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Checking the Pulse 

After a first week of free rides, a veteran GRTC rider comes away with suggestions, revelations, and firsthand testimonies.

click to enlarge cover27_pulse_no_headline.jpg

Scott Elmquist

I've been riding the bus daily since selling my car a decade ago. Folks look at me askance, or slightly intrigued, when they hear this.

I get it: Most Richmonders view the GRTC as transit of last resort. Therefore, when federal, state, Richmond and Henrico officials and the bus system joined forces to create the 7.6 mile Pulse system, a limited access bus route connecting Rocketts Landing with Willow Lawn — with 12 stations in between — the goal, in part, was to capture potential passengers, so-called choice riders who'd previously avoided public transit here.

While riders, and hold outs, will have their own take on the inauguration of the Pulse and the simultaneous redesign and renaming of all GRTC bus routes, here's my story. And like many narratives hereabouts, it begins with the way things used to be.

click to enlarge At Willow Lawn on West Broad Street, riders and a WTVR-6 camera operator await an eastbound bus on June 24, the first day of the Pulse system. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • At Willow Lawn on West Broad Street, riders and a WTVR-6 camera operator await an eastbound bus on June 24, the first day of the Pulse system.

Until last week, daily I'd stroll to a GRTC bus stop a block from my home in South Richmond and, knowing the posted arrival time, await my chariot under a well-designed bus shelter with ample seating. Century-old elm trees towered above. A fringe benefit of the wait were chats with residents of a large senior home, just steps away, fellow bus riders. When younger riders who resided in nearby apartment complexes were at the stop, they joined the conversation.

For Springhill, a small pocket of a neighborhood devoid of places of worship, a community center or any retail — save a convenience store — that bus shelter was a vital third space. Sometimes the conversation veered past pleasantries to talk of neighborhood issues or upcoming elections. In early mornings and after work, dog walkers paused to visit. Buses on this Forest Hill line came every 20 minutes or so.

The bucolic state of affairs, assuming you buy in that trading your vehicle for a bus ride can be called that, changed for us on Sunday, June 24. And on its face, the change was for the worse. A new bus No. 87 now comes but once an hour, and no longer in early mornings or at night.

Instead, catching an in-town bus with timeliness requires crossing multiple lanes and the median strip of Semmes Avenue, dodging traffic turning off nearby Jefferson Davis Turnpike and the Lee Bridge. The new stop is in a no-man's land by a long-abandoned warehouse and there's neither shelter nor a place to sit. In truth, there are few shelters for bus riders along the routes, so I can live with that.

But the big thing that transit officials have promised with the Pulse and associated bus routes is frequency. Buses on major routes close to the center of town are scheduled to arrive every 15 minutes during the day.

Riders system-wide had numerous opportunities to attend community planning sessions and ample time to shift gears mentally once the new system was unveiled. So beginning June 24, for six days I took advantage of unlimited free rides on the Pulse as well as some of the new GRTC routes.

Here are observations, recognizing that ridership was jacked up and buses were unusually crowded due to the lure of free rides. And travel was slowed considerably since bus drivers were overtaxed by serving as first responders. At most stops they answered questions, patiently and sympathetically, from flummoxed riders, and dispensed route information. Route-wide maps were not in evidence and weeklong there were precious few GRTC representatives or previously touted ambassadors in evidence at stops or on Pulse platforms.

click to enlarge Passengers enter and exit a Pulse bus at Rocketts Landing , the eastern terminus of the new transit system. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Passengers enter and exit a Pulse bus at Rocketts Landing , the eastern terminus of the new transit system.

Rocketts Landing Station

Early on Sunday morning, a few hours into the inaugural run of the Pulse, I head over to Rocketts Landing, the eastern terminus of the system, with a friend and colleague.

We stroll onto the station platform. The horizontal structure, with its up-tilted, V-shaped canopy is attractive enough, more retro-modern brutalistic than 21-century sleek. But it is solid and since all the stations are alike, the design is poised to become an icon. The platform's brick paving melds into the herringbone public sidewalk. Nearby are Rocketts Landing's upscale condominiums, townhouses and office spaces, many with views of the James River and the city skyline. The Capital Trail, connecting downtown with Williamsburg, follows the quay here. The embankment is lined by restaurants and pleasure craft bob in a marina.

A single passenger, Takeem Arington, 28, boards the Pulse. Having cycled from Varina and attached his bike to the front outer bike rack, he's headed to church services in the Fan District.

As to weekday ridership, an early observation and complaint about the Pulse route was that habitués of Rocketts Landing aren't bus patrons. That may well be. So I returned to the station the following morning, Monday, to assess commuter traffic. Not a single person boarded the 8:30 a.m. bus headed west to Willow Lawn.

But later that morning, I returned to Rocketts and encountered Goochland resident Evelyn Galgano and her granddaughter, Sally Meyers, a rising high school freshman, who with bicycles in tow, awaited two friends. The four had convened earlier at the Willow Lawn Pulse station to venture to Rocketts and from there to the Capital Trail. Upon discovering the buses accommodate only three bikes, they'd split up. About 10 minutes later, their friends, Susan Smith and Arlene McLaren, both Fan District residents, arrived with their vehicles and were all smiles.

