The R-Line Is Crucial to PVD And A Model For RIPTA

Passengers board an R-Line Bus on Broad Street photo: Tony Sager

The R-Line is both RIPTA’s busiest line, carrying about one sixth of all RIPTA passengers, and a model for what other transit lines could be if the Transit Master Plan were ever implemented.  Furthermore, it is a lifeline for Providence.

The R-line Broad/North Main was created in 2014 by combining the old Route 11 (Broad Street) and 99 (North Main) lines.  It goes from its terminus on Broad Street near Montgomery Avenue, along Broad Street to Kennedy Plaza.   It goes then by the railroad station and up North Main Street to the new Pawtucket-Central Falls transit center, all the way to its terminus on Roosevelt Avenue near Slater Mill and City Hall in Pawtucket.  What sets it apart from other bus lines is its frequency and length of service hours each day.

Map of the R-Line

Weekdays, the R-line operates about a hundred trips each way from about 5:00 am until well after midnight.   Most of the day, service is every ten minutes, so having a schedule isn’t really necessary.  However, after about 7pm, the evening trips are about twenty minutes apart.  On weekends, there are over 60 trips in both directions every fifteen minutes, again, dropping to every 20 minutes in the evenings.

The R-line makes the trip from Kennedy Plaza to the Pawtucket Transit Center in about nineteen minutes (six minutes faster than the #1 Route that goes along Hope Street).  It gets to the Broad Street terminus in about twenty minutes.  By comparison, the MBTA commuter rail trip from the Providence station to the Pawtucket Transit Center is about six minutes, but it goes only about 20 times/day on weekdays.  Transit advocates hope to see a fare product that would allow rides on either the bus or train depending on whichever is more convenient.  Representative John Lombardi (D-Providence) has introduced legislation to facilitate this plan.

Joe Cole, a member of the Amalgamated Transport Union’s executive committee and a driver himself, comments, “It’s tough for drivers to keep to the 10-minutes between buses.  You can’t predict delays caused by traffic and other things that come up.”  He adds, “Now that Broad Street has been redesigned so that there’s only one lane each way, there’s more traffic congestion and buses run slower.”  On the other hand, the R-line is the first in the system with Transit Signal Priority, where drivers can extend green lights to speed up trips.

Some R-line riders have complained about delays.  Jane Pellegren, a regular rider on the route, told us, that although she “loves the route,” she finds that it’s “just….not reliable. I think it needs to run consistently every 10 minutes, and it simply runs closer to every 20 which is really not helpful when using it to commute, or to go to a train that leaves at a specific time.”  Another rider, Greg Gerritt, asserts that the R-line “has been great. I live right off North Main Street, and it is nearly always on time and swiftly takes me all across town.”  Amy Glidden, another rider who actually bought her house because it was on the R-line,  says, “I never have to check a schedule during the day on weekdays, just walk out and it’s there. I can take it straight to downtown and go out on weekends. It’s very convenient.”  Amy concluded, “I wish all lines were like the R-line!”  And the other riders agreed.

The R-Line shelters and bus stop signage have been specially designed and branded.  Some of them are beginning to need renovation, but that will have to wait until RIPTA first addresses more serious shelter problems elsewhere.

Specialized bus shelters on the R-Line denote neighborhood features.  The one at Public and Broad Streets has a pew for seating and a “stained glass” panel to honor the former Beth-El Synagogue nearby.                   Photo: Tony Sager

RIPTA staff indicates more electric buses will be used on the R-line in 2024.  These buses have no tailpipe diesel exhaust, good news for cleaner air in the congested neighborhoods these vehicles travel through.  But electric buses are much more expensive to buy and, due to limited range and charging times, a November 2023 RIPTA capital funding report noted that RIPTA may need two electric buses for every diesel bus they retire.  Public support for electric buses can help keep this goal on track.

In the closing days of the 2022 Rhode Island legislative session, in the wake of the pandemic, lawmakers voted to fund free fares on the R-line for about a year.  According to Senator Megan Kallman, a sponsor of the legislation, the purpose was to determine if the elimination of fares would enable buses to speed up their travel times, something that might persuade more people to take the bus instead of driving, thereby cutting down on auto emissions.  Because the R-line already had a high ridership, the data obtained from this pilot would be more meaningful than the much smaller free fare pilot in Central Falls then underway.  Since R-line buses travel through several low-income neighborhoods, this route was also chosen since it would “give a leg up” to riders who were spending a disproportionate percentage of their income on transportation.

The pilot began on September 1, 2022, and ended last October 1, to the disappointment of its riders.  (See the Providence Journal’s opening day coverage.) In reviewing passenger trends at the six-month mark during the pilot, RIPTA reported in March 2023 that there had been a 40% increase in riders on the line.  According to Joe Cole, the free-fare pilot was well-received by drivers, since it cut down on boarding time and potential confrontations with passengers over fares.  The legislature maintains interest in free rides on RIPTA, but with service cuts looming next year from the “fiscal cliff” due to the running out of Federal Covid relief funds and the decline of the gas tax, free fares will likely not be a funding priority.

Implementing the Transit Master Plan would replicate the advantages of the R-line:  more frequency, longer service hours, better bus stops, and quicker trips on eighteen  other routes, including those along Chalkstone Avenue, Manton Avenue, Cranston Street, and Elmwood Avenue.  (See our previous PVD Eye article, “Transit Forward RI 2040:  Where Is Providence Going?”)

GET INVOLVED: The Save RIPTA! Campaign is advocating for more funding to make these improvements possible, and help people get across the city reliably and economically, while supporting the environment at the same time.

Patricia Raub is co-chair of RI Transit Riders, an independent, volunteer-led, grassroots group that was formed to preserve, expand, and improve public transportation in Rhode Island.

Barry Schiller, a retired RI math professor, is a lifelong transit user and advocate, and has served on the RI Public Transit Authority Board of Directors and the state’s Transportation Advisory Committee.