This week in transit

This week in transit: The future is fast, frequent, reliable public transportation

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Jim McConnell at the Chesterfield Observer has some new details about the County’s investment in and around the Route 1 corridor as part of the Northern Jefferson Davis Special Area Plan. You’ll remember that plan as the one that strongly encouraged running public transportation along Route 1, which then ultimately lead to the County applying for and winning a state grant to help fund bus service over the next two years (renewable for a third year!).

It’s great progress for Chesterfield, and you can see how including public transportation in a special area plan can lead to great things—or at least make the advocacy work for great things easier. That’s why it’s important to get bus service similarly included in the Midlothian Community Special Area Plan. This plan anemically mentions our region’s transit vision plan just once but doesn’t even recommend bus service down Midlothian. If you’d like to see more full-throated support of public transportation in the Midlothian Community Special Area Plan, please let either the Planning Department or Supervisor Haley know.

AROUND THE REGION

Check out this Letter to the Editor from GRTC Vice Chairman Ben Campbell about the improvements the bus company has seen since the opening of the Pulse and the redesign of the bus network. Campbell hits on something we talk about frequently: The Richmond region has underinvested in transit for decades. In fact, the region spends less per-capita on public transportation than almost all of its peer cities. Until the entire region decides to fund transit at a more acceptable level—and/or finds a regional dedicated funding stream—we will always be playing transit catch up.

ELSEWHERE

Here’s a fascinating new report out of the Shared-Use Mobility Center about how transit agencies partnering with Uber isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (PDF). TransitCenter has a summary of the report, but this gets to the heart of it: “But the results from Pinellas County indicate that subsidizing car trips is fundamentally limited as a complement to fixed-route service, and that even in small-scale applications, it may not be an efficient use of scarce agency resources...The future of transit isn’t a $5 discount on Uber trips. It’s fast, frequent, reliable fixed-route service that gets people where they want to go.”

—Ross Catrow

This week in transit: Let’s get some buses on Midlothian Turnpike in Chesterfield County

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In Chesterfield County, the draft Midlothian Special Area Plan is out, and, if you’re a Chesterfield resident, it is ready for your comments. There’s not much in the way of public transportation in this plan, and that’s unfortunate for folks who want to age in place, can’t drive (or afford) a car, or would just like more options to get around than driving single-occupancy vehicles everywhere. The plan does acknowledge that a regional vision for public transportation exists and that it suggests running high-quality bus service down Midlothian Turnpike out to Westchester Commons. However, the special area plan stops short of actually recommending any sort of bus service on the corridor at all. That’s a bummer.

So! If you would like to see a more thoughtful inclusion of public transportation in the Midlothian Special Area Plan you can contact either the planning department or Midlothian District Supervisor Leslie Haley. Maybe say something along the lines of: “Please include more public transportation along Midlothian Turnpike in the Midlothian Special Area Plan—specifically GRTC bus service from the City line out to Westchester Commons as recommended by the Greater RVA Transit Vision Plan.”

Remember! We worked hard to get more more public transportation service included in the Northern Jefferson Davis Special Area Plan, and, as you’ll see below, that turned in to actual, factual bus service coming to the County later this year.

AROUND THE REGION

This past Tuesday the region celebrated the one-year anniversary of the Pulse and redesign of Richmond’s entire bus network. Adding to the celebration, ITDP, the international group charged with scoring and ranking bus rapid transit systems worldwide, popped in to town to award the Pulse a bronze ranking (PDF). This is a big deal! Zero cities in America have achieved a gold ranking and just two have achieved silver. The region did a good job following internationally-recognized best practices and built a high-quality piece of transit infrastructure. High-fives all around! NBC12 has a recap of the award presentation event, and you can read the Greater Washington Partnership’s one-year-later analysis of the Pulse and the new bus network (PDF). Two key takeaways from the latter: Ridership has increased 17% in Richmond compared to a 2% decline nationally, and our “leaders should continue to build out the comprehensive transit network...in order to ensure that all residents of the region have access to economic opportunity.”

