So you can take Greyhound from Philly to the Hampton Roads area for a little over 30 bucks one-way? And you can do overnight buses each way so you don’t have to spend the night anywhere? And one itinerary involves a five-and-a-half hour layover in Richmond, allowing one to see Richmond, despite the fact that it’s $10 more expensive to take Greyhound just from Philly to Richmond, which is closer than Hampton Roads, for some reason? And I have a buy-one-get-one free ticket from Greyhound’s rewards program, so I can drag a friend along?
Well, what are we waiting for?
As a whole, Greyhound did a fantastic job for this trip, and I’m so happy I finally get to say that. We left Philly right on time and got to Richmond a little early! Which in this case meant a 3:30 AM arrival instead of 3:55 AM, which is…perhaps not ideal, but still, it’s better than being an hour late. It gave us more time to hang around before local bus service started.
Now, Greyhound stations tend to be located in backwater parts of whatever cities they serve, and Richmond is no exception: it’s located 3 miles from downtown, across from a giant baseball stadium with nothing but parking lots and industrial buildings around. Where it lacks in location, though, it makes up for in quality – this is the best Greyhound terminal I’ve ever been to. The waiting area is giant, although it could stand to have more seats, and the bathrooms are similarly huge.
And special attention needs to be given to the restaurant here. I’m so used to the classic “random counter at the station with a few food items” situation, but Richmond blows that out of the water! It’s a proper room off of the main waiting area, and while it’s still very much fast food, the menu is a lot more comprehensive than usual. The place even has some form of ambience – weird trinkets abound in the wood-panelled room.
Let’s talk a bit about the structure of Richmond’s local bus system, GRTC. Looking at the system map alone made me excited to ride it – the current system was redesigned in 2018 from a real mess with frequencies that were all over the place. The new system is centered around a BRT line, the Pulse (definitely on the list of things I wanted to ride here), and the branding is excellent: the Pulse shows up on the timetable of every route that intersects with it (which is almost all of them). It’s GRTC’s most frequent service, something that’s also advertised whenever it’s brought up, with buses every 10 minutes on weekdays and every 15 minutes on weekends and evenings.
The Pulse is supplemented by four other corridors that run every 15 minutes. The 5 is frequent along its whole length, while the 1, 2, and 3 have frequent trunks that branch off. It’s actually here that one of my few problems with GRTC arises: the schedules do a terrible job of showing which services are frequent! For example, there’s no combined schedule for the 1 – you only get schedules for the 1A, 1B, and 1C, making it look like two hourly routes and one half hourly route, instead of a single frequent unit that branches. Once you open the schedule up, it’s a little more obvious, with a note talking about how the trunk runs every 15 minutes, but a combined schedule for the trunks of these routes would be super helpful.
The 1, 2, 3, and 5 are only frequent on weekdays and Saturdays, though; they’re every half hour during the evening and on Sundays. Surely that’s a mark against them, right? No, they thought this through as well! Again, it’s not conveyed very well in the schedules, but during those more infrequent times, the routes converge at the awkwardly-named Temporary Transfer Plaza and leave at the same time, allowing for easy transfers. See, from a design perspective, they really did a good job here!
GRTC has several places you can buy fares, including on the bus, on your phone, and from their online store. I wanted to experiment with two mediums to see if the passes would be different: CVS, and Pulse ticket vending machines. Luckily, both of those are rather close to the Greyhound station. The CVS was open 24 hours, and I’m glad we went there, because when you buy from them, you get a cool decorative ticket that’s tappable at fareboxes.
Near the CVS was Scott’s Addition Station on the Pulse. It was in the median and it was beautiful, with a decorative map on the shelter, a few specialized real maps that were super useful, real-time information (although it wasn’t working now – we were well before the start of service), and plenty of seating. The ticket vending machine was intuitive too, but the ticket you get from there is way worse! At least you can visually show it to a fare inspector, and it still uses the same “tap ticket” technology, but if you’re looking for a card that actually looks good, CVS is the way to go.
