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Richmond’s Pulse bus is making changes to its 'reliable' transportation

A GRTC Pulse bus pulls into the East Riverfront station
Crixell Matthews
VPM News File
A GRTC Pulse bus pulls into the East Riverfront station.

The east-west rapid transit line has been around since 2018, and now GRTC wants to improve its reach.

The Greater Richmond Transit Company unveiled its new Pulse bus line in 2018 with the goal of providing a “rapid and reliable" transit alternative. While some have praised the program as a "surprise success,” Virginia Commonwealth University researchers found early on that the route disadvantages people living in low-income neighborhoods.

Now, GRTC is conducting a few studies to make changes to its transportation system, with the goal of expanding its rapid transit routes to more local communities and switching to environmentally friendly alternatives.

With its 7.6-mile route that extends from Rocketts Landing to Willow Lawn, Pulse has been able to connect certain communities and increase overall GRTC transportation ridership. The system quickly met its estimated goals. According to Carrie Rose Pace, GRTC’s former communications director, Pulse has “far exceeded expectations.”

One claim for what has contributed to Pulse’s success is its accessibility. Pulse has been able to build loyal ridership by making rides available to more members of the community. And in March 2020, ride fares for Pulse became free—and will continue to be so until at least June 2024.

GRTC has described Pulse as a “modern, high-quality, high-capacity rapid transit system.” The company estimated that Pulse would be able to increase public transportation ridership while decreasing traffic congestion. According to Chief Development Officer Adrienne Torres, this was met when Pulse began having maximum capacity issues before the pandemic. Now, ridership has been back on the rise as more commuters return to public transportation.

Torres said she believes that Pulse’s dedicated lanes and consistent arrival times also separate Pulse from other public transportation options.

“The BRT was designed to be more reliable,” Torres said. “We don’t even make schedules for the Pulse. You just know that if a bus just came by, then you know another one is 10 or 15 minutes behind.”

The transit company has struggled to meet its promise of 10-minute waits, however, amid staffing shortages. As reported by Axios Richmond, during the COVID-19 pandemic GRTC introduced 30-minute service on the Pulse at night.

Still, other public transportation systems have recognized Pulse’s success and have begun to emulate this system in their cities. In Tampa, Florida, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority started its own BRT system in October 2022 after coming to Richmond to observe Pulse’s operations.

Despite the praise, this system is not always considered accessible and reliable to everyone in the community. In 2019, a study from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis (CURA) showed that the GRTC reroute to create Pulse disadvantaged low-income neighborhoods.

Fabrizion Fasulo, Virginia Housing’s director of policy and planning and the previous CURA director, told the Commonwealth Times at the time that GRTC prioritized “frequency over proximity.”

According to 2019 quotes provided to CT by Fasulo and Sarin Adhikari, a social scientist and previous CURA study member, low-income neighborhoods are generally less populated and don’t have as many riders. The GRTC reroute resulted in low-income neighborhoods being restricted to low-connectivity routes, which means multiple bus changes before a low-income rider reaches their destination.

The CURA study showed that only 48% out of a little over 32,000 low-income residential units within a quarter mile of a transit stop had fair to high connectivity. About half of the lower-income community did not have access to GRTC’s high-connectivity routes, going against Pulse’s goal of connecting communities while providing fast and reliable public transit.

The reroute did, however, improve access to job centers in the Short Pump and the West Henrico region. CURA’s study showed a 6% increase in job access within a quarter mile and an 11% increase within a half-mile from a bus stop.

Now, GRTC is in the process of a few new studies with the goal of further improving its Pulse system. According to Torres, three studies are looking at possibilities for Pulse’s expansion. One is to accommodate their increase in ridership by beginning to run six 60-foot buses. This was proposed as a solution to Pulse buses having to leave some riders behind due to the buses reaching capacity.

The other studies are for expanding the current route to western, northern and southern corridors. The western expansion is looking to add another stop to its route, along with space for a “park and ride” so that passengers can park their vehicles and take the bus for the duration of their journey.

“It was always designed to go a little bit further west on the western portion of Willow Lawn,” said Torres.

The northern and southern expansions are looking to expand more into the Chamberlayne area, which is one of the system’s most high-traffic areas. These studies for expansion should be completed in the upcoming summer or fall.

Another study is exploring more environmentally friendly options for Pulse, Torres said. Currently, 85% of Pulse buses are run by compressed natural gas. This means the gas being used is clear, odorless and noncorrosive.

“We’re doing an alternative fuel study. We’re looking at things like hydrogen fuel, electric buses,” she said. “Something that will work at the Pulse as well as the rest of our system.”

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