In 2018, Richmond’s transit agency, GRTC, debuted the city’s first bus rapid transit line, the Pulse. The Pulse runs east to west across the city in largely dedicated right of way, and has upgraded bus shelters, pre-paid boarding, and runs on 10 minute headways.
Recognizing that its overall transit system needed upgrades as well, GRTC simultaneously redesigned its bus network with the help of Jarrett Walker and Associates. Ridership has gone up by 17% since both changes were introduced. Our latest video, The Network Effect: Richmond’s Transit Evolution, looks at how the changes are benefitting riders, as well as at some of the challenges still facing the system.
We spoke with Ashley Mason, a communications specialist at GRTC, about the planning process behind the changes.
TC: Please tell us about the coverage vs. ridership conversation that was a part of the redesign process. What did you hear from the Richmond community, and how did that influence GRTC’s ultimate service decisions?
AM: The conversations about coverage vs. ridership were very involved. During the initial planning process we had a group of stakeholders (City of Richmond employees, GRTC staff, community members and consultants) that met to discuss the system redesign. Ultimately we wanted to make sure we met the needs of the community. For example, Richmond’s public feedback resulted in 70% of dollars go to ridership (frequent routes), but 30% of dollars still need to go to coverage (30-min or hourly routes). What we heard was that GRTC needed to provide faster, more reliable service to more people.
TC: What was the process for deciding which corridors would receive the frequent service?
AM: GRTC staff and consultants looked at the proposed routes to determine which were more densely populated and had existing high ridership. As a result these routes received priority.
TC: How did you integrate the Pulse with the rest of the network?
AM: The Pulse was the catalyst for the entire network redesign. When the initial plans for the Pulse began, it was quickly determined that we could not have one route with high frequency while the other existing routes remained unchanged. In order for the Pulse to support the new routes, we ensured the service was the spine of the system, allowing many of these routes to feed into the new service. Local route stops were aligned with Pulse stations to allow for ease of transfer between the spine and local routes.
TC: Was the redesign revenue-neutral? What impacted your decision whether or not to add resources to the effort?
AM: The City required the redesign be cost-neutral. In the first year of operation the City was unable to commit to additional resources, but planned to add service enhancements over time as budget was available (a process they have already begun). Henrico County required more investment. For Henrico County, the redesign was its largest transit investment in 25 years, prioritizing key roads on denser routes for jobs, shopping and residents. With the expanded routes, more than 6,000 Henrico businesses are within a short walking distance of a GRTC bus stop. The expansion also improved access to the Pulse.
The logic behind the 70 / 30 split is that the more frequent the service, the more ridership you will have, which should eventually lead to an increase in revenue. The understanding of a redesign is that you may see a decrease in ridership because of adjustment prior to seeing an increase. This, however, was not the case in the City.
TC: How are transfers working with the new system? What’s the maximum a rider would now have to pay?
AM: Transfers are working well with the new system. For some customers, a connection is no longer needed. For customers who previously had a one-seat ride, they now have a connection. The base fare is $1.75 and includes one free transfer. GRTC offers an Unlimited Ride Day pass for $3.50.
TC: Has the network redesign allowed GRTC to run service later in the day and on weekends?
AM: In Henrico County, we have weekend service and now we operate at night. In the City, prior to the redesign, two routes operated until 3AM, however, under the current network the end time has been scaled back to 1AM. But with the redesign the City has funded extended hours on more routes beyond 7PM or later.
TC: The redesign resulted in a 12% reduction in the overall number of stops. How did GRTC decide which stops to get rid of?
AM: GRTC has an internal policy that requires stops to be within a certain range. As part of the redesign, GRTC reviewed stop distances to be more aligned with the policy.
Stop on/off data was also important to determining which stops nearby were most important to that specific area of a community. We also looked at amenities and other related factors that can influence a customer’s experience – for example, did one stop already have an ADA ramp and pad with sidewalk nearby? Consideration was made based on usage and safety.
TC: Is GRTC running into any issues with bus bunching? If so, how are you addressing them?
AM: GRTC does experience bus bunching on certain of the high frequency corridors. Corridors that have more than one route and high ridership are experiencing bunching at certain times of the day. We are currently addressing with on-street active management, where a bus will be added or cut. However, we are analyzing the performance, and plan to make schedule changes in the future to also address the bunching. For the Pulse, in particular, we have supervisors (road and in radio dispatch) to monitor the service to help prevent bunching. Most recently we have strategically placed an additional bus on the route to fill in the gap when bunching occurs.
TC: This past spring, Mayor Stoney provided $800,000 in additional funding to GRTC. How did GRTC decide where this money would be used to boost service?
AM: The City prioritized future spending initiatives as part of the 2018-2028 Transit Development Plan. The City chose their priorities from the list that was already created through the planning process of the document. We had also received feedback from the public about which routes needed attention for later hours or additional weekend service. One change in particular occurred in Church Hill. It was important to the Church Hill community to have access to fresh food which was now available at the new grocery store, the Market @ 25th. We created a new hourly bus route to connect many Church Hill communities to this new grocery store.
TC: How is GRTC approaching the need for bus stop improvements across the network?
AM: GRTC is completing its bus stop inventory of landing pads, trash cans, benches, and shelters. GRTC has also worked with each jurisdiction to approve a system-wide shelter design. Using a qualification rubric as well as public feedback, GRTC has identified which bus stops should receive amenities. GRTC is already in the process of adding amenities at these stops with current funding, and is planning to apply for funding to continue this effort in the next fiscal years.
TC: Have you made any service changes post-redesign?
AM: Yes, we have made service changes post-redesign – mainly adding more night and weekend service on City routes. We have also added frequency to many of the 60-minute routes at peak times, and added the route 39 in the east end.
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