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GRTC is working to increase bus amenities — right now, only 5% of stops have covers — but riders are frustrated with the current process to get them
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GRTC is working to increase bus amenities — right now, only 5% of stops have covers — but riders are frustrated with the current process to get them

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At a curb on Brook Road next to the Walmart Neighborhood Market in Henrico County last Monday, there was a disarray of three shopping carts, flipped on their side, lying under trees sparingly planted.

Besides the trees, the concrete curb — which acts as a bus stop — is virtually bare.

Sitting on one of the carts is Michelle Agosto, who has just finished grocery shopping with her husband, Sean Johnson, waiting for the bus to take them home. The Henrico residents said they usually drag a cart to the bus stop to have a place to sit as they wait.

This bus stop is one of many within the regional transit system that lacks bus amenities such as a trash can, bench or shelter — stop No. 3464 — the one at Brook Road — has none.

In fact, only 5% of the 1,650 bus stops across the GRTC transit system have shelters — that is, a covered bench — and about 20% have just benches, according to GRTC. But up to 80% of the stops where Richmonders wait to catch a ride on the region’s only public transportation service have no cover or seat, just a pole in the ground alerting riders and drivers to the spot.

Many elderly people who frequent the store rely on the bus, Agosto said. With the lack of a sitting area, some riders resort to standing outside the store — one of the few nearby places with cover — which is several feet away from the stop.

“There’s not even anywhere to sit [at the storefront],” Agosto said. “They stand [there] because of the shade.”

Sometimes they miss the bus, she said, because of the distance between the storefront and bus stop. A bus arrives every 30 minutes to an hour.

Between July 1, 2020, and July 20, 2021, 63 requests were submitted to GRTC by riders to add an amenity, such as a trash can or bench, to an existing bus stop or to report a problem with an existing amenity, according to data from GRTC obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Twenty of the requests were approved, and 21 were denied. The remaining are under review. Of those denied was a bench request for the bus stop at Brook Road next to the Walmart Neighborhood Market. The bench request was denied, GRTC said, because a shelter is planned to be installed this fiscal year.

Fifty-two of the requests were for bus stops located in Richmond, mostly concentrated in the North Side and South Side. There were just eight and three requests, respectively, for stops in Henrico and Chesterfield counties. Just over 75% of the stops are in Richmond.

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For many riders, the process to install and upgrade amenities at bus stops is lengthy and complex, which differs in Richmond and the counties of Henrico and Chesterfield, according to GRTC.

In Richmond, if GRTC decides to move forward with a request, it goes to the city’s consultative group, which includes officials from the Department of Planning and Development Review, for approval before the transit company can proceed further.

A 15-day public comment period is then open for nearby private property owners and civic organizations to weigh in on the proposed amenities. The city needs to approve the request a second time before work can commence.

During the public comment period, letters are sent to property owners and civic organizations within 150 feet of the affected bus stop in addition to a notice posted at the bus stop sign.

A request for a bench and a trash can at a southbound bus stop on North Avenue and West Meredith Street was approved, according to the data.

However, a request for the same bus amenities at a stop going northbound right across the street was denied. The request was denied because installing a landing pad — which is required for a bench or trash can — would not be ADA compliant as the sidewalk has a slope, GRTC said.

Bus stops that meet requirements, such as being in a “geographical area of priority need” — areas GRTC said have been historically under-invested in, such as South Side or East End — are qualified for amenities. But physical factors, such as anything that interferes with utilities or sidewalk widths, can affect amenities’ approval.

“Even if a lot of people want an amenity, if we can’t safely install something, if the sidewalk is too narrow and it can’t fit a bench, as much as we would like to, we just can’t,” said Raquel Aguire, GRTC’s bus stop and amenities program manager.

Sidewalks and curb ramps must be in compliance with standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act for sidewalk mobility space.

A change also can be contingent on ridership levels, which Aguire said may have led to one request being approved and another being denied despite the bus stops being a few feet away from each other.

“I would guess that there were just different ridership thresholds,” Aguire said. “That’s a really kind of a big knee-jerk thing that will either make stops eligible or ineligible.”

Bus stops with an average of 50 daily boardings are automatically qualified for a shelter, while bus stops in areas of “priority need” require an average of 33 daily boardings.

