TDM best practice: Shout out to Greater Richmond Transit Company

By Saumya Jain at SSTI, TDM best practice: Shout out to Greater Richmond Transit Company, July 15th, 2019 in NewsTags: TDMtransitVA

In an era of falling transit ridership and utopian sustainability goals, Richmond, Virginia, seems to have hit the nail on the head. With the introduction of a bus rapid transit (BRT) line and an overall bus system redesign, the GRTC has increased transit ridership in the region by 17 percent. GRTC’s distinctive carpooling and vanpooling system has grown extensively in the past decade. A recent article by Mobility Lab explains in detail the reasons and strengths behind GRTC’s continued success.

The article states that the substantial increase in transit and vanpool ridership in the region has occurred despite the prevalence of app-based ride hailing. It lists the following as the main possible reasons behind its success:

  • Pulse, a 7.6 mile new BRT line through the heart of the city;
  • The new BRT line being accompanied by an overall transportation demand-based redesign of the bus system that more closely resembles a spider web rather than the traditional hub-and-spoke design;
  • A focus on student, low-income, and minority populations as the redesign’s primary beneficiaries; and
  • Periodic tweaks based on continuous analysis of ridership patterns and public feedback.

Mobility Lab writes that RideFinders—GRTC’s shared ride and TDM division—is taking all possible steps toward keeping their informal ridesharing program going strong via extensive public outreach, working with local businesses, and giving businesses reasons to provide incentives to their employees. To ensure further reductions in VMT, RideFinders also promotes various biking and walking events.

Richmond’s multi-dimensional ridership strategies could provide useful lessons to transit agencies with similar transportation demand and demographic profiles. The success of its informal, quirky vanpool program is proof that, despite competition from private companies, outside-the-box strategies can work if accompanied by extensive public outreach and worthwhile incentives. As mentioned by one of RideFinder’s directors, “There’s no one answer, or no one solution, that’s a panacea.”

Saumya Jain is a Senior Associate at SSTI.

GRTC Network, Effective June 24, 2018, published in ‘GRTC Transit System Transit Development Plan Fiscal Years 2018-2022’

In Richmond, Virginia both fixed-route transit and shared ride networks are succeeding.

By Ethan Goffman – June 19, 2019

Richmond, Va., traditionally a sprawling, auto-dependent city, has taken substantial steps toward diversifying its transportation system and achieving its sustainable mobility goals. Fueled by a new bus rapid transit (BRT) line featuring frequent service and segments with dedicated lanes, as well as an overall bus system redesign that has brought routes into better alignment with modern-day needs, fixed-route transit ridership in the state capital region has increased by 17 percent – or more than a million riders – over the past year. At the same time, the extent of the state capital area’s transportation demand management (TDM)-driven system of carpools and vanpools has increased nearly five-fold over the past decade and a half.

The Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) manages both the fixed-route bus system and the less formal shared ride network. Because the mid-sized city has relatively light traffic congestion (though typical commutes are fairly long in distance – about 12 miles – the region’s average commute time is just 25 minutes), GRTC has been able to keep the two systems largely separate, with most people using just one mode to complete their trips. This approach contrasts with that of such jurisdictions as Montgomery County, Md., where officials are integrating a microtransit pilot with upgraded fixed-route bus service in part to help address severe congestion.

The increase in GRTC bus and vanpool ridership has occurred despite the influence of app-based ride hailing, suggesting that a transit agency using a variety of tools to cater to distinct public needs doesn’t just help reduce pollution and vehicle miles traveled (VMT), but also can serve people more effectively than private companies who view themselves as disruptors. However, with more than 150,000 new residents expected to arrive over the next decade, integration of Richmond’s formal transit and informal shared ride networks may be necessary to keep the region moving.

Richmond’s redesigned bus system has proven to be a cost-effective mobility improvement. But it’s impossible to serve everyone’s needs using one transportation mode.

In June 2018, GRTC’s bus system transformed from a traditional hub-and-spoke, center-city focused network approach to more of a spider web, facilitating movement around the region’s periphery as well as through downtown.

The most visible aspect of the upgrades is Pulse, a 7.6 mile BRT line providing frequent service through the heart of the city that opened at the same time the overall redesign took effect. According to Carrie Rose Pace, GRTC’s Director of Communications, Pulse attracts over 7,000 riders each weekday, doubling its initial goal. Infrastructure constructed as part of the $65 million project includes 3 miles of dedicated bus lanes (about 40 percent of the route), 14 stations, and off-board fare collection facilities.

The larger-scale bus system redesign, which requires only $1.2 million in additional annual county subsidies to operate, has helped catalyze Pulse’s success and made buses a more viable way to get around the Richmond area. Officials balanced the need for connectivity on high-demand corridors with the need to facilitate region-wide accessibility, devoting 70 percent of the redesigned system’s capacity to ridership-oriented routes serving major activity centers (such as Virginia Commonwealth University, which has over 55,000 students, faculty, and staff) and 30 percent of capacity to coverage-oriented routes fulfilling essential life needs in locations away from those activity centers.

