OneRVA: Bridging Two Richmonds

A tall man wearing a ball cap and jacket, carried a to-go pizza slice box while he boarded the GRTC bus at the VA Hospital at 4:35pm. After he swiped his bus pass, he found a seat behind me. He walked past the CBS 6 television camera as well as the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly reporters and took a seat behind me. As the bus took off towards the next destination, I turned around inquisitively to ask if he was used to having this kind of media documenting his commute. His big smile and chuckle broke the ice as he shrugged and said, “No, definitely not used to this.”

The four new members of City Council had teamed together to ride the bus in support of Ninth District Councilman Michael Jones’ desire for more routes and increased frequency of GRTC buses in Southside. We wanted to learn more about the tale of two Richmonds, divided by the river that created our city, and see firsthand how this had created an imbalance of equitable access for Richmond residents. For the first time in over 60 years, the City of Richmond was pursuing restructuring the routes of our public transit system. Implementation of our new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system had sparked this well overdue public conversation to redesign our transit network. This was going to be our first big vote and we wanted to make sure we understood the brevity and impact this could have for all residents.

Kristen Larson (4th District), myself, Kim Gray (2nd District), and Michael Jones (9th District) enjoying the end of our journey from Southside to Northside on GRTC.

I wanted to learn more about our new passenger. I shifted in my seat to face him as directly as I could with a passenger sitting beside me. He introduced himself as Don. Don had just finished his day working at the VA Hospital in the Environmental Services Department, maintaining the air temperature, humidity and cleanliness of the hospital. He had grabbed some dinner to hold him over as he went to take a class downtown to become a licensed HVAC mechanic. He started taking classes back in the fall as he wants to advance in his career at the VA Hospital.

This is exactly why transforming public transit matters in Richmond. Don’s story perfectly embodies the purpose of why City Council’s vote on changing the routes for GRTC to best connect with the new BRT route, is so vital and important. This opportunity to transform how people get around our city, opens the door for people to pursue their dreams and happiness, however they desire. Helping people get to work, to class, and back home quickly and safely, is foundational for becoming a modern city.

Don smiling for the camera while Kim Gray explains the new GRTC route plans with Mina from Montreal.

What I learned from this adventure is that I need to ride the bus more. That is why I have committed to ride GRTC at least once a month to learn more about how transit works in Richmond and to learn the needs of our community. We need to expand the routes and frequency of buses in our city. We need to connect the dots of places people need to get to and places that will attract new riders. I have a desire of being able to hop on the bus at Libbie and Grove and get downtown to Brown’s Island for a Saturday concert. More importantly, GRTC needs to be able to provide equitable access for any and all Richmonder’s to get to and from any part of our city easily, fairly, and safely. We do this by engaging with the community in a consistent manner to learn more about the needs of our residents.

This is not to say that GRTC doesn’t provide access to jobs, but it doesn’t have routes into Henrico and Chesterfield for many job seeking residents of Richmond to get to by bus. This new plan doesn’t completely address this need, but it provides the start of a conversation to get us there. The new Bus Rapid Transit route, in combination of a new transit map for GRTC routes, provides the introduction to a new version of our public transit system in Richmond, one that can lead to opening these doors with the counties. We need to get a transit system that supports the needs of more residents to achieve my vision of getting the BRT to go from Short Pump to the Airport through downtown Richmond. This vision is only going to made possible through a successful implementation of BRT and supporting this new backbone of public transit with new bus routes and stops. We need to increase ridership, attract new riders, and make these new routes work effectively and efficiently.

Buses are not by themselves going to change our city. This is why I introduced the proposal of creating a Multi-Modal Transportation Compact. Buses are only one part of the many ways people get in and around our city. People walk, run, ride bikes, drive cars, take the train, and paddle on the river as well. BRT and the new transit plan are only going to be successful when we look at the entire system and network for how people move in Richmond. We need to connect all the dots in an effort to make the region connected as one. This is only going to be possible if we get all parts of this puzzle together in one room, on one page, with a shared vision for the future of how people get around our city.

What started out as a journey to learn about the “two Richmonds” we hear about, divided into North and South by the river that defines our city, has become the introduction to a call to create one RVA. One city, undefinable by boundaries of cities or counties, and one that is equitably accessible by anyone, anywhere, at anytime. That is why the four new Council members rode the bus together and met riders like Don, to elevate and advance the future conversation of advancing public transit in Richmond.

Recovering bureaucrat. Pioneered as Civic Innovator. Now serving a second term on City Council in Richmond, VA. Words are my own.