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Maybe We Should Cut Some Bus Routes, and Nix the Streetcar


Maybe we should cut some bus routes.  And nix the streetcar.

You're probably pretty surprised to hear me say that.  I'm a little surprised to hear me say that too. I just finished Human Transit (currently on sale online for $4.99) by Jarrett Walker, and the book has convinced me that in Providence, consolidating and eliminating some of our bus routes into coherent, easy to understand, frequent lines would be better for all of us.

Walker says:
Transit debates. . . suffer form the fact that today, in most of our cities, most of our decision makers are motorists.  No matter how much you support transit, driving a car every day can shape your thinking in powerful, subconscious ways.  For example, in most debates about proposed rapid transit lines, the speed of the proposed service gets more political attention than how frequently it runs, even though frequency, which determines waiting time, often matters more than speed in determining how long your trip will take. Your commuter train system will advertise that it can whisk you into the city in 39 minutes, but if the train comes only once every 2 hours and you've just missed one, your travel time will be 159 minutes, so it may be faster to drive, or even walk.
One of the car-based notions we have about transit is that it's good to have a lot of routes.  That's because it looks good on a map, as if there's a lot of coverage.  In reality, though, transit operates very differently than roads.  With roads (or perhaps, bike routes) you want a lot of options, because you're at the helm.  With transit, you really just want a simple, reliable, constant service, that helps to supplement how far you can get as a pedestrian.  The ample routes on a map trick us into thinking we're moving like a car, when we're not.

So on the West End, we have the 92, the 27, and the 19, and any one of these could be used to get to Downcity--and in fact, these are just the routes I happen to use sometimes.  I'm fairly sure there are even more.  

On the map, this looks like lots of options. In reality, none of these options is good though, because they're all infrequent and unreliable.  The 92 moves at glacial pace through Atwells Avenue traffic, while the other two, although faster, are still fairly infrequent.  It's like a Sophie's choice trying to decide whether to risk missing one route for the other, especially when on any given day the schedule may not even hold to be true.

Instead of the illusion of three routes, why not just have one line.  We call it a "line" because it's actually pretty permanent.  By combining these three buses, we could have triple the frequency, which means riders won't have to worry about a schedule.  Instead of using Atwells or Westminster, we'll put the line on Broadway, because that's no more than a third of a mile from Atwells at its farther point, and no more than a quarter of a mile from Westminster at its farthest point.

The 92, 27, and 19 don't go to the same places beyond my neighborhood, but another point that Walker makes addresses this.  Walker says its far better to have short routes that connect with others than to rely on complex routes that branch out and dilute service.  If RIPTA ran a consolidated east-west route between the East Side and Olneyville, and relied on connecting services to branch out in different directions, in could make all of the routes more frequent.  

You might say, as I did, "Don't transfers suck?"  I sometimes take the 92, even though, as I said, it's the farther walk for me, and moves the slowest of any of the bus routes, because at least it means the route will go straight through to the East Side.  The idea behind having a simplified transit map, though, is that it allows the routes to run at high frequency, so the amount of time waiting at Kennedy Plaza to transfer would be much shorter.  I'm not certain that we should force people to transfer for east-west trips at Kennedy Plaza, because I don't think that makes that much sense.  But if you were going north-south at some point, you'd get off of the main east-west line, and use any number of north-south routes at a transfer point.

Walker says the best system would work essentially like a pulsating grid.  RIPTA's current model is more like a labyrinthine octopus, trying to deliver a strange variety of specialty routes, none of which runs often enough to compete with cars for ease, rapidity, or spontaneity of travel.  We could have one simplified north-south line running along a transit-only Thayer Street, and along Hope Street, instead of a rather odd 42, which comes all the way down a car-cluttered Thayer, and then tuns down the tunnel and gets stuck in Downcity traffic.  Having a solid east-west route that connects with the Thayer/Hope one would mean that both ran more frequently and efficiently, but without greater cost. The transfer would be worth it.

Likewise, parts of the Dean/Potters/Cahir/Prairie/etc. north-south route could be made transit only, or at least have transit only lanes, in order to connect a useful north-south route connecting a variety of neighborhoods.  Instead of running several buses from Kennedy Plaza, each to neighborhoods that could only justify their service by their own ridership, RIPTA would run a consolidated north-south line that could be justified by ridership from Smith Hill, Federal Hill, the West End, Upper & Lower South Sides, and perhaps even parts of Cranston.  By alleviating choke points so that the bus can run efficiently through traffic, RIPTA could make the service useful, and reliable.  This would also be worth the transfer, and would add the usefulness of the east-west line.

There would be other routes, besides these, but the point is that there would definitely be fewer routes than today.  And they wouldn't have to be streetcars.  In fact, in terms of cost, it might be better if they weren't.  So, in conclusion.

1)  We should get rid of a lot of routes.

2)  A streetcar is probably not that great an idea.

Interested in your comments below. 


So I'm updating this with some comments and questions people have made in Twitter, because I think they're worthwhile, but I find that having full conversations in Twitter is impractical.  

