public transit

GRTC is changing – hopefully in ways that will improve public transit in the Richmond region.

The old news is that GRTC is abandoning the 100+ yr. old facility on Robinson and Cary and building a new hub in Southside. The exciting news is that the expected outcome of this move is, not just a less problematic building, but better transit. From, emphasis added:

“What you see before you is the culmination of over a decade of planning and engineering to transition GRTC from our old facility at the corner of Robinson and Cary streets to a brand new state-of-the-art facility on Belt Boulevard in the Southside that is twice the size of our current facility and really enables us to grow as the Richmond region grows,” said John Lewis Jr., CEO for GRTC Transit System. “It enables us to better meet the transportation needs of a quickly growing Richmond region.”

By decreasing energy and building repair costs- they should free up money for transit.

By increasing square footage at their facility- their fleet should grow.

Which is great news for transit riders in Richmond! Unfortunately, the facility won’t be open until ’09 or ’10. And during that time, it sounds like most excess money will be put towards their new headquarters, expected to cost $40 million. So transit in Richmond will likely see only limited improvements for the next 2-3 years.

In other good news, the GRTC headquarters will be a green-building, both energy efficient and using green materials, and they’re looking at green technology for buses as well.

As I’ve said before, I’m a fan of their new CEO, John Lewis, Jr. This news only confirms that he’s taking GRTC in a good direction- even if a little too slowly for my impatient tastes.


Let’s analyze this statement:

For some business owners in areas where the GRTC buses don’t reach, finding employees willing to walk from the bus stops to the workplaces isn’t easy…

“There is a huge disconnect between where the jobs are and where potential employees are coming from,” said William H. Baxter, president and CEO of the Retail Merchants Association…

“Some businesses are having some real challenges finding employees to work in retail locations,” Baxter said. “It’s going to have a negative impact as growth and expansion continues.” [VIA]

How do businesses decide where to locate their stores? By going to neighborhoods where there are plenty of folks who will buy their products- folks with high disposable income.

How do they keep their prices competitive? By cutting costs wherever possible, including offering few benefits and low salaries.

Where do the employees come from? Obviously not from the neighborhoods the stores serve, who could not afford the goods for sale in the stores if they worked in them. They come from neighborhoods where there’s so-called affordable housing.

And the TD’s diagnosis: Bus routes are too short.

Am I the only one who thinks this is a band-aid solution to a much larger problem?

Of course I support expanded transit. I’ve written about it many times on this blog.

Of course I support connecting employees with employers and decreasing our society’s auto-dependency in the process.

But that’s not the problem described in this article. The problem is employees who are willing to work for low wages live far away from low wage jobs. The problem is retail which caters to wealthy folks is located in neighborhoods that exclude lower-income people who cannot afford the housing nearby.

The problems are economically segregated housing development and single-use zoning.

Ever since zoning laws were declared legal by the Supreme Court in 1926 (Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co.), which found that there is a “valid government interest in maintaining the character of a neighborhood,” politicians and planners have segregated land use- keeping industrial, commercial, and residential land uses separate from one another.

That Court decision and the subsequent spread of zoning laws paved the way for our auto-dependency by making it possible – and even desirable- to locate employment and retail out of walking distance from residences.

And perhaps even more devastating to our communal life in this country, the Court’s decision paved the way for segregating housing by economic status. By validating government interest in controlling the “character” of neighborhoods, the Court opened the door to excluding “undesirable” people through zoning. Subsequently, many suburban localities only allowed zoning for low-density, large lot single-family homes and refused to zone for high density small lot and multi-family housing.*

It’s this legacy of excluding poor folks through zoning that has contributed to employment centers completely out of transportation range of people who need to work there. Expanding bus routes is important and will help in the short run, but why not talk about expanding affordable housing?

In order to not name problems without offering solutions, I suggest the Richmond region discuss enacting inclusionary zoning laws, which require residential building projects of a certain size to include affordable housing. Montgomery Co., MD is the pioneer of this zoning law; 10,000 affordable housing units have been built there since 1974. The county is the 6th wealthiest in the nation.

