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Elorza & Smiley: Part 3: Transit

Our candidate debate continues with Brett Smiley and Jorge Elorza. This section is on transit.

A disclosure: Up until this point we've been writing as impartial onlookers. Sometime this week Transport Providence will be meeting with the Solomon campaign to discuss ideas and possibly write part (or more) of a plan for them. Of course, opening meetings don't necessarily equate good end results--we've met with politicians and towns, etc., before without seeing positive outcomes from our advice, and we would encourage voters to keep a sharp eye out on all the candidates to make sure that they are accountable to whatever promises they make after the election as well. But it's fair to say that if we get to write the policy positions for the Solomon campaign the way we'd like--and that's a huge question mark--those positions would obviously instantly become our favored ones. With that in mind, we don't know what Solomon's positions are yet, or whether and how much he'll rely on us to help shape those in the coming weeks, so we're going to continue to criticize (and sometimes praise) the Elorza and Smiley campaigns according to our sense of what's best for the city. But it's only fair for people to know that our relationship to the campaigns has at least broadened slightly. We'll update readers as this develops.


If you haven't checked out the policy positions of Elorza and Smiley on parking and biking yet, you should. The Smiley campaign has done quite well at giving detailed answers, and has shown itself to be administratively capable, being the earliest campaign to submit a questionnaire. The Elorza positions on some issues have been undeveloped compared to some of Smiley's--but on other positions, especially land use and parking, the Elorza campaign has come out with better positions--and on some positions the details of Smiley's campaign have been complete, but not necessarily good. Neither campaign has said exactly where it wants protected bike lanes, but both have agreed in principle that they're a good thing. We hope votes will continue to bug all the campaigns to commit to specifics, because in our experience very few Rhode Island politicians are outright against bikes or transit, but they often wiggle out of being accountable to putting teeth behind nice statements.

We'll be receiving some form of answer from Michael Solomon to our questionnaire soon, alongside his other co-candidate Lorne Adrain. Solomon and Adrain did not make the deadline for timely submission as Elorza and Smiley did, and we've offered the two punctual campaigns the ability to rebut the Solomon and Adrain positions (and each other's) without further rebuttal from the latecomers--if we end up contributing at all to the Solomon position, that will still be the case.


Smiley is first this time.

Smiley B-

Name three corridors that could benefit from transit-only lanes in the city. 

Providence’s streets are narrow and generally ill fitted for bus-only lanes. In addition, with the roll out of the city’s new bike plan, it will become even more difficult to identify streets that can 

be closed off to all bike and car traffic. That said, RIPTA is in the process of rolling out the first of what will eventually become five rapid bus lines. Rapid routes include shelters and well-located stops that are spaced further apart to increase speed and reduce travel time. Rapid transit is a cost-effective strategy for encouraging development and increasing ridership. 

While transit-only lanes may not be feasible, we do need increased transit options on a southbound corridor (perhaps Broad Street) and a westbound corridor (perhaps Broadway). 

Some of Providence's streets are two narrow for bus lanes, but some of them would be the perfect size for them. In fact, Providence developed almost all of its neighborhoods on trolley routes, and some of those in fact had their own lanes. Certainly the #1 place we should try transit-only lanes would be the R-line route.

In general, the "narrow streets" argument irks us especially deeply as applied to either bikes or transit, because users of this argument generally ignore their options to remove or restrict car space as part of the process of making bike or bus rights-of-way. It's these space issues that can often be the make-or-break for bikes especially, but they also improve access for transit significantly. Consider this--buses with their own rights-of-way in Bogota, Columbia improved their speeds from an average of 5 mph in mixed traffic to 25-30 mph--which is very fast for a bus route when accounting for stops. That speed not only makes individual trips faster, but it compounds the number of trips that can be made on a fixed labor budget--we don't pay bus drivers by the mile, we pay them by the hour. 

So this is an important question. Big points docked for this answer.

What would your administration do to better connect pedestrians in the small corridor between the train station and Kennedy Plaza? 

