Jay Paul photos
The rain-shrouded parking lot of Ellwood Thompson's Natural Market, with its rows of Saabs and Volvo SUVs, swims with the ambient hiss of cars sluicing along the sodden Downtown Expressway. The occasional changing of a traffic signal casts alternate green and red hues on the slick parking lot blacktop.
It's March. It's cold. It has rained for days.
This is not an evening that easily lends itself to Friday night nightlife.
Don't tell that to the occupants of the electric-lime-green school bus that's just rounded the corner from Cary Street onto Ellwood Avenue.
The bus rumbles into Ellwood Thompson's parking lot to the toe-tapping Appalachian hoedown soundtrack provided by two crusty punk buskers.
The soaking mist briefly lifts. The surplus school bus's folding doors rattle open, ejecting a swaggering Jim Porter, the founder of To the Bottom and Back bus service, onto the pavement.
"What's happenin', man?" he asks, his raspy voice bent by a western Henrico twang. Porter glances around the lot looking for more riders, acknowledges his impromptu backing band, then swings back onto a bus brimming with giggling co-eds in town for a seminar on Richmond nonprofits.
The ladies are letting their hair down tonight, almost oblivious that their host for the evening represents one of the most unusual — and so far successful — nonprofit ventures this city has seen in years.
To the Bottom and Back service is making bus travel cool again, at least from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m., in a town where most of the city's well-heeled — or even moderately heeled — avoid public transportation like a crumpled Kleenex.
Since last August, when it began tracing a circuitous route from this dreary parking lot down Cary Street to Shockoe Bottom and then back up Main Street again, the no-fare circulator bus, which runs Thursday through Saturday nights, has been packed most nights.
Riders favoring the bus, Porter says, seem to share a common thirst to enjoy Richmond nightlife in Carytown and in Shockoe without the hassle of parking or the fear of drunk driving.
Porter shares that same desire; the former cabbie has a compelling personal story of near-death at the hands of a drunk driver in 2007. The life-altering event inspired him to act on an idea he'd sat on since his high school days spent ferrying his drunken friends in his dad's Winnebago.
To Porter, the name of his bus service isn't just about a ride downtown, it's about a personal journey to the bottom, then coming back stronger and with a solution in hand.
"It's a double meaning, man," he says with a cracked smile, seeing his bus as a nationwide answer to drunk driving, with a fleet of neon reconditioned school buses in every major city.
Maybe, maybe not.
Regardless, To the Bottom and Back has one fan who sees the service as an answer to a very different question for Richmond.
"I think it's a phenomenal concept," says John Lewis, chief executive officer for GRTC, Richmond's other bus transit company. "I wish we had the wherewithal to enter into that market — it's something we've looked at for the last couple of years and haven't been able to come up with the resources to make that happen."
Lewis is a fan because Porter and his partners, Patrick Biase and Sandy Appelman, have shown that there is a market in Richmond for a circulator service that lets riders explore their city, not just for the main-line arterial routes that GRTC plows daily for "point A to point B" commuter travel. The service, he says, shows a potential market for a circulator service that would link GRTC's arterial lines and create a true public transportation system in Richmond.
Lewis looks at the full buses Porter runs every weekend night and sees only potential, even as he looks with critical honesty at his own service — hamstrung by local politics and government control over the routes he runs — and sees a disappointing lack of efficiency and access.
"My role is to be the advocate for public transit," says Lewis, who acknowledges the uphill battle GRTC faces in convincing car-happy Richmonders to ride a service many locals see as a negative indicator of riders' socioeconomic status.
"I think [To the Bottom and Back] promotes and raises the level of discourse in regard to public transportation," Lewis says. "They're going to reach people who probably wouldn't use public transportation in their daily commute — and maybe they'll give GRTC a different look on Monday morning."
"Obviously, the market is there," says Lewis, who has floated his own circulator plan for Richmond in conjunction with his so-far-unpopular plan to convert Main Street Station to a bus hub.
It's 11 p.m., and the bus is still trolling downtown for a club that can offer the sort of bland safety appealing to wide-eyed girls from sleepy Midwest towns. Suddenly, one of the girls recalls that she's in Richmond learning about nonprofits: "Hey, how do you pay for all this?"
The answer is both simple and complicated, and rests with Sandy Appelman, the Bottom and Back's chief financial officer. It's simple, he says, because the bus operates more like public radio than like a traditional bus service. They rely on business sponsorships, major gifts and rider donations, and operate on a shoestring, rather than on taxpayer disbursements controlled by Chesterfield and Richmond government leaders, as does GRTC.
The complicated part comes in knowing that this is the only service of its kind in the country, according to Virginia Miller, a spokeswoman for American Public Transportation Association. Miller says she's familiar with only one other similar service, a free program in Portland, Maine: "It was people using their own cars," she says. "That's the closest thing I've heard of."
The plan is to run buses at a fraction of the cost of a GRTC route: About $375 per night pays for a driver, a bus host, insurance, gas and maintenance.
"It's that simple right now, and it's not going to get much more complicated," Appelman says, other than adding more routes. With current ridership as high as it is, he says, he has added two more buses and plans to add a Broad Street and Boulevard route running through the Fan.
"The Broad Street corridor is a Mecca of redevelopment," says Appelman. "If we can help move people around the city and help get people to those places, I think that would be a service to the city."
Any doubt of the bus' utility to the community were smashed in the early morning hours of May 1, when a driver slammed his car into the back of the Bottom and Back bus where it sat waiting for the light at Lombardy and Main streets.
"We heard a big smash," says Porter, who still looked shaken at a press conference he held at the intersection the next day. "The car was under the bus."
Amazingly, though they heard the crash, nobody felt the impact, Porter says. "It's 25,000 pounds of steel that's designed to take hits — it's not going to move."
Trapped inside the car was driver Thomas A. Burt's passenger. Porter, who vividly recalls being cut out of a car after a run-in with a drunken driver, comforted her while waiting for firefighters to arrive.
Burt, 31, was later charged with DUI and driving without a license.
The drama unfolded in front of the late-night party crowd at Baja Bean restaurant, and Porter hopes the near-tragedy provided a teachable moment.
"People actually saw how bad a DUI is — that's what we're set up to prevent," says Porter, who says he's happy his bus was between Burt and the next car at the light. "Even though that doesn't sound like a blessing ... if it had been another car, there could have been a lot more injuries."
While Burt's car headed to the scrap heap, the bus rejoined the rest of the fleet the next day ferrying fans to the race at Richmond International Raceway.
Talks are ongoing to begin service to University of Richmond, and the company is ramping up daylight runs during special events. Appelman also submitted a proposal to provide daily student transportation for the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts charter school.
Porter is back on his bus after finally corralling his co-eds into the Mars Bar on 18th Street. It's nearly midnight, and the night is young.
Porter says he's proven the need for his service, but the biggest hurdle remains making sure the city will back it with bucks.
"We made it through the winter, and I think people see us as part of the city now," he says, a nod to the bus's distinctive color scheme that's becoming a familiar sight along Cary and Main streets. "Now we just have to prove we can fund it."