The Case For Better Public Transit In Richmond

A changing city

Over the years, Richmond has made incremental changes to its bus lines to meet the needs of the riding public, but the city has not thoroughly reimagined how mass transit works here since Richmond scrapped electric trolleys in favor of buses in the late 1940s.*1
We’re long overdue for a comprehensive transit redesign to meet the needs of citizens in a growing and changing city. Today, Virginia’s capital city is rebounding from population declines in the 1970s-1990s and has seen a population growth of more than nine percent since 2010.*2

Richmond is not frozen in time, and its mass transit system should not be, either.

A redesigned transit system will serve current riders more effectively, with faster, more frequent buses and a new network of routes that gives riders better access to destinations across the city. New, more efficient transit service also will attract new riders and promote economic growth by providing faster, more frequent, more reliable city buses for people going to work, going to school, going out to shop, or in search of other services. In short, by providing more and better opportunities for travel, the newly designed transit system has the potential to lift up the citizens of Richmond and help to unite the city.

A bit of background

Public transit has been a central part of city life in Richmond since 1860, when horse drawn trolley cars began service. In January of 1888, Richmond boasted the first electric streetcar system in the world.*3

The Greater Richmond Transit Company, the city’s current transit provider, was formed in 1973 and currently operates a modern fleet of 150 vehicles. With more than 40 routes, GRTC serves the city and parts of Henrico and Chesterfield Counties, providing bus transit and specialty services, including transportation for people with disabilities.*4

The catalyst for change: GRTC Pulse

Richmond’s opportunity to make system-wide mass transit improvements is tied to the arrival of Bus Rapid Transit service along the city’s main east-west corridor.

GRTC Pulse will provide express bus service along the busy Main and Broad Street corridor between Rocketts Landing and Willow Lawn. When it begins service in 2018, GRTC Pulse will greatly reduce travel time and offer reliable bus service every ten minutes during peak times and every 15 minutes during off-peak hours. GRTC Pulse will operate between 5:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. weekdays, and between 6:00 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. on weekends.*5

GRTC Pulse will provide Richmond with many of the advantages of light rail or subway services at a fraction of the cost: high quality, high frequency transit with designated buses in dedicated traffic lanes. GRTC Pulse will be the foundation of game-changing improvement for citizens who already use mass transit, and for new riders who will be attracted by faster, more efficient service.

How GRTC Pulse will affect buses citywide

GRTC Pulse will serve as the backbone for newly designed bus routes citywide. The new bus routes will integrate with the GRTC Pulse and the interconnected system will provide riders with more efficient and speedier access to destinations across town.*6

Buses not only will run more frequently on the newly aligned routes, but they will also deliver riders to their destinations faster than current city buses. Riders will have more choices for when to catch the bus and more confidence that the system will get them where they want to be in a timely manner.*7

A careful and transparent planning process

The new vision for how Richmonders can more easily travel throughout the city was not hatched in a vacuum. The plan was shaped by a series of 14 public meetings in every district of the city, and informed by surveys of the general public and on-board surveys of GRTC riders. Civic groups and public interest organizations across the city were consulted. The planning and public input process took place over a year-long period starting in spring of 2016.*8

The planned bus route changes are the result of rigorous analysis by city planners and transportation experts. The resulting Richmond Transit Network Plan (RTNP), published in March of 2017, is a collaborative project by the City of Richmond, transportation planning officials, the Greater Richmond Transit Company, and industry experts.*9

Principles for redesigning Richmond’s transit system

To operate effectively for the public benefit, a mass transit system must serve multiple goals:*10

  • Provide clean, safe and reliable transportation that gives residents access to jobs, shopping, entertainment and other services
  • Serve populations with limited access to private transportation
  • Seek to serve the most residents possible to ensure a sustainably-funded and utilized system
  • Always seek to improve travel efficiencies for riders
  • Operate a system that is cost-effective for riders and the taxpayers who support it

The nature of change

Today, GRTC bus stops are spaced very closely together. This causes many bus lines to operate slowly, because the bus must stop at nearly every block for passengers getting on or off. When bus lines are slow, passenger trips take longer.*11

GRTC riders and the general public said they want their city bus system to change, to provide more frequent buses that would get them to their destinations faster. They understood that such a change would require a realigned bus routes with fewer stops.*12

Currently, in walkable parts of the city, GRTC bus stops are located about a block apart. Under the realigned bus route plan, bus stops will be located about every three blocks, about 1,000 feet apart.*13

Citizens and riders who participated in the surveys and public meetings indicated they understood the trade-offs required to create a more efficient bus system that operates within the existing resources available for public transit. If additional resources are made available, the new transit plan can be adjusted to extend routes or enhance service hours or frequency.*14

Overall, 55% of those surveyed said the new bus routes would be better for the city.*15

Not surprisingly, riders who depend on certain current bus routes were wary of change. Planners worked to accommodate the concerns of current GRTC riders and some changes were made in the final recommended network plan based on public input.*16

Based on analysis of census data, the newly aligned GRTC bus network will improve service access for all city residents by an average of 11 percent. Low income residents will see an increase in service access of nine percent. *17

Change is never easy

Let’s not kid ourselves; the city is asking people to change riding habits they’ve formed over decades. Some riders will walk farther to reach their nearest bus stop. But they’ll be served by more frequent buses that will get them where they want to go faster and more reliably.

The RTNP puts it best, on page 16 of its March 2017 final report:
“The Richmond Transit Network Plan presents the City and GRTC with a rare opportunity to make a holistic change, city-wide, so that no rider, neighborhood, route or community is singled out for this difficult change. Instead, everyone would bear the burden and the benefits of the change at once, all together.”

Looking ahead

Richmond’s newly aligned transit system will better serve current riders, and also serve the needs of new riders. Mass transit is high on the list of priorities for major segments of Richmond’s population. Aging baby boomers are eager to preserve their mobility. And millennials, people between 25 and 34 years old, are attracted to cities with good mass transit.*18

Millennials are the nation’s biggest population demographic and will make up three-quarters of the American workforce by 2025.*19

Richmond has seen substantial growth in this population segment. From 2010 to 2015, the city of Richmond saw a 14.9 percent growth in this segment. TIME Magazine reported Richmond’s millennial growth during the period was second in the nation only to Virginia Beach (up 16.4 percent.)*20


Richmonders deserve a public transit system that provides better, more efficient service. Richmonders have made it clear they want improved mass transit and they understand how changes will affect their riding routines.

The city needs a better public transit system to grow and prosper. City officials, transportation experts, civic groups and citizens have carefully and purposefully developed the Richmond Transit Network Plan, and that plan will help move Richmond forward in the 21st century.


1) GRTC website:

2) US Census Bureau:

3) GRTC website:

4) GRTC website:

5) GRTC website:

6) Richmond Transit Network Plan, final report p. 30

7) Richmond Transit Network Plan, final report p. 30

8) Richmond Transit Network Plan, final report p. 8

9) Richmond Transit Network Plan, final report p. 4

10) Richmond Transit Network Draft Plan,

11) Richmond Transit Network Plan, final report p. 9

12) Richmond Transit Network Plan, final report p. 10

13) Richmond Transit Network Plan, final report p. 20

14) Richmond Transit Network Plan, final report p. 44

15) Richmond Transit Network Plan, final report p. 21

16) Richmond Transit Network Plan, final report p. 25

17) Richmond Transit Network Plan, final report p. 42

18) Rockerfeller Foundation:

19) Brookings Institution:

20) TIME Magazine: