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Two Trolleys

This is a reorganization of an older article called "A Streetcar Named Desire".

I grew up with streetcars (we called them trolleys though). Some of those trolleys were effective transit, and some of them weren't. We should learn from them when we're thinking about what to do with the Providence Streetcar.

This trolley does not have a right-of-way. When a car double-parks, it is disabled. It gets stuck in traffic. It is unreliable. 

A mass exodus of riders will leave this trolley if it's ever stopped in traffic, and walk.

This trolley does have a right-of-way, and at many intersections it commands the crossing with signal priority. It is quick and efficient. Because this trolley is in the suburbs, its frequency is not as good, but if all things were equal between these two trolleys, this would by far be the preferable option.
From "Does Europe Build Streetcars? Not Quite." on Next City.

Rights-of-way can be built on city streets. Providence should make Exchange Street, parts of Washington Street, Empire, and Chestnut car-free, so that the Providence Streetcar can move freely.

What will this accomplish?
  • A Providence Streetcar with a right-of-way will be able to move more quickly.
  • A quicker streetcar means more back-and-forth trips on the same driver budget--more frequency--which means the Streetcar will be much more useful to passengers.
  • Drivers may lose the rights-of-way where the Streetcar is, but they'll gain much better traffic flow on other streets. Drivers who previously avoided a non-ROW Streetcar will find a ROW Streetcar so much more convenient, they'll use it in lieu of driving. 

The Providence Streetcar should use its alignment north-south from the MBTA to the South Side as a precursor for right-of-way transit on N. Main. It's the natural extension of the route.

Instead of taxing properties in the tax-increment financing, why not tax land? We could put the highest tax on surface parking, allowing buildings to get a lower tax rate. That way we'd encourage infill next to the Streetcar, which will also help ridership, and help pay for the route. PVD Parking Tax, anyone?

Let's build the best Providence Streetcar we can. Let's build one that competes with driving instead of competing with walking.


  1. Someone needs to explain to me the basic pros and cons of streetcars. I honestly don't understand spending $117 million on such a limited form of public transportation. Why not significantly expand the bus system? I'm sure I'm missing something...

  2. If I had my way, we would spend money to expand bus service, and we would make bus service more efficient using rights-of-way, signal priority, station payment, higher frequency, etc. That's called Bus Rapid Transit or BRT. I think that would be more cost-effective. But if we are going to build a streetcar, it's important to make sure it has these features, because a streetcar with all those features is still a great piece of transportation infrastructure.

    The main reason we're building streetcars around the country is that the Obama admin. put USDOT money aside for them. They felt that it would help build transit. Streetcars are more expensive than BRT, but a lot less expensive than subways, commuter rail, els, or "light rail". A streetcar like the kind that is built in Europe is a more effective piece of transportation because it has the features that BRT has. We should make sure ours does too.

    In Seattle, the government built streetcars that didn't draw much ridership, and then recently has taken to giving them rights-of-way as a way of fixing that. The streetcars sat in traffic before, and didn't really give transit users much of an advantage. Now they will.


  3. James is right that a (mostly) dedicated right of way is needed for success but I see little chance that with Providence's commitment to an auto culture that the big shots will give up many driving lanes.
    I don't think the Obama administration has "set aside" $$ for streetcars but the USDOT TIGER grant and "new starts" programs have often funded them to some extent. But RIDOT has also gotten TIGER grants for the Appanaug bypass and I-95 expansion.
    I don't think the proposed route (rr station to near hospitals) would get enough riders to succeed, especially in light of RIPTA's $2/ride "one-state one rate" fare policy (now under review) as there is no commuter base, and for many, it would be quicker to walk. There are also plenty of existing bus options for much of the route, even more if the bus hub at the rr station that voters approved is developed. In short, the streetcar is a very poor way to spend our very limited resources.

    1. A streetcar isn't the best thing, but it's far from the worst thing we could spend our money on. The important battle now isn't streetcar or no streetcar, but what kind of streetcar. We can win a high-quality transit system out of this if we focus on that battle.

      There aren't any places in the world where convincing people to dial back their focus on cars is easy. In Copenhagen, people said they couldn't do it because it wasn't sunny Italy. In Italy, they didn't want to do it because they liked their cars. Even in NYC, you have NIMBYs fighting low-parking or parking-free buildings because they fear the idea of a community not based around cars--in New York! So we have to stop selling ourselves short based on "what we can expect" from Providence. We can't expect much! Which is to say, we're in the same boat as everyone else.


  4. I think we just need to make our voices heard and not give up--a right-of-way and these other service features are what we want, and we won't settle for less. Let's find who we need to talk to in the community and inform people about this, so that we can mobilize and make ourselves a force in Providence and state politics.