Rhode Island and an Incipient Critique of Commuter Rail

My post from last year about the woes of Rhode Island’s Wickford Junction park’n’ride investment enjoyed a brief renaissance last week when Streetsblog linked back to it. How convenient, then, that Wickford Junction was in the news again this week when Rhode Island state legislators used it as a reason not to provide state funding for the (probably much more useful) long-awaited infill station in Pawtucket/Central Falls.

Let’s get one thing straight: Wickford Junction and Pawtucket/Central Falls are completely different scenarios. Pawtucket has regular service throughout the day (albeit at crappy frequency), while Wickford Junction…doesn’t. And then there’s this:

Wickford Junction

The physical setting of Wickford Junction station

pawtucket setting.PNG

The physical setting of future Pawtucket/Central Falls station

Wickford Junction is completely cut off from development of any kind, while Pawtucket station would be located in one of the densest areas in all of New England. Comparing them, in other words, is pointless at best. No wonder Providence blogger Jef Nickerson, in his own words, “went ballistic” when the legislature approved funding for a garage in downtown Providence after ignoring the train station.

I want to dig a little deeper into this, though. Let’s consider quotes such as this, from Patrick Anderson’s Providence Journal article linked above:

The free-market Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity has put the station plan in its cross-hairs, adding the funding bill to its “five worst” list for the year and saying it aligns with a “submissive philosophy” that Rhode Island should be considered a suburb of Boston.

Although the Center for Freedom and Prosperity critique of the station is unnecessarily couched in parochial provincialism (and, likely, in deep denial of the benefits that closer links to the booming Boston economy can bring to Rhode Island), it almost unintentionally touches on a serious critique of the “commuter rail” mode: it serves one kind of trip, and one kind of trip only. The libertarians substitute a critique of the station for what should be a critique of the mode of transit, perhaps because the answer to the question “how does commuter rail become useful to all users?” is “more service, not less.”

When framed this way, the critique not only becomes more sympathetic, but reminds me of another anecdote I turned up in the process of researching my master’s paper. When the Providence Foundation studied intrastate commuter rail from Woonsocket to Providence in 2009, the project team met with planners along the route to gauge interest in the potential new service. All showed interest, except for the town planner in Lincoln, where a station was proposed in the hamlet of Manville. The reasons given were fascinating, and a little bit sad:

The proposed Manville site is located near a low-income neighborhood, where residents could typically be expected to benefit from additional transit services. However, commuter rail – with its peak-oriented services – may not be a good fit for these residents who tend to work at jobs with nontraditional schedules. Moreover, the town planner in Lincoln indicated the most town residents were not interested in a new commuter rail station. (p. 71)

Justifiably or not, Lincoln’s town planner believed that commuter rail, as a mode, is not for “us” (us being anyone working in a job that is not white collar or 9-to-5). That’s not too far off from the idea that investing state money in a commuter rail station would only increase Rhode Island’s dependency on Boston, if we assume that “Boston” here stands in for white-collar jobs with little access for middle- or working-class Rhode Islanders. It may not be entirely apparent to the people I’m quoting here, but I believe the pattern indicates the very tiny glimmer of a kernel of a coherent, trenchant critique of the commuter rail paradigm.

Rhode Island has ambitious plans for commuter rail, both expansion of Boston-oriented MBTA service and intrastate, not to mention random private ideas for Providence-Worcester service. That’s admirable for a state of Rhode Island’s size, and the Providence Foundation study projected very positive results for Providence-Woonsocket service.

projected results providence cr

Projected costs and operational figures from the Providence Foundation study

That being said, I think the difficulty of gaining political traction for commuter rail in places like Pawtucket (which has been waiting for a station for decades, since its legacy one closed in 1981) and Lincoln reflect both the normal anti-transit animus of certain groups AND something deeper and more profound.

I devoted much of my master’s paper to developing the idea that American commuter rail has been socially and politically constructed as a luxury mode of travel for the middle and upper classes, one that serves only a niche subset of trips. In many other countries, mainline rail systems–often branded “regional”–operate frequently all day and on weekends, allowing use for numerous kinds of trips to numerous destinations. Perhaps, to build political momentum and promote a system that can be truly useful to a broad swath of Rhode Islanders, state leaders should consider something not less, but more ambitious–a regional rail system along the lines proposed by Peter Brassard over at Pedestrian Observations several years ago. Maybe  even that wouldn’t quite redeem Wickford Junction–but it might be the only plan that has a chance to.










