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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Richmond’s own Maritza Pechin, the planner charged with heading up our City’s master planning process, guested on the most recent episode of the Talking Headways podcast. She talks about Richmond 300, the Pulse, and how better transit can help build better cities. Here’s a short clip of her talking about what she’d like to see the future of Richmond look like:
Virginia Commonwealth University signed a three-year paid agreement with the GRTC Transit System on Tuesday to fund unlimited transportation access on Pulse Bus Rapid Transit, local and express routes for all VCU, VCU Health System and Virginia Premier students and employees effective Aug. 1.
Unlike basically every other mid-sized city in America, Richmond is right smack in the middle of an unprecedented increase in bus ridership—and VCU’s unlimited rides program has been a huge part of that growth. At the moment, VCU-adjacent folks make up 12% of GRTC’s total ridership (you can check out ridership trends by route for the whole system in this PDF). V-C-U! Go Rams, go!
VCU’s original pilot program with GRTC, which was set to end on July 31st, cost the University $1.2 million. With way more VCU folks riding buses all over town than originally expected, the effective cost per ride for the University went way down. Ultimately, this starts to become an equity issue with some rides costing less than other rides. That’s why it’s good to see that VCU will increase their financial support for GRTC immediately, and then continue to increase it each year, presumably paralleling projected ridership increases.
Under the new agreement, VCU will pay GRTC $1.42 million for services in the first year, $1.57 million for the second year, and $1.65 million for the third year to cover the cost of ridership for students and employees on local routes and the Pulse and to maintain 10-minute headways for the Pulse.
Additionally, the University has shown its commitment to encouraging people to get on the bus by eliminating their Campus Connector.
In an effort to eliminate redundant services and contribute to the cost of the new partnership, VCU will eliminate its Campus Connector transportation service, effective July 1.
Heck, why not even go a step further and eliminate the M Lot Route as suggested by @_smithnicholas_?
Now, how can the Commonwealth of Virginia create the same deal for their Richmond-based employees? Or what about SunTrust? If Richmond’s other major employers decided to “get on the bus” so to speak, we’d see some real mode shift take place in the city.
The fundamental principle is this: Mid-sized cities can quickly increase public transportation ridership by spending money making things fast, frequent, and reliable. It works! Take it from Richmond!
The Pulse, central Virginia’s first and only bus rapid transit line, theoretically has 3.5 miles of bus-only lanes—7 miles, if you count both directions. Dedicated right-of-way like this is a critical feature of rapid transit that keeps buses (and light rail for cities with the density and budget to justify it) out of the tangle of car traffic and zipping speedily along. Toronto recently forced cars off of King Street to give priority to a streetcar, and, as a result, ridership has increased by 25%! And we’re seeing the exact same results in Richmond: The Pulse and its dedicated right-of-way has doubled the original ridership estimates by 100% and now sees over 7,000 rides on a weekday.
Unfortunately, a huge chunk of Richmond’s bus-only lanes—0.4 miles of the westbound section from 9th Street to 3rd Street, around 6% of the total—is unusable due to about five legal parking and loading zone spaces on Broad Street westbound between 3rd and 4th Street. Because of this half-block of parking, most Pulse operators, who aren’t dummies, immediately merge into mixed traffic after leaving the Government Center station. From the operator perspective, it’s a smart decision as it saves them wasted time merging in and out of traffic to avoid parked vehicles. From a rapid transit perspective, it’s a total waste of those beautiful transit-only lanes we worked so hard to get.
This isn’t some sort of mistake, oversight, or the result of a bunch of misguided scofflaw motorists. No! For some incomprehensible reason, this was the plan. Here’s a look at the street layout, from the project’s Roadway Design Graphics (PDF):
You can see how the westbound bus lane, marked in red, terminates at 4th Street, directly into a stack of parked cars. Adding to the inefficiency, Pulse buses must wait behind cars at the light at 3rd Street so they can quickly and awkwardly merge over to service the Convention Center station just feet after the intersection. Why is the City prioritizing less than a half dozen parked cars over thousands of Richmonders trying to get around each day? Why have they decided to devalue the significant investment we have already made in public transportation? THESE ARE GOOD QUESTIONS.
The fix here is obvious: Remove these parking and loading zones spaces and convert that block into a proper bus-only lane. If, after talking to the businesses on that block, the City decides that those spaces need to be preserved, there’s plenty of room around the corner on 3rd Street north of Broad Street. This is such an easy, quick, and low-hanging-fruit fix that would benefit a ton of Richmond’s transit riders. Let’s get it done!
If you’d like to gently encourage Richmond to give the transit-only lanes back to transit, you can:
Email Mayor Levar Stoney and tell him you’d like to see transit given its rightful priority in the transit-only lanes. (firstname.lastname@example.org)