R.I.’s Compact Size Could Drive Transportation Reboot
To get there, the state simply needs to follow the roadmap it paid to have developed
February 4, 2021
The transportation sector follows a simple reality. The more people use cars, the worse cars work, as more climate emissions are spewed and congestion swells. The more people use other forms of transportation, such as trains, buses, bicycles, and feet, the better transit works, with reduced greenhouse-gas emissions and safer roadways.
The climate crisis demands that carbon dioxide emissions and other climate pollutants be vastly reduced, to curb the impacts of global warming, to protect public health, and to lessen environmental degradation. Mitigating this multi-pronged crisis requires getting single-occupancy cars off the road and embracing other forms of transportation.
In Rhode Island, the transportation sector accounts for nearly 40 percent of the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions. The multi-state, slow-to-materialize collaboration known as the Transportation & Climate Initiative is designed to reduce transportation-sector emissions. Unfortunately, only three states — Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut — and the District of Columbia are currently onboard. The 10 other states are still weighing their options.
But Rhode Island’s small size — about 1,200 square miles compared to Massachusetts at about 10,500 — provides it with a unique opportunity to move people around more efficiently. Nearly 80 percent of the state’s population already lives within a 10-minute walk of a transit stop, according to John Flaherty, deputy director of Grow Smart Rhode Island.
“If we get serious about it, public transit can be popular,” he said. “It’s a reflection of our values.”
This transformation begins at home. The Ocean State doesn’t need to wait for 10 other states to embrace a regional collaborative that relies too heavily on electric cars to improve its own public transit system and to make its communities more bicycle and pedestrian friendly, like what is being planned for South Kingstown and Providence and what has been done in Central Falls.
Sen. Tiara Mack, D-Providence, is among the growing number of lawmakers who believe Rhode Island needs to stop waiting around to see what other states like Massachusetts and New York are going to do.
“We’re hesitant to become leaders in the Northeast corridor,” she said. “There’s no reason why we need to wait around.”
Transit advocates, like Mack, contend that Rhode Island needs to leverage its transit system, most notably the underfunded Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, to benefit more Rhode Islanders, better support the local economy, and protect the environment.
They note that the state has the planning talent and dense development patterns to build a transit system that briskly moves people — residents, employees, tourists, elected officials — to a slew of destinations — the Statehouse, beaches, business districts, and health-care appointments. The key is providing transportation options that are reliable, convenient, affordable, and equitable.
Flaherty stressed that Rhode Island needs a public transit system that is efficient, noting, for instance, that a bus ride from Central Falls to Quonset (about 30 miles) can take one and a half hours one way — about twice the time it takes by car. He said inconveniences like this make it difficult for commuters to ditch their cars for the bus.
Mack noted that the state needs to make other forms of transit more attractive.
“We need to make transportation sexy,” she said. “We need to make riding a bike to work sexy. We need to stop looking down on people who use public transit. It should be a badge of honor to hold a bus pass.”
Transit riders know
ecoRI News recently spoke with members of Rhode Island Transit Riders, a grassroots group fighting to preserve, expand, and improve public transit in the Ocean State. All four — Patricia Raub, Liza Burkin, Barry Schiller, and James Celenza — noted that the state has spent the past several decades focused on one form of transportation, cars, to the detriment of all other forms of transit. They pointed to the endless widening of highways as one of the symptoms.
“Highway expansion to prioritize car culture is the opposite of what we should have been doing,” Schiller said. “If they have a car now, it’s a heavy lift to get them to ride the bus. No one thing will change this car-dominated culture.”
Altering this paradigm, according to the Transit Riders, will require better service, the sharing of transportation infrastructure, building viable alternatives, unflinching support from the local halls of power, federal assistance, and a sustained marketing campaign to compete with a hundred years of car advertising.
Such an effort to create a robust public transit system, even if initially confined to Rhode Island and its two southern New England neighbors, would help mitigate the climate crisis, buffer the economy, and give a boost to real-estate values.
Transforming the way people commute to work, to the beach, and to the state’s urban centers starts with political will and visionary leadership, something akin to the Providence River Relocation project of four decades ago that spurred economic development and dramatically transformed the state’s image.
