Providence metro public transit commuters spend average of 59.5 minutes getting to work

Workers in Providence and nearby communities who travel by bus or train face longer commute times than their counterparts in other medium-sized metropolitan areas in the U.S.

Census data show commuters in the Providence-Warwick area who took public transportation in 2013 spent an average of 59.5 minutes commuting to work, compared to 57.7 minutes in the Las Vegas area, for instance, and 36 minutes in Rochester, New York.

Public transit commutes in the Providence-Warwick area also were higher than the national average of 48.7 minutes, the census figures showed. Solo drivers in Providence-Warwick fared better, with an average commute time of 24.5, while carpoolers had a slightly longer commute at 27.2 minutes.

The figures are part of an analysis by The Associated Press for a yearlong series of stories focused on gridlock and the country's infrastructure. U.S. officials warn that congestion will worsen over the next three decades as the nation's population rises by an expected 70 million people.

Rhode Island transit officials say the long public transit commutes could be a result of workers taking trains to Boston or other destinations outside the state. Public transit advocates also say the wait times for buses can be long.

James Kennedy, who lives in Providence and works in Central Falls, said he has waited 20 minutes for some buses and 10 minutes for others. The time spent waiting for a bus is important because it's part of the commute time, he said.

"One of the most important measures of public transit is frequency," said Kennedy, a public transit advocate.

South Kingston resident Abel Collins said he takes the bus to Providence even though it takes longer than driving because it saves money and allows him to read rather than sit in traffic. He said bus service is regular enough during the day but not as predictable in the evening.

"Once it gets into the evening hours, if I don't catch the 8 o'clock bus after class, I have to wait until 10:10," said Collins, a board member of the RIPTA Riders Alliance, a grassroots organization that advocates for the expansion of public transportation in Rhode Island.

The census defines the Providence-Warwick metro area as including all the counties in Rhode Island, plus neighboring Bristol County in Massachusetts.

Barbara Polichetti, a spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, said the Providence-Warwick area's percentage of transit riders who commute out of state for work is higher than the national average, which would suggest that more people are traveling farther, by Massachusetts transit.

According to the census, about 14 percent of the 759,578 commuters in the Providence-Warwick metro area work outside the state. In Providence County, the rate increases to about 17 percent, while in Bristol County, it drops to about 10 percent. The national average of commuters working out of the state where they live is 3.7 percent.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which operates the commuter rail in Rhode Island, said a weekday average of 6,432 people took the commuter rail from stations in Rhode Island and Bristol County in 2013. The trip from Providence to South Station in Boston is a little over an hour, according to the MBTA.

The Rhode Island Department of Transportation, which constructs and maintains the state's roads, bridges and rail stations, declined to comment on commute times, referring questions to the MBTA.

Polichetti said one challenge RIPTA faces is that it is a statewide system, which is not the norm in mass transit. To be efficient and cost effective, RIPTA uses hubs, such as Kennedy Plaza in Providence, which sometimes require commuters to make transfers, which takes time, she said.

Collins, whose trip from South Kingstown to Kennedy Plaza takes a little over an hour, said the commute times probably are skewed because RIPTA is a statewide service. He said offering public transit that circulates residents in specific parts of the state, without requiring them to stop in Providence, would be ideal.