Providence’s best-kept transit secret is its BRT tunnel. Converted from a trolley tunnel in 1948, when the trolleys were replaced by buses, it’s a bus-only tunnel connecting Thayer Street in College Hill on the east with Main Street on the eastern edge of downtown on the west, smoothing out the steep grades of the neighborhood. On the surface, the slope from Main to Benefit, the next street to the east, is 15%; in the tunnel, it’s only about 5%. It’s decades older than the systems generally considered the primogenitors of BRT, such as Curitiba’s. It functions as normal open BRT, with six bus lines sharing the tunnel and branching out on the surface.
Whereas other cities do everything within their power to emphasize their BRT lines, sometimes even drawing them on maps as if they were rail lines, Providence keeps its BRT tunnel hidden. Instead, it emphasizes two bus lines – one using the tunnel, one not – by painting them to look like streetcars and calling them trolleys. On the Rhode Island bus map the tunnel does not even appear, but instead the two fake trolleys are given their own inset; the downtown Providence map does show the tunnel, but makes it impossible to trace the bus routes and see which corridors they serve outside the tunnel.
This carries over to developer and landlord blurbs, which can be taken as indications for how much development transit induces. When I looked for apartments in Providence, several listings noted the apartment was close to the trolley; none said anything about a bus tunnel.
The bus tunnel is equally hidden on the surface of the city’s streets. On Main Street, signs direct the traveler to the train station; I have not seen any that even tell one a bus tunnel exists. The station entering the tunnel is prominent once one knows where the tunnel is, but it’s at a location that’s easy to miss – too far north to be the best route from College Hill or Fox Point to downtown, and on only one of several reasonable routes to the train station.
At the Thayer Street portal, the situation is reversed – it’s easy enough to find the tunnel, but there’s no indication that there’s a bus stop in front of the tunnel, much less a shelter for said bus stop – see some vague photos on my photostream. I found out about the existence of the bus stop only when I saw a bus actually stop there to discharge and board passengers. There’s a well-hidden bus schedule at the east portal of the tunnel, but it inexplicably only lists the eastbound schedule; the passenger is supposed to guess when the next bus will head into the tunnel.
Unsurprisingly, the buses aren’t very well-patronized. The combined frequency of the six lines is 12 buses per hour at the peak and 8.5 in the midday off-peak – reasonable for a single frequent line in a large city, albeit in this case the buses are not spaced evenly – but the buses do not look very crowded to me.
If Providence forwent the specially branded fake trolleys and instead adopted the emerging practice of a frequent network map, including letting people know that there’s a segment of busway that is grade-separated, it could see ridership on the bus tunnel increase dramatically. Thayer Street is a busy commercial street, with ample foot traffic until 10 or 11; while downtown is urban renewal hell, it still has retail at the mall that isn’t found anywhere else in the city, while making it easier to connect from the rest of the city to College Hill would let people commute uphill more conveniently.