Climate Solutions
News | June 6, 2024

Pulse check: Richmond’s transit success

(Phuong Tran)

Providing cleaner, more equitable transportation options is one of the best things a locality can do to for its residents and the environment.  

Add Richmond, Virginia, as another pin on the map of cities in our region where innovative transportation choices are taking Southerners farther — and often faster — than ever before, while curbing pollution. 

The Richmond region has created a powerful combination, launching the first express bus route in the city, called The Pulse, as well as a total redesign of existing bus routes in 2018.  

Dropping all fares during the pandemic put more people onto the Pulse. Transit ridership in the Richmond region was one of the first in the country to surpass pre-pandemic levels. It rose another 14 percent in just the past year. 

On the bus with Density Dad 

Taking the free bus is easy on Barry Greene’s wallet and helps him set aside special time to hang out with his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Olivia. 

Barry “Density Dad” Greene with his two-year-old daughter on one of their regular commutes. (Phuong Tran)

“As a father, what I get excited about is the exposure to folks from different walks of life,” says Greene, whose urbanism blog called Density Dad gets into the nitty-gritty of topics like public infrastructure and building equitable communities.   

The dad and daughter duo’s weekly outing usually consists of scooting up and down Broad Street, often stopping at the Children’s Museum of Richmond or a local coffee shop for a treat. 

“It’s so easy to live in a part of town where people seem homogeneous in their class and type of work, but when she’s on the bus, particularly here in Richmond where it’s free, it’s all this mixture,” says Greene. “And I know it’s probably easy as a parent to shield your kid from that, but I just love the idea that she’ll never be in shock when she realizes that everyone is different: some people have it tough while some people have it great.” 

As far as the experience of riding the Pulse, Greene says it’s a spacious ride, the drivers are kind and patient, and bus stops are new, clean, covered, and adorned with maps and digital updates.  

When you don’t have an itinerary and you get on the bus and just go, you might be surprised by where you decide to hop off and hop on.

Barry “Density Dad” Greene

‘Clever indications’ signal a bus will be pulling away soon, like flashing lights two minutes before it takes off that alert Greene to “put some pep in his step.” 

A Pulse check for Richmond 

The Pulse line is Richmond’s first “Bus Rapid Transit,” or BRT line, which provides faster, more reliable bus service through dedicated road lanes and other measures.  It serves a 7.6-mile route along the city’s historic Broad Street and Main Street, spanning from the waterfront of Rocketts Landing to Willow Lawn. 

Faith Walker is high on the list of people to thank for moving free and far-reaching transportation like the Pulse forward in Virginia’s capital city. 

From the helm of nonprofit RVA Rapid Transit, she strongly advocated for the bus line that helped the region’s transit system be one of the first in the country with higher ridership than before and during the pandemic. A lot of her work involved explaining the concept to curious community members, plus how new covered and well-lit shelters with modern updates can “dignify” taking public transportation. 

But she’s hesitant to accept the praise for her advocacy when there’s still so much to do to get people where they need to go in Richmond. 

The scene at one of the many bus rapid transit stops in Richmond, Virginia. (Phuong Tran)

“One of the things we hear most from folks is they want transportation to give them access to higher paying jobs,” says Walker. “When I started doing the work and when I started learning about the social determinants of health like housing, education, family, and access to healthcare, I realized that transportation connects it all.” 

Projects like the Pulse can revitalize economically distressed neighborhoods and significantly expand the range of job opportunities for transit‐ dependent people by increasing where they can get to within a reasonable commute time. 

Man with a plan  

The Richmond region is now planning a second rapid transit line and expanding bus service into surrounding counties. But Trip Pollard, leader of SELC’s Land and Community Program, says that while Richmond has made substantial progress in recent years, much more is needed to provide frequent, regional transportation and to make zero bus fares permanent. 

SELC Land and Community Program Leader Trip Pollard working in his Richmond, Virginia office. (Phuong Tran)

Doubling as a longtime resident of the area and an advocate with many ideas for improving the place, the veteran environmental lawyer has been on the leading-edge of accelerating transit progress. 

“What Richmond has done is a model that can be replicated in other places, and a reminder that transit can work well in the South,” says Pollard.  

His work to improve transportation at the state level is resulting in a historic rail expansion for Virginia, giving more people even more options to get around, and he helped pass state funding provisions that allowed the Richmond region’s bus transit system to go fare free in 2020. 

Pollard has served on numerous local advisory committees and is the former chair of Richmond’s Green City Commission. In addition to his support for the Pulse and the bus network redesign, his advocacy helped push Richmond to rezone chunks of the city to encourage more development around transit stops, which has spurred a surge in new housing built in proximity to bus and rail routes.  

What Richmond has done is a model that can be replicated in other places, and a reminder that transit can work well in the South.

Trip Pollard, SELC Land and Community Program Leader

And now transit service is ramping up beyond the city. The January 2024 extension of bus lines into the surrounding, more suburban counties of Henrico and Chesterfield — and for the first time ever — rural Goochland County, is bringing greater accessibility and cleaner transportation choices to many who live on the outskirts of the state’s capital while providing city residents greater access to suburban job centers. 

Density Dad Barry Greene is one of the people who picked a place to live in Richmond based on its proximity to a Pulse stop. Having previously lived in New York and other walkable cities, he knew getting rid of his car was a challenge he now could meet when moving back to his hometown. 

He recommends catching the bus one day just to try it. 

“You just become integrated in the city in which you live,” adds Greene. “When you don’t have an itinerary and you get on the bus and just go, you might be surprised by where you decide to hop off and hop on.”