Richmond Shows How to Boost Small-City Transit

Photo: RVA Rapid Transit
Photo: RVA Rapid Transit

Many cities are struggling with declining transit ridership, but Richmond, Virginia — population 227,000 — seems to have found a winning formula.

Monthly ridership on Greater Richmond Transit Company is up 21 percent year over year thanks to one big investment, some smart planning and some policy changes — and with only a small increase in its annual operating budget.

The most important change was the opening of its new seven-mile Bus Rapid Transit line, “The Pulse,” which includes three miles of dedicated lanes and many of the features that make BRT faster than conventional bus service. The line, funded in part by a $25-million federal TIGER grant, serves 40,000 weekly trips.

Meanwhile, the same day the new line opened, GCTC debuted a redesigned bus network, designed with input from consultant Jarrett Walker. The new routes offer increased service frequency on five lines. The redesign, which does require riders to transfer more frequently, was cost-neutral for the agency.

Ross Catrow, an organizer with the transit advocacy group RVA Rapid Transit, credits the increase with “a little bit of everything.”

“It was kind of like pulling all these little pieces together,” he said.

GRTC reports the number of trips taken last October was 647,000. This October it had risen to 785,000.

GRTC was able to ink a deal with the Virginia Commonwealth University, which began offering free rides to all its students and employees, including those of the affiliated hospital, which is the city’s largest employer.

In addition, nearby Henrico County chipped in a little over $1 million to expand Route 19 and brings service out to Short Pump Town Center, a major mall.

“Some folks who haven’t ridden the bus before who now have access to jobs at the suburban mall,” said Catrow. “They’re like this was really arduous to get out here before and now its a lot easier.”

Catrow says when he’s riding he also sees lots of VCU badges, employees of the hospital, people who may not have ridden before.

“We had no transit momentum in the city for like 50 years,” he said. “And now we have a ton.”

Catrow says he hopes transit advocates can leverage the progress to push for expanded service.

Updated: 3:12 p.m. Jan. 7th with additional data. 

10 thoughts on Richmond Shows How to Boost Small-City Transit

  1. The above information isn’t sourced so it’s hard to tell what the writer got wrong. But GRTC’s own reporting shows monthly ridership has fallen significantly in the period 2016-2018. Their data shows an actually quite disastrous drop in service from 8.6 million fares in May 2016 to 6.6 million fares in May 2018, the most recent data available. That’s a 23% drop in ridership. Perhaps the writer meant ridership on the Pulse route was increased over the old Number 6 route it replaced? GRTC monthly data here:

  2. Yeah, I was wondering if they had added more service (as all successful network redesigns have done) so I went to the only source I know, and had this same question. Article needs a source and potentially a correction.

  3. I think it might be based on data that is not publicly available yet, which does show an increase in ridership from Sept 2018 to the present, over the same months in 2017. But still below 2016. The numbers I referenced in my first comment I believe are actually cumulative for those years, not a monthly figure. The May 2018 ridership should be 624k and May 2017 should be 648k, which is only a 12% drop in ridership.

  4. No, BRT isn’t rapid transit (nor are even tramways like those in San Francisco and here in Boston fully rapid transit), which in my book requires absolute rights of way. But there isn’t a single corridor in Richmond that has the ridership to justify even a tramway — let alone absolute rights of way. No way you could in Richmond find a rail route that costs under $40K/rider. What Richmond is doing fits their needs well.

  5. But Oct. 2016 had 740k riders. I moved to Richmond in 2016 and the bus system was a disaster. For example, just before I moved there a transit plaza was put in where all routes terminated, pretty much cutting off the east side from the west side.

    So really, we are just getting back to where we used to be in terms of ridership. I really like the new routes and I have been using the bus a lot more, especially the Pulse. But there still needs to be more frequency and the counties need to introduce more service (neighboring Chesterfield county has no bus routes at all).

  6. There is no ridership because there’s nothing to ride.

    It does work pretty well for Richmond but it’s so slow. I can often get to where I’m going as fast or faster on a bicycle and that doesn’t even include the time spent waiting for the bus.

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