Providence’s Downtown Connector: A Streetcar Transformed into Useful Transit


Source: Greater City Providence,

In the US, streetcars mixed with traffic are popular with developers and some urbanists. But when it comes to actually getting you where you’re going, a bus can do anything a streetcar can do, and it can go around many obstacles (accidents, poorly parked cars, etc.) that shut down a streetcar line.  US streetcar starter lines also tend to be very short, forcing people to make connections to reach most destinations.

Last year, Rhode Island leaders decided that the streetcar wasn’t the right answer for downtown Providence.  Instead, they redirected their federal funding for a streetcar into a bus-based project in the same place.  The Downtown Transit Connector will run through the center of the city, from the medical center in the south to the train station (also a major development node) in the north.   Its buses will come every 4-5 minutes, more frequently than any modern US streetcar. Frequency is critical in downtown circulation; we experience waiting time as a percentage of travel time, so we need extremely high frequency if we’re going only a mile or so.

This is not just a streetcar run with buses.  It’s more powerful, because the buses running along this path, forming the high frequency, will continue onto other routes across the city.  The genius of the project, then, is that it solves two urgent downtown problems at once.  It provides the attractive and legible very-frequent spine that makes so many American urbanists want streetcars, but it also solves the problem of getting major bus line through downtown, so that the whole city benefits.

It’s an excellent project with relevance to many US downtowns. I encourage you to follow its progress.




21 Responses to Providence’s Downtown Connector: A Streetcar Transformed into Useful Transit

  1. Alon Levy June 10, 2017 at 10:23 am #

    It’s going to run every 4-5 minutes, but the R route (formerly the 11 and 99) is still every 10 minutes? Sigh.

  2. Andrew Brown June 10, 2017 at 11:08 am #

    @Alon The R Line has been full every time I’ve used it and could be even better with more frequency and targeted reliability improvements, an extension to the north, etc. Despite its flaws, I still feel like it’s a great example of how concerted effort to improve existing service over the course of years is totally the way to improve a city’s transit instead of a 9- or 10-figure vanity project with a stunted impact thanks to its shaky foundation. I’d love to see RIPTA conduct a full network redesign and push more coordinated trunk lines like this as a transit solution, especially to the E/W as well.

    Is your comment related to the fact that RIPTA seems to be providing an inconsistent service while labeling it all as high-frequency?

    • Alon Levy June 10, 2017 at 8:18 pm #

      There’s always the fake trolley, the 92. When I was renting an apartment there, a landlord tried selling me the apartment as “next to the trolley.”

      Actually useful east-west improvements are more difficult. Going east, you have a lot of buses in the tunnel, but farther east they split into a bunch of moderately strong routes – Hope, Wickenden, and various flavors of east-west routes to East Providence. It’s in theory good for frequency, because then you interline 5 routes that run every 20 minutes (92) to an hour, and get a nice shortcut for pedestrians who don’t want to walk up the hill. But in practice, it’s absolute shit for reliability. You have to run buses on a schedule because no single route is frequent enough to even theoretically support headway management, but the fudge factor is longer than the headway in the tunnel.

      Going west, there isn’t a single trunk. There are a couple of strong corridors, like Atwells and Broadway, but nothing like North Main or Broad. Just run a bunch of 15-minute buses and see if you can make them reliable enough to pulse at Kennedy Plaza.

      • Martha Lauren June 11, 2017 at 9:44 am #

        In London I live on unreliable routes with about eight buses per hour. There are worse things.

        The best you get in the West is either a) 6 buses/hr on Broadway, or b) 5/hr on Cranston, plus 1-2/hr branching via Union, plus 4/hr on Westminster.

        I’m not sure which would be the better choice to link into the tunnel to optimise useful connections. Whichever one would require some reworking of service patterns for through running, as you’ve got a combination of 15, 17 (shudder) and 60 minute frequency tunnel services right now.

  3. Federico June 10, 2017 at 2:56 pm #

    This is very similar to an idea I have for my city. How many lines are going to use the corridor and how many lanes will it have?

  4. Martha Lauren June 11, 2017 at 8:28 am #

    I notice that a lot of the comments on the Greater City Providence article you link to are complaining about the short length of the line; imagining that it’ll work just like a short streetcar. Hopefully this project will work, and then this kind of trunk line will be better understood.

  5. Bjorn June 12, 2017 at 10:29 am #

    Metro Transit in Minneapolis used to do something similar by color-coordinating different routes on their Downtown map based on the street they primarily used. For some inscrutable reason, they got rid of this style of map when the Green Line opened.

  6. Long Branch Mike June 12, 2017 at 11:20 am #

    This is similar to the McKinney Avenue streetcar (M Line) in Dallas, which was extended at each end to terminate at DART light rail stations. This webpage lists the two dozen attractions like restaurants, museums, sports stadiums, hotels etc.

    Unfortunately only two or three vintage streetcars in operation at any one time, meaning 17 or 22 minute frequency.

    • Novacek June 13, 2017 at 7:44 am #

      It’s not similar at all.

      It’s buses, not rail/streetcar.

      It’s high frequency.

      It doesn’t actually stop at the ends, the buses continue routes.

    • JHBW June 14, 2017 at 5:26 pm #

      “17-22 minutes”?? What a joke. One might as well walk.

    • Henry Mulvey August 19, 2017 at 6:59 am #

      that’s a volunteer operation I think so they do the best they can

  7. Joseph Brant June 14, 2017 at 1:17 am #

    Frequency is the important thing here! Whether it’s a train or a bus, we can’t afford to spend so much of our lives waiting for the next vehicle.

  8. Richard Bullington June 14, 2017 at 7:48 am #

    How very 1980’s. This is basically the Portland Transit Mall without the reserved lanes.

    • George Lane June 14, 2017 at 1:53 pm #

      It’s more that the Portland Transit Mall was ahead of it’s time in the States

    • Novacek June 19, 2017 at 5:52 am #

      Looks like it has some reserved lanes.

      “Bus-only lanes along Exchange Street,
      and parts of Dorrance, Dyer, and Eddy
      streets, by repurposing on-street parking”

  9. jack whisner June 16, 2017 at 4:20 pm #

    A great answer in Seattle. Very frequent bus service on 1st Avenue with bus lanes in place of the proposed Center City Connector Streetcar with 12 trips per hour per direction. It would yield much better service at less cost.

    • Jack Whisner February 26, 2019 at 1:47 pm #

      Seattle already did it on 3rd Avenue. In 2005, with the transit tunnel closed for retrofit, downtown pathways were consolidated with Seattle oriented routes placed on 3rd Avenue and suburban lines placed on 2nd and 4th avenues. Since then, the specialization has continued and the frequency and priority provided to 3rd Avenue service has increased. it has been about 130 trips per hour per direction in the peak hours. bus bulbs were added to Belltown. in March, steps toward all-door boarding and alighting will be made on 3rd Avenue and the volume will rise.

  10. Henry Mulvey August 19, 2017 at 6:56 am #

    Does anyone know why they didn’t plan the streetcar in dedicated lanes? That’s what baffles me

    • Ben Brown August 19, 2018 at 3:51 pm #

      A streetcar doesn’t have dedicated lanes whereas light rail does.