Max & Ross discuss the hit film (documentary) Free to Ride.
The bus stop at 2nd & Broad has to be one of, if not the, busiest bus stops in the entire city. It’s served by the #1ABC, #2ABC, #3ABC, #12, #78, and #87. That’s 16 total bus lines. It’s seven more routes than what the existing Transfer Plaza handles during the day. It’s one bus every 3.75 minutes on average. It’s a lot of buses.
Yet this bus stop has no shelter. It had no benches until some kind soul put out two wooden benches of their own—then, maybe shamed into it, the City and GRTC installed two “official” metal benches. Regardless of seating, on a day like today—cold, windy, rainy, and snowy—it’s a shit place to wait for a bus.
While the City pushes towards an enormous redevelopment of downtown—a project that includes a multi-million dollar GRTC Transit Center—bus riders today are forced to wait for their next bus out in the elements. And no matter how nice, expensive, or expansive the proposed NoBro Transit Center will be, hundreds of buses will still stop at 2nd & Broad and hundreds of bus riders will still wait in inhospitable conditions. The City could fix this tomorrow—no multimillion dollar, TIF-funded, once-in-a-generation opportunities necessary. Just put up a couple of shelters so folks can feel like a person while waiting for their next bus.
Earlier this week we got mad. We also said we’d spend some time writing about what the City and GRTC can do to make Broad Street, specifically the bus-only lanes, safer. Important context for this entire conversation: People driving cars and unsafe street design are what kills and injures the vast, vast majority of people on our roads.
Part of what makes Bus Rapid Transit work is giving the buses their own dedicated space on the street. This is why subways and (some) light rail is great: If you can keep cars and drivers out of the way of transit, the transit is faster, more efficient, and more useful for folks. Richmond’s BRT, the Pulse, has dedicated lanes for a good chunk of its route but, unfortunately, those lanes look just like every other travel lane—with a few signs here and there plus some road stencils on the road to let drivers know to stay the heck out of the way of the bus. This means that people in cars occasionally end up confused, driving or parking their vehicles in space specifically meant for the bus.
Luckily, there’s an easy and straightforward way to let folks know that bus-only lanes are for buses only. Richmond, like many other American cities, should paint its bus lanes red.
Red paint is one of the cheapest and most effective ways to keep cars out of bus lane. A 2017 study by the SFMTA found that “red treatment reduced the number of [Transit-Only Lane] violations by 48%-55% depending on the time of day, even as total traffic volumes increased.“ Anecdotal evidence from D.C. suggests that red paint works so well that it keeps cars from parking in the bus lane even when it’s perfectly to do so.
Red paint actually makes streets safer, too. That same study out of San Francisco found that police-reported injury collisions in the corridors with fresh red paint decreased 24% while injury collisions citywide remained unchanged. We’ll never know for sure if red bus lanes would have saved Alice Woodson’s life, they would be an important, striking visual reminder for people walking, biking, or driving that the rules change in the bus-only lanes.
There are a couple of ways to highlight bus lanes with red paint:
The most common implementation is the full red carpet treatment, with edge-to-edge paint covering the lane. Think San Francisco or Washington D.C.. It looks great, but tends to wear as the wheels on the bus continually drive over them. The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, in a 2017 study, estimated the cost of edge-to-edge red paint at around $308,000 per lane mile. Some back-of-the napkin math puts the cost of painting our 3.2 miles of dedicated lanes at around $2 million.
Narrower than the bus
If you want to cut back on some of the maintenance costs of red paint, look to Seattle. They do this great thing where they paint just the center of the lane red—wide enough so that its still obviously a red lane, yet narrow enough that the bus’s wheels don’t drive over any of the paint.
A thin red line
What’s the budget version of a red bus-only lane? How about these red-stripped BRT lanes in Indianapolis? Way cheaper with just a single red stripe paralleling the lane—especially to maintain—but still gives you that hint of that red-paint flavor. It’s like the Lacroix of red bus lanes.
Despite the nearly magical properties of red lanes, they don’t vaporize cars and drivers who wander into them (unfortunately). To keep buses the only vehicles in the bus-only lanes, cities need to plan on doing some enforcement—either manually, like with cops writing tickets, or, if you live in a place that allows it, automated camera-based bus lane enforcement. This is definitely a case of diminishing returns, so cities need to carefully balance the cost of enforcement with its intended results.
