Richmond Boldly Plotting a Post-19th Century Mass Transit System

The truth comes out: Richmond's bus system still organized around century-old street car routes.
The truth comes out: Richmond’s bus system still organized around century-old street car routes.

by James A. Bacon

The City of Richmond has procured funding for a study to see if GRTC Transit System bus routes can be organized more efficiently, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The study will bring in the Jarrett Walker + Associates consulting firm that showed how rearranging the route structure could triple the frequency of bus service in Houston without requiring additional funding.

“The bus service we’ve been running off of was designed on the basis of the old streetcar lines in Richmond and many of these things have not been looked at since then,” said Ben Campbell, an organizers of the advocacy group TVA Rapid Transit.

At last, a sign that the mass transit in the Richmond region is moving into the 20th century! Given that it’s now the 21st century, we still have a ways to go. But, hey, it’s progress.

One goal of the study will be to adjust routes to connect with the planned bus rapid transit system, the Pulse, that will run along the Broad Street corridor between Rocketts Landing and Willow Lawn. One goal will be to determine where bus stops can be consolidated with Pulse stations to facilitate connections.

Hopefully, Jarrett Walker + Associates will do more than show how to reorganize the bus route structure, as important as that is.  The City of Richmond also needs a long-range plan that encourages higher-density, mixed-use development along Broad Street and provides sustained investment in streetscapes to create an environment inviting to pedestrians walking between transit stops and businesses along the route. Without these fundamental supporting elements, the Pulse is a recipe for losing money.

Outside of downtown, most of the Broad Street corridor consists of low-density, ’50s- and ’60s-era dreck that cries out for redevelopment. Permitting higher densities will give landowners an incentive to invest in their properties; higher densities also will generate more traffic to support the transit service with paying customers. Turning Broad Street from an autocentric wasteland into a corridor where people will actually enjoy walking, shopping, working and even living also will require a sustained commitment of public funds to burnish the public realm. If plans for such rezoning and public improvements exist, however, they haven’t seen the light of day in local media.

My nightmare scenario is that the city is rushing forward with expensive bus rapid transit plans without putting the necessary support elements into place. I am crossing my fingers and hoping that Jarrett Walker + Associates will emphasize the connection between mass transit, land use and walkability — and that City Council will pay attention.

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7 responses to “Richmond Boldly Plotting a Post-19th Century Mass Transit System”

  1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    After considerable discussion and interchange among stakeholders, Fairfax County adopted a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) Policy that limits high density to no more than 1/4 mile from a rail station. Efforts to extend this beyond 1/4 mile and to non-rail transit regularly arise and need to be fought. Why? Because people don’t like buses (except for long-distance express lines) and won’t walk much further than 1/4 mile to transit.

    Assuming some sense in this program, why would Richmond think adding density along bus routes will work? BRT might work if it had its own non-shared RoW for virtually all the entire route.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    “BOLD”? you want BOLD?

    how about putting out an request for proposals for a transit solution and see what the competitors come up with?

    or how about UBER TRANSIT and see if Uber or others can develop an integrated system of buses, trolleys, vans, and personal mobility ?

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      At least in NoVA, transit is not about moving people in an efficient and effective manner and providing an alternative to SOV travel. It’s all about giving nearby landowners significant increases in density (and wealth) while sticking the costs on others. I’d guess that things are likely the same in Richmond.

      When density is given due to the construction of capital, the bulk of the capital costs associated with the density-giving transit should be paid by the those who get the density and major profits associated therewith. Such a rule would help ensure transit projects are built when they are cost effective and vice versa.

  3. Meanwhile The Beach is Hell-bent on pursuing 19th Century transit by expanding Norfolk’s Toonerville Trolley 3 miles to the joke of a real downtown we label as Town Center.

  4. One thing about the proposed Pulse route is that it follows Broad Street . . . which is “broad” because it used to have railroad tracks down the middle of it, and still has room for dedicated transit lanes and other such embellishments if renewed use of public transit takes off. And it should be noted, the other end of the Broad Street corridor is not Willow Lawn but Short Pump.

    The other major corridor into the West End is Grove Avenue. Now the Grove Avenue line continues to the U. of R. where bus service currently terminates at the old trolley turnaround. This really ought to run out River Road to Gaskins or even beyond, and/or across the River to Bon Air and Midlothian.

    Why isn’t Richmond talking to Henrico about a joint system to get City employees out to County employers? Won’t such a system benefit both jurisdictions? Think about the comparable collaborative transit opportunities to the north, northeast, east and south.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Looking at efficient and effective ways to get city employees to county employers is work worth doing.

      We in the D.C. metro area look at costly transit fantasies, such as gondolas over the Potomac River while Metro Bus cannot pick up riders in Wards 7 & 8.

      It’s time to make transportation about moving people and goods safely and efficiently, instead of creating wealth for well-positioned landowners. That does not mean we cannot have any transit oriented development, but why is that a priority when government cannot perform transportation basics?

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’d be curious how people feel about commuter rail which, like BRT, is expressly designed to move commuters to/from work/home.

    The Potomac Rappahannock Transportation Commission and the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission comprise many if not most of the NoVa counties and city/towns down I-95 to Fredericksburg and operate the Virginia Railway Express – a system that carries about 20,000 passengers per day.

    The approximate $20 per trip cost is about 3/4 subsidized with a 2.1% tax on gasoline in those jurisdictions.

    This amounts to about 8 cents or so per gallon depending on the price of gas. Each jurisdiction levies the tax – and turns over it’s share of the costs and whatever is left they can use for other transportation.

    VRE also runs to Manassas .

    each VRE station has pretty-much developed or is developing to a TOD type density although most of the stations typically have hundreds, thousands of parking spots and a large percentage of folks do drive to the train.

    once these trains get to NoVa/DC – people go by various means to their work – many via METRO.

    would this kind of funding arrangement work for Richmond Transit – i.e. a tax on gasoline to fund the transit?

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