Bringing Back The Streetcars

Providence Cable Tramway State and local planners hope to bring back streetcar lines as part of a comprehensive plan to modernize the public transit system for Providence and surrounding communities. The final version of the plan, called the Providence Metropolitan Transit Enhancement Study, will be released tomorrow. In addition to improving the bus system and increasing the number of RIPTA park-and-ride lots, the report indicates that Providence is an excellent candidate for streetcars. Tuesday’s ProJo,

The study proposes a “starter” streetcar system operating within a roughly two-mile corridor. . It would operate from Rhode Island Hospital north through the Jewelry District, downtown and Kennedy Plaza. It would split there, with one branch going to the Providence railroad station and the other to Thayer Street, on the city’s East Side near Brown University.

The salient feature of a good public transit system is frequency. Just keep ’em coming so that schedules become unnecessary. In Boston, London or Toronto, riders just go to the stop or the station, wait a few minutes, and hop on. As to the buses — and I’m not the first person to consider this — could we consider a larger fleet but smaller buses, deploying them as needed?

(The picture above is from the PPL’s flickr photostream — thanks Jef. This streetcar ran the College Hill, Prospect Street, Angell Street loop. Hard to picture that.)

4 thoughts on “Bringing Back The Streetcars”

  1. Does anyone notice which parts of town are missing for this plan? The North End and the West Side? Why make public transit just to serve the wealthier areas of the city? I have never tried to use North End Buses so I can’t speak to their reliability and frequency, but the West Side is already lacking for reliable and frequent public transit, and is rich with big wide roads like Broadway and Parade ripe for trolley lines. Why leave us out?

  2. I don’t have any numbers in front of me, but I seem to recall being told that the fuel savings is not even. That is, say, a bus half the size doesn’t use half the fuel, it uses more than half the fuel. Most of the real weight of the bus is in the mechanics, not the body, so maybe that’s why. A half-size bus also is more than half the cost of a full-size bus. I think there could be some savings, but I’m willing to bet (again, without numbers in front of me) that it’s not commensurate to reduced vehicle size. Moreover, some per-bus or per-run costs don’t change. Administrative and legal costs are likely the same, and I’ll bet insurance is, too. And there’s no question that one major cost centre, the driver, does not change.

    RIPTA has a pretty big fleet right now (over a hundred buses). I’m not sure what the overage is, or what’s standard for the industry.

    Recent ferry options have proven untenable for various reasons. The fancy catamaran cost a lot (about a million a year) and recouped about a third of that in fares. The difference came from limited federal money that eventually ran out. In fact, that boat would have never run without the federal money; it was their idea, initially, as a demonstration project. 36% return is actually really good, considering that RIPTA overall pulls about 20% return through fares, and that’s the highest in their peer group, and above regional and national averages. The reality is that it’s pretty much impossible to profit on transit, at transit rates.

    I feel we might never know the whole story of what happened last summer. The official story is that the boat was never permitted due to a faulty firepump, which needed a part from Italy. (Which apparently never came. Isn’t our local marine engineering capability good enough to deal with this?) I personally suspect that the private operator just wanted out of the deal, and found any excuse they could. Even if it had run, the ticket costs were higher than a lot of us would want to pay more than a couple times a year.

    In the distant past, the State had a must-run policy, requiring the Block Island ferry operator to run a Bay ferry, even at a loss, as a condition of their continuing B.I. permits. That boat was eventually condemned, however, and that was the end of that.

    But the State could, if it had the gumption, return to that policy, requiring Interstate Navigation to operate a Bay ferry, even at loss, and perhaps offset the cost in part by exercising minor tariffs on out-of-state operators (Mystic, New London, Montauk, etc.) I think that might be the only way we can hope to have a reliable, year-to-year Bay ferry service.

  3. Added cost? Unless I’m mistaken (never happen) smaller vehicles require less fuel. The initial cost would be a capital expense that could be covered (according to the article) by federal money. More buses could run at rush hour, and then we pull in half the fleet during off hours. I also endorse the Newport ferry. I wish we could make that work.

  4. That car doesn’t look like it would have been much fun to ride at this time of year. I’m assuming they had closed cars also?

    Beth, more and smaller buses sounds great from a rider’s perspective, but the added cost is prohibitive. The capital cost of buses is steep enough, but the operations cost — driver and fuel — mean that every bus costs a similar amount, no matter what service is delivered. From a cost/benefit analysis, and given the state’s famously stingy ways with transit, it just doesn’t make sense on paper to provide more service than really necessary.

    Now some of us might argue about what’s ‘necessary,’ but the state has its own metric, and our government isn’t likely to shell out for more than their numbers tell them they have to. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea — I think it’s great, and I wish it would happen — but I think it’s unlikely.

    What I do agree with fully is that we should run a few more buses on some high-volume routes, enough that people could, as you say, largely dispense with schedules. The trend right now, however, is towards the opposite. Until the larger economic situation greatly improves, I don’t think we should hold our breath hoping for really awesome transit.

    I’m a bit dismayed at the 10% figure. Now, I don’t have the numbers in front of me right now, but I seem to recall that over the last year or so, that’s about the amount that RIPTA service has contracted. So, it sounds like we’d ‘expand’ back to where we started just a short while ago.

    I would also like to see the Providence-Newport ferry restored, and better integrated with other transit in the state.

    Most of all, the state needs to review and revise its funding schemes for RIPTA. The current scheme isn’t the worst it could be, but it’s pretty bad.

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