Other communities with inclusionary zoning laws:

  • Burlington, Vermont
  • Barnstable County, Massachusetts, which contains Cape Cod
  • Princeton, New Jersey
  • Frederick County, Maryland
  • Fairfax County, Virginia, the wealthiest county in the US
  • Chapel Hill, North Carolina
  • Davidson, North Carolina
  • Tallahassee, Florida
  • Madison, Wisconsin
  • Boulder, Colorado
  • Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • San Francisco, California
  • Palo Alto, California
  • San Mateo County, California
  • Sacramento, California
  • West Hollywood, California
  • Huntington Beach, California
  • San Diego, California
  • New York, New York
  • Montclair, New Jersey

Inclusionary zoning isn’t without problems or controversy. But changing zoning laws to require that politicians and developers build housing for all budgets would be a tremendous step towards alleviating the social problem of economic segregation.

*”For instance, one of the most commonly cited exclusionary [zoning] practices is the stipulation that lots must be of a certain minimum size and houses must be set back from the street by a certain minimum space. In many cases, these housing ordinances have prevented affordable housing from being built, because the large plots of land required to build within code are cost-prohibitive for more modest homes. Communities have remained only available to the upper classes because of these ordinances, effectively shutting the poor out of access to desirable communities.” [VIA]

** Another problem, of course, is income inequality. But that’s another post- this one is in response to the Times Dispatch article about short bus routes.

Jim Bacon at Bacon’s Rebellion e-zine has posted a lengthy and excellent discussion of the history and future of commuter rail in Chesterfield Co. Although the likelihood of any public tranist projects being actualized in the near future is almost nil, there is some promising news buried in this article and an accompanying blog post. Below are a few highlights:

  • Two large planned communities, Roseland and Watkins Centre, would like to see commuter rail running along an underutilized Norfolk Southern railway track from downtown Richmond out to their projects near the Rt. 288 circumferential highway.
  • The main virtue of the Midlothian route, which in the Richmond MPO study stops short of Roseland, is that the rail line already exists — it does not have to be built.

Of course, Jim Bacon is well aware of the barriers to successful transit operation in Chesterfield:

Development is spread out, land uses are strictly separated, and interconnectivity between cul de sac subdivisions and retail/office pods is poor. Outside of the small community of Chester, there are few interconnected sidewalks or bike lanes. No one walks in Chesterfield, other than for exercise, and very few ride the bus. The county has steadfastly resisted efforts by the Greater Richmond Transit Company to expand its bus service there.

In sum, very few of the proper conditions exist to support a viable commuter rail, which requires dense nodes of inter-connectivity and walkable development around train stations to support passenger volume.

And here is the real strength of his article. Instead of folks like me, who simply advocate for better transit without doing the intellectual work of identifying barriers and ways around them, Bacon makes several concrete suggestions for making transit work in a sprawled auto-centric county like Chesterfield. And although I disagree with his underlying conservative political philosophy, I absolutely agree with him that transit must create maximum economic returns for minimal investment (read: low taxes) in order to be politically feasible in metro Richmond. Other, softer goals of reduced emissions or increased transportation options are, unfortunately, goals that Richmonders do not seem willing to pay for.


For those with an interest in transit politics, planning, and economics, I encourage you to read Bacon’s post. You’ll find detailed analysis including proposed train station locations, zoning changes, and economic strategies. For those who are bored already (and yet inexplicably still reading), the take-home message is this: intelligent and civic-minded individuals from multiple political stripes are actively working to provide feasible mass-transit options for Richmond, and this is great news. Let’s hope those in power pay attention… is reporting that City Council’s Finance Committee recently killed off the proposed downtown circulator– in part because businesses wouldn’t pay for it.

I’m glad that is tracking this story, as I’m not an avid city council watcher and hadn’t heard what happened to this proposal. It’s odd, however, that they’re posting this story today, June 12, when the vote was two months ago- March 16 (and calling it a “recent” vote). I searched the TD and discovered they had published a story about this same vote back in March.  The article is not available on their webpage.

The TD article interviewed some business owners who tell why they don’t support the circulator as proposed. The original proposal included two routes which covered much of downtown. City council voted to kill one route and only support the eastern half- from the convention center to Shockoe. The reaction of business owners was negative:

“What the circulator does is make our downtown whole,” said Michael Byrne, president of the Historic Shockoe Partnership and owner of Richbrau Brewing Co. in Shockoe Slip. “Doing half of it is doing half of nothing.”

