This story is not isolated to just this area; it is happening to nearly all transit systems in the United States. As Washington’s transit leaders near completion of their Bus Transformation Project, there are lessons from their peers in Richmond who have begun implementation of a visionary plan and are reaping the rewards.
The Richmond area found a way to reverse declining ridership and become a national leader in providing bus transit to its residents, with bus rapid transit (BRT) as a core strategy. Until last year, Virginia’s capital and adjacent Henrico County were stuck in a pattern of declining transit use. Local and state leaders implemented a series of bold new transit actions, creating a stunning reversal and catapulting the metro area to among only a handful of places nationwide that have seen a double-digit percentage increase in bus transit ridership. Now, one year after the transit transformation, Richmond is a national bright spot that other metro areas should look to for inspiration on how to design quality, accessible public transit.
People give up on transit for many reasons. If the service is infrequent and unreliable, and the routes are not convenient to their daily lives, fewer people will use it. Declining ridership has a negative effect on traffic, the environment and quality of life.
So how did Richmond turn the tide?
Richmond is growing, and, until last year, its public transit system wasn’t meeting the needs of residents or businesses. Job growth wasn’t aligned with Richmond’s existing historic transit routes; a 2011 Brookings Institution study found that just 1 out of every 10 jobs could be reached by a transit commute of less than 45 minutes. Not surprisingly, by 2017, bus ridership had declined by 20 percent from 2010 levels.
Richmond, Henrico County, the Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) and Virginia took unprecedented action to reverse these trends and provide competitive service. Working together, the Richmond area opened its first BRT line, launched a redesigned bus network in the city and expanded bus service in Henrico County, all within a three-month period in 2018 at a cost of less than $70 million. The transit investment spurred updates to zoning regulations along the corridor with limits on parking, leading new development to concentrate around the BRT.
The results are astonishing. Within one year, the GRTC’s transit ridership had increased by 17 percent, with numbers climbing to nearly 25 percent in later months as more people became accustomed to the improved system. Nearly 50 percent of low-income households in the city now have access to frequent transit. The long-term impacts the new bus system will have on equity and economic development are promising and will be important factors in Richmond’s continued growth.
The plan was bold and comprehensive, built on strong partnerships and inclusive of community input. Richmond’s success offers lessons on how cities can design a BRT system that brings people back to transit:
First, even one BRT line can transform the narrative around bus transit in a region by connecting the system with fast and frequent service and creating the spine of a bus network. In June, GRTC’s Pulse BRT line was awarded a Bronze BRT Standard distinction, making it one of only 10 corridors in the country recognized for high-quality design and service.
Second, frequent service is the essential ingredient needed to create a transit system that people want to use and know they can rely on to get to work, school and their families. Without improvements in frequency, the service is less useful and reliable.
Third, transit must take people where they want to go, especially to job centers, education institutions and food stores. Too many transit networks in the United States are legacy systems with routes following the residential and employment patterns of the 20th century. Richmond’s redesigned bus network is taking residents where they need to go faster, connecting 21st-century residential and employment centers.
No doubt, Richmond should be proud of its success, but there is more work to do. This includes expanding the service in neighboring jurisdictions, electrifying the bus fleet, dedicating time and attention to continued fare-payment challenges and providing ever more dedicated space for bus transit. Richmond’s results show that bus transit can experience real growth when leaders spanning jurisdictions work together to invest in and provide a useful, competitive service.
Richmond illustrates that with commitment from the region’s elected leaders and key investments, real success is possible. To reverse ridership decline and greatly enhance the competitiveness of a bus system, we don’t have to look far for an example of a real bus transformation story.