South County Rhode Island, or, How Sparse is Too Sparse for Transit?

Commuting Boston Student

Senior Member
Joined
Jan 17, 2012
Messages
1,168
Reaction score
1
Well, as of tomorrow morning, Wickford Junction has been open for business for a whole month - the next step in a many step plan to get proper commuter rail running through Rhode Island, instead of just to and out of Providence. Future plans call for service to Westerly and Woonsocket, with several infill stations along the way - East Greenwich, Cranston, Pawtucket, and others - but not Newport, for which I've been assured the price tag for getting rail any way that isn't South Coast Rail through Fall River is not just cost-prohibitive, but beyond high-budget to the point of insanity.

I came to resign myself to the fact, then, that the only way to get to Newport from South County (barring any complicated transfers or excessive doubling back) was going to have to be by a bus, which led me to start thinking about RIPTA and the bus network Rhode Island currently has in place.

And frankly? South of Warwick is a gaping transit hole, with the exception of - you guessed it - Newport, which is doing pretty good as far as bus service goes. South County itself, on the other hand, is served on a theoretical level only by three Flex buses operating in Westerly, Narragansett, and on URI's campus. (While there are four fixed bus routes that 'operate' in South County, all four are meant for getting people into Providence rather than through service in South County - with the 90 bus literally bearing the designation of 'Park and Rides.')

In the interest of full disclosure, that's probably in no small part because there isn't a whole hell of a lot going on in South County that would attract people - other than the beaches, but the way Route 1 works in South County makes it literally impossible to cross without at least one U-Turn. I imagine that's a death sentence for trying to run a bus route that would need to turn on and off of Route 1, which kills just about any bus route with merit other than express service Westerly-Newport.

Which brings me to my next point, and the point of this thread - just how sparse is too sparse for transit? At what does it become cost-prohibitive even to run a token bus through a town, much less frequent service?

I submit that South County is close to this point - but not quite there, and could absolutely benefit from a few new bus routes.

I want to hear what you guys think, even if that's just "you're nuts, Commuting Boston Student."
 

FrankLloydMike

Active Member
Joined
Jun 24, 2010
Messages
514
Reaction score
0
Which brings me to my next point, and the point of this thread - just how sparse is too sparse for transit? At what does it become cost-prohibitive even to run a token bus through a town, much less frequent service?
As someone who would really like to see better transit in my native southern New Hampshire, and who has drawn up routes I'd like to see like the ones you did, I appreciate what you're talking about.

I don't know much about South County, but my guess just from looking at the maps is that it probably is too sparsely populated to warrant much bus service.

We're in such a bind in areas all over the country that, like South County, seem to have been developed in largely auto-centric, sprawling patterns. Even as more people are moving to cities and denser, pre-war suburbs--and even more are expressing an interest in living in such places--a lot of growth is still happening in sparsely populated, auto-dependent suburbs like South County. And it's rarely happening in a more responsible, traditional pattern that would support public transit.

Providence is a bigger city and metro area than Manchester, and Rhode Island has been more supportive of and has better funded public transit than New Hampshire (RI is unique in being the only state entirely located within a single metro area, and I would say being the only state centered around a single, strongly urban city), but I think there are some things that are true in both cities. Relatively scarce funding for public transit should be focused on supporting reliable, frequent and convenient public transit and building ridership in urban areas, as well as using it as a development tool in new or redeveloped areas. That should be complimented by more express, commuter-oriented transit extending into nearby suburbs and linking other cities.

Unfortunately, I don't see a good way to serve areas like South County with local bus service. I just really doubt that there is sufficient ridership to warrant service that would be frequent or direct enough to attract riders. Buses would have to run at a huge loss for relatively little benefit, and I think it makes more sense to spend that money on improving transit in cities and more densely populated areas. Something like commuter rail or an express bus connecting those areas to destinations and employment centers like Providence might work, but I don't think local bus service would make sense.
 
P

Patrick

Guest
Don't think rail is ever cost prohibitive--it's one of the more efficient (and therefore least costly) modes of transportation, and has demonstrable spinoff benefits at transit stops in terms of real estate development. I mention the second part because it is capturing that value increase that helps subsidize the rail. And as a gentleman I just presented alongside at a conference on New Urbanism, Chris Leinberger of Locus, said, "if you think roads pay for themselves, I've got a bridge to sell ya."

Transportation is all subsidized, but in terms of efficient travel and responsible real estate development, rail is better than road. When the externalities are taken into account, moreover, it really is cost-prohibitive NOT to extend rail.

