. Poor neighborhoods. In the Rust Belt (in the original definition, i.e. including the East Coast), these greatly overlap the in-between neighborhoods, but the identification is never perfect.

            3. Neighborhoods with low-quality housing stock. This is the diciest one, because in old cities, the in-between neighborhoods developed in the late 19th century and early 20th century and have high-quality housing stock. There’s stronger identification between low housing quality and poverty in the inner suburbs than in outer-urban neighborhoods, but that’s more a feature of the newer Midwestern cities, including Detroit but also the more recently-built state capitals (Columbus, Indianapolis, etc.); as a rule, these cities have too low density to support good transit, though.

          • Ian Mitchell

            Older cities have less low-quality building stock, yes. But many cities faced “renewal” that left them with more than they’d otherwise have. Akron, Albany, and Niagara Falls come to mind.

            Gentrification is extremely limited- there were more inner city census blocks to lose average income and population between the last two censuses than gained one or both. So by that definition, “in-between” is the non-downtown of most cities that have existed in substantial magnitude since before 1940, excluding most suburban stock built since 1990 (low-quality housing stock was mainly what got built in that time period as well- not all low quality housing was cheap to build).

            As you said, there’s overlap with poor neighborhoods, but the identification is imperfect.

          • adirondacker12800

            The gentrifcation – I’m not going to try to define that or get numbers – can swallow neighborhoods, rapidly, in big cities. It swallows a block or two in smaller cities, which makes it less noticeable.

  3. Syd Chan

    I’m trying to understand, are you’re criticizing that the proposed Jewelry District BRT intended to improve speeds for bus routes that run through South Providence, routes 1, 3, and 6, won’t improve service for South Providence? Or are you saying that the capital funds being used to build the BRT corridor would have been better spent adding frequency along these three bus routes?

    • Alon Levy

      I’m complaining that the trunk bus route serving South Providence, the R line, is not getting these treatments. I’m also complaining that the 1 isn’t great at serving South Providence, because of problems like the hospital detour, and that the plan makes the 1 even worse by forcing it to detour through the train station, but that’s more a problem for East Side-bound riders.

  4. Andrea M

    I’m not defending the DTC, but you did neglect to mention RI Hospital. The main reason for the route through the Jewelry District is to reach the Hospital District at the southern node of the corridor. While there may have been other possibilities for the route to run along the current R-Line route, I doubt that the Jewelry District was the focus of the route to the hospital.

    • Alon Levy

      The original streetcar idea was explicitly proposed as Jewelry District redevelopment; one of the local power broker pitched it as an alternative to building 7,000 parking spaces in the Jewelry District.

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