Segregation by Transportation

The below is the text of a talk given by The Reverend Ben Campbell at Eyes on Richmond, on October 21st, 2016.

In metropolitan Richmond today there are two massive artifacts of the Confederacy which still need to be completely dismantled.

  • They are far more prominent than the Confederate Battle Flag that was flying over the statehouse in South Carolina.
  • They are far more extensive than the Great Promenade of Confederate heroes we call Monument Avenue.
  • They are extremely damaging—in the horrible, hidden, destructive tradition of the long-buried but just-now-being-excavated Shockoe Valley Slave Market.

These artifacts do not have names that identify them with the Confederacy. They bear no racial titles. They also are hidden from many of our citizens. But they were put in place on purpose when racial segregation was the single most important criterion used to evaluate every system, every funding mechanism, every state expenditure, and every piece of legislation in this Commonwealth of Virginia. They were put in place in the three decades from 1945 to 1977—when Virginia’s General Assembly and the four major governments of metropolitan Richmond were completely obsessed by race. Today, they are unworthy of this community.

If we were to remove these artifacts today, we would prosper majestically in a way that would make all of our ancestors proud, both white and black. Metropolitan Richmond would become a beacon of inter-racial hope to the world.

Next week you will hear from Dr. Genevieve Siegel-Hawley about one of these destructive artifacts of Virginia’s last period of aggressive segregation: the Richmond Public School system. The system was deliberately segregated by the state 45 years ago, and has been under-resourced and mercilessly attacked ever since.

Today I’m going to talk about the second great artifact of the Confederacy in metropolitan Richmond: our public transportation system. Once the envy of the world—Richmond had the world’s first electric streetcar system, in 1888—our full-service public transportation system is now confined to 5% of the territory of this metropolitan city and was designed to perpetuate racial segregation.

The great death throes of the Confederacy lasted in Virginia and Richmond for more than a century—from the time that Richmond burned up until the early 1970’s. Like the Union troops in blue who came into the city in April, 1865, Federal courts came in the 1950’s and ‘60’s to overthrow our system of racial segregation in situation after situation—schools, parks, public assembly, voting, employment, housing.

But the segregationist Virginia General Assembly fought a pitched battle—a disgusting “holy war”—against the Federal invaders. Our legislative leaders were willing to cripple our own community rather than recognize that we were being saved from our own idiocy. As it had so many times through the centuries, our General Assembly looked desperately for new ways to maintain racial segregation, and it hit upon Virginia’s unique independent city system. Racial segregation could be maintained, the legislators believed, by ending annexation, hardening the jurisdictional boundaries of center cities, and applying segregation to two key areas: school districts and public transportation.
Here in Richmond, the new laws were very effective. Within a decade, the public schools were almost completely segregated again—not only by race but by income.

In transportation, the effect was dramatic. Segregation by mode of transportation replaced the law requiring people to sit at the back of the bus. The new policy was backed up by massive capital expenditures and built into state and county budgets: state and county budgets provided dedicated taxes and enormous expenditures for roads but little or nothing for public transport.

Up until the 1950’s, Richmond had an excellent public transportation system.

But now the white suburbs had expressways. And the center city folk had the buses, which stopped at the city line, unable to cross to where the new jobs and stores were fleeing and the new subdivisions and schools were being built.

Between 1980 and 2000 the State and Federal governments spent $1.1 billion in public money to build a circumferential highway around metropolitan Richmond, capitalizing economic development for the counties and allowing complete bypassing of the center city. But still, the state did not extend—or require the extension of—public transportation across the county lines. We built eight-lane roads with no streetcar, no bus rapid transit, not even a bus. If you had a car, you could live in the counties. If you didn’t you had to live in the central city.

The result: 50 years after the General Assembly’s actions, so far as we can determine, metropolitan Richmond is the only city of 1 million or more people in the world that does not have full-service public transportation along its major arteries.

Today, 90% of our jobs are inaccessible by public transportation. All of our major community colleges—which were promoted in the General Assembly as places to enable people to train for their first job—are inaccessible by public transportation. Our three major universities can only be reached on the bus by people in the central city. Neither our airport nor our train service is accessible by public transportation. As everyone knows, the new “town centers” and retail malls are not accessible except by private automobile.

Nowhere else in the world…

I know it’s not nice to talk about racial segregation in metropolitan Richmond. We’re ashamed of it and it starts fights to talk about it. It’s a bummer. This talk is really in bad taste. But believe it or not, I’m not telling this story to make anybody feel guilty or angry. I just want to excavate the heavy artifact and get us moving.

I’m saying this because I don’t think most of the people in metropolitan Richmond really believe in racial segregation anymore. I’m saying this because I think we’re sitting in the middle of a mess we no longer want or need to preserve. I’m saying this because metropolitan Richmond is a single step away from an explosion of culture and economy which can be brought about by the simple act of running four major bus rapid transit lines down the four major highways:

  • From Short Pump down Broad and Main Streets up Fulton Hill to the Airport—Routes 250 and 60;
  • From Westchester Commons on Route 288 down Midlothian Turnpike, Route 60, to the Capitol;
  • From Ashland to Petersburg—Route 1; and
  • From Woodlake to Mechanicsville—Route 360.

It is not rocket science. In no more than five years we can go from having the 8th worst public transportation coverage of America’s 100 largest cities to having the 8th best—just like that. If we were a single jurisdiction or if the state funded public transportation like it does highways we would have done it 40 years ago.

