Richmond’s bus routes by GRTC Transit System.

Today, in Richmond, “transit” means the bus. One might think that the city which debuted the world’s first electric streetcar would have bucked the trend against transit after World War II. But rather than preserving its historic transportation system, the city literally burned it, and the local transit network has never entirely rebounded.

On November 25, 1949 city officials hosted a formal celebration to torch its trolleys and usher in a new era of modern transit based on the bus. Despite the switch from rails to wheels (or perhaps because of it), the Virginia Transit Company (VTC)—Richmond’s premier choice to get around town since 1860—remained unprofitable for decades.

A trolley in Church Hill in 1890. Image by Valentine Archives.

In 1972, federal, state, and local authorities came together to purchase the assets of the now bankrupt VTC and establish a new Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC). In the late 1980s, the City of Richmond offered its two surrounding counties the chance to buy a share of GRTC. Henrico refused, but Chesterfield purchased a 50% stake—not to expand transit access, but rather to hold a veto against any bus lines being extended southward into its territory.

For decades, Richmond’s bus system continued to suffer from neglect. But now there are some hopeful signs.

Richmond gets bus rapid transit

In June of 2018, GRTC ushered in a new era of investment in the Richmond region’s long neglected and underfunded transit system when it launched the Pulse bus rapid transit (BRT) line and rolled out redesigned routes. The chic new BRT and more efficient routes represent an effort not only to provide better service but also to grow ridership by making transit convenient for as many people as possible, rather than the mode of last resort.

The new focus on streamlining service and expanding ridership over sheer coverage has triggered necessary conversations about equity, an official study, and even a federal civil rights complaint. Community activists worried by the inequities of Richmond’s transit system critiqued GRTC’s emphasis on attracting “choice riders”—an outdated and problematic term seen to mean increasing the utility of the bus for wealthier white riders at the expense of existing users. Controversy aside, GRTC’s bet that transit can be a practical and convenient option for more people seems to be paying off.

Ridership increased 17% over last year and Richmond is being hailed as a model of how to buck the national trend of declining ridership. The Institute for Transportation & Development Policy even awarded the Pulse a Bronze rating—an extremely rare feat in the auto-centric US.

Over the past few years, plans to foster greater regional mobility have concentrated minds on transit and transportation in Central Virginia.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transit unveiled the Greater RVA Transit Vision Plan, which outlines four more BRT lines providing high-speed service to Richmond’s major thoroughfares. The Greater Washington Partnership released a Blueprint for Regional Mobility which goes a step further, envisioning public transportation locking Richmond in as the southernmost outpost of a Capital Region which extends up through DC to Baltimore.

Is the Richmond region ready to fund transit?

Recently, local officials and the public at large finally seem ready to follow up on grand plans to improve transit with the necessary funding.

Henrico County to the city’s north allocated $1.2 million this year to expand service of its popular Route 19. This past spring, Mayor Levar Stoney fought and won roughly $800,000 in additional funding for GRTC. The money will go to expand service hours for three Southside routes and create a new bus line to make it easier for several low-income neighborhoods to access the Market at 25th, a grocery store which recently opened in the East End’s food desert.

Even Chesterfield, the county which initially bought half of GRTC in order to block transit expansion, is planning its first-ever bus service. A two-year grant from the state will pay the lion’s share of the budget for transit service along the Route 1 corridor to John Tyler Community College. Transit opponents are pressuring the county to create its own branded service along Route 1 which would force riders into an awkward transfer to GRTC if Richmond is their destination. However, for now it seems Chesterfield will simply expand the existing Route 3B bus further south.

The battle for transit along Chesterfield’s stretch of Jefferson Davis Highway may prove a fitting microcosm of the region’s approach to GRTC. Whether the positive headlines for our local bus company are the beginning of a new golden era of transit in Richmond or just a bright blip in an otherwise grim history of underfunding and neglect, only time—and next year’s budget season—will tell.

Wyatt Gordon is Greater Greater Washington's Virginia Correspondent. He's a born-and-raised Richmonder with a master's in Urban Planning from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and a bachelor's in International Political Economy from American University. Previously he's written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Civil Beat, Style Weekly, and RVA Magazine. You can find him on Richmond's Southside.