If any region, including Maine, NH and VT, wanted to be a pioneer, and dump a ton of public money into subsidizing a responsible commuter rail system, it would capitalize on the benefits of urbanism quickly and be a regional leader (thus attracting even more of a magnet status of development). Often the argument is made that density doesn't support commuter rail. but the reality is that the transportation available doesn't support density.

There is a "breakfast seminar" entitled 'growing by streetcar' to be presented by the Maine Real Estate Development Association coming up in Portland which will look at the Providence model and try to glean some insight from it. It might be a good excuse for someone in the area to take a fun day trip and enjoy the town while learning some interesting info. Let me know if you want more details, otherwise a google search should do it for more info.
 

Matthew

Senior Member
Joined
Mar 3, 2012
Messages
3,585
Reaction score
1
If any region, including Maine, NH and VT, wanted to be a pioneer, and dump a ton of public money into subsidizing a responsible commuter rail system, it would capitalize on the benefits of urbanism quickly and be a regional leader (thus attracting even more of a magnet status of development). Often the argument is made that density doesn't support commuter rail. but the reality is that the transportation available doesn't support density.
Not if they build it next to single family homes and never up-zone. They have to be willing to change land usage to go with the increased access.
 

F-Line to Dudley

Senior Member
Joined
Nov 2, 2010
Messages
7,729
Reaction score
3,118
Don't forget, rail service here is not a new idea. Until 1979 there was daily Providence-Westerly commuter rail service with stops in Warwick, East Greenwich, Wickford Jct., Kingston, Kenyons, Shannock, and Westerly. Roughly the same places all the newly proposed infill stops are going to be. Prior to 1972 it went all the way to New London. Penn Central was denied permission to discontinue the route because the ridership was high enough, so it took an extra decade of crapifying it down to single rush-hour runs in a dingy old single-car Budd DMU to kill the ridership enough to abandon.

There are people still in the workforce who rode this train daily while it was still operating. Couple that with excellently frequent Amtrak service that some (not many because of the fare structure, but some) use as an actual commuter rail alternative and this corridor never totally lost its acclimation to train transit like NH did. So when you're looking at density you have to factor that in. This is not a blank slate for this mode because of the current options (incl. MBTA and Shore Line East service bookending the South County gap on both ends), and the fact that the in-state service lasted further into what we'd call the 'modern' era of publicly-subsidized commuter rail than other passenger lines that went belly-up when the private RR's collapsed (in most cases with the routes being on their deathbeds since the end of the steam era). I would agree that they have a challenge in beefing up the RIPTA bus feeder coverage, but the route itself has very solid ridership fundamentals in the 2 decades worth of study it's gotten. And very little of the typical local opposition to new and scary things.

Also must be said that most upstart commuter rail services don't have spanking new 150 MPH electrified HSR track and 2 Amtrak-renovated or to-be-renovated intermediate stops (Kingston, Westerly) ready and waiting for them from Day 1. So that helps a lot by being able to serve up a modest capital cost and stagger out the build out-of-sequence to get riders moving while still chasing down funding pieces. They aren't being over-optimistic on the ridership projections to justify the build because the barrier for entry is pretty low. So unlike a bottomless pit like South Coast FAIL there's decent confidence that South County CR would meet or overperform its initial books-balancing estimates.


EDIT: Should also add that the initial study that recommended "Proceed to Step 2" on South County CR was in 1993, only 14 years after suspension of service. That's also important to remember when comparing this to routes that haven't existed since the 50's/60's which local residents had long forgotten about. The Worcester Line had no commuter rail past Framingham for 19 years. Newburyport Line had no commuter rail past Ipswich for 21 years. Fitchburg Line had no service to Fitchburg beyond Ayer for 15 years. Providence Line had no service beyond Attleboro for 7 years. 14 years after a modern-era abandonment is not nearly long enough for people to forget, certainly not when the drumbeat for further study and planning has been pounding away uninterrupted in the 19 years since '93...now to the point where they're talking substantive dates for start of service.
 
Last edited:

Commuting Boston Student

Senior Member
Joined
Jan 17, 2012
Messages
1,168
Reaction score
1
I would have some serious reservations about a Kenyon/Shannock stop. Eyeballing it, it's 4 miles of a track between Kingston and where the rails meet Route 2 in Kenyon - the same route that you would take for most of the 10 minute journey by car or bus between that station and Kingston station. There is such a thing as too many commuter rail stops, I believe.

That having been said, I couldn't be more on board with an East Greenwich infill. Feeder bus routes are going to be a problem, but maybe less so if we send them all to Wickford Junction, which can certainly handle a LOT more traffic than what Wickford the town will produce. I can definitely see it being the go-to park and ride station.

