Passengers board a Hampton Roads Transit bus in Norfolk. (Vlad Gavrilovic/ Norfolk Transit Department)

After Virginia’s capital city overhauled its bus routes in 2018, the resulting 17 percent annual growth in ridership made the city’s sole public transportation provider —the Greater Richmond Transit Company — a rare example of success at a time when systems across the country had been losing passengers for years.

Norfolk took note and launched a year-long public process that produced a new bus network this month which aims to overhaul the face of public transportation in a region that recorded 18,653 scheduled buses that never arrived in one year alone.

Should Norfolk’s City Council approve the new draft routes next month, by this fall residents of the “Mermaid City” could find their mobility much improved. Under the proposed new routes, 140,000 more residents (in a city of 244,000) would be within a quarter mile of a bus or train that arrives every 15 minutes for most of the day, an increase of 57 percent over today. The average person will also be able to access 31 percent more jobs than with the existing network.

Local leaders hope the bus route redesign will turbo-charge Norfolk’s recent growth as ever more housing, shopping and young people have flocked downtown since the launch of the Tide — Virginia’s only light-rail line. With the proposed frequent transit disproportionately benefiting low-income residents and people of color, the city’s leadership also hopes the new network will prove a boon for mobility equity right as a wave of car repossessions forms on the horizon.

And Norfolk may not be the last Virginia city to undertake a transit overhaul.

‘Spaghetti style routes’

“Here in Norfolk we have a bus system that hadn’t been reviewed or updated in decades,” said Andria McClellan, a city councilwoman and Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. “All the tiny changes over the years left us with a lot of spaghetti-style routes that were added for political reasons and not because they actually met the needs of our current riders.”

That pattern of haphazard change amidst overall neglect is not unique to Norfolk, however.

“In a lot of mid-sized cities the bus networks haven’t really been looked at and rethought in a holistic way maybe ever; they just evolved over time from taking over old streetcar lines,” said Scudder Wagg — a senior associate with Jarrett Walker and Associates, the firm conducting Norfolk’s redesign. “We’ve seen so many bus route redesigns over the last decade because cities are now bursting with population growth again. The recent renaissance in Norfolk’s downtown and around Old Dominion University is what has driven this process.”

To overhaul Norfolk’s bus network the city hired Amy Inman — the woman who led Richmond’s route redesign — to become the head of its first-ever Department of Transit, in charge of all transportation policy and infrastructure from sidewalks to scooter regulations. The task in front of her is the same one she faced in Richmond: How can a city transform its public transportation without spending a single extra dollar?

Lacking European-style public transportation budgets generally four to five times greater than what is common in America, as the third worst funded transit system in the U.S. per capita Hampton Roads Transit has to balance the all-too-common tension between frequency and coverage. Run too many routes all over the city and each bus only comes once an hour. Run a bunch of buses on just a couple routes and residents may have to walk too far to catch a ride.

“When you sit down to draw a new network and start to think about the tradeoffs it’s easy to focus on how routes run today, but you can’t forget the art of the possible to try and fundamentally change the way the system functions,” Inman said. “I don’t like to critique the current network because we already know what we have today isn’t serving folks. Even though this change is going to be better with residents enjoying more seamless transportation, it’s still scary for people who have ridden our routes their entire lives because you’re changing their world and daily routine.”

Frequency is freedom

After a year-long public engagement process of on-board rider questionnaires, stakeholder meetings and online surveys, the resulting draft network dedicates 70 percent of Norfolk’s resources to boosting ridership with high frequency service and 30 percent to city-wide coverage. Roughly two thirds or more of respondents said they preferred a focus on frequency. Those findings were consistent across different racial, ethnic, age and economic groups.

“The draft map is distributing service more equitably across socioeconomic lines than the existing network,” Wagg said. “When you look at the percentages of minorities and people in poverty who have access to frequent service, the existing distribution tends to skew towards more affluent and White residents. We’re boosting access to frequent service and job access for people of color and low-income residents. Both are positive outcomes that speak to the new bus routes being more equitable than the existing network.”

For those who rely upon the bus to get around, the new service could prove life-changing. “When you have a bus coming just once or twice an hour then folks’ lives are really dependent on that one bus,” Inman said. “People who have cars don’t have to worry about that tiny window of time they can go somewhere. With transit if you know a bus is coming every 15 minutes you also don’t really have to think about it because the worst case scenario of missing your bus is there’s another one in 14 minutes. That’s the power of frequency — it opens the door to mobility freedom for our residents.”

