Waiting for the bus at 2nd & Broad

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.

I see a bus lane and I want to paint it red

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:

Edge-to-edge

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.

Photo by: Matt’ Johnson

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. 

Enforcement

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.

Don’t get distracted: Our streets are f*cked up

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:

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.

How DO you cross Broad Street at the Staples Mill Pulse Station?

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).

Site of Richmond’s first HAWK.
  • 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:

A Phoenix HAWK in action. Notice the high-visibility crosswalk and pedestrian refuge. —www.pedbikeimages.org / Mike Cynecki

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.