The Pulse would come later; we were starting with the first southbound trip on the 20. A new route created by the redesign, the 20 is a crosstown that makes a “C” shape around the western end of Richmond. It runs from 5 AM to 9:30 PM, and it’s every half hour that entire time. Unfortunately, it may not be getting a ton of ridership, as it seems to entirely use these awful 30-foot Gillig buses with sideways seats…
Ridership was really low, but granted, it was the first trip. One person got off where we boarded, perhaps to get the Pulse, while the other rider was a GRTC employee who disembarked at the bus garage we passed. As for the route itself, it was pretty direct. There were some twists and turns in the urban Fan District portion, with a particularly annoying deviation to serve the Stadium neighborhood, but once we crossed the James River into the more suburban South Side, it was pretty much a straight shot. Also, here’s something amazing: on GRTC, every stop is announced. More agencies need to have that! Especially on an unfamiliar system, it made it way easier to know when our stop was coming up.
We got off at Southside Plaza, a dead shopping plaza that serves as a major transfer point because of its great location. Now we were waiting for any bus in the 1-series – this is where the 1A, 1B, and 1C split up, so it’s every fifteen minutes from here into downtown Richmond. The 1B came first with some people already on, and it was a nice 40-foot bus this time.
This bus perfectly demonstrated how good the frequency setup is. The 1B is only hourly, since its independent section is mostly single-family suburban homes – this was reflected in the relatively low ridership on board. But coming in from Southside Plaza, there are dense houses and businesses along the straight route down Hull Street. The bus ended up getting pretty busy for an early-morning run by the time we got downtown, with at least one person in every seat pair!
We took a walk through downtown Richmond from here to see a few tourist attractions (at least, the ones that can be viewed from outside when they aren’t yet open). Along the way we passed Main Street Station, right at the time that one of the two Amtrak trains per day that serves it was leaving. It’s a shame we didn’t have time to go in – it looks beautiful.
Near St. John’s Church, (Give me liberty or give me death!) we grabbed the 4B to take us to the first stop on the Pulse, Rocketts Landing. We had the bus to ourselves given that we were going against the peak. The ride was uneventful – the route duplicates the Pulse for the short distance it follows it, right down to making the same stops.
The Rocketts Landing stop serves a planned mixed-use neighborhood, for which frequent BRT service to downtown must be a selling point. The stop is your standard Pulse stop, with the fancy shelter and the ticket machine. A ticket inspector was on the bus at the stop validating fares: she needed to use a transponder to make sure my friend’s ticket was valid, since that was the CVS one, while mine only needed a visual check, since it had the date printed on it.
The first part of the route did not feel particularly BRT, though – we were in mixed traffic as we cruised along Main Street. Maybe it doesn’t get particularly trafficked? The East Riverfront Station doesn’t seem to serve much of anything, but a few people still got on here and the ticket inspector immediately checked their fares. It also revealed the bizarre thing the Pulse has to do at every station: the bus stops just before it, then inches up to board in the correct place. Seems unnecessary to me, and it makes the dwell times at each station that much longer.
Shockoe Bottom was the next stop, and it was packed – we were in the middle of a dense neighborhood now. The ticket inspector actually left the bus here, maybe because it was getting too busy to efficiently check everyone. We cruised down vibrant Main Street from here (still with no bus lanes), and by the time we got to the next station, conveniently called Main Street (it was right outside the train station), we were at a full-seated load.
The bus made its way up to Broad Street, where finally we got a bus lane. It was good timing too, because we were now in downtown Richmond. I thought this would be the point where most people got off, but the bus actually got more crowded here. Heading out of the central business district, it was standing room only!