The great thing about any of these options, even enforcement, is that they’re fairly straightforward for the City to implement—and, to be sure, it’s the City, not GRTC, that has the authority to paint and stripe lanes. We could make a safer Broad Street next week, all it takes is the money and the political will to get it done.
Our insides are still all tied up from the awful and fatal bus-involved crash in which a Pulse driver killed a woman who stepped into the bus-only lane. While there has been some thoughtful coverage about how we can make our streets safer through infrastructure improvements to ensure this never happens again, there has also been some sensationalized local media coverage vilifying the Pulse.
For some reason, our local media loves to use the bus as a punching bag while ignoring the fact that the vast, overwhelming majority of people who die on our streets are killed by drivers of cars. And the further sad truth is that these deaths and serious injuries often go unnoticed, underreported, and, even worse, usually nothing is done to build better streets and make them safer for people.
Don’t get it wrong: There are changes that need to be made to the Pulse’s bus-only lanes to increase their visibility and safety. We’ll post more on that later. But for now, where does the blame really fall for nearly every pedestrian death? These deaths are caused by terrible street design that prioritizes the speed and throughput of cars over the safety of people. And we should also blame shitty, distracted drivers.
Here are just a few reports of people walking who were killed or hurt by drivers in the Richmond area just over the past couple months:
- October 18, 2019: Police: Pedestrian fatally struck while crossing Nine Mile Road
- October 17, 2019: Pedestrian walking in Chesterfield is fatally struck, the county’s second such death in three days
- October 15, 2019: UPDATE: Female pedestrian fatally struck on Courthouse Road in Chesterfield lived in nearby neighborhood
- August 15, 2019: Driver charged with hitting Richmond runner on Broad Street
- August 12, 2019: Pedestrian suffers life-threatening injuries after being struck in Richmond
And of course, there’s this: Richmond drivers among the worst in America, new study says.
So before you watch the next overly sensational, breaking news, special report about the dangers of bus rapid transit in Richmond, consider this: If our streets were actually designed for people rather than speeding metal boxes, and if people would actually slow down and pay attention while operating them, we wouldn’t have lost 16 people this year who were just trying to walk somewhere and the 242 people who were injured by drivers wouldn’t have been hurt at all.1
We’d rather have productive conversations about how we get those numbers down to zero by fixing our fucked up streets and enforcing our existing traffic laws. Everything else is just a distraction.
1 According to the Virginia DMV, 16 pedestrians have been killed by drivers in Richmond, Henrico, and Chesterfield since January 1, 2019 and another 242 have been injured.
Earlier this week, a GRTC Pulse driver hit and killed a pedestrian. From what I’ve heard (I’ve not and will not watch the video should it ever exist publicly), she got out of a car, attempted to cross the bus lane, but never looked for an oncoming bus. She died at the scene.
This awful incident is right at the center of two things I care about deeply, both personally and professionally: buses and pedestrian safety. That those two things, in this case, are in conflict makes me feel tied up on the inside. I had to bail on the second half of my day because the thought of writing regular transit emails or meeting with regular transit people was just too much; A woman on foot was killed by a bus, and it’s the top story on the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel, other than tied up. I want to defend the bus, which police say had the right-of-way. I want to scream at the past 70 years of City leaders for allowing our biggest and best street to devolve into an inhumane, unsafe nightmare highway. I want to ask this woman, Alice Woodson, 32, why she didn’t look left before taking her last step. I want to know how to build a city where people can make catastrophic mistakes and not die as a result. I want to explain to folks reading the newspaper that car drivers are involved in nearly every serious injury on our streets—that it’s cars and bad design that make our streets unsafe.
I’ve also been trying to figure out what to do, other than sit with my tied-up feelings. Do we beg city staff, City Council, and the Mayor to study and analyze the video footage, figure out why this terrible thing happened, and change Broad Street to make sure it never happens again? Should we start a campaign to paint the bus-only lanes red, clearly marking space on the street where the rules change and folks should take extra caution? Or maybe I should stay tied up, out of respect, waiting until we inevitably forget about Alice and move on.
