Because Rhode Island is small, and a significant chunk of the state is urban, mass transit is quite useful and efficient, at least in terms of buses and, to a limited extent, ferryboats. There are no subways, commuter trains, or light-rail services in Rhode Island, although Amtrak makes stops in a few towns and the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) provides commuter rail service connecting Providence with Boston’s South Station.
It’s quite possible and economically feasible to visit some parts of the state without using a car. If, for example, you’re going to Block Island, Providence, Newport, parts of South County, and parts of the East Bay, you could get into town from Boston or New York City with a combination of bus, train, and (for Block Island) ferry, and then use a bus or cabs to get around locally—in some of these towns you can cover quite a bit of ground on foot. To make the most of western or northwestern Rhode Island, or the more remote coastal areas (Sakonnet, Jamestown, upper Aquidneck Island), you really need a car—it’s also most practical to use one in Providence’s suburbs, from Pawtucket to Woonsocket down to Warwick, although buses do serve all of these towns and are fine in a pinch.
For optimum convenience and freedom to explore, a car is your best bet for covering the state as a whole. Even Providence has a fair amount of street parking and plenty of garages. In summer, Newport is almost congested enough that a car defeats its purpose, but if you’re planning to explore the outlying areas and your hotel or inn provides off-street parking, it’s a good idea to bring one. Block Island, especially in summer, is best visited without a car. It’s a small island with good public transportation, and it’s excellent for biking; almost all accommodations are within walking distance of Old Harbor or New Harbor, where you’ll find most of the island’s shops and restaurants. If you’re staying for a while, your accommodations offer off-street parking, or if it’s off-season, a car can make sense and give you a little more flexibility, but it’s really not a necessity at any time of year. And everybody living on Block Island will be quite pleased if you arrive without a car that would add to the traffic during the summer high season.
Rhode Island is small enough that much of the state is served by Providence’s city bus system, operated by the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) (401/781-9400). Most buses originate in Providence, but others start and end in other parts of the state. For example, you can use RIPTA buses to get from Newport to Providence or the University of Rhode Island in Kingston; from Bristol to Providence; from Providence to Burrillville; or from Coventry to Providence. The base fare is $2 per ride; charges increase as you travel through different zones. RIPTA’s website is very useful in terms of plotting your exact trip.