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Let’s get Kennedy Plaza right at last



Bus riders are in danger of being cast out of Kennedy Plaza, with most of our bus lines scattered throughout the entire downtown area. Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) proposes establishing several bus hubs in central Providence, rather than enabling bus lines to continue to converge on centrally-located Kennedy Plaza. For several reasons, this is a terrible idea.

At a point in time when it seems that many would like to reduce public transit in Kennedy Plaza, it is worth recalling that this areas has long served as the Providence’s central transportation hub.

Before it was Kennedy Plaza, Providence’s central square was known as Exchange Place. It was here that the train station (now the Rhode Island Foundation) and the trolley station (now the RIPTA terminal building) were located. Thus, both intercity and intracity travel converged here.

After World War II as more and more travel was by automobile, the trolleys were phased out, the trolley station closed, and replacement buses dispersed around the city. In the 1980s the train station was relocated to its current location near the State House. The decline in both transit use and in people traveling downtown helped lead to establishing an “Auto Restricted Zone” in the plaza (a small part of a vision of pedestrianizing much of the historic core), and Washington Street in the Plaza became bus-only.

The Cianci administration, noting the pedestrian crossings were not well marked and wanting to facilitate car travel across the Plaza, had the buses relocated and the plaza redesigned. And then redesigned again. Eventually, Kennedy Plaza ended up with fewer bus berths, and buses sharing Washington Street with cars. Since the early 2000s, RIPTA, with federal assistance, has built a terminal station and then overhauled it soon afterward, installed Victorian bus shelters only to exchange them for new glass-walled shelters.

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Meanwhile, a mixture of private and public funding has paid for an assortment of so-called “improvements” to Burnside Park and City Hall Park on the other side of Washington Park, enabling the City to locate performances, a farmers’ market and a multitude of other events in the Plaza.

Now it appears that public officials are now trying to reduce or even eliminate public transportation from Kennedy Plaza altogether. According to its current proposal, RIDOT favors moving many of the bus lines away from the Plaza and limiting its use to recreation and entertainment. Some bus lines will terminate in one area and some in another, making transfers from one line to the other difficult.

There have been no public hearings about the State’s plan, so this projected Kennedy Plaza do-over has included no input from the Plaza’s most important stakeholders: bus riders themselves. As architectural historian William MacKenzie Woodward has observed, Kennedy Plaza is the city’s “most consistently reworked space.” If we want finally to get it right, we need to involve the group that uses the Plaza the most frequently. If we don’t, we will end up with a plan that discourages people from taking the bus, and ridership will drop.

This is a serious problem for everyone, not just those who now use public transit. Rising seawater continues to nibble away Rhode Island’s southern coast as well as Florida and Venice, while California and Australia are both experiencing record wildfires. Climate change is happening, and we have only a limited amount of time left to address it. If we are going to do anything at all about the burning and flooding of our world we have to look in every possible place for ways to cut carbon pollution.

A huge amount of the carbon emitted by our state is produced by cars and trucks, and cutting that has to be a priority in state policy going forward. With that in mind, it’s important to understand that the recently proposed changes to our state’s bus system and to Kennedy Plaza will make the system less convenient for riders and more difficult to attract new riders. This is the exact opposite direction we should be headed.

Three years ago, the City apparently heard this message, formulating a proposal for reorganization of the Plaza that benefited from a number of public hearings. It mostly met the needs of transit riders, and it provided some leeway for growth in the transit system. While this 2016 plan needs some further modification, it is a promising start. Let’s dust it off and give it serious consideration.