It’s a sad, shitty, and complicated situation, and it has really brought to the foreground the feeling of hopelessness I get when walking, biking, or taking transit in Richmond. The constant buzzing background of angry, aggressive drivers and busted, broken sidewalks and inconvenient bus schedules feels sharply in focus this week. We’ve come so far in the last five years—something I excitedly tell people on the regular—but, realistically, we’ve got unimaginably far to go before we can even begin to claim that our city is a safe place for people to get around.
I don’t know the specifics of this fatal crash, and I don’t know if all of the red paint and bollards and policy changes in the world would have prevented Alice’s death. But here are two things I do know: Buses are a critical part of Richmond’s future, and our city is full of dangerous streets. We’ve got such a long way to go before we can untie these two incompatible facts.
This coming week, September 16th—22nd, RVA Rapid Transit is hosting an in-town celebration of public transportation as part of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation’s Try Transit Week. They’ve got a handful of things to put on your calendar, but we want to highlight three:
- Monday: Bus to Work Day; Ride the bus to work, take a selfie, tell your friends.
- Tuesday: Brown-bag lunch at the Observation Deck; Bring your lunch to the City Hall Observation Deck and eat it while staring out across the entire city.
- Thursday: Scooter Symposium + Social; Listen to a panel of folks discuss the pros, the cons, and the zooms of Richmond’s nascent dockless scooter system (RSVP for that event here).
Check out the full list of events over on RVA Rapid Transit’s website. Oh, also! Make sure you enter to win an entire year of free transit through DRPT’s statewide giveaway.
This is the second time we’ve come across one of these digital trailer signs set up by the Richmond Police Department dead center in the middle of a sidewalk, blocking access to ADA curb ramps. This one in particular was carelessly dropped IN A DANG BUS STOP on the southbound side of Arthur Ashe Boulevard. The cruelest, worst part is the messages on the signs are about locking your CARS to prevent theft. Maybe since the messages are directed at car drivers, the Police Department should set up the reader boards in a parking spot instead? Because right now, this campaign does not meet the City of Richmond’s Vision Zero goals.
Richmond’s Pulse is one of America’s newest (and best!) bus rapid transit lines. In fact, just this week the ITDP—the mysteriously acronymed international organization that scores and ranks BRTs—awarded the Pulse a bronze ranking (PDF). The Pulse has a ton of features that helped it score that ranking (no American BRTs have scored gold only two have scored silver) and make it easy for folks to use: bus-only lanes, transit signal priority, platform-level boarding, off-board fare collection—all the good stuff.
Unfortunately, like almost all public transit that reaches out into suburban areas, it lacks the safe pedestrian infrastructure needed to access certain stations. The Pulse’s worst pedestrian offender is probably the Staples Mill set of stations. How DOES one safely cross Broad Street from either of these stations?
Surely we’re not the only superfan of CookOut milkshakes that want to ride the Pulse, grab a chocolate-peanut butter-and-banana shake, and then head back into town—all without getting splattered by a driver speeding down Broad Street. In fact, just this week we got an email from someone wondering the same exact thing:
Speaking of VCU, I am giving up my free parking pass and starting to commute on the Pulse. It’s a lot less convenient, but I’m doing it on principle. But I can’t get anyone at VCU to tell me how it’s possible to cross Broad Street safely at the Staples Mill station, especially after dark. Do you know of any plans (or strategies) to make crossing West Broad St. safe for the public?
First, major high fives for supporting public transportation over single-occupancy vehicles for your daily commute. Second…we don’t know what to tell you. Currently, there is not a safe way to cross W. Broad Street on foot at either Staples Mill Pulse station. Which is ridiculous! This is the region’s highest-quality transit line and the surrounding pedestrian environment is terrifying. Additionally, as far as we know, there’s no money allocated to build infrastructure to slow drivers down and make the crossing safer—and, again, as far as we know, there’s not even a plan to make a plan for safety improvements. We’ve even been told that the safest option is to ride the Pulse down to Willow Lawn and back around to avoid crossing Broad on foot. That’s not a great answer or option—but it’s unfortunately the best we’ve got??
