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Transit-Oriented Development

Editorial: Pulse Corridor craves more than red paint

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GRTC Pulse

Roughly five years ago, Richmond City Council formally adopted the Pulse Corridor Plan.

Anchored by a 7.6-mile, 14-station Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line that opened in June 2018, the plan prioritizes transit-oriented development (TOD). Per the plan document, some “best practices” include mixed-use projects that support housing, employment and entertainment; “dense, compact” buildings that are taller and larger in size; and historic preservation of buildings that foster diversity of style and use. Most importantly, the “glue” behind TOD is “a highly connected street grid and transit network.”

While May GRTC Transit System data showed Pulse ridership still is 25% to 30% below prepandemic levels, more than 118,000 trips took place that month. And for the corridor to reach its full vibrancy, better integration with surrounding car traffic still is needed.

In late June, the city took a step to improve road clarity along busy sections of Broad Street. Through a $2 million grant from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, the BRT lanes will be painted red from 3rd Street in downtown Richmond to the Interstate 195 Bridge on the western edge of Scott’s Addition.

A recent Times-Dispatch news article explained how the Federal Highway Administration used studies in major metro areas to determine red as the best color for transit-only travel.

“It will alert other drivers to vacate the dedicated lane to help improve Pulse efficiency and pedestrian safety,” GRTC added in a recent news update.

But this project only scratches the surface of how to insulate and expand the bus lanes’ value. Five years in, the Pulse Corridor craves more than red paint.

The five sets of eastbound and westbound Pulse bus stops that are directly affected by the painting process are: Arts District, VCU & VUU, Allison Street, Science Museum and Scott’s Addition. These stops are “median stations” — located directly in the middle of Broad Street — and they temporarily will be replaced by “curbside stations.”

“Getting to median stations is as easy as crossing the street,” explains a GRTC page with tips on how to board. “Simply push the pedestrian button and wait for the pedestrian crossing signal to move from the curb into the median. Half-way through the crossing, enter the protected pedestrian ramp onto the station platform.”

Regardless of experience level, riders know the reality of catching a bus during rush hour or after a special event might not be as simple as that language reads. People have to discern if they need the eastbound or westbound bus platform; confirm oncoming car traffic is giving them the right of way; and if carrying a bicycle — another commitment to clean, multimodal transit — exude further caution to clear safety railings.

All of that is doable when only a handful of riders are on the platform. But as new apartments and businesses add residents and employees to the corridor, will these median stations be able to support growth?

One long-term idea is pursuing a dedicated Broad Street Transitway along this same red-paint zone. For a vision of what’s possible, consider the K Street Transitway project in Washington, which reimagines a busy nine-block stretch of the road from 12th Street NW to 21st Street NW.

“The corridor’s service lanes are an inefficient use of right of way that lead to severe traffic congestion and encourage parking and loading conflicts,” reads a project history description from the District Department of Transportation. “The corridor’s geometry and typical traffic congestion result in significant vehicle-pedestrian conflicts and pedestrian safety issues.

“In addition, the buses on K Street, currently operating in mixed traffic, travel at slow speeds and have difficulty maintaining schedules because of the traffic congestion and common parking violations.”

Rather than separate eastbound and westbound median stations, renderings of the K Street Transitway show medians on both sides of the two-lane bus thoroughfare to support curbside stops and protect riders. The project’s core purpose: “make more efficient and effective use of the right of way for multimodal travel,” DDOT adds.

Richmond’s circumstances are not exactly the same. But guidance from GRTC on how to access the median Pulse stations show there can be room for error. And the red-paint project was in response to the tragic death of 32-year-old Alice E. Woodson, who was struck and killed by a Pulse bus in 2019.

“A little pedestrian safety information — please do not try to get on a median platform by crossing lanes of traffic when you don’t have the right-of-way, jumping the railing or walking down the median,” the GRTC how-to-board page stresses. “Stations are safely located only at signalized intersections to provide the most secure pedestrian crossing experience. Please also do not ride your bicycle onto or through a station.”

The stations largely are safe, but if the Pulse Corridor is to grow exponentially by year 10, 20 and beyond, it has to be able to safely handle higher demand. It deserves bolder ideas that go all in on establishing BRT as a go-to option to get around town.

— Chris Gentilviso

Chris Gentilviso is Opinions editor. Contact him at: cgentilviso@timesdispatch.com

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