According to Rose Pace, low-income and minority populations are among the redesign’s primary beneficiaries. Buses on the ridership-oriented routes operate as frequently as every 15 minutes, while additional late-night and weekend service provides vital connectivity for service workers commuting to jobs with off-hour shifts. GRTC also has analyzed ridership patterns and responded to public feedback since implementing the redesign, periodically making tweaks to service in an effort to better serve people even as new funding remains challenging to obtain.

Increased spacing between bus stops has also helped speed up service. While buses used to stop every block in some locations, stops on redesigned routes are typically a fifth of a mile apart, or about every 3 blocks.

Despite these efforts, the region’s fixed-route transit system is not meeting everyone’s needs. For example, Rose Pace explained that residents of outlying neighborhoods may live far from the nearest bus stop and may face infrastructure unfriendly to pedestrians and cyclists when trying to reach those stops – a challenge that is especially problematic for mobility-impaired people.

Informal, but publicly managed mobility provides connectivity for Richmond residents not served effectively by transit 

GRTC’s less formal shared transportation options ensure people for whom the fixed-route transit system isn’t a viable option still have access to an array of convenient, sustainable options. In 1980, GRTC started RideFinders, its shared ride and TDM division, as a response to oil shortages stemming from the previous year’s Iranian revolution. The organization’s mission has since expanded far beyond just saving people money on gas.

“RideFinders hopes to contribute to lessening the degree of greenhouse gases and vehicle miles traveled,” said Von Tisdale, the organization’s directore.

RideFinders’ recent growth numbers are impressive. It now supports 149 vanpools in the region, up from just 30 in 2003 and only 83 as recently as 2008. The number of registered commuters has also increased impressively, from 7,636 in July 2017 to 8,604 in June 2018.

As mentioned earlier, these privately-operated vanpools operate largely separately from the fixed-route bus system. People use a webpage and a mobile app to find a ride that fits their needs. Furthermore, RideFinders’ emergency ride home program provides flexibility for car- and vanpoolers, as well as fixed-route transit riders and cyclists, should an unexpected situation arise.

RideFinders’ contribution to mobility in Richmond extends beyond just the transportation services it manages, as the organization has used utilized a variety of TDM-based approaches to help people rethink how they can get around. These approaches include:

  • Public outreach: RideFinders publicizes the vanpool program using a combination of social media, flyers, radio broadcasts, and e-mails to employers and system registrants. Also, the organization has a centrally located walk-in store with detailed information about its programs, provides travel training for people who may require assistance using shared transportation options, and participates in a clean air campaign using both traditional and social media. Much of this information is available in Spanish, helping accommodate the region’s rising Hispanic population.
  • Collaboration with the business community: Beginning in 2009, RideFinders began working directly with local businesses. This work is not only a catalyst behind the strong increase in vanpool use, but also has likely contributed to rising fixed-route bus ridership, as many employers in the city now provide transit benefits that help cover the costs of bus commutes.
  • Technology and active transportation: Aiming to develop a broad array of options for various situations, RideFinders promotes biking and walking (supporting events such as bike-to-work month) and also encourages telework. According to Tisdale, “there’s no one answer, or no one solution, that’s a panacea.”

RideFinders is working to increase employer participation in the TDM program, and Tisdale described challenges affecting these efforts.

“Some people get on board at the first meeting, some people it takes a year,” she said.

Tisdale explained that, though some employers may join the program due to altruistic concerns about congestion and air pollution, emphasizing TDM’s direct benefits for employers – such as the increased ability to retain talent – is the most effective way to boost participation.

Richmond’s population is booming. Will its transportation system keep up?

Population is rising significantly in the Richmond region, with 14 percent growth, or 154,000 new residents, expected by 2028. Without proactive transportation improvements, many of those people will likely try to move around the region in cars that there’s no space for, turning reliable commutes into unpredictable slogs, filling clean air with toxic particles, and putting an end to the friendly livability that motivated them to move there in the first place.

In addressing these risks, GRTC hopes not only to expand its BRT system, but also to find ways to integrate its fixed-route options with less formal services and create a more cohesive transportation network. Rose Pace said that the agency is beginning to examine the possibility of microtransit that, in contrast to today’s RideFinders vanpools, would be designed to provide first and last mile connectivity supporting fixed bus routes. Given GRTC’s extensive experience managing informal shared rides, agency officials will not necessarily contract this service to private ride hailing firms, though they are open to collaborating with those companies in the future.

Such integration would further emphasize what Richmond’s recent ridership increases already have demonstrated: that different transportation modes can, in fulfilling distinct public needs, be mutually beneficial, rather than mutually disruptive.