Other businesses, however, said the circulator is a service that should extend beyond downtown to include thriving retail areas such as Carytown and the Fan District, as well as an increasingly vibrant restaurant and gallery strip along Broad Street.

“I say do this once and do it right,” said Charles Diradour, whose business leases buildings to well-established restaurants and night spots in the Fan and other neighborhoods west of Belvidere Street. “Let’s not do it piecemeal. If we’re going to be one city, let’s act like one city.”

The piecemeal approach, however, is exactly what one councilperson wanted: “‘I want to get into the circulator business, but I want to get into it slowly,’ said 4th District Councilwoman Kathy C. Graziano, chairwoman of the [Land Use, Housing and Transportation] committee.” – TD 2/21/07

And herein lies a huge problem with public transportation planning- (some) politicians want to phase things in, spend as little as possible until they’re guaranteed financial success. The public, however, will only use public transit when it’s convenient and comfortable- which costs a lot of money upfront to achieve.

You can’t run a bus once an hour and see if it’s popular before increasing service. People won’t ride the bus precisely because it only runs once an hour. And people won’t ride a bus with an imperfect route- they’ll only ride the bus when it stops near their origin and destination without too much meandering in the middle. And achieving those goals costs money.

It’s also fairly well-known that bus lines don’t garner much support from the business community: they’re not permanent and can be axed by any politician or bureaucrat. Trains or light rail, however, usually gain more business support and spur more investment because they’re on a fixed route and likely won’t be voted out of existence. See this article for more on the economic benefits of rail:
Rail Transit In America — A Comprehensive Evaluation of Benefits

Regarding a circulator bus for Richmond- it sounds like local businesses would support it if the city commits to doing it well- a sensible and comprehensive route with frequent service.  My money says they’ll support a bus if they’re guaranteed their investment will not be spent towards another failed, city-backed economic development scheme which the city backs out of when it doesn’t create immediate magic downtown.

The circulator concept is not dead, however, as Council President Pantele is very much a supporter. In fact, his ideas are the best I’ve heard so far- he’s publicly advocated for frequent service connecting Carytown to Church Hill, and even floated the idea of a trolley. outlines his hopes:

Pantele’s plan calls for two bidirectional loops, one running from the Bottom to Harrison Street, the other from Harrison Street to Boulevard, with 10-minute service. Although Pantele said the city is not obligated to go through GRTC to create such a transit loop, it would be logical to restructure GRTC’s current route system so that the circulator would serve as a hub for all other routes in the city. Clean lines and frequent service would make the circulator convenient and easy enough for anyone to use.

Imagine taking the bus from Carytown to Church Hill and not needing to consult a schedule or complictaed route map! Let’s hope these plans and those of GRTC CEO John Lewis will mesh to provide reliable, frequent, & affordable transit options not only to suburban locations, but also within the city itself.

I was absolutely thrilled with most of the proposals floated in this week’s lead Style article to improve Richmond public transportation.

Apparently, however, I’m out of the loop of public transit developments across the country and the world. Because the ideas that John Lewis, CEO of GRTC, proposed in Style, are already in place all over the world.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT- see it even has its own acronym and its own wikipedia entry) is a new trend in public transit that usually includes these characteristics*:

  • Dedicated bus lanes
  • Enclosed stations
  • Signal Priority technology (to keep lights green)
  • More attractive and comfortable buses

Sound familiar? It should, these are the ideas Mr. Lewis mentioned in his interview. In most cities that have implemented BRT, ridership has increased by around 30% and commute times have decreased.