The City of Providence recently received a major grant to improve the pedestrian environment between Kennedy Plaza and the train station. With this money, we can improve signage and lighting on the street and transform Kennedy Plaza into a booming city center. My administration would also coordinate closely with the Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy to improve and enliven Kennedy Plaza. 

Good answer.

Just to be devil's advocate--we support the planned improvements to Kennedy Plaza overall, but has the campaign met with Barry Schiller yet to discuss his concerns about Washington Street remaining a car-dominated street in what's supposed to be a pedestrian space? And also, let's think about long-term maintenance. We bugged the RIPTA staff to clean a bubbler in the hallway of Kennedy Plaza which had been covered with mold, and when they finally did it was still stained. What does it cost to provide a new top to the bubbler, a few bucks? But it's these little maintenance issues that make or break whether Kennedy Plaza feels comfortable. A new thing we're bugging the RIPTA folks to do is to put soap dispensers in the bathroom--not soap, soap dispensers--there aren't any. And things like keeping Kennedy Plaza open until midnight would make a lot of sense--they'd probably cost money, but it might be worth more to RIPTA riders to be able to go to the bathroom or stand outside of the rain late at night than to have trendy upgrades.

What are your criticisms & praise for the current streetcar plan? How might your administration improve it?

As it currently stands, the streetcar plan is underdeveloped. For example, there is no map that details how the streetcar routes will be integrated into the existing RIPTA system. There is also no projection that demonstrates how an extension of the route past the hospitals, up Dudley, and to Prairie Avenue will increase overall ridership. In addition, this route was shortened to Point Street due to reduced available funding from TIGER II. At this point in time, there is no projected future federal funding possibility. The current streetcar plan does not serve the top three transport destinations, namely the mall, which serves nearly 10 million people a year, the train station, which serves 1.25 million, and the Civic/Convention Center, which serves more than 750,000. 

I would like to see a viable streetcar plan that connects more than just the East Side to the hospital – one that provides access to multiple communities in our city and that could serve customers for both work and nightlife. Any streetcar plan’s viability will be contingent on appropriate federal funding. 

The streetcar is a delicate matter in Providence, because there's some vague truth to the idea that people have extra enthusiasm for rail over buses, and some transit advocates consider it important. But overall, the streetcar. . . sucks. . . It's extremely infrequent for a route of its length--12 minutes at peak sounds good, but when the 2 mile length of the route is taken into account, walking is competitive with it if one has just missed a streetcar, and 20 minute spacing on off-peak is even worse. It's going to cost a lot--certainly a better investment than highways, parking garages, or other day-to-day norms of transportation waste, for sure, but not a terribly effective use of funds. It's not going to have a right-of-way for most of its route. Its route is also kind of odd and confusing, and coupled with bad land use planning from the I-195 Commission, we're very concerned about the viability of this route. 

But of course we'd like to see a good streetcar, and we hope that the poor land use, poor frequency, lack of a right-of-way, lack of route legibility and so on can be addressed. But still, it's hard to see how we're winning all that much from the route being on rails--what people like about rail is the expectation of a good service, and there is some correlation between rail and good service in many cities because of it having these other factors. But what people are going to get is more like a toy--not quite as awful as the Detroit People-Mover, but certainly something too mediocre to meet our city's needs.

Those are our criticisms, but we're impressed by some of the other answers you bring forth on this.

Currently Providence mostly has a transit system that meets at one hub. Many cities have systems where multiple hubs give an "everywhere to everywhere" opportunity to travel. What are some corridors that could get additional transit routes in order to make this possible? What kind of design factors do you think might come into play in making these routes successful? 

I strongly support Governor Chafee’s proposal for a dual hub at the Garrahy Complex and the train station, and I intend to campaign for its passage. After passing the bond issues, we still must establish a proper funding formula for RIPTA (as mentioned above). 

