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.