While chatting with the cyclists it occurred to me that a terminus and popular draw of Richmond's first electric street car in the 1880s had been the Wheel Club — a bicyclists' destination — on Hilliard Road in Lakeside. Now, more than a century later, cyclists and public transit are reconnecting in the suburbs.

On Wednesday evening, a friend suggests we take the Pulse to Rocketts. We eat at Conch Republic, seated on the high deck. The western sky, filled with red and blue streaks, gave way to darkness over the James and downtown skyline.

After dinner we take the Pulse to the Government Center station in front of City Hall and walk around the building to a 10th Street GRTC stop. Within minutes we transfer to one of the new lines, 2A Forest Hill. Crossing the Manchester Bridge, we roll up Semmes, but the driver misses our bus stop since foliage blocks the sign. We're let off at 26th Street. The hike home is nine blocks, previously a one-block walk.

click to enlarge During the inaugural week of operation with all fees suspended, Pulse ridership exceeded GRTC expectations. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • During the inaugural week of operation with all fees suspended, Pulse ridership exceeded GRTC expectations.

East Riverfront Station

The environs of the second Pulse station, East Riverfront on Main, is the great visual surprise of the Pulse experience. Along this strip of no-man's land, until reconfigured streets and traffic patterns were recently introduced, fractured street beds, thickets of weeds and overall Dickensian drear marked the environs. Now, things have been freshened up considerably. A large traffic circle, landscaped with cobble stone and seasonal flowers, gives focus and order to the former tangle of streets. The combination of river views, existing grid patterns, railroad trestles, a street underpass, and a new vantage point of the hulking, empty and picturesque Intermediate Terminal Three structure, makes this an exciting spot.

Trouble is, this station reigns in glorious isolation.

Shockoe Bottom Station

Truth to tell, the third Pulse destination at East Main and East 25th streets may be too far east to be named Shockoe Bottom. Tobacco Row would have been more descriptive, but the pesky T-word had to be avoided. In addition to continuous blocks of warehouses-turned apartments, considerable new construction is still planned for the neighborhood.

On this relatively quiet Sunday morning I chatted with Mary Lindert. She and her husband live on Church Hill and were taking a test run to church services at Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on North Laurel Street in the Fan.

By midweek it was clear that Shockoe had become a busy transfer point. Weekdays, this stop is not a nicety, but a necessity since numerous GRTC bus routes connect around the corner at 23rd Street with Church Hill, Fairmount and Oak Grove buses among other destinations. The stop also serves a commercial area with numerous restaurants, a CVS drugstore and importantly, a Farm Fresh grocery store, nearby.

Especially during afternoon rush hour, this stretch of East Main is a major bottleneck On two consecutive nights, Pulse buses had trouble pushing through the clogged traffic in only two traffic lanes for all vehicles. Some Pulse riders had to watch two crowded buses pass before they could board.

click to enlarge A bus leaving the Main Street Station stop rolls into heavy traffic in the 1400 block of East Main near a state parking deck and the Monroe Building. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • A bus leaving the Main Street Station stop rolls into heavy traffic in the 1400 block of East Main near a state parking deck and the Monroe Building.

Main Street Station

The Pulse was touted as a key ingredient of a downtown intermodel transit hub at Main Street Station. The two bus stops are located conveniently within steps of the gloriously restored Amtrak station and its dramatic train shed. A Mega bus stop is in the immediate vicinity.

This Pulse station, located efficiently and directly under the Interstate 95 bridge, is also the closest stop to the Financial District, Shockoe Slip, Canal Walk, the 17th Street Farmers' Market, now undergoing a transformational makeover, and state government offices south of Capitol Square.

The station is also at an extremely problematic juncture of numerous interstate highway exits and entrances, parking deck exits, the narrow Mayo Bridge, irregular street patterns, and already narrow roadways. If the path of the Pulse has any serious bumps, it will be because of the crossroads of Main and 14th streets.

At rush hour, motorists should avoid this area at all costs.

VCU Medical Center Station

The Pulse stop on the north side of Broad at 12th Street that saw little traffic on Sunday, by 5 o'clock on Monday afternoon was a teeming mass of humanity. And most were steaming.

Yes, the bus shelter offered no shade from the tropicallike sun and the populace was tired. But after a 15-minute wait, as the platform crowd grew, the so-called fast bus for Willow Lawn and points in-between hadn't appeared. It was 35 minutes before riders from the medical center, government offices and courts and tourists viewed a distinctive bright green and blue bus coming up Shockoe Hill from 14th Street. It had been struck in traffic along East Main Street.

When it arrived it was too crowded for additional riders.

Folks were unnerved. "We're calling an Uber," said two middle-aged tourists, as they left the platform. "So am I," responded another man, reaching for his phone.

By having taken 35 minutes to reach the Virginia Commonwealth University medical center stop, there was probably no Pulse bus moving westward between East 12th Street and Willow Lawn Drive —at the 5:30 rush hour.

click to enlarge The Pulse station design combines retro-modern elements such as steel and a cantilevered roof with red bricks. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The Pulse station design combines retro-modern elements such as steel and a cantilevered roof with red bricks.