Jason Becker had a lot to say, but these were some choice comments I picked out to republish:

And Jef Nickerson, of Greater City Providence, wrote
 Which followed with:
In terms of Jason Becker's thoughts, I'd be curious to see if you really can't get serious ridership increases on a bus if the bus has a right of way and runs frequently and efficiently.  And to some extent, even though I think the development question is important, I don't like the idea that we're wedding ourselves to a particular technology (rail) rather than a particular type of route (frequent), out of the hope that it's going to aid developers.  Development is a good side effect of transit, but the reason we want transit is to move people without cars.

In terms of Jef Nickerson's comments, I would welcome his elaboration below, because he may certainly have the better on me about that.  I'm curious.

I'm certainly emotionally with everyone else, because I love trolley/streetcar systems.  I grew up in a town that had two trolleys (the 101 & 102) that connected to SEPTA's El, and because they had a right of way, they were actually really helpful.  But I'm also aware of examples of trolleys from Philly that were not as helpful.  Although it was a pride and joy, culturally speaking, to have the 34, 13, 11, and 10 trolleys running through West Philly, a lot of times they got bunched up in traffic so that you'd have five at once and then none for an hour.  All it took was one Fed-Ex truck double parking (which happened five times a day, at least, on any given block) and you'd back the trolley up so that it couldn't move. 

And Walker's point about spreading out service along a bunch of branches also makes sense to me as a criticism of the way we treat transit.  If you lived in West Philly, you might stand on Chester Avenue in the middle of Clark Park and look to see which of the four trolleys was coming, and either bolt north or south depending on which one it was.  This was great if you were athletic, and living close to where the branches started to converge.  But if you lived farther out, it meant you had a less frequent service.  In a city of Philly's size, with the level of density it had, and so on, maybe that was worth it, because you could keep frequency and span relatively high from ridership.  But in Providence, shouldn't we be trying to focus really strongly on getting one or two good right of way lines?  The streetcar proposals I've seen don't seem to address this.


  1. There are a lot of good ideas here. The trolley tracks are 60 years gone but our transit map essentially never changed. That is a long time without a fresh look at the question of where should the buses go?

    When they eventually figure out that every bus route does not need to terminate at Kennedy Plaza they can give it yet another multimillion dollar redesign!

  2. J

    Thanks for pointing me to this. You've represented my points fairly. For a summary that puts my work in context (and the lead-in to my next book if I ever have time to write it) see here: http://www.humantransit.org/2013/03/abundant-access-a-map-of-the-key-transit-choices.html On your technology debate, see here: http://www.humantransit.org/2011/02/sorting-out-rail-bus-differences.html


  3. Whoa, that's the closest thing to Annie Hall I've ever experienced. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=OpIYz8tfGjY&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DOpIYz8tfGjY

  4. I'm particularly interested in this point:

    "Some variable cost differences. Broadly speaking, bus-based projects that use portions of existing roadway will be much cheaper than building rail for those same segments would be. Beyond that, costs for bus vs. rail projects can be hard to compare. Capital costs for rail include vehicles, while a busway is sometimes run with an existing bus fleet. Certain bus-rail comparisons in certain corridors may turn up significant differences in operating cost that may be valid in that situation, but need to be checked carefully to ensure that they assume the same factors on both sides."

    I'd like to understand this more deeply, because this is one of the central questions.

  5. Having a rail system doesn't mean that we would have to abandon our bus lines. It sounds like a combination of both would be in our best interest.

    It wasn't clearly articulated, but maintaining a rail system is definitively more cost efficient over time.

  6. Could you go into detail on that, AG? My understanding is that rail tends to get higher ridership, but that a lot of that ridership results from things that could be done with buses (but usually aren't). Things like frequent, legible service with a long span.

    One of the things Walker says is that it's worth the investment in rail if it does things to limit mixed traffic lanes, because that's one of the things that ensures reliability and high frequency. I guess if I was to prioritize one thing from his book, it's the idea that picking the vehicle before choosing those aspects of the route is kind of like getting psyched about the paint color on your first car but not asking what the mileage is, etc.


  7. There's a lot of talk here about Right of Way. And certainly not having to sit on the bus in traffic is an important determinant of an individual's likelihood of riding. But isn't part of the point that dedicating right of way is difficult and expensive? Especially in a dense urban area. That very concept drove up the cost of the California high speed rail.

    I think we would all love for lots of buses and the streetcar to have dedicated right of way. But that's a different argument. It's not related to whether buses or rail are better investments. It's not inherently easier to give buses right of way compared to rail.

  8. That seems like a fair comment.

    I guess Walker has said, and I'm repeating, is that we get really excited about rail as if rail itself is the answer to something. I agree with your point that right of ways would be a challenge for buses as well as rail, but isn't that the point? What does rail, by itself, give us? I'd be psyched to see a streetcar, but we should be willing, as a city, to put the extra effort behind a right of way, especially because it seems to me--and please do correct me if you think I'm off about this--a right of way with prefential signaling might only be necessary at certain points of the route.