On the subject of buses, Route 1's inconvenient geometry is going to need to be corrected at some point to connect Charlestown to Kingston Station as well as the south coast of the state. Fortunately, those corrections are (as a far as I know) a single-overpass affair. The biggest challenge would be demonstrating why it's a good idea to remove that barrier to cross traffic.
 
P

Patrick

Guest
Not if they build it next to single family homes and never up-zone. They have to be willing to change land usage to go with the increased access.
This is an important point. However, there are plenty of places I can think of in Maine at least that wouldn't need to be upzoned. They allow 15 story buildings and have few use restrictions, but are currently surface parking and drive-thrus (see Auburn, Maine downtown).
 

F-Line to Dudley

Senior Member
Joined
Nov 2, 2010
Messages
7,729
Reaction score
3,118
I would have some serious reservations about a Kenyon/Shannock stop. Eyeballing it, it's 4 miles of a track between Kingston and where the rails meet Route 2 in Kenyon - the same route that you would take for most of the 10 minute journey by car or bus between that station and Kingston station. There is such a thing as too many commuter rail stops, I believe.

That having been said, I couldn't be more on board with an East Greenwich infill. Feeder bus routes are going to be a problem, but maybe less so if we send them all to Wickford Junction, which can certainly handle a LOT more traffic than what Wickford the town will produce. I can definitely see it being the go-to park and ride station.

On the subject of buses, Route 1's inconvenient geometry is going to need to be corrected at some point to connect Charlestown to Kingston Station as well as the south coast of the state. Fortunately, those corrections are (as a far as I know) a single-overpass affair. The biggest challenge would be demonstrating why it's a good idea to remove that barrier to cross traffic.
Cranston, East Greenwich, and West Davisville are the 3 additional stops officially proposed besides the existing Green, Wickford, Kingston, and Westerly stops. I'm sure that Kenyon/Shannock stop on the old service was some 19th century leftover that simply hung around with a bare platform until the end. Not one of the post-'93 studies lists that as a potential stop.

The 2009 Woonsocket study also lists Olneyville as a small infill stop in the city of Providence where all 3 CR services (MBTA, Woonsocket, South County) are due to overlap, but that doesn't appear to have made the cut. Doesn't surprise me...that's one you add on later after the full service density has been cranking along for a solid decade. It's not a relevant under the scope of any startup service plan.
 

Commuting Boston Student

Senior Member
Joined
Jan 17, 2012
Messages
1,168
Reaction score
1
Cranston, East Greenwich, and West Davisville are the 3 additional stops officially proposed besides the existing Green, Wickford, Kingston, and Westerly stops. I'm sure that Kenyon/Shannock stop on the old service was some 19th century leftover that simply hung around with a bare platform until the end. Not one of the post-'93 studies lists that as a potential stop.

The 2009 Woonsocket study also lists Olneyville as a small infill stop in the city of Providence where all 3 CR services (MBTA, Woonsocket, South County) are due to overlap, but that doesn't appear to have made the cut. Doesn't surprise me...that's one you add on later after the full service density has been cranking along for a solid decade. It's not a relevant under the scope of any startup service plan.
Huh, well how about that.

Any chance these studies are published online somewhere? I'd like to look at them, but I have no clue where to look.
 

F-Line to Dudley

Senior Member
Joined
Nov 2, 2010
Messages
7,729
Reaction score
3,118
Huh, well how about that.

Any chance these studies are published online somewhere? I'd like to look at them, but I have no clue where to look.
RIDOT's Intermodal Planning website has got most of the documents collected together on one page...except for Woonsocket. They've got the ancient '93 study...had to Google for the '09 one that's got the very detailed ridership/financial numbers. Site's also got the (old) Aquidneck Island rail improvements study that evaluates the options for improving the current dinner train for better in-season general transit and positioning themselves to capitalize on the "around-the-horn" option should MA ever come around.
 

Mark24

New member
Joined
Mar 27, 2012
Messages
39
Reaction score
0
http://www.dot.state.ri.us/documents/intermodal/WoonComRailFinalRpt.pdf

this site will lead you to the most recent Woonsocket study that includes service possibilities to Providence/Boston/Worcester

South County is a Rhode Island term for Washington County. RIPTA does have service from Kingston Station(Amtrak) to Newport as a local run. Doesn't really connect with any incoming train from either direction. The new Wickford Station has but two buses for arriving and departing commuters. When it comes to feeder service from local bus runs they have done a terrible job. Bus 14 from Newport comes within 1.25 miles of the station, but does not stop. The runs that you propose for new service could and should be running at least during the summer tourist months. The population nearly doubles between Memorial and Labor days. The Wakefield Mall area could be used as a transfer point for at least 4 spokes.
 