Speaking of, here’s some good news on one of the pieces of that comprehensive transit network: The Commonwealth Transportation Board approved funding for bus service in Chesterfield County along Route 1! GRTC and the County are working out the details as we speak and should have buses on the ground as early as spring 2020. This has been a long time coming and is, fingers crossed, just the first expansion of public transportation we’ll see in Chesterfield.

RVA Rapid Transit board member and executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail Danny Plaugher has a column in the paper on how Virginia is taking big steps on passenger rail and now needs the federal government to do their part.

ELSEWHERE

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that 1,500 residents of public housing will receive free unlimited transit passes. The spokesperson for their housing authority said, “The majority of our residents are people with very low incomes and they’re often making very difficult choices about what to spend what little money they have on. What may seem like a small amount of bus fare to us may cause them to think twice about going to the doctor or going to see a relative.“ The program is funded with $1 million from a voter-approved Transportation Benefit District.

—Ross Catrow

This week in transit: Can you believe it? It’s been a year!

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This coming Tuesday at the ICA (601 W. Broad Street) from 8:00–9:45 AM, join us, Chamber RVA, and the folks from the Greater Washington Partnership to celebrate all of the transportation success Richmond has seen over the last 12 months. You can expect breakfast, an opportunity to have some transit chats, remarks by VCU President Rao, and a panel featuring the Mayor, Jennifer Mitchell (from the Department of Rail and Public Transportation), and Gary Armstrong (from the GRTC Board of Directors).

The event is free and open to the public, but please RSVP so we have an idea of headcount. See y’all there!

AROUND THE REGION

Can you believe it? This coming Monday is the one-year anniversary of the Pulse and the entire redesign of Richmond’s bus network. Since then we’ve seen ridership increase, VCU buy into the system, new fare payment options, bus service expansion in Henrico County, additional money for transit in the Mayor’s budget, and hints of public transportation coming to Chesterfield County. That’s a lot of transit progress, and we have a lot of transit momentum—which is great, because there’s still a ton of work left to do. You can read GRTC’s anniversary press release here which has some neat stats and facts about the Pulse one year later.

This past week, the folks who redesigned Richmond’s bus network released a memo detailing errors in methodology and calculations in a report put out by VCU’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis (PDF). The original report claimed, among other things, that after the redesign 22% fewer lower-income dwelling units were within 1/4 mile of a bus stop. The new memo found that only 2% fewer lower-income dwelling units were within 1/4 mile of a bus stop—and, of course, good public transportation is about more than proximity to a bus stop. In fact, the memo notes that, with the new bus network, the average resident can access 6% more jobs in 45 minutes while the average lower-income resident can access 10% more jobs in that same time period. You can read a bit more about the memo, the original report, and GRTC’s response over on the RVA Rapid Transit website.

Earlier this month, the Richmond Free Press ran a Letter to the Editor asking for all GRTC stops to have benches (and other amenities) installed (see below for some more thoughts on that!). This past week, RVA Rapid Transit boardmember Nicholas Smith wrote a follow up Letter to the Editor about how if we want more amenities at more bus stops—which, of course we do—we need to ask our elected officials across the region for more money for more bus stops.

ELSEWHERE

An analysis out of Wayne State University looked at the distribution of bus stop shelters across Detroit’s bus network and found that better placing the shelters could “roughly double the amount of time bus riders in Detroit spent in sheltered waiting environments daily, from 63,000 minutes a day to about 111,000.“ In fact, “by moving existing bus shelters to better-used stops, the Detroit Department of Transportation could increase the number of people who have access to shelters by 817 percent.” Whoa. After Richmond’s bus network redesign, I’d love to see a similar look (additionally taking into account race and income) at where bus stop amenities exist now and where they’re most needed.

—Ross Catrow

This week in transit: VCU gets back on the bus

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There are two local events coming up in the next couple of weeks that you should put on your calendar:

First, June 18th is the City’s Multimodal Day. Take the opportunity today to plan how you can get around town on the 18th using your feet, a scooter, a bike, or the bus—(fake) bonus points if you combine multiple modes in a single trip! You can sign the Multimodal Day pledge here.

Second, the Greater Washington Partnership will host an event celebrating Richmond’s transportation success(es) on June 25th at the ICA from 8:00–9:45 AM. Expect some breakfast, an awards presentation, and definitely a Mayor Stoney sighting.