It's important to note that Smiley also supports spending $43 Million in state money for a parking garage above this hub--which we think is a waste of money, and will make the hub useless to transit riders. We call for the I-195 Commission and the various mayoral campaigns to develop a bus hub with apartments or commercial space above it--by "develop" we simply mean "allow to be developed"--the city and state can work out whether they want to subsidize new development in the "Link", but above all no subsidy should go to parking. Instead let's hope for something like Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market, Cincinnati's Findlay Market, or San Francisco's Embarcadero park. These successful places are about creating places, not parking spots.

Do you see a horizon for the transit tunnel through the East Side, either for buses, a streetcar line, or bikes? 

When Governor Chafee led community leaders through the bus tunnel, it ignited the imagination of the whole city. The excitement showed that people really do care about creative, new solutions. While properly funding RIPTA is a top priority, eventually a tunnel could be considered, possibly even as a business development opportunity. Providence’s vibrant arts and cultural community could utilize the tunnel as a venue for public art and it could become a fixture on the Gallery Night circuit, for example. 

 Good answer. 

What can RIPTA's role in preventing drunk driving be, considering the recent expansion of T service in Boston on weekends until 2:30 to combat drunk driving? 

Public transportation can be a public safety tool in combating drunk driving. We should be working with RIPTA in exploring new opportunities for late night bus service. As mentioned above, any streetcar should grant easy access to Providence’s booming nightlife scene so that riding the streetcar is accessible to anyone coming home from a night out.

Passable answer, although the streetcar is going to run on 20 minute off-peak timing on a route that's only 2 miles long, so during the greatest drinking periods it won't be of much use to anyone. One can walk--or perhaps, stumble drunkly--faster than the streetcar can travel from downtown to either end of its route if one has just missed a streetcar by a minute. Frequency matters (See also, Jarrett Walker).

Elorza C-

Elorza did not answer point-for-point on our survey, but did offer these bullet points.

• Explore alternative fuel options and expand access to electric vehicle charging stations to reduce pollution and dependence fossil fuels.

While we gather that the candidate has probably offered this in genuine enthusiasm for the environment, government support for electric cars is a really bad idea. If run on non-wind/sun sources, electric cars are essentially fossil-fuel cars by a different name. Numerous studies have found them to be no more efficient than regular cars, when their life-cycle costs are taken into account. Electric cars also do nothing to solve the space issues that cars present, the safety issues, or the road maintenance problems of private cars. And they're expensive and regressive--the owner of an electric car is likely to be wealthy, and their vehicle is likely to cost an arm and a leg--meaning that investment in this option takes valuable money away from transit or bikes, which are more cost efficient, and actually green.

There's a lot of misguided enthusiasm for electric cars among some environmentalists, but they're wrong. Please change your position. We're docking serious points for this, but if the position changes, we might find ourselves impressed by the flexibility of your campaign to new information.

• Advocate for the Mayor of Providence to be represented on the board of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.

We admit to not having thought of this. This sounds like a good idea.

• Work with the Providence City Council to pass a TIF ordinance to support implementation of the streetcar plan.

We're kind of non-plussed with the streetcar, and more on that can be found in our reply to Smiley. 

• Promote an adequate and stable funding source for RIPTA to help expand service hours of operation.

This is a great idea, and would probably address the issues we raised with drunk driving, but is kind of vague.

• Address issues of street maintenance and repair, particularly after heavy snow.

Good idea. Vague.

• Provide bus transportation for all students who live more than 2 miles from their school.

This has been a highlight of the Elorza campaign. Elorza's campaign deserves credit for leading on this issue, and we've given this particular aspect of his campaign a lot of weight in improving what we otherwise think is a vague set of bullet points. A lot of questions unanswered.



  1. Regarding electric cars, Jeff Speck devotes some space to them in his book Walkable City. If I remember correctly, they've actually found that those with electric cars drive MORE (because the per-mile cost is lower and they feel so good about how 'environmentally friendly' they are). This winds up totally countering the fuel efficiency. And electric cars do nothing to reduce the costs (monetary & environmental) of manufacturing cars, constructing & maintaining auto infrastructure, etc. It was something I hadn't really thought about before.

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