Fifteen stops will receive these new information stands.
New information boxes coming to bus stops will tell you where you can go and how fast, and they also can withstand the force of a baseball bat.
The aluminum obelisks — scheduled to appear at 15 or more of Richmond's busiest stops — are the first visual indicators of change at the Greater Richmond Transit Co. John M. Lewis Jr., the bus system's CEO, says the boxes are in response to complaints from the system's roughly 28,000 daily riders: that bus arrival times and routes are often a mystery.
The first information box will be unveiled at Ninth and East Broad streets in December, displaying a neighborhood map, route information and digital readouts.
"These are robust in design," Lewis says. "They have to be out there 24/7 in all weather and, frankly, tested to withstand somebody swinging at them full force with a baseball bat."
The GRTC, owned equally by the city of Richmond and Chesterfield County, is making its upgrades after a recent comprehensive-planning study.
"Our buses already announce themselves," notes Lewis, referring to the voiced street and stop names that assist visually impaired riders. Another step toward better communication was the addition of easier-to-read route brochures aboard the buses.
But the stops are another matter.
"You pick any one stop in the system, and all you really see is a sign," Lewis says. Hence, the boxes. "We'll likely be the only city in the nation with signs holding this much information."
GRTC may place boxes, costing $6,000 to $8,000 each, at other stops if the initial 15 prove a success.
Also in December, the administrative offices of GRTC will move into the new, green-designed headquarters on South Richmond's Belt Boulevard. Bus-maintenance equipment will make the migration a little later. Lewis wants everything operational by February or March 2010.
The future is unclear for the bus system's almost 7-acre site on West Cary Street between Robinson Street and Stafford Avenue. The national economic predicament is one reason; another is how the GRTC board chooses to approach a sale.
The bus system could stick out a "For Sale" sign and see what happens. Lewis says there is no timeline for a sale or even a decision on the property.
At its new Belt Boulevard office, GRTC will implement its real-time cell-phone and Blackberry-accessible routing information. By spring, officials hope, fewer forlorn commuters will call the system's customer-service line with complaints or problems. These technological updates also may make the bus more attractive to office workers; they can check bus availability online before leaving work.
Many of Richmond's bus stops, and the routes themselves, date back to the city's streetcar era.
But these old ways are beginning to change; in the past year and a half, about 30 redundant stops were eliminated citywide, notes GRTC's director of planning, Larry Hagin. "And we're not done yet."
These decisions are not arbitrary.
Each month, GRTC holds a public meeting at City Hall to discuss requests for adding or removing benches, trash cans and shelters at bus stops. The events gather together area residents and representatives from the city's departments of traffic and engineering, and economic development.
Beyond the discussions of stops and shelters is a larger issue: the proposed creation of a major transfer center in the former train sheds behind Main Street Station. The idea behind this is to alleviate congestion on Broad Street and shorten travel times. And an overlay of possibilities are converging: a Shockoe master plan, reducing stops on Broad, and the potential high-speed rail to Main Street Station.
Kim Scheeler, CEO and president of the Greater Richmond Chamber, is interested in regional transit. He's seen a great willingness on Lewis' part to build flexibility into planning. If high-speed rail comes into Shockoe, that bolsters the need for effective transit connections.
Scheeler observes, "That gives them ultimately, potentially, more need for a light rail system. I'm sure that's where [Lewis] would like to see things down the road. I know [Mayor Dwight C. Jones Jr.] is interested in making all this work. They're on the same page."
Buses need riders, though. Participants in the 2009 session of the Leadership Metro Richmond organization partnered with GRTC to raise awareness. Debbie Schebe Lennick, director of strategic alliances for Creative, a workplace-interiors and technology firm, sought to spread GRTC's news through social media, viral video, events and a Web site, transittalk.com.
"You might be a soccer mom in the suburbs, and you may never step on a bus," Schebe explains, "but transit deserves your support because it's about getting people to jobs, [or helping] senior citizens who can't get to the doctor without a neighbor or friend."
All this is great, but in the view of consultant Dom Nozzi, people won't participate in public transit unless their cars are more hindrance than enabler.
Nozzi, who moved here from Gainesville, Fla., two years ago, is executive director of Walkable Streets, a non-sprawl, sustainable-growth consulting agency and author of Road To Ruin: An Introduction to Sprawl and How to Cure It. His strategy for building transit ridership? "Scarce and properly priced parking," he says.
Although Richmonders often complain about downtown parking, he says, he was surprised by the sheer acreage of surface parking. "It's toxic for downtown," Nozzi says. "It disperses the city's life blood and kills the opportunities for people to, among other things, use public transit."
Another LMR participant, Chesterfield County Supervisor Marleen Durfee, also knows the arguments disparaging transit. But while learning about the GRTC system, she's spoken with suburban residents who rely on the bus for work, especially Route 82, which travels Hull Street and has steadily increasing ridership. "The notion that people won't ride it," she says, "simply has proven not to be the case."