Two other key changes in the new network are the emphasis on one-seat rides and the introduction of service through the downtown, not just along its periphery. Norfolk’s current spoke-hub network forces riders to change buses at the downtown transfer center if they want to ride crosstown. Those who need to get downtown have to walk a half mile to get there. New routes crisscross the entire city so a rider could leave the Naval station and ride all the way through the heart of downtown to Oceanview on one vehicle. “Restructuring our transit gives you back time for the rest of your life,” Inman said. “You’re getting back time you had lost to waiting and scheduling your daily routine around the worst case transportation scenario.”

Competence is contagious

First in Richmond, now in Norfolk, could bus route redesigns be about to spread across the commonwealth? According to Wagg the answer may be yes and no. This past January his team wrapped up a planning process with Driving Alexandria Safely Home (DASH). Their new network — designed with a new focus on all-day use rather than the commuter-centric approach of the past — is currently moving into the implementation phase. Wagg has also had conversations with the several transit providers in and around Charlottesville about how they could transform their transit death spiral into a robust regional bus network.

In the rest of Hampton Roads, Wagg doesn’t expect many routes to change. “There is only so much service to change in those other jurisdictions,” he said, noting that nearly a third of all HRT routes run just within Norfolk. “There’s a certain amount of critical mass you have to have when you redesign a city’s network, and Norfolk has more service to rejigger than any other jurisdiction in the region, especially when you look at it from a per capita perspective.”

Other municipalities are taking part in HRT’s more generic route changes via its Transform Transit Project, but that process focuses more on streamlining inefficient routes rather than fundamentally changing bus routes. “I don’t think our neighbors will make the wholesale changes we’ve made because their focus is on commuting, but they might,” Inman said.

McClellan holds out more hope: “It would be wonderful if we could inspire others to follow suit. The challenge, to be frank, is that public transportation in the midst of COVID-19 is really suffering. We are going to get back to a new normal, and transit will be as important as ever, but it’s difficult to embark upon something like this in this environment with ridership being down because of the pandemic.”

‘Thousands of changes’

On the other hand, during a pandemic may be the perfect time to fine-tune public transportation, according to Steven Higashide, director of research at the non-profit Transit Center and author of the book “Better Buses, Better Cities.”

“A network redesign is a good exercise to do even if an agency has to cut service,” he said. “In the course of doing the redesign an agency will see where the demand for transit is and what neighborhoods might be underserved today. If necessary, it can be used as a guide for how to cut service in the least harmful way and also works as a blueprint as to how to add service back in the most effective way.”

Higashide believes the true hurdles to overhauling outdated bus routes are the technocratic detail of the work and the ongoing stigmatization of the bus as the mode of last resort. To transform transit requires incremental improvements at a system-wide scale. Adding one bus stop is good, but it won’t revolutionize riders’ perception of an entire bus network. 

“Although elected officials are often more excited by highway mega-projects, you can get a similar level of impact by making thousands of small changes to a transit network or rolling out hundreds of shelters at once branded as a transit redesign,” Higashide said. “This approach makes it clear to riders, business leaders and elected officials that these changes are a big deal.”

Transit’s close association with low-income workers, communities of color, and other marginalized people such as those with disabilities have long left the bus on the back burner, according to Higashide. However, the long-lacking political will to improve public transportation may finally be growing thanks to the sacrifices of essential workers, many of whom rely upon the bus to get around. 

“Even before the pandemic buses weren’t given the credit they deserve,” Higashide said. “Transit is continuing to carry millions of essential workers around the country and because of that transit is keeping our health care, food systems and utilities functioning. Even though fewer people are riding transit in the moment, transit is really an essential service and all levels of government have to treat it that way.”

Recognizing the vital role the bus plays in Norfolk’s economy and the lives of its residents, McClellan hopes the coming new routes will actually better position the city to recover post-pandemic. “People want to live where there are good public transportation systems so this will help us to attract more workers and businesses to move here,” she said. “Transit is critical to our residents, to our local businesses, and to having fewer cars on the road which is better for both congestion mitigation and the environment.”

Plenty could happen between now and the anticipated route rollout next October. However, McClellan said Norfolk is moving in the right direction. “Change is difficult and we probably won’t get it exactly right initially, but frequently we are so afraid to make any changes that we end up with a bus network that hasn’t been updated in ages, and that’s not good for anyone.”

CORRECTION: This post has been updated to correct the name of the firm conducting Norfolk’s bus route redesign. It is Jarrett Walker and Associates. 

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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Wyatt is a born-and-raised Richmonder with a master’s in urban planning from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and a bachelor’s in international political economy from the American University in Washington, D.C. Most recently he covered transportation as Greater Greater Washington’s Virginia correspondent. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network. Contact him at [email protected]