Ridership and Parking Utilization on the Providence/Stoughton Line

Inspired by a vocal discussion on Twitter last night

Park-and-Rides are one of the most controversial topics in planning and transit circles. Some contend that such facilities encourage unnecessary car use, while others believe that in the right circumstances they can reduce car usage. One example of a notoriously unsuccessful Park-and-Ride facility that came up on Twitter last night is the massive garage at the extreme southern end of MBTA’s Providence/Stoughton line, Wickford Junction, Rhode Island. Opened in 2012 at a cost of $44 million, the station includes a massive, 1100-space garage that is supposedly aesthetically modeled (on the outside, presumably) on the historic Lafayette Mills building nearby. Suburban American kitsch is the best kitsch.

Via RIDOT on Flickr, here’s the garage as completed….


And under construction in 2011.

Wickford Junction Station 4

The payoff for all of that investment? A massive, staggering number of riders–a full 159 inbound boardings per day in 2013, as you can see in the handy-dandy ridership map provided by the MBTA in their 2014 Blue Book.

There are few words for the amount of fail that the Wickford Junction project represents. To (perhaps) justify the investment, the station would need to attract nearly seven times the number of boardings it currently sees every day. And that’s to say nothing of the in track, trains, and crew costs that were necessary to extend commuter rail operations that far south in the first place. The overly rosy projections for Wickford Junction ridership date back as far as the 2003 Environmental Impact Study RIDOT conducted for the commuter rail extension, which contains the following helpful predictions:

2003 EIS

2003 EIS

Given the dire situation in Wickford Junction, then, I was intrigued by the situation along the rest of the Providence/Stoughton Line (and by the system as a whole, but hey, let’s start with one line, that’s easier to get a handle on). Here’s a spreadsheet with ridership numbers and parking capacities at all of the stations between Wickford Junction and Hyde Park (I decided it would be silly to look at Forest Hills and Ruggles, where things are complicated by the presence of the Orange Line). Ridership data is from the map above, parking data is from the MBTA website.

Since the sheet doesn’t display well on WordPress, full link is here. In graphic format, the patterns look like this:

Thanks to my partner G for Excel help!

Thanks to my partner G for Excel help!

A few things jump out.

1. The Rhode Island stations south of Providence are obviously a hot mess. If money had to be spent on extending MBTA service down there, the way to do it wasn’t to build fancy stations and then only run a few trains per day. Frequency matters. That should have been obvious from the beginning, but it’s exceptionally clear now.

2. Providence is a nice example of an urban station that doesn’t feel the need to provide huge amounts of parking to attract riders. New Haven could learn a lesson.

3. At the highest-ridership suburban stations on the line (South Attleboro, Attleboro, Mansfield, and Sharon) parking capacity is only about half of boardings, suggesting that many people do indeed walk or get dropped off (these station don’t have much in the way of feeder bus service–Sharon I know for sure has zero).

4. Stoughton and the Canton stations are an interesting case. Parking capacity doesn’t come close to matching the number of boardings–but according to the MBTA’s data, each station has 40% or more of its spaces available on a given day. Stoughton and Canton are relatively walkable despite a dearth of feeder bus service; presumably, many people walk or are dropped off at these stations, and others park for free on town streets to avoid MBTA parking charges.

5. Despite its entirely car-dependent location, Route 128’s parking remains underutilized by several hundred spaces, even taking combined MBTA and Amtrak ridership into account.


A few lessons seem apparent. First, MBTA and the agencies it works with have a problem with overestimation of parking demand–and in that, they’re certainly not alone among American commuter rail operators. Not every lot along the Providence/Stoughton line is underused, but the more monumental ones (Wickford Junction, T.F. Green, Route 128) certainly are. Operators and planners should let the demand for parking come to them, rather than trying to anticipate how it will develop. By all means, reserve space for a garage if necessary, but don’t built it until demand makes itself known. And for god’s sake, tell the locals to charge for parking too, or they’ll take away all of your paying parkers! And remember, even at the best-utilized park-and-ride stations on this line, it certainly appears that around half of riders don’t park to ride the train.

Second (and this may seem obvious, but MBTA and friends don’t seem to have grasped it) the quality of the built environment around the station matters. One of the CityLab articles I linked to at the top argued that distance from the city center should be the determining factor in the decision to build a Park and Ride facility; I’d substitute characteristics of the local built environment. Providence/Stoughton stations that are embedded in relatively walkable areas–Providence, Stoughton, Canton Center, Canton Junction, Hyde Park–exhibit very weak parking demand. Old New England towns don’t exhibit a linear progression from urban to suburban, and planners should pay attention to that. I don’t have much of a problem with Park and Rides in very suburbanized areas, but we shouldn’t be expecting people to drive half a mile from home to the station if they can walk it.