A stop with about 30 daily boardings is qualified for a shelter if it meets two of the following requirements: It is adjacent to a hospital or social service agency, a school, an apartment with 250 or more units or senior housing, a major employment or activity center or route intersection; or if the stop has a 30-minute or greater lapse between the bus arrivals on that route.

The requests within the past year overwhelmingly took issue with the lack of benches and trash cans; 55 of the requests were concerned with either a bench, trash can or both.

One approved request for a bench and trash can is for a bus stop a few feet from the Neighborhood Resource Center of Greater Fulton, an educational and cultural center in the East End.

Breanne Armbrust, executive director of the Neighborhood Resource Center, said the staff have requested a bench and a trash can repeatedly for 10 years. She said these amenities are needed as people regularly use the stop. The absence of a trash can means that garbage usually ends up on the ground.

“The area there is fully concrete,” Armbrust said. “So it’s very hot and not comfortable for people to stand on.”

GRTC does receive numerous requests for a single bus stop, which can be denied for various reasons. But Emily DelRoss, acting director of planning and scheduling, said a request can be approved if it is submitted at a time when it finally meets eligibility.

Armbrust last put in a formal request in December 2019 or January 2020. She said she emailed GRTC for a follow-up in October 2020 after months of not receiving a response.

That was when Armbrust said the installation process seemed to have commenced, but she said she was never notified of any updates throughout the process.

GRTC tries to notify requesters when it receives an initial request, Aguire said, and will also notify the person about the final decision. She said the entire process typically lasts a minimum of two to three months but can last longer if there’s additional construction work.

Armbrust said she learned a trash can was being installed after hearing two workers outside the building drilling at the bus stop, who confirmed to her they were installing a trash can for GRTC. And she found out a bench request was approved only after speaking with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

She said the request process is not widely accessible to riders, noting some riders may not have the technology to enter a formal request and that the public comment procedure is not engaging the community.

“It really was just the fact that they put a piece of paper up on the sign for the bus stop to take public comment, and I feel like that really doesn’t notify the community of what’s going on,” Armbrust said.

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According to a 2019 passenger study conducted by GRTC, 21% of riders report their first priority is having bus essentials, such as shelters, benches and trash cans at their bus stops.

While more than half of GRTC riders surveyed agreed bus stops are “adequately sheltered/accessible,” just under one-third of riders disagreed.

There are currently 85 bus stops with shelters, according to a board report for this Tuesday’s GRTC board of directors meeting.

Thirty shelter installations are in progress, with plans for 26 shelter installations annually for the next five fiscal years.

By the end of fiscal year 2027, the goal is that 50% of GRTC bus stops have a shelter or bench.

RVA Rapid Transit, a transportation advocacy organization with initiatives to improve Richmond’s public transportation, launched a Better Bus Stop program in July with the goal of improving such infrastructure by curbing litter or helping to add amenities.

“We’re creating a continual, dignified place for people to wait,” said Faith Walker, director of community engagement.

Once riders “adopt” a stop as part of the program, they help maintain the stops’ cleanliness. Since July, about 20 bus stops have been adopted, Walker said. Fourteen of them were adopted by Keep Virginia Cozy, an environmental conservation organization.

RVA Rapid Transit also received a grant from Bon Secours for the yearlong program, Walker said.

Data, which will be collected to determine when trash is at its heaviest and how often a bus shelter needs to be cleaned, will be used to determine the program’s expansion and how often the bus stops should be maintained.

The nonprofit is also partnering with Glean LLC, a local commercial cleaning service, to help with the initiative. The cleaning service is looking to hire two to three employees within the East End community.

Both Walker and Nicole Mason, CEO and founder of Glean LLC, said they are excited to create jobs in the East End, where most of the shelters being cleaned are located.

RVA Rapid Transit wants to help GRTC improve infrastructure, Walker said, which is what the Better Bus Stop program strives to do.

“What we want to do at RVA Rapid Transit is speed up the process,” she said. “If the challenge is funding, then we want to provide a solution. ‘OK, here’s the money that we raised and collected, so you can add more [amenities].’”

She adds that community engagement is critical in increasing the accessibility of the bus stops and their amenities.

“When people start to speak up, then the issue becomes wider and broader,” Walker said. “And it’ll be all hands on deck. That’s what we need.”

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