This is definitely a problem, but what can we do about it? Maybe some or all of the following things:
Install a High-Intensity Activated Crosswalk (HAWK)
The most straightforward way to make sure traffic stops and stays stopped is to install a dang traffic signal. HAWKs are like stop lights, but specifically designed for crosswalks on major streets. They sit dark until they’re activated by a button, and would then present a solid double red light to drivers—theoretically, they all know what that means. A HAWK can even be installed mid-block—in fact, the first one in Richmond will soon be installed on Broad Street but way on the other side of town just east of N 16th Street (see below).
- Pros: The solid double red commands drivers to stop, pedestrians can cross safely, milkshakes will be had.
- Cons: It’s expensive, motorists will most likely complain about even the slightest delay in their commute, engineers will probably want to do a bunch of (also expensive) traffic studies.
Install a Rapid Flashing Beacon
These bright signs and flashing beacons have popped up in a couple spots around town—including on the notably terrifying Dock Street. They’re new to Richmond, and, for now, it’s unclear whether or not drivers give a crap about stopping for them.
- Pros: It’s something, and it’s cheaper than a traffic signal, that’s for sure. 🤷♀️
- Cons: Until driver culture shifts, RFBs feel like more of a suggestion, rather than a command to stop—and that’s not what pedestrians need when trying to cross six lanes of traffic, milkshake(s) in hand.
Take away a bunch of lanes so it doesn’t feel like the Richmond International Raceway out there
We’ve got six lanes to work with, three in each direction. Maybe for the area surrounding the two Pulse stations we could have a street cross-section that looks something more like this:
- Pros: When drivers see the open road in front of them, they put the pedal to the metal. Bus-only lanes, street trees, and medians help slow down traffic (or take space way from cars) and make crossing easier. Less open road, means less pedal, means slower, safer streets that are easier to cross on foot.
- Cons: Anytime you talk about taking away travel lanes, motorists arise, unite, and collectively lose their minds about the couple extra minutes it may now take them to get to work. This could also be very expensive, depending on just how much of the street you want to change.
Lower the speed limit on Broad Street in Henrico County
The Henrico County line is just north of Broad Street and just west of Staples Mill, and because reasons, the speed limit changes from 45 miles per hour to 35 miles per hour at the city/county line. This means drivers heading east from Henrico into the City zoom by at incredibly unsafe-for-pedestrians speeds.
- Pros: Slower speeds mean safer streets! This is also relatively cheap—replace a couple of signs and get the Henrico/Richmond Police Departments out there to enforce the new speed limits.
- Cons: If you get hit by a driver going 35 mph, you still have a good chance of dying. Also, without appropriate traffic calming improvements (see above), drivers are unlikely to obey the new speed limit unless there is an ongoing enforcement campaign.
Do nothing until someone dies
This is, for the moment, the course of action we’ve decided to take, and that’s really terrible.
- Pros: …?
- Cons: Someone will die or be seriously injured here trying to use our public transportation system until we decide to change the street and make it safer for people.
There are certainly other solutions to providing a safe crossing at the Staples Mill Pulse stations that aren’t included here—and some of the solutions listed above may be real dumb for various engineering reasons. But, for example, cities like Phoenix are doing something, getting creative, and using a combination of technologies to make their streets safer for humans:
The Richmond region’s transportation engineers could do this too! When empowered by elected officials, they could definitely solve this problem quickly and efficiently. Our public officials just need to know that this problem exists (which they totally may not) and that getting it fixed is a life-saving priority.
Lucky for us, at least one of our elected officials—Richmond City 1st District Councilmember Andreas Addison—is definitely aware of the problem. We asked him about this particular bad-for-pedestrian location, which sits in the 1st District, and here’s what he had to say:
It is time for us to intentionally design streets for pedestrians first. As our city grows, we must prioritize safety and equitable access to public transit. The lack of safe infrastructure for pedestrians to access the Staples Mill Pulse stations is just another example of how we have consistently prioritized personal vehicle use over people. It’s time to change that trend.”Councilmember Andreas Addison
Yes! We totally agree, Councilmember.
So, if you’ve ever taken your life in your own hands and Froggered all the way across W. Broad, consider emailing one or both of the following elected officials. Let them know that they need to make fixing this portion of Broad Street a priority.
