Commentary: Go Slowly, Here Comes the Pulse

Crash! Scrape!

Oy vey.

On Tuesday, June 12, it wasn’t champagne that christened the highly anticipated Pulse bus system and concurrent first major GRTC rerouting in half a century. At around 9:30 p.m., an SUV and its driver jumped the gun — and a traffic lane — to put some first dinks and dents in the $64 million infrastructure. The vehicle damaged a metal safety railing at the eastbound Science Museum station near Mulberry and West Broad streets. No injuries were reported.

The official launch is set for Sunday, June 24.

So, at least now, legions of naysayers can stop predicting the end of Western civilization as we know it. Along with decrying lost parking, business dips and general frustration from lingering construction along stretches Broad and East Main streets, many observers had decried the counterintuitiveness of luring passengers to medians in the middle of a heavily trafficked street: Is it safe, won’t vehicles negotiating some ridiculously narrow traffic lanes hit the stations?
Now we know.

Round one goes to the “I told you so” gang.

But many merchants, observers and drivers navigating Broad and other downtown streets now being transformed with designated bike paths and weird for Richmond parking lanes, hope that after months of lagging retail and general inconveniences, things will look up.

One businessman who’s not sticking around to find out what happens, however, is Howard Adams, a barber who in May marked 60 years of cutting hair on West Broad Street. He says that sales at Adams Barber Shop, one of the longest running operations on West Broad, slumped 25 percent during Pulse construction. In July he’s is moving to another spot nearby.

And it’s clear that the addition of bike lanes on Franklin Street, which necessitated having a single automobile lane during most of the day, have flummoxed thousands moving through that corridor.

But as Pulse and GRTC riders anticipate a week of free introductory bus rides on all routes for seven days, it would behoove motorists in this auto-dependent town to simmer down, go slowly and be extra-considerate whenever traveling in the vicinity of bus lanes. That might take a major attitude adjustment since public transit is not valued here: Richmond ranks 178th among 290 American cities terms of percentage of population to ridership. Harrisonburg, Lynchburg, Roanoke and Virginia Beach rank much higher.

The Pulse is designed to change this.

And in case you didn’t receive the memo, traffic calming downtown is what city and state transportation planners have been pushing for quite some time now.

Perhaps the first glimpse of things to come was in the early 1960s when the decision was squelched to slather asphalt atop the distinctive Belgian paving blocks on Monument Avenue in an effort to facilitate traffic flow during rush hours along the divided greenway.

In the conscientious green decade of the ’70s, when many Americans were originating Earth Days, installing solar panels and painting their kitchens olive and harvest gold, Richmond built the Downtown Expressway. And while the road decimated verdant parts of Byrd Park as well as blocks of Randolph and Oregon Hill, the high-speed ditch did divert considerable through traffic from surface streets.

More recently, two-way traffic was re-established on East Grace Street downtown and on West Grace Street in the Fan District. Among other places, traffic circles were added along Floyd Avenue in the Museum District and on Jefferson Avenue, the dividing line between Church and Union hills.

And recently and jarringly, West Franklin Street has been reduced to one traffic lane — shared by automobiles, trucks and buses — during much of the day and night to allow for bike paths.

Installation of the Pulse has required the narrowing of certain blocks, the slight widening of sidewalks, with resulting subtle, but significant, twists of traffic lanes along a former unwavering straightaway. Now, drivers must pay less attention to their phones and more focus to slight deviations in street patterns.

The Pulse has probably pushed some motorists off of Broad and onto Leigh Street, which itself has been reduced to accommodate bike lanes, and other streets running east and west. And with new bus routes set to debut next week along Main and Cary streets from downtown through the Museum District, those streets will be further affected.

So let’s ease up on the gas pedal along West Broad Street where the Pulse stations are in the middle of the street. As downtown’s marquee thoroughfare, it’s been shabby for far too long. But that is slowly changing. First, it received historic designation that has protected the scores of distinctive retail buildings and allowed for their transformation into living spaces. As an anchor of the Arts and Cultural District the strip has certain cachet. And some of our region’s sharpest new shops and eateries have dropped anchor here — outdoor dining, ice cream, gourmet chocolate, haberdasheries and an instant new landmark — the Quirk Hotel.

So go slowly. Imagine signs that read “children at play.” But those are adults, families, tourists, and yes, kids, who are learning to navigate the new normal.

There also might be some first-time GRTC riders. S

Service along the Pulse will officially begin Sunday, June 24. There will be a ribbon cutting at the Maggie Walker Plaza from 10 to 10:30 a.m. on Monday, June 25. GRTC will offer free rides from June 24 to July 1. Ambassadors will be stationed through the GRTC system to help people learn to take advantage of public transit in Richmond and encourage them to visit and shop at local businesses. — Megan Wilson


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