Americans often are divided and angry these days, but there are plenty of reasons to unite in celebration if you just look around. One of them is right here in Richmond. A year ago Monday, the city’s bus rapid transit system — GRTC Pulse — made its inaugural run. Since then the Pulse has consistently exceeded ridership projections, proving that public transit has a big role to play in solving many of our transportation problems.
Before the Pulse came on the scene, such problems in central Virginia were acute (and in some ways they still are). A few years ago, the Brookings Institution found that Richmond, the 44th-largest metro area in the country, ranked 95th on access to jobs and transit. Less than 10% of jobs could be reached by transit within 45 minutes, and Richmond-area residents waited substantially longer for a bus than the national average.
Today circumstances have improved, thanks to cooperative efforts by the commonwealth of Virginia, Richmond, Henrico, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the Greater Richmond Transit Co. In 2018, nearly 50% of households in poverty in the city of Richmond had access to frequent, reliable transit options. Households in poverty in Henrico now have access to 15% more transit service on weekends and weekday evenings. Today the average Richmond resident can get to nearly 2,000 more jobs by transit within an hour. That is good news for workers. And it is good news for employers, especially in today’s tight labor market.
Not surprisingly, this has boosted ridership: 17% more people rode the system between July 2018 and April 2019 compared to the same period a year before. Many of those riders are students and staff at Virginia Commonwealth University, who make an average of more than 87,000 trips a month. The university is glad to keep that momentum going: Earlier this month, VCU signed a three-year agreement with GRTC to fund unlimited public transportation access for all VCU and VCU Health System students and employees.
Henrico’s assistance in expanding service to Short Pump, and regular service to Richmond International Airport, make the Pulse even more valuable. Of course, there always will be a need to review and refine routes to ensure optimal service for all communities.
Increasing transit like this is a good deal for everyone: It reduces traffic congestion, cuts greenhouse gas emissions and fosters upward mobility. That is why groups such as the Greater Washington Partnership, a civic alliance of business leaders, is working to foster transit solutions that can help ensure our region thrives. (One of us — Tom Farrell — sits on the board of the partnership.)
The first year for the Pulse is a good start. As a region, we can do even more to build on that and other advances, such as the revitalization of the Richmond Marine Terminal. It’s a vital part of a regional transportation network, but the port was largely inconsequential just a few years ago, having lost the last of its oceangoing traffic. Under the leadership of former Mayor Dwight Jones, the Port of Virginia assumed management of the Richmond facility through a 40-year lease. Since then the freight volume on barge traffic between Hampton Roads and Richmond has soared. The increase from 2017 to 2018 alone was a whopping 31.5%. That means lower carbon emissions and cleaner air, thanks to fewer trucks on Interstate 64.
Another major advance: the deal reached last year to fully fund the D.C.-area Metro system. After years of bickering and gridlock, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia have locked in a dedicated stream of badly needed revenue for Metro. This historic accomplishment will allow Metro to overcome years of deterioration, breakdowns and neglect, and sets the system back on a path to greatness.
Victories such as these are worth celebrating in their own right, but their benefits extend far beyond their own individual details. Mobility remains vital to economic prosperity; when people and goods cannot move about freely, commerce grinds to a halt. The more we can remove friction and inertia from the transportation system as a whole, the more we all have to gain.
Richmond’s Pulse has shown us one way to do that. On June 25, it is being recognized by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), which will award the Pulse a bronze ranking for design and implementation. That award places the Pulse in some stellar company, alongside rapid transit lines in Los Angeles, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Bangkok, Paris, Mexico City and Buenos Aires.
We too would like to congratulate the Pulse on its accomplishments. And we urge the Richmond region to view this early success as not only the culmination of one journey, but also the start of another even more ambitious one.