A simple regional system on four highways would immediately make five times as many of our jobs accessible and 60% more several years after. It will inaugurate a period of growth and vitality that will make everyone glad. Everybody wins—in Chesterfield, Henrico, Hanover, and Richmond.

It will also be the very first really significant piece of economic cooperation among our four jurisdictions in the half century since the Race Wars of 1970 and 1971. It does not demand any change in our near-sacred jurisdictional lines. The economic investment will return at least tenfold within ten years.

It will save from 500 to 1000 life-trajectories a year—at least—for persons who cannot currently reach a place of employment.

So why did I start by talking about the Confederacy? Because there is, frankly, no other explanation for the absolute absurdity of our present situation. There is no other reason why, alone among the world’s 500 largest cities, metropolitan Richmond, Virginia, has no public transportation. There is no other reason—no reason other than the strange spiritual paralysis that remains from the Confederacy—that we would allow our transportation system in Richmond, Hanover, Henrico, and Chesterfield to be so constipated.

We think this is normal! We are like soldiers on the battlefield who haven’t heard that the war is over. Our jurisdictions aren’t segregated now! Today Chesterfield is 32% non-white. Henrico is more than 40% non-white; and Hanover is 15% non-white.

We are poised for great prosperity, but not for long. We are also at increasing risk. We have a window of opportunity. Economically, here’s what’s happening. Because we don’t have good public transportation on our major corridors, development is being driven outside the beltway. Shopping centers continue to be built and retired, moving further and further out. The center of Richmond will be fine, but parts of Chesterfield and even Henrico are beginning to resemble a giant donut of former prosperity. The hole in that donut will be an increasing drag on our economy. The reason is this: 80% of major economic development in America today is happening on 5% of the land in metropolitan cities—along major arteries, where there is public transportation, where there are sidewalks, and bike paths. Walkable centers are where people want to live and to be able to get to and from them by public transportation. The lack of density in our suburban sprawl is economically and socially unsustainable.

Even major new employment is hamstrung by our failure. It cost Chesterfield more than $20 million for the state to build Chesterfield a new interchange on Route 295 to attract the Amazon plant. But that plant pays entry level wages, and there is no way to get there on public transportation. Owning and operating a car costs a worker from one-fourth to one-third of Amazon’s entry level wage.

I could go on—having good public transportation is the best way to build a healthy city and a diverse and energetic community. People get accustomed to one another. It is a way to build civic pride and overcome the absurd, self-destructive jurisdictional warfare of our city and counties. It spreads employment and housing. With good public transportation, the economic development in our competing jurisdictions benefits everybody—we become economic partners rather than hidden enemies.

So what’s out there right now?

  1. This past week Jarrett Walker, one of the nation’s top transportation consultants, came here and worked with our local partners to design a new, faster, frequent bus service to come into being with the new BRT on Broad Street. Everybody will want to ride it—it will be frequent and convenient for everybody currently riding it and many who aren’t. It’s called the Richmond Transit Network Plan and will be out for our evaluation in January. Once approved, it will begin implementation a year from now. Here in Richmond City we will have an excellent public transportation system.

  2. Within several weeks, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation will come out with a Vision Plan for regional Public Transportation in Metropolitan Richmond. This plan will almost certainly call for bus rapid transit or rapid, frequent service along the four major arteries of metropolitan Richmond, tying us together within the beltway and from Ashland to Petersburg. It’s a professional product and will be there for us to implement.

  3. In November, we will get a look at a plan for Transit Oriented Development along the route of the Pulse—with opportunities for development, zoning, lowering of parking requirements, pedestrian life which will help the stretch from Fulton to Willow Lawn become a powerful enhancement to our common life.

  4. RVA Rapid Transit and the Metro Clergy for Rapid Transit have a website, Facebook Page, and regular e-mails which will tell you what is going on. But most of all, we are interested in helping people be a part of our action network. So if you would like to be a part of helping this happen—of taking down this artifact of the Confederacy and making us proud to be Virginians in Metropolitan Richmond—please give me your contact information or contact us at to get on the e-mail list. We’d like to get into the supervisors meetings at Henrico and Chesterfield and tell them we’re ready for this. How about a nice spring walk of 2,000 people along Broad Street from Willow Lawn to Short Pump? Or a caravan of bikes down Route 1 South to John Tyler Community College?

  5. The General Assembly has passed legislation to empower the RMTA—Richmond Metropolitan Transit Authority—to operate a regional transit system if we want it. And it has enabled Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to collect 7/10 of a cent of sales tax to support it. That money would build and operate a full 100-mile BRT system for our region, and it could be operating in five years.

Folks, I don’t know how to say this, but time is short. I don’t know how to communicate the fierce urgency of now. I can tell you about the young people and parents I know who can’t get to jobs they have found. I can tell you about the hidden economic time bombs in our suburban sprawl. I can tell you about the young adults who will be leaving metro Richmond because we are a metro city that doesn’t have public transportation.

But I think what I’d like to say most of all is this: It’s time for all of us to stop hanging our head and making excuses for metropolitan Richmond. It’s absurd to talk about a “world-class city” that doesn’t have public transportation from its airport or train station. It’s time to stop pretending that just because we have some multi-racial gatherings we’ve dismantled the artifacts of racism. We’ve only done the first part of it. This next piece won’t be done by the Federal government—it takes work on our part.

Today we are envisioning a city where everyone thrives. We have a story to tell. Let it not be the story of our failure. Let us make the Capital of the Confederacy into the Capital of Reconciliation. That’s the one place where we can truly be world-class. That means public education—and it means public transportation. And it means we have to do something about it. Fiercely, urgently. Now!