As we crossed 1st Street, we entered the best part of the Pulse: the bit where the bus lanes move to the median of the road. This is the best way to do a street-running bus lane, and it gives the Pulse fancy median stations and special transit-only signals. The transit signal were weird, though…as far as I could tell, they seemed to give us the green at the same time as all the other cars. At one intersection, it even let left-turning cars go first! Maybe we were unlucky, but this seems like…not a good way to do transit signals?
Once we crossed I-195, the area got a lot more suburban…yet the bus was still packed! Where was everyone going? As it turns out, most people were going to the last stop, Willow Lawn. This could be because many of the riders on board were retail workers (Willow Lawn is a mall), or it could be because this is a major transfer point where buses further into the suburbs feed into the Pulse (and as someone who’s ridden the MBTA all their life, I love that “feeder” design – although for single rides, there’s a 25 cent transfer, which is awful). I do wish the bus just stopped across the street from the mall like all the local buses do, though; instead, it has to spend two minutes looping around to get to the eastbound Pulse stop on Broad Street, which is way further from transferring buses than if it used the local stop. Why not just have a drop-off stop that’s more convenient?
Ultimately, the Pulse wasn’t really the revolutionary BRT route I had been envisioning. It’s still a great service when it comes to frequency, and I love the way that the whole local bus system is centered around it. And when there’s a lot of traffic, the median-running portion of the route must be really satisfying (minus the weird procedure at each stop and the questionable transit signals). If you think about the Pulse as a regular bus route with some BRT elements added on as bonuses, then it looks a lot better.
After a quick breakfast, we hopped on a bus that would take us back to the Greyhound vicinity the long way: the 77. This route is hourly most of the day (half-hourly at rush hour), and like a lot of other GRTC routes, is basically a feeder between two Pulse stations. The total ridership of four definitely seemed to justify its infrequent service (yet unlike the 20, it did get a full-sized bus!). The route ran through mostly residential areas, ranging from proper mansions on the western end, to dense single-family homes in the middle, to cute rowhouses to the east. We got off in the Fan District to grab another 20 back to the Greyhound station (it serves it directly).
I really liked GRTC overall. Their system seems to work really well, from the super well-executed design of the routes to the amenities on board the bus. (Every stop announced! Every stop!) At least for us, every bus was pretty much on time, even as we got later into the morning rush. People seem to be responding well to the redesign, too: ridership went up by an insane 17% last year! I can’t wait to see where the system goes from here.
With our stint in Richmond completed, it was time to hop back on Greyhound for the ride to Hampton, VA. We again arrived there a little early, meaning that we could catch the previous express bus to Norfolk – a full hour earlier than planned! But first, we had to check out the Hampton Transfer Center.
Hampton Roads Transit may have one of the most unique service areas in the country. I mean, they’re dealing with six sprawled-out cities – Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, and Virginia Beach – arranged in a cluster and often separated by bodies of water. As expected, this is a system with a lot of transfer centers and a lot of express routes linking up the different cities. Also, after a system as great as GRTC, there’s nowhere to go but down…
The Hampton Transfer Center was pretty nice, for what it’s worth. The inside offered seating, vending machines, bathrooms, and places to buy tickets – we got ours from the machine. The normal day pass is $4.50, but in order to be able to ride the premium-fare express buses, we had to get the $7.50 “MAX” day pass. Also…absolutely no transfers for single rides. And I thought GRTC was bad! The outside area of the transfer center was good as well: HRT uses the same shelters everywhere, but they have a nice aesthetic. Bear in mind that these are exclusive shelters, though: “SHELTERS FOR HRT CUSTOMERS WAITING FOR BUS ALL OTHERS SUBJECT TO ARREST FOR TRESPASSING.” Okay, geez, bit intense!
Because HRT’s “MAX” routes charge a premium fare, I was hoping for fancy coach buses to justify it. Well…I sorta got my wish. MAX routes use regular city buses with…coach seats. It actually ends up feeling really claustrophobic, but I guess it gives the buses something “premium” to justify the higher fare. The bus we were riding was the 961, which runs hourly seven days a week (with half-hourly service at rush hour) – it connects Newport News, Hampton, and Norfolk. There were two people who had gotten on at Newport News, and a few more got on here for the trip to Norfolk.