The following originally appear on Twitter as an epic thread. It’s been adapted and lightly edited for this website.
A new report is out on @GRTCTransit‘s year-old system redesign, and it shows benefits that starkly contradict a prior report by @Wilder_Planning‘s CURA. The CURA report is so flawed that the authors should immediately retract it. Let’s take a look.
First, the topline: the new system increases the number of jobs the average resident can reach in 45 minutes by 6%, and the number of jobs the average low-income and minority resident can reach by 10%. Better on average, in particular for disadvantaged populations.
So how did CURA find that access for disadvantaged populations decrease by 22%. Well, besides using methodology that doesn’t make sense and is not generally accepted in the field, they used the methodology incorrectly! 😲
CURA took all the bus stops (red) and calculated all the areas within a half a mile (blue) and considered loss of access for areas over half a mile (white). As you can see, some of the areas considered over half a mile from bus stops are bus stops themselves! 🤔
Obviously, this makes no sense, but sometimes data spits out weird results. That’s why you need to do a sanity check and, if you find something wrong, fix your analysis. Unfortunately, CURA didn’t, and just published, and when this was brought to their attention they did nothing.
What’s the result of this lack of simple checking? Take a look at Creighton Court. It is two large parcels. The parcel on top, in yellow, has 0.2% of it more than 1/4 mile from a bus stop. So CURA excludes the entire parcel from those having <1/4 mile to a bus stop.
Now you would think, “Well, if 0.2% is outside 1/4 mile, you should count 99.8% within a quarter mile, so of the 356 dwellings, include 355, especially since the 0.2% is grass.” CURA disagrees, and excludes the whole parcel, so all 356 units “lost access” in their report.
“Well, using this methodology is bad, but at least it affected both systems equally, right?” you might ask. Wrong again. You see, CURA noticed that some parcels, especially housing courts, were being excluded, so they manually included them…only for the old system!
[w]e were concerned that many multi-family and public housing courts were not completely contained in the polygons due to their size even though they overlapped with the coverage polygons, and made an effort to accurately include them in both old and new polygons.
Yes, the CURA report manually fudged the numbers while analyzing the old system but not the new one! At best it’s sloppy; at worst, dishonest. Note that when trying to replicate the results (CURA vs QGIS), the new network is the same, but the old is different, due to fudging.
Don’t be scared by the math, but the formula CURA used isn’t right either. The first one, from a peer-reviewed paper, has seven variables, while CURA’s, below, has five. They just eliminated two variables! One is activity density, the other is speed. Yes, speed disappeared!
It doesn’t take a transit expert to realize that the faster a bus goes, the better the service is. While the peer-reviewed experts incorporated speed as a key element, CURA just lops it off. 🤷♀️ It’s not even hard to figure out: distance/time. The schedules are all online.
CURA messes up the frequency factor too! It’s easy to look up, but they instead pulled the data from a source that isn’t updated, so they got a ton of weird results, including saying a training platform with no regular service gets a bus every 7 minutes!
Want more sloppy data handling? CURA comingled weekday and weekend times when calculating how often a bus came. This shows two buses coming one minute apart, and then they just averaged it, producing a wait time that is half of reality. This mistake is EVERYWHERE.
CURA also just assumed all buses ran 12 hours a day, even though some run only at rush hour and some run 18 hours a day, making the most frequent and useful routes seem worse and the commuter ones (mostly in rich areas) seem better.
As a result, for peak-only services like Routes 26, 27, 28, 29, and 64, which actually operate about 6 hours per weekday, the hours of operation have been overstated by more than double. And for routes that run later in the evening, like The Pulse, 1, 2, 3, 4A, 4B, 5, 12, 13, 14, the hours of operation have been understated by a third: those long-span routes run 18-19 hours per weekday.
For the distance factor instead of looking at how long a route is (more things to go to), CURA looked at how far a stop was from other stops (long trip). Thus Short Pump had some of the best service, while downtown had the worst. They multiplied when they should have divided!
CURA then decided to grade more positively a stop if it has more routes serving it. So a stop with two routes that run once a day is better than one with one route that runs every 15 minutes. A quick thought experiment and you should easily spot the error. CURA didn’t.
