BRT to Nowhere?

West Broad Street: not exactly pedestrian friendly

West Broad Street: not exactly pedestrian friendly

by James A. Bacon

There’s a whole lot of fuzzy thinking going on. People in the Richmond area are so enamored with the prospect of building a Bus Rapid Transit route through the city that they are saying the most astonishing things.

Bus Rapid Transit can be a great idea if done correctly. But it must be done correctly, or it will create a long-term drain on public resources in the City of Richmond and, to a lesser extent, in Henrico County that neither locality can afford.

In the company of Governor Terry McAuliffe, Mayor Dwight Jones and other local luminaries, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced Saturday that Uncle Sam will provide a $24.9 million grant toward the cost of the $54 million project, which would run along Broad Street from Rocketts Landing to Willow Lawn. (See the Times-Dispatch story here.) Virginia, flush with transportation tax revenue from former Governor Bob McDonnell’s tax increase, will kick in $16.8 million toward the project, while Richmond and Henrico will contribute a total of $8 million. (If that adds up to $49.7 million on your calculator like it does on mine, that leaves more than $4 million unaccounted for.)

Local officials touted BRT as a jobs project. “We’re going to make jobs available to people,” said Jones. The bus would shave a quarter hour travel time along the 7.6-mile route, said Foxx. For a person in poverty or without a car, that could mean “the difference between getting a job or not.” Then came this from Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd: “BRT will allow thousands of people in the East End of Richmond to apply for jobs in the West End they wouldn’t even think about applying for before.”

Really? At the eastern terminus, the BRT system will be anchored in Rocketts Landing, an upscale, New Urbanist development along the James River — across the railroad tracks from Fulton Hill, home to thousands of poor and working-class African-Americans. Is this some kind of cruel joke? The lawyers, investment bankers and advertising executives living in Rocketts Landing are not the ones who need access to minimum-wage retail jobs in the Broad Street corridor west of town. For the people who need the jobs, it will be a long, long walk to the BRT station.

Moving west along the proposed route, there aren’t many poor people living in Shockoe Bottom, a commercial area lined by the upscale Tobacco Row condos and apartments on the one side and yuppified apartments for the creative class on the other. As the bus route proceeds through downtown, it does pass through the traditional African-American Jackson Ward neighborhood, but that is rapidly gentrifying as more affluent Richmonders seek proximity to the jobs and amenities of downtown. Further west, the route passes through VCU, but college students hardly constitute a downtrodden class (until they have to start paying back their student loans).

West of downtown, the BRT route skirts past the Carver neighborhood with a couple thousand African-Americans. BRT could provide them better access. But the route then passes Scott’s Addition, an old industrial park that traditionally has had little residential, although it is gentrifying now with the addition of apartments and condos designed for middle-class tastes. Near the western terminus at Willow Lawn, the neighborhoods are middle-class.

For the most part, the only working poor of Richmond’s East End whom the BRT will benefit are those who take a local bus downtown and then change routes. That shaving 15 minutes off their travel time makes the difference between those people having jobs and not having jobs, however, is not a proposition that BRT backers have proved.

The other question that no one seems willing to address — at least not in public speeches — is what happens when the poor East Enders get off the bus on the West side of town. On the plus side, they can walk to their destination on sidewalks — yes, there are sidewalks on this part of Broad Street, unlike farther west. On the downside, the sidewalks are not the kind that actually invite people to walk on them, as can be see in the Google Street View atop this post. The Broad Street stroad is designed for cars, not walking. The sidewalks abut right up to streets with cars traveling 35 miles per hour or faster. Crossing the street can be challenging. Visually, the landscape is barren and inhospitable.

Even more grievous is the fact that Richmond and Henrico need to zone for higher-density, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development along the corridor. Zoning for greater density is the easy part. The hard part is coaxing property owners not to build a new generation of the same old low-rise schlock that aligns the corridor. Another issue that neither jurisdiction has answered — not in public statements, at least — how much it will cost to build “complete street” streetscapes that accommodate people and bicycles as well as cars and BRT buses.

I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t escape the feeling that the state, the feds and the localities have gotten ahead of themselves. They’ve got the money, so they’re going to build the project, regardless of whether they have put other elements of a corridor-revitalization plan in place. Current estimates say the BRT will cost $2.7 million a year in ongoing subsidies to operate. That could be a modest price to pay if the project stimulates a transformation of the Broad Street Corridor along the lines of Cleveland’s Healthline Bus Rapid Transit system, which has been cited as an example of what Richmond can accomplish. But that transformation will not occur in a vacuum. The job does not end with construction of the BRT line. It will take decades of follow-up to the community that arises along it.

