VCU’s RamRide bus offers the most visible example of how a downtown circulator would function. Photo by Jay Paul
Four years after the tires went flat on earlier attempts, the city and several private parties hope to jumpstart circulator routes for the downtown mass-transit network. The pressure to figure it out soon is building in the run-up to the 2015 UCI World Road Cycling Championships , when thousands of visitors are expected to inundate the region.
Following the recommendation from a City Council task force of residents and council members, 1st District Councilman Jon Baliles plans to propose an ordinance this fall that could open the way for a more accessible transit system.
Mayor Dwight C. Jones started talk in July 2009 of a circulator — a service to augment GRTC bus lines with localized routes — when he promised to introduce a similar proposal to remove the city's authority over setting GRTC bus routes.
Still in his first year on council, Baliles says his reasoning for proposing the measure was common sense, not making good on another politician's past promises. "I didn't realize the mayor said that [four] years ago," he says. "But it just kind of makes sense; you can't have an efficient system if politics define how a route is structured rather than business."
Baliles' proposal, which may have its first chance at a council vote in a month or two, is "long overdue," he says.
The most meaningful movement toward a dedicated downtown circulator happened in August 2009 when Jim Porter, a former cab driver, launched To the Bottom and Back, a free bus service running on weekends between Shockoe Bottom and Carytown.
Around that time, John Lewis, the GRTC's then-chief executive, expressed his desire to use cost savings from an unencumbered transit company — if the mayor's proposal succeeded — to move the city bus depot to Main Street Station and fund a public circulator service.
But for four years, the city's ride just kept stalling.
Lewis, who left GRTC — and Richmond — in 2010 to oversee the expansive and expanding LYNX bus system in Orlando, Fla., says fewer political restrictions in the city don't guarantee that GRTC will have the freedom — or finances — to undertake the circulator service he'd envisioned, but it's a good start. It's not difficult to understand, he says, just how hobbling those restrictions are to a business that relies on its ability to create a service that customers want to pay for.
"Having to go through a political process in order to meet demand doesn't necessarily give you the most efficient outcome at all times," says Lewis. "Demand changes faster than the political process."
In the meantime, city mass transit riders may have missed a few other buses, though again, there are hopeful signs on the horizon.
In its brief heyday, To the Bottom and Back, a free circulator that ran just a few weekend routes catering to restaurant and bar crowds in Carytown and Shockoe, showed demand for such a service. In a quick expansion, To the Bottom and Back (2BNB for short) also established a "museum loop" that ran a shuttle, funded by private donations, between the city's major museums during the VMFA's Picasso exhibition. Richmond magazine was among its contributors. But while its founders grew the nonprofit to a ridership in the thousands every week, it since has shrunk to a shadow, sputtering after internal management disagreements and a DMV crackdown on additional paid services it had begun offering.
"At the peak, we had four buses on three different routes moving 4,000 people a weekend," says Sandy Appelman, 2BNB's former chief operating officer. "That's a huge amount." And the service, which was funded solely by business sponsorships and grants, was still growing, he says. The routes helped add to the city's economy, and the board was in the process of identifying other potential routes.
Appelman points in particular to a route that provided service from University of Richmond to the city: "It was letting [students] come into the city to spend money instead of into Henrico to spend money."
With such visible success as the only consideration, it's easy to second-guess GRTC's failure to jump into the action. Past efforts to extend the network — to attract middle-class and business-class riders to a service that historically has served low-income riders with few other options — haven't met much success. A lunchtime circulator service in the city's financial district a few years back failed to catch on.
A GRTC spokeswoman did not return calls seeking comment by press time.
But times have changed even in the past five years, says real estate developer Scott Garnett, with dramatic demographic changes bringing young professionals and well-heeled empty nesters back into the urban core. Many have no desire to own cars, as evinced by the rise in use of bikes, scooters — and yes — even buses to get around.
And yet, Garnett worries, GRTC's corporate structure, which is more political than profit-driven, means it's unlikely the bus system has the dexterity to meet demand even if it wanted to.
"I talked to [GRTC] two years ago and all they whined about was how expensive a circulator was going to be," says Garnett, who's also a civic booster and member of the Downtown Neighborhood Association. He says a circulator service — linking new residential areas to shopping that's out of walking distance — would go a long way to increase commerce along Broad Street in the city's nascent Arts District.
"I bet you would get developers that would invest," he says, adding, "but you've got to think outside the box a little."
For Garnett, that's led to conversations with Virginia Commonwealth University, which operates a student circulator, about the possibility of allowing general ridership on the college's shuttle buses. Those talks are in their infancy, he says.
Meanwhile, another idea coming to the surface is the RVA Pass , a technology concept designed to handle Richmond's tourist onslaught when the 2015 international cycling race hits town.
David Berdish, who recently retired as Ford Motor Co.'s manager of social sustainability, has been involved in one way or another in studying or improving Richmond's disparate transit network for nearly five years. (See a Q&A interview with Berdish.) Now, he is one of four co-founders of RVA Pass, a smartphone app that won't itself operate a bus system, but that is intended to provide an interface for riders — and for ride providers — to coordinate transportation. Berdish is hopeful that demand exists. RVA Pass is set to roll out in a pilot for Richmond's 2014 Collegiate Road Nationals bike race, a precursor to the 2015 race.
And while the founders of RVA Pass hope to recruit service providers — such as bike share and rideshare services to augment existing GRTC and taxi services — the elusive holy grail remains a circulator bus service.
Appelman says that his experiences with To the Bottom and Back convinced him that a for-profit circulator service — run by one entity or maybe knitted together by a number of small entities concentrating on specific routes — could also work and turn a comfortable profit.
Lewis, from his perch in Orlando, agrees. "Richmond is poised to do it," he says. "I think the Bottom and Back has proven that."
Jack Cooksey contributed to this report.