A Win-Win Transit Solution for Norfolk

by James A. Bacon

I have been highly critical of mass transit operations here in Virginia, which has led some blog commenters to suggest that I am “anti” mass transit. To the contrary, I believe that mass transit is a critical element of Virginia’s transportation infrastructure, an absolute necessity to manage the densification that occurs in growing urban areas. However, to say that mass transit is essential is not to excuse transit operations for abysmal performance and wasting millions of tax dollars.

When I see evidence of positive performance, I highlight it… which brings me to today’s post. Before the COVID epidemic, a major overhaul of Richmond’s bus routes gained 1 million riders, a 17% increase, by reorganizing its bus routes. Now Norfolk is hiring the same consultant who transformed Richmond’s bus routes to re-engineer its own mass transit network.

The proposed reorganization of routes would put 140,000 more Norfolk residents within a quarter mile of a bus or train arriving every 15 minutes for most of the day, an increase of 57% over today. The average person will be able to access 31% more jobs than with the existing network. All without spending more money.

Reports The Virginia Mercury:

“Here in Norfolk we have a bus system that hadn’t been reviewed or updated in decades,” said Andria McClellan, a city councilwoman and Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. “All the tiny changes over the years left us with a lot of spaghetti-style routes that were added for political reasons and not because they actually met the needs of our current riders.”

Let me repeat the operative sentence to make certain it penetrates readers with thick skulls: “All the tiny changes over the years left us with a lot of spaghetti-style routes that were added for political reasons and not because they actually met the needs of our current riders.”

One reason mass transit is such a mess is that transit agencies are publicly owned, hence responsive to the demands of elected politicians whose primary interest is making constituents happy, not running a low-cost operation. Because public agencies are not profit-maximizing institutions, efficiency is a secondary concern. They are prone to inertia and resistant to change. When service suffers or revenues fall short, the path of least resistance usually has been to hit up the taxpayers.

“In a lot of mid-sized cities the bus networks haven’t really been looked at and rethought in a holistic way maybe ever; they just evolved over time from taking over old streetcar lines,” said Scudder Wagg — a senior associate with Human Transit, the firm conducting Norfolk’s redesign. “We’ve seen so many bus route redesigns over the last decade because cities are now bursting with population growth again. The recent renaissance in Norfolk’s downtown and around Old Dominion University is what has driven this process.”

Mass transit has become so inefficient in many municipalities that consulting firms like Human Transit make a great living by showing them how to tighten operations and improve service at no extra expense. This is what I call a “win-win” proposition — the kind of solution that an opportunity agenda would champion. Kudos to Richmond and Norfolk for going this route. Maybe Virginia’s other transit systems can learn something.

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12 responses to “A Win-Win Transit Solution for Norfolk

  1. Good piece. Connecting disparate neighborhoods is a workable idea.

    • Yeah, sounds like the response should be, well duh. Inertia remains the most powerful force in government…the incentives for improvement just aren’t strong enough to overcome it.

  2. Systemic racism is a good part of this. Ever wonder why they never put a stop in Georgetown when the DC Metro was built?

    • Because Georgetown wasn’t geographically suited for a metro stop. Just think how far down one would have to tunnel from M St. to get to a level where tracks could go under the Potomac to access Roslyn. Also, metro as originally conceived was more of a commuter rail system – primarily for federal workers.

    • I remember. It was because the residents of Georgetown (almost exclusively white liberals) didn’t want “undesirables” using the Metro to come to M Street and party in the bars (and burglarize homes). Lots of alternate excuses were put forth but the crux was that people living in Georgetown didn’t want a stop and one fewer stops made it all the more affordable.

      Apparently the liberal white racists of Georgetown didn’t have much respect for the industriousness of those they consider to be undesirable. It’s a 15 minute walk (at most) from the Foggy Bottom stop to Georgetown and about the same over the Key Bridge from Rosslyn in Virginia. I’ve made those walks many time as an “off brand undesirable” getting to Georgetown to go bar hopping.

      In fairness, the Foggy Bottom Metro stop opened on July 1, 1977. Metro was initiated by the National Capital Transportation Act of 1969. So, decisions like not having a Metro stop in Georgetown are about 50 years old.

      Nobody doubts that systemic racism existed. The questions is whether SYSTEMIC racism still exists.

      In case it helps, the primary definition of systemic is, “relating to a system, especially as opposed to a particular part.”

    • Because JFK had the Secret Service giving him rides to his dates?

      But that is why the GRTC didn’t go to Chesterfield, and still doesn’t go there much….

  3. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Norfolk could ask ODU to charge the students to pay the freight for the bus services. That is exactly how the Blacksburg Transit operates. On the backs of tuition and extra fees of VPI students.

  4. Good Job Jim B! It’s not exactly clear if they “tweaked” or “re-invented”.

    One the problems with transit (of many) is that one has to adapt to it’s schedule, not the other way around!

    And I end up wondering what the habits are of those who do find transit useful or is transit for some a last resort?

    So, I tend to “stack” errands. On the day I have a doc/dentist appointment, I will also grab the grocery list on the fridge and perhaps head over to Lowes to get something I’ve been meaning to.

    Could I “stack” errands for transit? Not likely… at least not without a lot of grief to include what the heck I do with my groceries…

    Or another, could I drive my car in for service , take transit home, then return on transit to pick it up? Nope.

    So perhaps the consultant has a good model for the average transit user and they are using things like that to re-design/adapt transit to contempory lifestyles?

    In terms of cost – or more to the point, what transit SHOULD cost – do we have any idea at all in terms of what is an “efficient” system versus an inefficient one? That’s been my complaint. One can find many faults with any given transit system – but do we really have a “good” model to use to judge a given transit?

    How about a parallel? Is there such a thing an an “efficiently operated” police or fire parks&rec, or other necessary service?

  5. Maybe geology is keeping GRTC out of Chesterfield

  6. This points out the problem with Lite Rail…. routes are seriously permanent…. also seriously expensive to build and operate…

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