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9 responses to “BRT to Nowhere?

  1. BRT is swirling in the entire conundrum or mobility and transit done in the vision of govt transit guys .. in a world of smartpones, uber, lyft, etc, et al.

    But what the Feds do – is set aside what is essentially start-up seed money for pilot projects – that if they “work” the local govt will decide to continue to fund.

    It’s not that different from other Federal and State programs – for instance, the COPS program that will fund new sheriff/police positions for a couple of years and then the locality has to decide if they are going to keep those positions.

    50 some million is not chump change.. for sure.. but in the realm of these seed-grants – it’s not untypical…

    one might ask how the govt got into the business of “suggesting” things the localities might do – i.e. a little up front pilot grant… but truth be known,
    this is also where many new recreational trails come from also.

    but like Jim – I’m wondering of the value of some of these transit concepts including BRT – in a world of Smartphones.

    Some places are saying that municipal transit has undergone a 21st century transformation with Smartphones that tell the owner when the bus is going to arrive at a location … and this is becoming the transit equivalent of “just in time”… your phone “warns” you when the arrival of the bus is imminent and you get your fanny down to meet it – as opposed to going down early and hanging around and the bus is late.

    right behind this – will be the ability to pay the bus fare with your phone.

    perhaps we”ll even have jitney’s that also transmit TBD location arrivals…

    The technology is not just restricted to Uber or Lyft… in fact Uber/Lyft may actually be dealing with niche market compared to a potentially huge transit market – once people know where the buses are and when they arrive.

  2. As they say, the devil is in the details. Although there has been considerable work already done to plan the route, I sincerely hope that there will be ample opportunity to test assumptions. I agree that Rocketts Landing is a questionable terminus for the jobs/access argument and from where I sit, it seems like the Williamsburg Road corridor, directly adjacent to the Fulton neighborhood, would be a better (more socially equitable) route.

    However, it could be argued that the Broad Street BRT is not really about jobs and access as a direct effect, per se. Rather, BRT is a pilot project in the creation of a robust public transportation system, where the system as a whole provides economic vitality to the region. With that in mind, you could view the BRT as a catalyst to gain “choice riders” for the system – those riders that are not dependent on public transportation, but rather choose to use it for reasons other than need. If that is the case, the route seems more logical since it provides a car-competitive commute to and from downtown.

    Andrew Moore, AIA

    • Agreed, BRT might make sense for “choice” riders, especially if accompanied by an evolution of land use to higher density and mixed use along the corridor. But that’s not how the project is being sold. Perhaps that’s a hard sell politically. Why is the city, county and state spending all that money to ease affluent Virginians into BRT when poor Virginians are the ones with the transportation problem?

      My problem is that if you have a stated justification for a project and an ulterior justification for the project, decisions will be made that split the difference, and the result could be a system that accomplishes neither goal very well.

      • That last paragraph pretty much nails the political process in general, I think.

        As an aside, the RVA Rapid Transit folks have been promoting a fast-track for implementing BRT throughout the GRTC system, bringing the advantages of BRT to the entire region at once. It’s a lofty goal, but then again with Ben Campbell behind it, “lofty” may be attainable.

  3. By the way, for anyone who is interested, Partnership for Smarter Growth, RVA Rapid Transit and GRTC have teamed up to bring Joe Calabrese, general manager of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA), to Richmond tomorrow. Joe heads up one of the most sucessful BRT projects in the country and is an outspoken proponent’s of its benefits. 6:30PM at the Science Museum. Free.

  4. You are a bit unfair in making a couple of points using an old snapshot of a portion of West Broad Street. The empty lot shown is now occupied by an Mini Price Storage in a new building at 4300 West Broad. You would have a difficult time finding an empty lot today on this part of West Broad between the Boulevard and Willow Lawn, although there are open parking lots and buildings with vacancies. I think your statement that “Visually, the landscape is barren and inhospitable” is totally false.

    Regardless of the reasons, the BRT route might turn out to be successful. New riders will be the measure of success. GRTC should test the route before making the massive investment. GRTC should run some buses between downtown and Willow Lawn with the proposed limited stops, passing other buses instead of falling in line behind other buses. This simple and inexpensive test might demonstrate that the BRT route can be rapid enough to draw new riders.

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