In fact, a program manager at the American Public Transportation Association has said “This decade will be the decade of BRT.”*

Here’s some pictures of BRT buses from different cities:

Bogota, Colombia- notice the separate lanes and enclosed shelters:

The picture below highlights the new design which gives buses wider appeal and helps overcome their stigma. This is the type they’re using in Las Vegas as well as in several EU cities:

And finally an artist’s rendering of a proposed BRT in Eugene, OR, also with a sleek design and separate lanes. This one, at least in the conceptual rendering, looks almost like a train, which I suppose is a big part of the point. Americans are notorious for favoring trains over buses (while simultaneously eschewing the taxes required to pay for the enormous upfront cost for trains, one major reason our country has little functional & well-used transit):

And from Wikipedia, a list of American cities with BRT:

  • Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • Austin, Texas (opening 2008)
  • Boston, Massachusetts
  • Chicago, Illinois (BRT connecting convention center with downtown for private buses since 2002)
  • Cleveland, Ohio
  • Denver, Colorado
  • Eugene, Oregon
  • Kansas City, Missouri
  • Las Vegas, Nevada
  • Los Angeles, California
  • Miami, Florida
  • Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota
  • Oakland, California
  • Orlando, Florida
  • Phoenix, Arizona
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Providence, Rhode Island
  • San Jose, California
  • Santa Monica, California
  • Seattle, Washington

So this seems a big undertaking for Richmond. I don’t know how much you can do BRT half-way and still be successful. And I’m really skeptical that the political will exists to make changes this drastic happen. You will notice, of course, that no other cities in Virginia have BRT. It’s pretty clear that neither our state government nor VDOT are promoting this type of transportation choice. We’re still pretty stuck on the road-building model- from the state to the local level (which is clear in the Style article as well , exemplified by Rt. 288).

But in any case, the ideas are great and I’ll be a cheerleader for them.

*From the article: Spivak, Jeffrey. “New Trend in Transit.” Urban Land. April, 07. P. 123-4.

I’m so happy I think I might cry.

This week’s lead Style article on GRTC is full of good news. Just look at the title: Mass Appeal: Rising gas prices, dwindling road funds and growing suburban ridership. Why GRTC’s new chief executive has an offer metro Richmond can’t refuse.

It seems the CEO of GRTC, John Lewis, is a visionary who’s undertaking a complete review of the bus system and proposing major changes.  As a frequent bus-rider, I can’t tell you how happy this makes me.  A few proposals mentioned in the article:

  • Special bus-only lanes
  • More express routes to suburban locations
  • More amenities on buses (e.g. wireless internet, overhead storage, especially on those longer express routes)
  • Devices to keep stop lights green for buses
  • GPS-equipped buses so that they can be tracked (I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to be waiting for a bus, call GRTC and ask where it is, only to be told they have no idea and it should have been there 20 minutes ago!)
  • New indoor transfer hubs with ticket-vending machines
  • More frequent service (again with the crying)

The philosophy John Lewis embraces is to capture the “transit-by-choice” riders- those who have cars but don’t want to use them.  So he wants to expand suburban and express routes and offer more amenities.

He’s also aware that he’s in a free-market competition with the individual car, and he wants the bus to be better: faster and more comfortable.  From Style, “Ultimately, he wants Miller’s hour-and-a-half commute from Whitcomb Court to Bill’s Barbecue [on Boulevard] to take minutes. ‘Our whole goal is to beat a car,’ he says.”

The only red flags I see are that the express route to Fredericksburg is a part of his plan, and it has started well below expectations.  So I hope that route picks up, and if it doesn’t, that he can weather the criticism.  Because, as a transit user, I think many of his ideas are spot on.

From what I’ve read in Style, I’ve got a new hero in town.  Thank you, Mr. Lewis.

I’d be amiss, however, if I didn’t mention other excellent aspects of this article- such as tackling the debate about cutting transit subsidies, the local politics of transit funding and route placement, and the philosophy of public transit.  Props to the (sadly) inactive Richmond Talks Back blogger and UofR prof, Thad Williamson, who’s research on GRTC gets a mention.

River City Rapids reports today on a comment Mayor Wilder made at a recent town forum about the sad state of public transit in Richmond:

The mayor’s reply (paraphrased): “I know we need to do a better job with transportation. I find it incredible that you can now get on the bus and go to Fredericksburg but you can’t get on it and go to Chesterfield!”

Besides appreciating the humor here, I’m glad to know that Wilder supports public transit. Besides the now-forgotten diatribes he made against the congregation of bus riders on Broad St., this is the first I’ve heard of him speaking on public transportation.

I wish he’d spend more of his political capital on that issue and less on some other fights he’s picking.

And thanks to River City Rapids for sharing this anecdote. It made my day.  Or at least my morning.

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