The bus took the most direct route from Hampton to the highway, I-64. This took us onto one of the three bridge-tunnels in the Hampton Roads region, which is a super cool aspect of the area. Because this region sees so much shipping activity, they had to either build drawbridges, full tunnels, or…bridge-tunnels. It’s really interesting: you go onto a bridge, then an artificial island takes you into a tunnel, which then surfaces on another artificial island to become a bridge again! HRT uses two out of the three bridge-tunnels in the area, and we would ride over the second one later in the day.
Once over the bridge-tunnel, the highway had an odd section where it ran on a bridge alongside a dense residential peninsula, but it eventually made its way inland. We left I-64 at Exit 276 to serve Wards Corner Transfer, a little bus terminal connecting two other routes. From there, we went limited-stops down local roads to Norfolk. Also, this is as good a time as any to talk about how awful the bus announcements are. They use these terrible robo-voices (the same ones used on MBTA Commuter Rail), which could conceivably be a good thing, since it would allow them to easily input stop names. But no…they barely announce any stops, and the ones they do announce are almost at random! They don’t even announce most of the major timepoints! Instead, they constantly pester you with courtesy announcements, from an advisory that the bus is being recorded “for your safety”, to a plea to like their Facebook page at facebook.com/hrtfan. Yes. I heard that so many times in a day that I remembered the URL from memory. I guess HRT’s propaganda worked.
There are misleading accounts of what the heck the Norfolk transit center is called. Norfolk’s GTFS (the data used in Google Maps and other software) gives it the unassuming name of “Wood & Church”, while bus headsigns say “DNTC” – presumably “Downtown Norfolk Transfer Center” or something. HRT needs to get this figured out!
It’s a good thing the Downtown Norfolk Wood & Church Transfer Hub Station has a nice indoor section (benches, ticketing facilities, vending machines, bathrooms), because the outdoor section is…strangely designed. It certainly looks good, but it doesn’t feel like a transit center should have a giant hole in the middle of its sheltered area! And there are benches right beneath that hole! This seems like bad design!
Now it’s time for the, er, “centerpiece” of HRT, if you can call it that. America is obsessed with building useless streetcars right now, but HRT decided to try something different and build a useless light rail line! Okay, that might be a little harsh, but “the Tide” is the least-used light rail line in the country (source – note that everything below the Tide is a streetcar) with a measly 4,600 riders per day. The 7.4 mile line was originally supposed to run all the way to Virginia Beach, which would be useful, but Virginia Beach pulled out of the project; now it just twists around downtown Norfolk before running out into the low-density suburbs for a bit. At least it’s frequent, with service every 10 minutes at rush hour and every 15 at all other times – in fact, it’s the only frequent route HRT operates.
A station that perfectly exemplifies the “low-density suburbs” portion of the Tide is the easternmost stop, Newtown Road. The surrounding area features either little bungalows on sidewalkless roads, or industrial or commercial buildings surrounded by parking lots on ridiculously wide roads. One good thing about this stop, though: it’s one of the few Tide stops that actually has bus routes feeding into it. Most stops have some form of bus connection, but those routes are usually heading to downtown anyway. HRT should take a cue from GRTC and really go all-in with feeders to the Tide (plus free transfers). They have a potentially great high-capacity transit line that feels pretty isolated at this point.
Inside, you’ve got your typical light rail train design. The announcements here are actually good, clearly announcing every stop, complete with the ominous “You will be exiting left.” Alright, no need to be so forceful. Also, while there is a chime, they didn’t record a “doors closing” announcement, so the operator always gives a “stand clear” manual announcement before closing the doors. Also, the chime before manual announcements is the same one as on PATCO!