That’s right: of the 7 variables in the equation CURA took from peer-reviewed researchers, they used 5 incorrectly and didn’t use the other 2 at all. There’s not a single variable CURA used correctly. Not one! How can we trust any of this? Garbage in, garbage out.
I could go on, as there’s lots more, but it’s clear that CURA has no idea what it’s doing here. They do really good work in a lot of fields, but their expertise is not in transit, and anything they put out in this field should clearly be ignored.
We all have specialties and weak spots, and when venturing into another field it’s good to speak to those experts before publishing. Unfortunately, it seems they didn’t do this, and when I and others brought up these concerns after publication, they were kind but didn’t change.
It’s really disappointing that such shoddy research is sullying such a respectable organization. If CURA has any honor, they’ll immediately retract their report. This doesn’t live up to their academic tradition.
It’s worth adding that @VCU put the @Wilder_Planning CURA report on their front page. I hope, in the vein of intellectual honesty, when this paper gets retracted they offer up a mea culpa that is similarly prominent, as it is to reporters. cc: @ByRobertoR @Suarez_CM /fin
I want you to think of your favorite place you’ve ever visited in a city. Picture it in your mind. Maybe a public square? A park? People walking around, a restaurant with tables and chairs on the street? A lot of “life” is happening, right? Look around and what do you see? Buildings of two to five stories, maybe taller? A frequent transit line nearby? Wide sidewalks? There are all kinds of things that make this place great, but I’m pretty sure you didn’t picture a giant parking deck!
That’s why it was so disappointing to hear about a 790-space parking garage being built next to the new Whole Foods at Hermitage and Broad. Right next to the Fan, this area is very walkable, bikeable, and next to a brand new Pulse Bus Rapid Transit station that was built specifically for this development. There are a ton of ways to get here, so it seems odd to be building one of the largest parking decks in the city!
Contrary to what you may have heard, Richmond already has a lot of parking. You can almost always find parking if you are willing to walk a block or two (about how far you might have to walk through a big-box retail parking lot in the suburbs). And the areas where the demand is highest are also the areas with the best transit and biking conditions: Downtown, Shockoe Bottom, the Fan, Carytown, Manchester, etc.
But maybe, you say, parking in this area is really difficult? As part of the Pulse planning study, the City hired consultants to watch the corridor and count how many street parking spots are being used. Surprise, surprise: most of them sit empty.
The new Sauer development, of course, could bring more people to the area. But while the old plan was to build a 10-story apartment building as well as a six-story parking deck, the new plan includes only an office building, which is generally unoccupied after close-of-business. Using Google Maps, we can clearly see how much off-street parking there is during the day and how much of that parking sits unoccupied.
This Pulse-adjacent district is basically more parking than not, and almost entirely filled with one- to three-story buildings—and that’s not counting the four-story parking deck the Science Museum is about to build. How could this neighborhood need nearly 800 more parking spaces? You don’t ever want to check the zoning ordinance, but I did, and the minimum required parking spaces for this office tower is 132 spaces. When other mid-sized cities are significantly reducing or removing parking minimums altogether because of their harmful effects, building six times the required parking next to a Pulse station in a neighborhood full of mostly unused parking is not the way to design a good city.
Let me tell you about how parking hurts Richmond. It induces people to drive more instead of walk, bike, or take transit. It pushes things further apart and makes them harder to access, which also reduces our physical activity and our health. It induces people to live further out, hurting development in the city. It takes up a lot of space. It pushes aside other development, like this 10-story apartment tower, and makes them smaller and more expensive than they could be because of the built-in cost and space of required (but possibly unwanted!) parking. It costs the city money in lost property tax revenue. And it heats our air, which in particular hurts those people not able to drive around in an air-conditioned car.
And the worst part about this is that the City requires parking (p.239) usually well in excess of the market demand, when it should be limiting this development that’s harmful to our neighborhoods. 1st District Councilmember Addison even tried to reduce some of these parking minimums, but his legislation was withdrawn after four months of no movement by Council.
If we want to make our city better, we need to change how we look at parking. We need to stop building parking decks to the sky. We need to design our cities and public spaces for people, not the storage of their personal property.