AROUND THE REGION

Last week VCU and GRTC signed a new, three-year agreement to extend the existing unlimited rides pilot program for all VCU, VCU Health System, and Virginia Premier students and employees. As the region’s largest employer and one of the state’s largest public universities, keeping VCU on the bus is huge and fantastic news. Additionally, VCU will pay $1.42 million for the program this coming year, up from the $1.2 million they pay currently. That amount will increase each of the subsequent years, too. Keeping the cost inline with the expected increase in VCU ridership is an important step in keeping fares—across the entire system—fair.

The scooters have landed! This past Thursday, Bolt dropped their fleet of electric scooters in Richmond. You can watch some short remarks and see a gif of the Mayor riding a scooter for the first time here. Bolt says they’ve got a fleet of 500-vehicles and that 35% of them will end up in neighborhoods with lower-incomes. They’ve also got an income-based discount program called Bolt Forward that will give folks who qualify 50% off scooter rides. If well-implemented, these equity-focused components of Bolt’s scooter program can help provided first/last-mile access to public transportation—but they need to be actually implemented. Stay tuned, and ride safe!

ELSEWHERE

This past General Assembly session saw the creation of a dedicated transportation funding stream for the I-81 corridor. While it’s mostly for road building and maintenance, it did leave the Richmond Region as the only major region in Virginia without a similar dedicated source of transportation funds. As our region’s leaders and elected officials inevitably start thinking about finding a transportation funding stream of their own, first, they must mandate a sizable chunk of that funding go toward building, maintaining, and operating regional public transportation. Building more roads will not save our region from congestion, climate-change, or the increasingly dire housing crisis. Second, they can and should learn a lot from the mistakes and missed opportunities related to Nashville’s recently-failed ballot referendum, or maybe take a look at Salt Lake City where 40% of a newly-levied sales tax will go towards public transportation.

—Ross Catrow

This week in transit: Buses could be coming to Chesterfield County!?

AROUND THE REGION

Big, big Chesterfield news, y’all! On May 22nd, the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors heard an update on the (potential) pilot program to bring public transportation to Route 1. You can listen to the entire presentation over on the Board's website (skip forward to 2:08:00). Some background: Chesterfield has applied to the State's Department of Rail and Public Transportation for 80% of the operating costs of running buses along Route 1 from the city limits to John Tyler Community College. That's about $2 million, for two years, renewable for an additional third year. That level of funding makes the total pilot program pretty dang affordable for the County.

As part of the process to kick off this pilot, the County worked with SIR to survey residents along the corridor to gauge the community's interest. The results were about as pro-transit as you can get: 75% of respondents felt like public transit would benefit the corridor and 30% said they'd be likely to use it.

Chesterfield's Director of Transportation Jesse Smith said the next step is to meet with GRTC and talk through some details, and, after that, service could start as soon as spring 2020! Very exciting.

One small caveat / thing to keep an eye on! Originially, the County was considering two different transit options for Route 1: Fixed-route service provided by GRTC, and a hybrid, on-demand service provided by a private company. Survey respondents overwhelmingly preferred the GRTC option, and, after listening to the presentation, it sure seems like the County has decided to move forward with GRTC.

TAKE ACTION

Did you know that June 18th is Richmond’s Multimodal Day? Well, it is, and it’s a new initiative from the City’s Department of Public Works to encourage folks to get out of their cars while moving around the city. You’ve got a couple of weeks to plan for it, so mark June 18th on your calendar as a day to walk, bike, scoot, or take the bus to wherever you’re headed. You can sign the pledge form here.