The best thing about the outer portion of the Tide is that it runs along disused rail right-of-way, so aside from a few level crossings, it’s almost entirely separated from cars…and these trains move fast. But despite quickly getting between them, each station is seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Military Highway at least has two feeder buses that run full-time (although one of them goes to Norfolk anyway), but it’s in an industrial area; Ingleside Road is on a residential peninsula so not-dense that I can only begin to surmise how low its ridership must be; and Ballentine Broad Creek is next to a highway interchange and a giant local road with a huge gated level crossing.
The line runs past the yard next, where some late-night trains terminate and other midday trains stop for driver switches. NSU Station is right after that, serving Norfolk State University (hey, a real destination!) at a cool elevated stop. The section after that is a bit of a rollercoaster ride as the train curves its way down to Harbor Park Station, beginning the urban section of the line.
From here, the line slows down quite a lot – the rest of it is street-running. It’s in dedicated lanes almost the whole time, but it’s still really slow because of all the stops and the fact that the line is soooooooo twisty. It has this super curvy route downtown, particularly between Monticello and York Street Stations where it turns onto a street for a block before turning again. Past York Street, it crosses a body of water next to the road and gets to go a bit faster, but the next stop, EVMC Fort Norfolk, is the last one. The way I see it, the Tide can only increase ridership if: transit-oriented development is built (there’s practically none right now); the bus system can be designed around the line with more feeders; and/or it gets extended to Virginia Beach. But for now…it’s really just there.
We grabbed one of the two bus connections from EVMC Fort Norfolk, the 2 (I guess there are technically three bus connections if you want to count the one that terminates a block away but doesn’t actually stop at the station – makes perfect sense). At every half hour, this is one of the most frequent routes HRT operates (which is really sad). It begins at the Downtown Wood & Norfolk Hub Church Transit Transfer and, through a series of deviations in the Fort Norfolk Area, happens to serve the light rail station.
Now, as a city, I wasn’t too impressed with Norfolk – most of it felt car-oriented and fake. The 2, however, travels through one of the city’s most authentic neighborhoods, Ghent…except HRT doesn’t run any buses down its vibrant main street! I mean, the neighborhood we went through was fine, but Ghent’s main street and surrounding residential areas look awesome. Once we went under some train tracks, it was back to the usual auto-oriented sprawl.
The road grew wider as we passed through Old Dominion University. There was a residential area before we crossed the Lafayette River, and we got off the bus soon after coming off the bridge. This suburban commercial area with some very pedestrian-unfriendly streets marked the entrance to various ports and the Norfolk Naval Station, where the 2 terminates. Our connecting bus, the 21, ends there as well, but we caught it going the other way.
The 21 is a crosstown route between this military base and another military base (welcome to Norfolk). We weren’t on it for too long, running through a mostly residential suburban neighborhood until the Wards Corner Transfer. Here, we got off to wait for the 961 up to Newport News (and yes, we could’ve just headed back to the Wood & Church Norfolk Hub Transfer Transit Place to get it from there, but doing local buses up was more fun!).
We got caught in major traffic over (and under?) the bridge-tunnel, but things smoothed out after Hampton. It was pretty generic highway running west of Hampton, but there was a neat view of some train yards as we got closer to Newport News. The Newport News Transfer Center luckily has a consistent name, and it had similar aesthetics and amenities to the other HRT transit centers.
We were getting the 967 from here, a rush hour only, peak direction only bus that uses the second bridge-tunnel, the only HRT route to do so! Given the odd route – Newport News to the Military Highway Tide station, via the ring highway around the outskirts of Portsmouth’s and Chesapeake’s built-up areas – I was expecting it to be pretty empty. Instead, the coach bus-city bus hybrid ended up being the busiest one we got all day.
It’s a straight shot from the Transfer Center to the bridge-tunnel, which begins straight away with its tunnel segment. That just means that the bridge after is extra-long, and it was fantastic – I’m glad we tracked down this elusive rush hour route to get that experience. The rest of the ride consisted of deviating off the traffic-ridden highway to various park-and-ride lots, watching the ridership dwindle at each one. By the time we arrived at Military Highway, there was just one person left.
