As someone who was born and bred in our nation’s smallest state, I’m mesmorized by how poorly public transit in Rhode Island functions. And a clear lack of funding and stategic planning are the main reasons for these two stunning statistics:
- According to 2008 US Census data [PDF], Rhode Island ranks 12th in percentage of commuters who drive alone to work.
- Between 2007 and 2008, Rhode Island was one of only 9 states where the percentage of commuters driving alone to work increased.
What’s stunning is how out-of-whack Rhode Island is in modal use compared to states with similar density. Keep in mind that Rhode Island is the second most densely-populated U.S. state (third if you count the District of Columbia). Of the 11 states that rank above Rhode Island in solo commuting by car, only Ohio would be considered particularly dense – and is still nearly 4 times less dense than Rhode Island. Of the ten most densely-populated states, only in Ohio and Rhode Island do more than 80% of commuters drive solo.
It may not be that density and transit use are always correlated (see: Los Angeles), but such a dense state would require a significantly smaller per capita investment in mass transit than, say, a sprawling state like Kansas (driving alone accounts for practically the same share of commuting in both Kansas and Rhode Island). Shifting mode share in Rhode Island could be much easier than in places
There is hope on the horizon, as Rhode Island’s municipalities and RIPTA finally launched their Metro Transit Study for the state’s urban core. The most viable options on the table are a starter streetcar line for downtown Providence and its environs and BRT running across the state’s four largest cities. In addition, the group is exploring car share programs, streamlining bus services, commuter resources, parking cash-outs, bike and pedestrian facilities, transit-oriented development, and coordination with the MBTA’s commuter rail service that will be extended to southern Rhode Island in the coming years.
Of course, that hope could easily be stymied by a state government reluctant to change. While neighboring Massachusetts spends nearly six times more per capita on transit than Rhode Island, Rhode Island’s per capita tax burden is now higher than the oft-derided “Taxachusetts.” And solo commuters in Rhode Island may also be reluctant to change – a $610 million highway project to improve traffic flow on Providence’s interstates is going to make it even more difficult to pull the state out of the commuting dark ages.
For $610 million, all of the Metro Transit Study’s recommendations could be implemented… five times over.
Graphic via Wikipedia