Make transit more useful and more folks will use it

As cities around the country see their bus ridership drop and drop, the Richmond region has seen one of the largest ridership increases in the nation. The region has done that through a smart combination of capital investment (aka the Pulse) and common-sense (and less flashy) expansions of existing service—especially in Henrico County.

Earlier this summer, GRTC released ridership data up through the end of June. That means we can now see what a full year of bus ridership—since the launch of the Pulse and the redesign of the region’s entire bus network—looks like. There are a ton of interesting things to tease out of this huge set of data, but one thing that jumps straight off the page is the impact of Henrico increasing the span of their major routes.

A quick refresher: After the Pulse launched and Richmond City redesigned its share of the bus network last summer, Henrico County followed suit in the fall by expanding bus service to Short Pump and adding nights and weekends service to its major routes (the #7A/B, #19, and #91). Take a look at this graph of ridership for the #91 and the #7A/B and see if you can spot when those buses started running on nights and weekends:

Henrico ridership, 2018.06-2019.06.jpeg

Not only did those routes see a huge spike in ridership when the later service hours began, but the ridership matched—or even outpaced—the week when you could ride the bus for free (far left portion of the graph)! Useful service >>> free service! By adding nights and weekends—especially night service—the County opened up all sorts of bus trips that were impossible before: Afternoon shifts, evening errands, Saturday jobs, and more. It makes a ton of sense that when you increase the usefulness of a bus, more folks will ride that bus.

The great thing about this kind of investment in bus service is that it is so easy. It required zero capital expenses, zero engineering schematics, and absolutely no lengthy applications for federal funding with all of the accompanying hoops to jump through. All it took was for a majority of the County’s Board of Supervisors to decided to pay for more bus service. Not to minimize the advocacy effort required to build the political will for this kind of support for public transit, but compared to securing a once-in-a-generation $25 million federal grant it’s a snap.

Now, what would happen if Richmond City decided to extend the span of it’s frequent bus network, running all of its 15-minute frequency routes until at least 10:00 PM? What sorts of trips would suddenly be possible for folks? What kind of ridership increase would the region see? We should find out—all it would take is the political will and a couple million bucks!