Also, don’t forget about this week’s GRTC meetings! They’re your chance to weigh in on the City’s proposed bus service improvements on the Southside and in the East End:

  • Tuesday, June 4th, 5:30–6:30 PM; Southside Community Services Center Room A (4100 Hull Street Road)
  • Thursday, June 6th, 6:00–7:00 PM; East End Branch Library (1200 N. 25th Street)

ELSEWHERE

Angie Schmitt at Streetsblog has an excellent article about the changing racial demographics of Detroit and Atlanta and how that’s having an impact on public transportation. A lot of this should sound familiar and applies to the Richmond region as well: “But Rochester Hills’s refusal to fund transit service of any kind can exert an especially brutal toll on low-income workers, like Robertson, who may need to commute into the suburb from other areas...In some of the wealthy, mostly white suburbs of Oakland County, north of Detroit, like Rochester Hills, refusing to allow transit service has a long, ugly history. Historically, a lack of transit helped maintain racial segregation.”

—Ross Catrow

This week in transit: Another month, another ridership increase

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Just a couple weeks ago now, Richmond’s City Council passed a budget that included funding for bus service upgrades in the East End and on the Southside. In case you need a refresher: GRTC will design a new route to serve the recently-opened East End grocery store, extend the service hours on the Southside’s #86 and #87, and add Sunday service to the #2B.

Mark your calendars! The public meetings to discuss these service upgrades are on June 4th at the Southside Community Services Center, Room A (4100 Hull Street Road) from 5:30–6:30 PM and June 6th at the East End Branch Library (1200 N. 25th Street) from 6:00–7:00 PM.

These meetings are a good opportunity to get into the specifics with GRTC of how the new service upgrades will work—especially that new East End route. If you can’t make either of the meetings, you can always send an email to

AROUND THE REGION

Bus ridership in the Richmond region continues to increase in an incredible way (PDF), setting us apart from almost every other city in America. This is really stunning and something we should celebrate. As of April, with two months remaining in the fiscal year, GRTC saw almost 400,000 more rides this year than last. Not only that, but weekday Pulse ridership has doubled the original projections. Getting more folks on the bus is not a mysterious and magical thing—it just requires jurisdictions across the region to invest in faster, more frequent, and more reliable service. It’s nice to finally see some national recognition for the work being done in the Richmond region.

Despite the nationally-unique, month-after-month increase in ridership, the public narrative around GRTC in Richmond has, at least recently, seemed focused on fare evasion—despite no evidence that it’s a significant problem on the Pulse. So, acting on a directive from City Council to do something to dissuade folks from riding without paying, this past week GRTC’s board considered a pretty terrible advertising campaign to shame transit riders and threaten to “expose” them for evading fare. First, we don’t use this sort of language for people who illegally park, and we shouldn’t use it for people riding transit. Second, you can imagine a world where these ads could have simply said something like “It’s fair to pay your fare.” and totally eschewed the shame-based language. Third, King County, Washington, recently did a study on fare evasion (PDF) and found that “people experiencing homelessness or housing instability received nearly 25% of [fare evasion] citations.” If the City and GRTC still feel like spending resources on a marketing campaign to curb fare evasion (without knowing if it’s even a problem), they need to use better and more compassionate language.

As the State continues to build, renovate, and update their properties in and around the Capitol, transportation continues to feel the impact. The eastbound Pulse lane between 9th and 10th has been closed and will be closed indefinitely until the new General Assembly building is completed. Now, the State will close 9th Street and portions of Grace Street, detouring two 15-minute bus routes (the #2 and #5). They’ll also install “two new gates controlling traffic at the south end of the street at Bank Street,” which, if they’re anything like the gate on the other end of Bank Street, don’t sound particularly friendly to people on bikes.

—Ross Catrow

This week in transit: How to make transit better in a single week

AROUND THE REGION

Chesterfield County launched a new on-demand transportation program for folks “who either have a disability, live in a low-income household, or have reached age 60.” This is a useful service to some, but, at $6 per ride and no connection into the rest of the regional bus network, it’s not something that folks can use as a day-to-day transportation option. Chesterfield County still needs to provide fixed-route bus service, run by GRTC, along its major corridors.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch has a neat article about the challenges and process involved in designing the landscape around the Pulse stations. Looking forward to when all of those plants start to fill out a bit!

Maritza Pechin, who’s running the Richmond 300 master planning process, was on the Building Better Communities with Transit podcast talking about the Pulse, the long-range planning process, and transit-oriented development. You can read a bit about it over on the TOD Resources blog.