It’s also about making public transit — for the sake of clarity let’s define it as trains, buses, ferries, bicycles, electric bikes, scooters, and walking — a priority. It means, for instance, that municipalities and the state should clear sidewalks and bus stops of snow with the same gusto as they do streets. It means, as Burkin noted, stop subsidizing free parking.
Rhode Island knows what a 21st-century transportation system should look like. It just needs to step out of the 20th century.
Plans have been developed to improve and expand public transit and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Consultants have been paid, and state and municipal officials have sunk a lot of time and effort into creating an updated transportation vision for Rhode Island.
One plan, the $600,000 TransitForwardRI 2040 — also known as the Transit Master Plan or the Long Range Transportation Plan — was developed to determine how public transportation can best serve Rhode Island in the future. Both short-term and long-term projects have been proposed, and potential partnerships, policies, and investments identified. It’s a multi-agency effort by RIPTA, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT), and the Division of Statewide Planning that is focused on moving people via bus, rail, and ferry.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, those three modes of public transit moved some 18 million people annually, with the state’s fleet of buses responsible for transporting about 16.5 million of those riders.
While that may seem like an impressive figure, only about 3 percent of Rhode Island residents, pre-pandemic, used public transit to commute to work. Both Connecticut (nearly 6 percent) and Massachusetts (nearly 10 percent) boasted higher percentages.
A handful of initiatives and projects — the relaunching of the Providence-to-Newport ferry, a pilot semi-autonomous shuttle service, the addition of electric buses to RIPTA’s fleet, a pedestrian bridge over the Providence River, the Providence Intermodal Transit Center at the Amtrak Station, and the Pawtucket/Central Falls Commuter Rail Station — have been launched during the past several years.
The state, however, needs a more unified and well-funded approach to build what the Transit Master Plan, published in December, advocates for: “[P]roviding effective and affordable transportation choices that are supportive of healthy communities, provide access to jobs and services, and promote a sustainable and competitive Rhode Island economy.”
It notes that transportation “must equitably benefit all communities, and must be reconciled with quality of life issues as vital as the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the preservation of our natural and historic heritage and beauty of the natural and built environments. It cannot exist independently of these concerns.”
None of that happens if the state continues to build its transportation system to move cars. It means improving in-state public transit and better connecting via electrified rail to what Grow Smart’s Flaherty called “a dense mega region” — Boston to New York City. For instance, the commuter rail that connects Providence to Boston, and points in between, isn’t yet electrified — the tracks are but the trains are not.
“We need a strategy that is more aggressive in building bike and pedestrian infrastructure,” he said. “And we need to recognize the importance of thinking regionally when it comes to the Northeast’s transportation corridor.”
Another plan, the Clean Transportation and Mobility Innovation Report, also notes the importance of a transit future built “upon core values of innovation, equity, public health, and economic development.”
The report notes that, because the transportation sector is the top contributor of greenhouse-gas emissions in Rhode Island, it’s impossible to meet the state’s emission-reduction goal of 80 percent by 2050 without “aggressively transforming” the way the state moves people.
To do so, the recently released report says, “Bold initiatives to electrify motorized transportation, expand public transportation options, and encourage infrastructure as well as community design that allows for active transportation are all needed.”
Flaherty said both plans were developed with significant public input. The cost of implementing the recommendations in the Transit Master Plan ranges from $1.9 billion to $3 billion depending on different options. But, as Flaherty and other transit advocates note, doing nothing will be more costly.
These ambitious and bold plans, and the community consensus they have elicited, however, face an uphill battle against a car-centered culture protected by old-school thinking, especially at RIDOT.
The reconstruction of the 6-10 Connector perfectly exemplifies RIDOT’s lack of vision. The existing system of highways and ramps comprising the interchange was originally built in the 1950s as a bypass around Olneyville. It’s being rebuilt basically in the same manner and will continue to cut Olneyville off from the rest of Providence.
