While trying to come up with a good proposal for upgraded buses or streetcars in Providence, I tried to base route decisions on RIPTA’s most frequent buses. But as it turns out, there’s a substantial difference between the most frequent and the busiest routes, and existing policies toward investment do not reward high ridership at all.
By far the two busiest lines in the state are routes 11 (Broad Street), with 6,500 weekday riders, and 99 (North Main to Pawtucket), with 5,200. Those are also the two most frequent, with 10-minute peak and midday service, and are usually interlined. This is the only case in which frequency matches traffic: of the next batch of busiest routes – 20, 22, 56, and 60, each with about 3,000 weekday riders – only the 56 has 15-minute off-peak service, the rest ranging from 22 to 35, with the 20 and 22 having 22-23-minute frequency even at the peak. Several less busy lines have 20-minute all-day service, and the frequent network, which uses a 20-minute weekday off-peak standard, looks different from the highest-traffic network.
However, previous and proposed development-oriented transit, including the fake trolleys and now the streetcar, avoid even the 11 and 99. The fake trolleys are distinguished in branding, 20-minute frequency even on weekends and in the evenings, and consistent interlining across Kennedy Plaza. The 92 fake trolley runs from the East Side to Federal Hill without changing its number, but regular buses, including the 11 and 99, change their route number at Kennedy Plaza, and that’s if there’s a consistent route they interline with at all. (When Jef Nickerson pressed RIPTA on this issue, RIPTA said it wants to preserve flexibility.) Likewise, the streetcar is a city-center circulator, and ideas for where to extend it afterward avoid Broad Street and North Main; local transit activists I have talked to believe the preference is for Broadway, a wide street hosting two routes (27, 28) that have 4,500 weekday riders between them, still less than Broad. (The alternative route in the same direction, Westminster, has 3,500 on its two buses, but the difference comes from the routes’ respective tails west of Olneyville Square, and the segments along Westminster and Broadway look about even.)
This is not to say that the state spurns the busiest routes. After the previous Governor vetoed it six times, Governor Chafee recently signed a bill to provide bus signal priority on the busiest lines. The brand for this is called rapid bus. At best, this shows the state thinks that rich people on the East Side and the Federal Hill gentrifiers, and soon the Jewelry District gentrifiers, prefer to ride a service that’s not called a bus, even if it is one. At worst, it points to skewed priorities: the streetcar is explicitly a development tool, and much more expensive than clearly posting schedules at the top end of the bus tunnel and rearranging schedules to provide constant headways within it.
A related issue is the ability to railstitute bus routes. Among all the busy routes, route 11 is among the hardest to replace with commuter rail. Peter Brassard’s urban shuttle proposal and my Woonsocket regional rail proposal use existing railroad lines. Arguably, this could take over the longer-distance functions of the 99, whose demand primarily comes from Pawtucket rather than North Main in Providence. However, the 11 is not paralleled by any rail line. This makes it the most important corridor for any upgrade. Alternative routes, such as continuing the existing streetcar proposal farther south, do not capture the local demand on Broad, which is of moderate intensity everywhere along the corridor. The distribution of demand on Broad is linear, which is less the case for other routes, which connect various anchors spaced farther apart.
It’s not normal for the relationship between traffic and frequency to be so weak. (In New York, busy routes that aren’t frequent by a 10-minute standard are the exception, and are very close to making the cut, e.g. the B8 and Bx39 run sometimes every 10 minutes midday and sometimes every 12). RIPTA needs to be asking itself why some routes are overserved and others are underserved.
But more importantly, the city and the state need to ask themselves why they’re building special branding as not-a-regular-bus around routes that aren’t even the ones that most need it. The fake trolleys get emphasized and specially colored on the map. It’s RIPTA’s fault that the interlined buses aren’t consistently signed, but all of the investment decisions are on the city and the state. Even if it’s necessary to build a streetcar to the Jewelry District and the hospital, why not say that pending additional funds the city will extend it toward and then along Broad? The alignment wouldn’t be any more awkward than that already proposed, and it would only miss a relatively short segment of Broad.