ELSEWHERE

RVA Rapid Transit board member Nicholas Smith lists five steps Montreal will take in a single week to improve transit, getting around by bike, and walking: bus lanes, bike lanes, parking enforcement, more bike share, and free transit fares for disadvantaged youth. That’s some incredible work for a single week and should inspire our local leaders to get moving on some improvements in our region.

Speaking of improvements to bus systems, Muni is doing some hard work in San Francisco to support the increase in bus ridership they’ve seen. The best thing they’ve done to improve and speed up bus service? Transit-only lanes on congested roads—I’m looking at you, 14th Street.

While we don’t have scooters in Richmond (yet), Indianapolis already has several fleets and will now work on how to equitably distribute the vehicles to provide better first/last-mile connections. While scooters won’t solve every transit problem, they can definitely be part of a package of solutions.

—Ross Catrow

This week in transit: The importance of the GRTC and VCU partnership

AROUND THE REGION

Adam Lockett at RVA Mag writes about the importance of the partnership and pilot program between GRTC and VCU. That partnership is in the midst of renegotiation, and we’ll probably soon know how the two will move forward. I agree with Lockett: Any reduction in scope of the partnership—either by eliminating the program entirely or making only the Pulse and #5 bus available to VCU students, faculty, and staff—would be detrimental to all of the public transit momentum we have in town. I’m hopeful that VCU will go ahead and make the current pilot program permanent while also paying their full and fair share of that cost. This quote from a March 19th article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch makes me think that’s still an option: “VCU and VCU Health remain committed to continuing to fund a cost-effective transportation option that provides our students and employees with access to the entire GRTC system.”

ELSEWHERE

Here’s a fascinating-yet-nerdy transportation chart: How the length of time you feel like you’ve been waiting for the bus is impacted by the amenities of the bus stop. If your bus stop has shelter, seating, and realtime arrival information, there’s a significant impact on your perceived waiting time—reducing it by as much as 35%! Also interesting, although not unexpected, lack of amenities at a bus stop increases the perceived waiting time for women much more than men.

The City of Chicago wanted to increase bus ridership and in an attempt to do so installed a clever combined bus lane / bike lane pilot program that turned out to be a complete success. Bus speeds went up 65% and now the city wants to try the experiment elsewhere.

There’s been a lot written about the failed transit-funding referendum in Gwinnett County, Georgia as transit advocates and opponents process what happened. I enjoyed this opinion piece about the business benefits of public transportation that are no longer on the table for the county. Back in Richmond, we could use some of the region’s business leaders to step up and write a few things like this!

—Ross Catrow

This week in transit: The Richmond region lacks dedicated transportation funding

AROUND THE REGION

With the end of the 2019 General Assembly session, Richmond is now Virginia’s only major metro area without dedicated transportation funding, says Ned Oliver at the Virginia Mercury. Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia, and, now, Southwest Virginia have regional funding sources available for transportation projects—with Northern Virginia using some of that to build and pay for public transportation. Oliver gets into a bit of the history behind why the Richmond region lacks a similar bucket of funding and how we can get it. Senator McClellan underscores the importance of if/when Richmond has a similar funding mechanism that we use a portion of it to start building a truly regional public transportation system.

Richmond Magazine’s Sarah King has a small update on bringing public transportation to Route 1 in Chesterfield County. The County has applied for a state grant that could pay for some sort of transportation service for up to three years. They’ll find out the status of their application later this spring.

ELSEWHERE

A constant question: How can we use the tools and resources we have on hand to improve bus service now without spending a ton of money? The answer is usually surprisingly simple: Bus lanes, transit signal priority, and other small changes to infrastructure that prioritize giving street space to buses. It’s not always about building a huge new transportation project, but, sometimes, it’s just about small, quick, and cheap improvements.

Chicago has elected a new mayor, and her transportation platform has a bunch of smart ideas that we should steal in Richmond. This one in particular is big and something to strive for: “Work to ensure every Chicagoan lives within a 15 minute walk of reliable 24-hour transit service.”

Now this is neat and depressing: The Guardian has some maps of public transit systems in different cities comparing the street-car era to present day. Spoiler: We used to have lots more public transportation before the car ate America.

—Ross Catrow