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My week on the GRTC. 

Get on the Bus

Sept. 11-15 was Try Transit Week here in the greater Richmond metro area and in other areas around the country. You'll be excused for not knowing. I only knew because in my mail the week before I received an unsolicited Try Transit Week pass. The invitation was simple enough and appealed to me immediately: "No parking. No gas. No tolls. No hassle," and no fare.

No brainer.

So, free pass in hand, I set out to try transit for the week, smug in my morally correct stance — conserving gasoline, one less polluting car, etc. — and certain that it was going to be a royal pain.

Well guess what — it wasn't, though it does require some planning ahead. And it turns out, contrary to widely held opinion including my own, Richmond actually has good public transportation.

According to Greater Richmond Transit Company officials, a national survey of public transit systems done by the University of North Carolina in Charlotte ranks Richmond as the 12th-most efficient system in the country. It also has high ridership. In 1999, about 10 million people rode GRTC buses.

So why Try Transit Week?

According to officials at GRTC, the nonprofit company that operates the bus system and three other transportation networks — Care (seniors and the disabled), C-Van (people transitioning from welfare to work), and Ridefinders (carpool and vanpool service) — transit week was an effort to educate and convert so-called "choice" riders — folks like me who have a choice about transportation — into more regular users of transit.

"We have several initiatives used on an ongoing basis to try and encourage nontransit folks to try transit," said Kathy Fellowes, director of marketing and public relations for GRTC. This year's transit-week program "focused on people primarily who are downtown office workers or in the vicinity," she explained. "That's an area we'd like to see grow."

And there's no reason it shouldn't — the cost of gas keeps rising, tolls aren't going to disappear anytime soon, and parking downtown can be very expensive. According to a GRTC formula, potential savings for commuters could be as much as $1,200. I met one young West End GRTC commuter who saves $600 a year on parking alone.

During my week on the bus, I got to sit back, read the paper, make phone calls, check out areas of the city that I had never really been able to look at before, save gas, money, wear and tear on my car, and arrive at my destination relaxed. Fortunately, it was fair weather, because part of taking the bus also involves standing around for 10-20 minutes and walking a block or two to get to your building.

While that should be no big deal — after all most of this slice of potential ridership spends hours at fitness clubs walking, running and "spinning" absolutely nowhere — it is perceived as an inconvenience, which in these economic boom times is a no-no.

My transit week was also very educational, dispelling several myths I held about public transit in Richmond. Here are some of the more important things I learned.

Myth 1: Buses are always late.

Experience: The buses run on time with impressive regularity. Show up late just once and you'll know what I mean.

Myth 2: They're dirty and they stink.

Experience: They're quite clean and cool. Though the downtown buses smell of humanity, the express buses smell like powder and perfume.

Myth 3: They take too long.

Experience: They don't take much longer than driving. The Gaskins Express, for example, takes 20 minutes to get from the Gaskins park and ride to downtown.

Judging by the commuters I observed one day from the window of the No. 29 Gaskins Express into the city — a trip that costs as little as $1.25 with a commuter pass — buses also are a lot safer. Countless people distracted by cell-phone conversations tapped brakes for no apparent reason and drove at odd, unfocused speeds. One woman zipped by in her car, face down reading a book. Oh, yeah, she was driving.

But taking the bus is not without its challenges: 1) you have to flag them down; 2) delivery truck drivers and non-bus riders have no respect for the sanctity of the bus stop area, which can make it difficult for drivers to see people waiting for the bus and forces riders to walk into traffic to flag them down; 3) they're bumpy; 4) the schedules are confusing and hard to read; and 5) the system map, which can be helpful, is too big to carry around.

Taking the bus also requires riders to plan ahead and be on time themselves, because the bus has no pity. If you're not there, it moves on. A fact that was reinforced when I missed the No. 24 Lakeside Express to return home and had to wait another 35 minutes for the next one — not exactly what I had planned on and completely my fault.

The GRTC knows they have a challenge in front of them if they're to win folks over to mass transit. "We continually look for ways to make our transportation accessible to the public," said GRTC Marketing Director Fellowes.

A single, pocket-sized comprehensive schedule book with an overall system map is in the works and should help a lot, since right now the only way to get an idea of how to get maximum use of the system is to juggle the large foldout system map with 28 individual route schedules, none of which is available online. New signs that will carry a color-coded system map also are in the works and will help, too.

So now that I've tried transit, will I go back? I don't know. I recently started working out of my home and no longer have a regular in-and-out-of-the-city routine. Spontaneous transit on the GRTC can be very tricky.

But for folks who routinely pay the tolls, dodge the speedsters, and sit in traffic, only to park their cars at 8:45 a.m. and not touch them again until 5 p.m., I can't imagine anything more sensible. Besides, I can think of better things to do with $600 than park a
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