History of Transit Ridership in Rhode Island

Mass transit made its first appearance in Rhode Island during the Civil War. For the next 100 years, the private sector ran transit with horse-drawn omnibuses that served the state’s first routes.

In 1865, when over two million people a year had become transit consumers, the privately-owned Union Railroad began operating a horse-railroad system. During the next decade as demand grew, this transit system expanded into Providence’s suburbs.

The electric trolley car debuted in 1889. By the 1890's this type of trolley was operating mostly in the suburbs. Annual ridership surged, climbing to 24 million in 1892 and 34 million by 1897.

The Union Railroad became the Rhode Island Company in 1902 and took on the task of linking utility companies with railway operations. Just four years later (1906), the New Haven Railroad acquired the company

Reorganized in 1921 as the United Electric Railways (UER), the company oversaw the transit system’s daily operations in Rhode Island. At this time, the state also became involved in transit, placing the system under the regulatory authority of the public utilities commission and making it eligible for certain tax exemptions. Two years later, passenger trips reached an extraordinary all-time annual high of 154 million.

In 1926, the New England Power Company purchased the UER and a holding company, the Rhode Island Service Company, then took over the operations of the transit system.

But the onset of the Great Depression in 1930 stopped service improvements. Service reductions soon followed and ridership and revenue fell.

Gas rationing during WW II revived transit in Rhode Island and ridership soared to a near all-time high of 151.4 million in 1944.

When gasoline became available again after the war, people adopted personal vehicles and ridership fell. Despite major efforts to attract riders, ridership continued to decline.

Transit in Rhode Island was reinvented in 1951 under the United Transit Company (UTC). In that year, the system carried over 100 million passengers. By 1955, diesel and gasoline buses had replaced the trackless trolley, giving the system a whole new image.

As highway construction increased and more and more people acquired cars, however, transit ridership declined, dwindling from 100 million to 20 million in 15 years.

The Rhode Island General Assembly created the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) in 1964, ending the privatization of the transit system. RIPTA began operations on July 1, 1966.

Two years later, annual ridership was up to 21 million. Over the next 15 years, RIPTA more than doubled the number of bus miles traveled. By 1979, nearly 70% of Rhode Island residents could access transit service.

As RIPTA continued to expand the number of bus miles traveled in the early 1980s to create a truly statewide system, ridership climbed.

On the eve of the 21st century, RIPTA began an ongoing initiative to build a quality mass transit system, one that would offer improved service, new technologies and mobility options, and convenient, economic alternatives to single occupant vehicle trips.

Between 1999 and 2002, RIPTA, initiated a number of positive changes. These included: introducing the Providence LINK system, using clean fuel (CNG) trolleys for the LINK’s two lines; constructing the state-of-the-art John H. Chafee Transportation Maintenance and Operations Center; upgrading the fleet, by replacing many vehicles that had outlived their useful lives with new ones; and introducing a seasonal Providence/Newport ferry service.

In the same years, RIPTA also opened a new Kennedy Plaza passenger terminal and bus berth facility, introduced Flex Service in suburban communities, and became the major carrier for RIde, the statewide paratransit program that serves the elderly and individuals with disabilities.

Shortly thereafter, RIPTA continued upgrading the fleet, started using ultra low sulfur fuel for the entire fleet—winning praise from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—and introduced electronic fare technology for the system’s fixed-route service.

RIPTA plans to continue reinventing transit in Rhode Island so as to provide residents and visitors with cost effective and excellent service. In the next few years, the Authority will continue upgrading the fleet and introduce Intelligent Transportation Systems such as computer-aided dispatch, automatic vehicle location, and real-time customer service information.

RIPTA ridership grew to nearly 25 million in Fiscal Year 2007.

The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) thanks URI Professor D. Scott Molloy for the historical information on transit in Rhode Island.

Rhode Island Transit Album (Boston: Boston Street Railway Association, Inc., 1978) p. 3