I rode the Broad Street #6 bus to the University of Richmond’s downtown campus building to see “Transportation Today and Tomorrow: Envisioning a Greater Richmond," which remains on view through Jan. 13, 2017, Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
I am (along with about 30 others on the trip to the museum) among the 28,500 people who ride the bus each day and therefore contribute to the annual sparing of 2.4 million vehicle trips and 18 million pounds of polluting emissions. I know these statistics because in this exhibit they are emblazoned on medallions interspersed between portraits of and quotes by passengers of the Greater Richmond Transit Co.’s fleet.
A series of portraits by Dean Whitbeck interspersed with quotes from transit riders and statistics about transit (Photo by Harry Kollatz Jr.)
During my sojourn I thought about Richmond, where in 1888 electric-powered mass transit was conceived and implemented. For 61 years the region featured a system of streetcars and commuter trains. Benign neglect, lack of municipal oversight, public apathy and the rise of the automobile sent the trolleys down to the terminal garages off Government Road and a fiery demise.
Richmond’s been without the streetcars for just under six years longer than they rolled here. Imagine how different our city might be if a different course had been charted in 1949, toward reinvestment and conservation of the most used routes for later expansion. Instead, we lined the cars up in a sad parade and rode them into a death pyre. Thing is, transportation is one thread in a mesh of regional and civic issues.
The streetcars conquered the ridges and ravines that vexed developers who sought to push the city’s growth, and from this came streetcar suburbs like Westhampton – where the University of Richmond came to be, Highland Park, Forest Hill, Fulton and even Sandston. Other lines ran cars to Ashland and Petersburg. Once the streetcars quit, though, these far-flung enclaves needed roads to link them to the wider world.
And my mind went back to UR transportation professor George Hoffer, who said this in a 2011 Richmond magazine feature: "I look at GRTC as part of the public infrastructure that you have to have, that you need, but that you do not use. It's a part of the fabric. It's a binder." That is, it’s good for buses to be in the background – makes us look like a metropolitan place, kind of like one of those miniature city models with moving parts. But you don’t expend public money to improve on how they look or run. After all, the streetcars were left to the whims of the free market. The only thing the city did was approve contracts for various line operators. You can read the worthwhile 2011 piece in its entirety here.
All these “Best of” lists where Richmond has been recognized lately are helping to lure people here; our regional population – the city, Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover counties – is 1.2 million and by 2030 could rise to 1.5 million. Many of those individuals will either have a vehicle or other form of transportation, or else they’ll need some way to get around.
Thus the region is involved in a conversation about how to get ahead of transit issues in the various forms – public transit, high(er)-speed rail, bicycling and walking. To this point, there is a state-level transportation plan that’s gotten kicked around and discussed in public and due out later this fall.
Catherine Bray, a planner with the Urban Transportation Planning Division of the hardworking but largely ignored Richmond Regional Planning District Commission, says it well: “Equitable communities are more resilient, have stronger economic growth for everybody, and are more sustainable, financially and environmentally.” My longstanding wish is that the this organization could have greater powers of advise and consent.
The exhibit is kind of a freeze-frame transportation symposium, curated by Emily Onufer, ’17, a Bonner Scholar and Environmental Studies major at the University of Richmond, alongside Alexandra Byrum, UR Downtown Educational Programming Coordinator. And advisor was Trip Pollard, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center and leader of their Land and Community Program. Often powerful black-and-white images of people either involved with this debate about transportation, or those who use it, were made by artist and photographer Dean Whitbeck.
The transit rider portraits and quotes are insightful. Young Anthony Scott’s been riding the bus since age 13. He’s always found the drivers helpful. Shikeia Rivera takes the bus from home to the Transfer Plaza and thence to Libbie Avenue. “It’s unreal how many hilarious conversations you can hear, and how many sad ones.”
To which I can attest, including this unforgettable back-and-forth about … "Forrest Gump."
I returned to the office on the #1 Monument bus, with about 20 people aboard. They paged through books and newspapers, flipped among the programs on their electronic devices – things you’re not supposed to do while driving a car. The ride gave me time to read further in “Hard Red Spring” by Kelly Kerney and overhear some rather tuneless singing. A worthwhile trip, all in all.