Consider this Sunday Story an invitation to a conversation.
I’ll get to its nature, but first an observation and a little story. I moved to Richmond three years ago from Denver, you may recall. It didn’t take long to understand that you can’t take a step around here without running into some reminder of The Way Things Were and how The Way Things Were still shapes The Way Things Are.
It is, on the whole, an invigorating experience to walk so closely in history’s shadow, but not always. I was stunned when I first learned city buses stop, for all intents and purposes, at the county lines. The person who told me this said the counties, particularly Chesterfield, which bought half of the Greater Richmond Transit Co. in the racial and political tumult of the 1970s, didn’t want buses (shudder) filled with people who clearly couldn’t afford to buy a car (otherwise, why ride the bus) coming and going in their jurisdictions. Who knows, the riders might bring crime with them or, even worse, they might stay. You need to understand, the Southerner said to this Westerner, race is the subtext here, and all this has roots in white flight and suburbanization and the uncoupling of a region.
This is not walking — or as the case may be, riding — in history’s shadow. It’s stagnating in its grip. What modern metropolitan region does not view public transit as necessary infrastructure, as arteries carrying workers to jobs and customers to stores, all the while pumping life into new development?
Locals were raising this question long before I arrived and it has been made repeatedly since.
Now, a story. A couple weeks ago, Malinda White, college-educated mother of two, laid off, having difficulty finding a job that will pay her a decent wage, went to an interview at a temp agency. A North Side resident, she has been without a car for two years now. She took the Pemberton 19 bus down West Broad as far as that bus line runs, which is just past Pemberton/Springfield roads. She arrived about 10:40 and then walked to the interview, which, she estimates, was somewhere between a half mile and a mile away. Not too bad considering that some people regularly ride that bus and then walk two miles or more into Short Pump for work.
Richmond resident Malinda White says her job search is hamstrung because so few buses run from the city into the surrounding counties, where most of the jobs are. (Photo by Tina Griego)
White’s interview was at 11. She was finished by 11:15. She headed back to catch the next bus home — at 3:22 p.m. There is no shelter or bench at the Pemberton bus stop. She went Martin’s, bought something to drink and sat outside the store until the bus came.
“I get so frustrated,” White says. “If I was to want to work out on Brook Road at Virginia Center Commons, I couldn’t get there without a car. If I was to want to work at Walmart in Mechanicsville, as far as I know there is nothing that goes out that way. If I was to want to work at Big Lots out on Mechanicsville Turnpike, I couldn’t get there without a car. If I wanted to work at Nabisco or any of those companies that go straight up Laburnum, I wouldn’t be able to get there. If I wanted to work in Innsbrook, and they have a lot of companies out there, I couldn’t get out there. I don’t even think there is a stop within walking distance.”
The Mayor’s Anti-Poverty Commission summarized this situation in its 2013 report.
It cited a Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program study of the mismatch between jobs and transit in the top 100 metropolitan areas. That study found that in 2010 only 31 percent of working-age residents in the Richmond metro region lived in a neighborhood within three-quarters of a mile of a mass transit stop. (The top 100 metro average was 69 percent.) The same study looked at the share of jobs a resident can reach by public transit within a 90-minute ride. In the Richmond region, that share is 27 percent, which hewed closer to the Top 100 metro average of 30 percent. Take these two measures together and Richmond ranks 92nd out of 100 in public transportation coverage and access to employment.
“Relatively few jobs in metro Richmond are reachable by transit, at all, and those that are can only be effectively reached by a small minority of the population,” the commission report reads. “Suburban jobs in particular are almost totally out of reach by transit (not just for city residents, but for all residents of the region.)”
Richmond resident Malinda White confers with Sherrilyn Hicks, interim program manager at the city’s Workforce Development Center. Hicks says many job seekers are frustrated by the lack of regional public transportation. (Photo by Tina Griego)
The counties are not blind to this bind. And if the poor were once contained to the cities, that is no longer the case. Henrico uses a mix of limited fixed-route service and four express lines from commuter lots. Chesterfield has two express lines into downtown, one from Chesterfield Plaza off Midlothian Turnpike and one from the Commonwealth 20, off Hull Street.
The obstacle to expanded public transit, county managers have said, is cost. Bus lines are not cheap. Riders don’t even begin to cover the cost of operation. The city is 62 square miles. Chesterfield County is seven times that.
But the air these days is full of options, solutions, scenarios, some rosier than others. And this brings us to the conversation to which you are invited. On Tuesday night at 6 p.m., the Valentine Center begins its new series of Community Conversations, this year called ReRVA: Revitalizing, Recycling and Reimagining.
Richmond magazine is a partner in the conversations, which, as far as I’m concerned, gives me an opportunity to write about some complicated, exciting topics. (Up next: housing.) Several top-notch speakers are on tap for Tuesday, including the GRTC’s Carrie Rose Pace, and Charles Merritt, an organizer of RVA Rapid Transit, a soon-to-be-nonprofit advocating for regional mass transit, in particular, Bus Rapid Transit.
The dominant way of thinking in the region has been mass transit based on how much demand there is, how many riders would use the service, Merritt says. That’s outdated, he says.
“We need to stop thinking about public transit as welfare and start thinking about it as infrastructure like plumbing, electricity, roadways that is critical to the success and health of major metropolitan areas,” he says. “You build public transit for what great transit does, move people up and down major thoroughfares. “
This is about the future, Merritt says. But until that future arrives, Malinda White will do as she has been doing: Scan the job listings for administrative assistant, customer service and data entry jobs, check the address before doing anything else and call GRTC to make sure it’s off a bus line.
Join us for the newest series of Community Conversations, ReRVA: Revitalizing, Recycling and Reimagining. The first meeting, on transportation, is Tuesday, Oct. 6, at 6 p.m. at 1015 E. Clay St.