Commuting Boston Student

Senior Member
Joined
Jan 17, 2012
Messages
1,168
Reaction score
1
South County is a Rhode Island term for Washington County. RIPTA does have service from Kingston Station(Amtrak) to Newport as a local run. Doesn't really connect with any incoming train from either direction. The new Wickford Station has but two buses for arriving and departing commuters. When it comes to feeder service from local bus runs they have done a terrible job. Bus 14 from Newport comes within 1.25 miles of the station, but does not stop. The runs that you propose for new service could and should be running at least during the summer tourist months. The population nearly doubles between Memorial and Labor days. The Wakefield Mall area could be used as a transfer point for at least 4 spokes.
That's not totally accurate - 'South County' includes the entirety of Washington County plus West/East Greenwich and Coventry, which are Kent County.

The buses that go to Kingston Station should link up with commuter trains if and when the trains finally reach there.

I didn't think any bus went to Wickford Junction - which one does? The 66 is much closer than the 14 (which is a T.F. Green connection, anyway), coming within half a mile of Wickford Junction and stopping... at the nearby 102 and 2 Park and Ride, and walking between the two is an experience I would not recommend to others.

As a fun fact, the 65 bus route I propose was cannibalized from the abortive 'Park and Rides' bus, which should actually take that route up to Wyoming (unless it gets on the highway at exit 1 just to get off the highway at exit 3 for near-zero net time savings). I wouldn't know, since I've actually seen the 90 in action a grand total of once and I didn't have the time to shadow it as it went on its way. I decided to run it out to URI so that there can be three bus routes serving Kingston-URI, to keep headways down for traveling students.
 

Mark24

New member
Joined
Mar 27, 2012
Messages
39
Reaction score
0
That's not totally accurate - 'South County' includes the entirety of Washington County plus West/East Greenwich and Coventry, which are Kent County.

I have never known West/East Greenwich and Coventry?, then why not West Warwick, to ever be refered to as South County.

The buses that go to Kingston Station should link up with commuter trains if and when the trains finally reach there.

agreed, but they don't even match up to Amtrak for the most part.

I didn't think any bus went to Wickford Junction - which one does? The 66 is much closer than the 14 (which is a T.F. Green connection, anyway), coming within half a mile of Wickford Junction and stopping... at the nearby 102 and 2 Park and Ride, and walking between the two is an experience I would not recommend to others.

two inbound to Providence stop at WS and two outbound from Prov stop there during commute times only. The 14 stopping at WS would allow passengers from Newport/Jamestown to catch an earlier train then the one they could catch at T.F. Green. It would also allow others along the route to be car free for their commute with a bus connecting to WS. The WS has its own parking garage. The Park and Ride lot should be scapped with all parking at WS.
 
P

Patrick

Guest
Well, as of tomorrow morning, Wickford Junction has been open for business for a whole month - the next step in a many step plan to get proper commuter rail running through Rhode Island, instead of just to and out of Providence. Future plans call for service to Westerly and Woonsocket, with several infill stations along the way - East Greenwich, Cranston, Pawtucket, and others - but not Newport, for which I've been assured the price tag for getting rail any way that isn't South Coast Rail through Fall River is not just cost-prohibitive, but beyond high-budget to the point of insanity.

I came to resign myself to the fact, then, that the only way to get to Newport from South County (barring any complicated transfers or excessive doubling back) was going to have to be by a bus, which led me to start thinking about RIPTA and the bus network Rhode Island currently has in place.

And frankly? South of Warwick is a gaping transit hole, with the exception of - you guessed it - Newport, which is doing pretty good as far as bus service goes. South County itself, on the other hand, is served on a theoretical level only by three Flex buses operating in Westerly, Narragansett, and on URI's campus. (While there are four fixed bus routes that 'operate' in South County, all four are meant for getting people into Providence rather than through service in South County - with the 90 bus literally bearing the designation of 'Park and Rides.')

In the interest of full disclosure, that's probably in no small part because there isn't a whole hell of a lot going on in South County that would attract people - other than the beaches, but the way Route 1 works in South County makes it literally impossible to cross without at least one U-Turn. I imagine that's a death sentence for trying to run a bus route that would need to turn on and off of Route 1, which kills just about any bus route with merit other than express service Westerly-Newport.

Which brings me to my next point, and the point of this thread - just how sparse is too sparse for transit? At what does it become cost-prohibitive even to run a token bus through a town, much less frequent service?