RIDOT’s insistence that this dinosaur be resurrected ignored decades of U.S. traffic data that show that adding more roadway doesn’t lessen congestion. This fallacy even has a name, induced demand, and it basically means that if more highway lanes are built, more drivers will hit the road — and, thus, more climate emission will be belched.
While RIDOT director Peter Alviti continues to reconstruct the 6-10 Connector as visions of Studebaker Champions and Buick Roadmaster Skylarks dance in his head, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has unveiled legislation that offers billions in federal money for cities willing to demolish urban highways that razed or divided neighborhoods decades ago.
To combat this lack of foresight at both RIDOT and the Statehouse, a new Rhode Island coalition, representing organized labor and environmental organizations, has proposed a bold idea: eliminate all RIPTA fares.
Free bus service has the support of several lawmakers, including Mack and Sen. Meghan Kallman, D-Pawtucket.
Kallman noted that Rhode Island — and all of New England — needs to embrace an ambitious transit plan, because a third of the region’s climate emissions come from the transportation sector.
“Walkable communities are the future,” she said during the recent unveiling of Climate Jobs Rhode Island.
Mack said removing as many barriers as possible makes public transit more appealing to more people. She also noted that free RIPTA would remove the stigma that only poor people, the elderly, and the disabled ride the bus.
The initiative’s co-chair, Patrick Crowley, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, said momentum is building for free RIPTA, whether through a budget amendment or a bill.
“We need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels,” he said.
Before presenting their argument for why freeing RIPTA of fares would make sense economically, environmentally, and from a public health standpoint, transit advocates say they first must stop the proposed demise of the state’s central bus hub.
Keep Kennedy Plaza
Since initial concept plans were released in late July, opposition has mounted against the state’s Multi-Hub Bus System plan — an initiative designed to break up Kennedy Plaza’s central bus hub and replace it with a collection of satellite hubs in less-convenient locations. It’s RIDOT’s third proposal in four years to decentralize bus traffic in Kennedy Plaza.
Raub, the coordinator for the Transit Riders, said the state’s latest misguided plan, like the rest, was developed without input from people who actually ride the bus. She also noted that the RIPTA board of directors, as state law requires, should have a member who is a fixed-route bus rider and another who has a disability.
Fellow Transit Rider Schiller noted that the Multi-Hub Bus System is “such a bad idea that if it goes forward it will be demoralizing” to those who rely on RIPTA.
Fourteen community organizations recently joined the Transit Riders in calling on incoming Gov. Dan McKee to reverse course from the Raimondo administration and stop the plan.
In a Jan. 26 letter to McKee, the signers wrote that the Multi-Hub Bus System discriminates against low-income passengers and people of color. Two of the letter’s signers, Grow Smart Rhode Island and the South Providence Neighborhood Association, filed a Title VI civil rights complaint Jan. 18 against RIPTA and RIDOT.
In a November letter to Gov. Gina Raimondo, the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Planning Association noted that the state’s multi-hub plan would be “harmful to people of color and people of lesser means.” It also said the plan “is contrary to the basic principles of transportation planning.”
“People make transportation decisions based on convenience, cost, travel time, and safety,” according to the group of local urban planning professionals. “Placing a station far from the desired destination and increasing transfers are major disincentives to transit ridership.”
The dismantling of Kennedy Plaza isn’t the only state-backed hit to Rhode Island’s public transit apparatus. In July 2019, RIDOT proposed and the State Planning Council approved, by an 18-1 vote, slashing $37 million from what the state calls alternative transportation projects, such as bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, to fund bridge repairs and street paving. (Scott Wolf, Grow Smart’s executive director, was the lone nay vote.)
Six months earlier, RIDOT had requested directing nearly $28 million from alternative transportation projects to pay for street paving and bridge repair work, before withdrawing its request because of an unexpected influx of nearly $70 million in federal money.
With some $2 trillion expected to be available in federal stimulus for infrastructure projects, Flaherty said Rhode Island, the entire Northeast, needs to be ready with “shovel worthy projects.”
“The goal for the last 60 years has been how to move more cars more quickly,” Flaherty said. “It’s had a negative impact. It’s made communities hostile to bicycles and pedestrians.”