Government Center

The Pulse stops, at Broad and Ninth and 10th, just two blocks west of the VCU stations, is a key and convenient connector to other GRTC lines, especially to South Side. Evenings, many of the GRTC street routes are funneled to the system's transfer plaza that is still situated along North Ninth Street next to the Human Services and Public Safety buildings.

Convention Center Station

On the north and south sides of East Broad Street at Fourth, the Convention Center stop is another major transfer point to GRTC routes. If retailers have complained during prolonged construction, shop owners along here should be experiencing a bonanza. The bus riders who had been displaced to the Transfer Plaza to make way for the UCI Road World Championships Bike Race in 2015, are back in force.

The Arts District and VCU & VUU stations

As the Pulse reaches Broad and Belvidere streets, that ultra-busy intersection has been wisely addressed by having the closest stations set far away. They are relatively quiet compared to stations near GRTC transfer routes. The Arts District stops are convenient to Virginia Repertory and Coalition theaters and numerous galleries, restaurants and eclectic boutiques. Riders can tip their hats to Maggie L. Walker as they pass her bronze visage at Broad and Adams streets.

The VCU-VUU stop is convenient to north end of Virginia Commonwealth University's Monroe Park campus and its architecturally-striking new Institute for Contemporary Art.

The inclusion of Virginia Union University in the station name is peculiar and disingenuous since Virginia Union University is located more than a mile away from this stop — at Lombardy Street and Brook Road. It also begs the question why a stop wasn't placed in the vicinity of Lombardy Street, a major connector to North Side. VUU, the Maggie Walker Governor's School, a Kroger grocery store, Lowe's, the Firehouse Theatre, and four major churches and a synagogue are located within easy walks from the busy intersection of Broad and Lombardy.

Allison Street Station

The Allison Street station, consistently a low-ridership stop each time I passed through a number of times last week, serves the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, and a number of popular eateries. It will join the Shockoe Bottom stop in boasting a major grocery store when Whole Foods, now under construction, opens at Sauer Center, a new retail development.

Science Museum Station

This station on Broad near Robinson serves not only the Science Museum of Virginia, but the Children's Museum of Richmond, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Virginia Museum of History and Culture and various attractions along the Boulevard.

Scott's Addition Station

On Thursday evening a friend suggested we attend the opening of a new cidery, Courthouse Creek, in the recently renovated Highpoint Building in Scott's Addition.

Leaving his house in the Museum District we walked two blocks to Ellwood and Thompson streets where a No. 5 GRTC bus arrived almost immediately. It swung around Thompson Street and eastward on Cary. He viewed the shops and restaurants as if he was seeing them for the first time.

Similarly, I had enjoyed taking the No. 5 to his house from Eighth Street downtown via West Main Street. The new route passed the Jefferson Hotel, the VCU schools of business and engineering, the Altria Theater, and the colorful and funky mix of houses and businesses along Uptown, the Fan and Museum District.

Note to those considering the Pulse and other routes: The No. 5 is a revelation and offers a long-needed convenient access to a happening part of town.

On the way back from the cidery, I encountered Doug Allen, 33, a Museum District resident on the Scott's Addition platform. It was dusk and he was headed downtown to the Arts District and Gallery5, a visual and performing arts space in Jackson Ward. A graduate of VCU in urban planning who works as a consultant, he has taken public transportation in a number of U.S. and foreign cities. "It's a good first step in improving the system," he says. "I've been encouraged by the high ridership. Now GRTC must keep looking for ways to do incremental improvements."

Staples Mill Station

The highlight of the Staples Mill Station is that there even is one after a 13-block stretch through the West End from Scott's Addition without a station. Why isn't there a stop at Westwood and Malvern? With Thomas Jefferson High School just two blocks away, a small office park and hundreds of residents nearby that fit the Pulse target audience, one would think this crossroads would have been a natural for another stop.

The Staples Mill Station does have a Lidl grocery. Hooray!

click to enlarge At Willow Lawn, a Pulse bus waits on motorists to clear a station before docking. Drivers and riders are adjusting to new street adjustments and traffic patterns. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • At Willow Lawn, a Pulse bus waits on motorists to clear a station before docking. Drivers and riders are adjusting to new street adjustments and traffic patterns.

Willow Lawn Station

The final stop is Willow Lawn, a single depot at West Broad and Willow Lawn Drive, near the mall.

When the shopping center opened in 1956, as did Southside Plaza that year, the advertising jingle rang out: "One stop: Park and shop at wonderful Willow Lawn."

Memo to Willow Lawn marketing department: How about "One stop: Pulse and shop at Wonderful Willow Lawn."

On Monday, July 2, I arrived at my old bus stop a 9 a.m. for the now-hourly bus service. I greeted my neighbors, paid my all-day fare and rode to Broad Street.

The electronic validation machines weren't operational so I was waved onto the Pulse and headed to work.

The Pulse has arrived and I'm still on board. S

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