I submit that South County is close to this point - but not quite there, and could absolutely benefit from a few new bus routes.

I want to hear what you guys think, even if that's just "you're nuts, Commuting Boston Student."
Great question, as a planner, I know there are minimum densities that your state DOT will probably espouse as those at which bus service makes sense, and it's probably right. On the other hand, I am of the opinion that there is no minimum density for rail transit. The evidence is clear that rail builds economic development; quite literally, transportation drives development. The evidence of bus service doing the same is less well understood, and no clear pattern has emerged, according to my understanding (based largely on a presentation with Chris Leinberger of the Brookings Institute, a developer and principle of LOCUST, a TOD advocacy and development firm). So, Leinberger used the following example: no town would say "build a farm in the middle of nowhere and then we'll build a road to it. Instead, it's the other way around. You'll see farms pop up along the roads towns build." That's paraphrasing, but the point is that transportation channels and stimulates development. So with density versus transit in the chick or the egg sense, it's transit first, development density second. Density is not possible without transit; transit is possible without density (but it is subsidized at first more than later, when value capture can foot some if not all of the cost). I just attended a breakfast seminar in Portland the other day, entitled "Transportation Builds Development: Growing by Streetcar," put on by a consultant Dan Hodge of HDR consulting out of Boston, chief economist for the Providence study. You may want to contact him for more specific technical requirements of transit densities. Him and your state DOT. The general point remains, however, that density follows, not leads.
 

Matthew

Senior Member
Joined
Mar 3, 2012
Messages
3,585
Reaction score
1
That works if zoning regulations don't ban density. That's why it worked in the 19th century. But these days, there's too many restrictions on development to make that work economically. Too many NIMBYs whining about lack of "greenspace" or lack of "parking."
 
P

Patrick

Guest
That works if zoning regulations don't ban density. That's why it worked in the 19th century. But these days, there's too many restrictions on development to make that work economically. Too many NIMBYs whining about lack of "greenspace" or lack of "parking."
You were right, until recently. The most expensive neighborhoods in the country are now in walkable urban places, and being urban, to the extent it equates to being "green," is also trendy. The market forces want urbanism, and transit enables it. You will have to adjust zoning accordingly in some places, but many places allow urban development that just doesn't happen....transit could change that. I work in a city where a parking lot downtown could house a 150' building....did I mention it's a parking area? There's no transit, so it's more valuable as parking than usable space. Also, there is a movement afoot nationally to adjust zoning to match TOD goals--everywhere you look planning departments are leaping at smart growth (however they define it), and transit is an important part of that. It's also more financially sound for towns to pursue transit.
 

Matthew

Senior Member
Joined
Mar 3, 2012
Messages
3,585
Reaction score
1
It's true there is some change. But I get a little skeptical of the "smart growth" folks when they show up with proposals for "extra greenspace" and "more parking" even if it's underground or "hidden."

Minimum parking requirements are everywhere. Even in places like Cambridge, which seem like the last place you would expect to find such a thing.
 

Commuting Boston Student

Senior Member
Joined
Jan 17, 2012
Messages
1,168
Reaction score
1
That works if zoning regulations don't ban density. That's why it worked in the 19th century. But these days, there's too many restrictions on development to make that work economically. Too many NIMBYs whining about lack of "greenspace" or lack of "parking."
We would need a whole other topic for 'greenspace,' but in the future, I can see parking facilities moved underground, with the developments they serve built on top of them. That should satisfy parking requirements as well as allow for developers to use all available space.
 
P

Patrick

Guest
It's true there is some change. But I get a little skeptical of the "smart growth" folks when they show up with proposals for "extra greenspace" and "more parking" even if it's underground or "hidden."

Minimum parking requirements are everywhere. Even in places like Cambridge, which seem like the last place you would expect to find such a thing.
There are dumb policies masquerading as something falling within the banner of "Smart Growth" and then there is growth which is smart, from a fiscal perspective. Denser development is better from fiscal, environmental and public health perspectives, to a point, and so therefore is smart growth, regardless of the movement by the same name occasionally proposing alternatives. There is also such a thing as "smarter growth" so reducing min requirements from 2 to 1 spaces is smarter growth, if not smart growth.

The phrase has been used in many ways that don't make sense though, you're right.
 
P

Patrick

Guest
We would need a whole other topic for 'greenspace,' but in the future, I can see parking facilities moved underground, with the developments they serve built on top of them. That should satisfy parking requirements as well as allow for developers to use all available space.
Where density and market demand are high enough, otherwise can be cost prohibitive.
 

Top