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Look Out for #1

I've been meaning to write something about the RIPTA #1 for a while. The route used to be called the #42, which feels auspicious to me, since forty-two is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. I supposed #1 was the only number able to beat the paper-scissors-rock of the original designation (though it is the loneliest*).

The #1 is successful by a lot of measures, at least if you curve things to the low expectations of Rhode Island (sorry, but it's true). I don't have ridership figures sitting in front of me, but just from anecdotal experience I can report that it is well-used (at least in terms of how well-used any Providence transit routes is). The main route runs from Pawtucket center down East St./Hope St., into Thayer, Kennedy Plaza, and through the Jewelry District and South Side. It's pretty linear. It runs (mostly) through fairly walkable areas**. 

But the #1 has a lot of problems too. Take a look at this weekday schedule (I couldn't copy the whole thing into one screenshot, so if you want the full range go to the site):

The #1 has half-hour spacing on weekdays. The frequency gets a little better in the central parts of the route (as it should), but even there it's lacking.

Attleboro Station--much to be desired here, but wait until you
see S. Attleboro. And truthfully, Attleboro center is pretty, if
imperfect--a much better place for transit than S. Attleboro,
which is bordered by trailer parks.
When the #42 became the #1, the Warwick airport became the final southerly endpoint of the route. I'm not one to visit the airport much (I've actually never flown), so the only reason this is even apparent to me is that it flashes on the front of the bus every time I use it. My immediate reaction to this is that having one of the city's most important bus routes split itself off towards T.F. Green airport is fucking crazy. We spent a lot of money to get people to take the train to the airport, and we're not necessarily that successful at convincing them to do so. Why we would duplicate our efforts with the bus system makes no sense to me, especially when many of the places that the #1 connects to the airport also have access to the R-Line, which would take them directly to the door of the Providence T station.

Alon Levy has gone on a couple of informative rant(s) about the warped degree of importance that airports get in transit systems. I'll leave the reasons why RIPTA planners might have though an airport connection would be important to the side, and simply note that for a route an hour and change to complete even from its farthest extremes, the trip from the Providence city line to T.F. Green swallows about a fifth of the route time***. One notes that though the planners at RIPTA were smart enough to focus somewhat more frequency in the center of the route, Pawtucket center does not qualify as part of that "main route", nor even Rochambeau & Hope Sts. Just imagine what eighteen minutes from each bus trip could accomplish if rearranged into more frequency in the parts of the #1 route that have density and potential ridership!

S. Attleboro "Station" (ahem, parking lot). I don't think you can even walk to this
from the adjacent houses.
The fifteen-odd minutes at the northern end of the route are poorly spent as well. I personally think that S. Attleboro Station should be abandoned whenever the Pawtucket/CF one becomes operational. I understand that park & rides are still in vogue in Southern New England, but focusing our transit around surface lots instead of developmental centers is silly, and slows the train route down on top of all else. If people from the edges of Attleboro need to get to the station, the smarter and more efficient way to get them to either Pawtucket/CF or Attleboro center would be through adequate bike infrastructure from the edges of the towns to the centers, not through big state-enterprises in surface lots. The #1 bus running out of its way into fairly sprawly territory just means that the part of the route that go through denser areas can't be spaced frequently enough to get high ridership--the kind of ridership where there's standing-room-only boarding, not the two-thirds-full-sitting buses we see now.

Taken altogether, the fact that the #1 goes to Warwick and S. Attleboro means that about half the route time for those trips is en route to extremes that have very little ridership potential, and little to no walkability. Although not every #1 trip goes to these places, many do, and that adds up to a huge amount of labor-time and wear on vehicles that's being misspent. The people who need access from these locations shouldn't be abandoned altogether, of course, but the state would do a much better service to people if it provided bikeable routes through less-dense areas, since those would cost much less and allow more development potential than park & rides.

As with the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, finding the right question is more important than having the exact answer. It's my view that the #1 route shows that we're not asking the right questions yet.

Update: Jason Becker (@jasonpbecker) brought up a valid point about how bikeable S. Attleboro is. What I had in mind when I said that we should connect S. Attleboro to Attleboro proper and/or Central Falls by bike was this tweet by the Netherlands Embassy in the USA (@NLEmbassyintheUSA):

I think Dutch and American observers alike would note that this picture is not of a particularly fun or exciting biking destination, nor even of a healthy space (for my part, I have to say I really respect the cajones of the Dutch for being willing to tweet to the world the fact that they have such awful places within their borders--not exactly great for tourism, eh? The point when you look at something like this is to realize that even though this is a very suboptimal biking environment, running a path to this location is a much better idea than building a big surface lot.

Some people like the suburbs. I grew up in the suburbs (mine was a pretty dense one, denser than Providence, but still. . . ). You can imagine a point where Rhode Island and Southern Massachusetts might eventually see enough growth that someone might want to develop here. My preference would be a) Let's not, but b) If we're going to, then let's try to build some walkable density around the train station, rather than a lot for people to park & ride and c) If we can't do that perfectly (i.e., we get some kind of a semi-walkable medium/low-density mishmash of suburban housing, then biking is an acceptable way to connect that housing to the train. 

Let's also remember what we're talking about substituting. Who is getting #1 bus service? It's a bus to Pawtucket and Providence on that end of the line. So there's also a train for these folks to take to S. Attleboro (and since there's nothing in S. Attleboro, chances are they're taking the train beyond, probably to Boston). So why put bus resources into this? It might be true that some kind of bus service is needed from some other place in the area, as a lifeline, but not along the Providence/Pawtucket corridor. So biking makes more sense.

Some people do apparently bike in S. Attleboro (I wouldn't. . . ):

I think that ultimately we want to think about how we can make piece-by-piece improvements for biking in order to serve these folks.

But definitely agreed, that S. Attleboro is of much lower value as a biking destination than a lot of other places which are ahead of it.

*Oh man, I can't believe I found a live version of this crappy song.
**The Jewelry District notwithstanding. I think they call it the "Knowledge District" because you have to be a genius at Frogger to cross the street.
***And even this is kind of misleading, because that route time is spent mostly on the highway, meaning that a much longer distance is covered in that time, but with nothing of substance--nothing to ride from or to--in between.


  1. As a Hope Street user of the #1, it seems to me that the route times have become much less reliable since the route was extended. Makes it hard to do time sensitive things like pick up my child at daycare (and thanks RIPTA for helping with my exercise regime-I usually just walk over college hill rather than waiting for the #1). I also don't really understand the S. Attleboro thing. I know people who drive choose S.A. over Providence because of parking, but as a bus rider I would much rather take the bus to the Providence train station than to the S.A. train station.

  2. I've taken the #1 from the airport, and it was great in part because I live right on the #1 route. I do think it's important to provide bus service to the airport - especially because train service to the airport is terrible (no weekend trains!) and most local folks going to the airport are not going downtown anyway (so you have to use the bus to get to providence train station anyway, and hope the train schedule is convenient). Anyway, it would be great to cut the SA end, or they could realign the line into two sections (north from Kennedy and south from Kennedy) to keep the headways decent. in the interim, however, the #1 is pretty okay / there are bigger fish to fry.