University News

Streetcar’s effect on shuttle unclear

By
Contributing Writer
Tuesday, November 15, 2011

As the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority tweaks its proposed streetcar route, the project’s long-term impact on the University community remains unclear.

The proposed route starts at the Starbucks on Thayer Street, goes through the bus tunnel to Kennedy Plaza, heads south to the Jewelry District — where the University’s Alpert Medical School and some research labs and administrative offices are located — and ends at Rhode Island Hospital.

It is unclear whether the BrownMed/Downcity Express shuttle would continue to operate if the street car system is constructed, said Dick Spies, executive vice president for planning and senior adviser to the president. Currently, the shuttle is the University’s only transportation system to the Med School and affiliated hospitals. The small van runs approximately every 12 minutes Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“Ideally, (the streetcar) would be able to replace the shuttle,” said Michael McCormick, assistant vice president for planning, design and construction. But potential replacements will depend on the frequency of the streetcars and their travel time.

During daytime hours, the proposed streetcars would arrive every 10 minutes and would take about 10 minutes to reach the stop closest to the Med School, which is a three-minute walk from the building, said Amy Pettine, special projects manager for RIPTA.

The BrownMed/Downcity shuttle system is not very efficient, McCormick said. It can be slow and may be insufficient to meet the University’s growing presence downtown.

But Spies recognized that “the shuttle is something that some people think is pretty convenient.”

“From my experience, it has worked very smoothly,” said Leah Newcomer ’14, who uses the shuttle system every Thursday to get to an internship at the Coro Center. Travelers can text the shuttle service to find out when it will arrive at a certain stop, a feature she said she liked.

“I think people are used to the Downcity shuttle,” said Emily Li ’11 MD’15. A station at Starbucks will not be very convenient for medical students because many live closer to Wickenden Street and Wayland Square, she said.

The train station and Providence Place Mall are not included in the streetcar’s initial route.

Adding these two destinations would decrease ridership due to longer travel times, complicate the logistics of the project and make the system more expensive — perhaps jeopardizing federal funding, Pettine said.

“All experts seem to say that you’ve got to keep (a streetcar line) relatively small when it starts. The rule of thumb is to keep it within two miles,” Spies said.

But the line — once completed — could be expanded to include both the train station and the mall in the future, Pettine said. The streetcar system in Portland has been enlarged many times since its original construction, she added. Because RIPTA is facing a significant budget shortfall and cutting bus lines across the state, any expansion of the streetcar system would depend heavily on its initial popularity.

While it remains unclear whether the streetcar route will be extended to the mall and train station and what effect it will have on the BrownMed/Downcity express shuttle, the system could have a big impact on the city.

Because the streetcar is a permanent investment — unlike a bus route, it cannot be instantly shut down — businesses will be attracted to any area serviced by the system.

The streetcar line may also bridge a gap between the University’s facilities on College Hill and those downtown, Spies said. “What makes Brown special is bringing everything that goes on into a space where they bump into each other,” Spies said.