We grabbed the Tide one stop to Newtown Road from here, and even at rush hour, it was near-empty (although we did see some busier trains later on). Newtown Road was where we were connecting to the 20, HRT’s busiest route and also quite possibly its most painful. First of all: of course their busiest route is only every half hour. Why wouldn’t it be? And secondly, this thing is over two hours long. It’s the local route from Norfolk to Virginia Beach with a ton of deviations in between, including one to Newtown Road Station. Why not run a more frequent Tide feeder only from Newtown Road to Virginia Beach? I dunno, maybe because that would make sense.
The portion of the route from Newtown Road to Virginia Beach is about an hour and 20 minutes, so…slightly better than the full trip to Norfolk? But it is a brutal ride. Nearly the entire time is spent on Virginia Beach Boulevard, a giant road that spends its entire length interacting with other giant roads and running through an unzoned mess of industry, malls, and parking lots. Plus an office park deviation. Okay, it was a transfer point, but still – weird place to put one.
Annoyingly, we kept running early for whatever reason, meaning that we would sometimes sit at stops for as long as seven minutes! As we got closer to downtown Virginia Beach, transitioning to a narrower road, the driver pretty much gave up on on-time performance. The result? We arrived at the last stop ten minutes early.
“Arctic & 19th”, the main transit center in Virginia Beach, is, er, nothing more than a few shelters. Alright, moving on. We walked to the cold, desolate beach before grabbing dinner in the surprisingly vibrant downtown. We had to hurry, though, because there was no way in heck we were taking the 20 all the way back to Norfolk. Instead, we were taking the last trip (7:35 PM) on the 960…
The 960 is the express route between Virginia Beach and Norfolk. While the 20 takes over two hours, the 960 only takes forty minutes. It’s hourly all day, but it does run seven days a week. The route makes absolutely no stops aside from…the Newtown Road Tide station. Okay, how about a frequent express route between there and Virginia Beach? That would be nice!
This was perhaps the best ride we had all day, though. We had the bus to ourselves leaving Virginia Beach, and the driver shut off the lights once we got onto the highway. One person got on at Newtown Road (oof, sorry, Tide) for the rest of the trip to downtown Norfolk.
Once we got back to the Church Transfer Norfolk Transit Wood Center &, we just had one final trip we had to do. In order to get to it, we hopped on the 45, the only connection between downtown Norfolk and Portsmouth (and another half-hourly route). Interestingly, it was using a Nova Bus, whereas every other HRT bus we had been on was a Gillig. I really like Nova Buses, but the full ad wrap blocking the view out the window was less desirable.
Argh, it’s such an easy straight shot to the highway to Portsmouth, but this route doesn’t take it! It has to do a ridiculous number of twists and turns to get down to the waterfront, and why? For what purpose? At least it interacts with the Tide by doing that, but it’s such a long deviation! Things got much faster when we finally got on the highway, taking a bridge to Chesapeake and a tunnel to Portsmouth. After the relatively quick express section, the bus popped up in downtown Portsmouth, and we left early on at its transit center, County & Court.
But why did we come to Portsmouth? Well…HRT operates one more mode that we had yet to cover. And we saved it for last, because it seemed like it was going to be the best one. And yeah…it did not disappoint.
HRT runs a ferry between Portsmouth and Norfolk! First of all, yes, it is every half hour, although they do run service every 15 minutes on summer afternoons. Also, it’s worth noting that there are no pedestrian connections between Norfolk and Portsmouth, two walkable downtowns half a mile apart – the only road between them is a highway. That has to increase ferry ridership, especially in the summer. It takes regular HRT fares, and they actually have three fare machines set up in the boat that you can scan your passes in – very cool. But even cooler…
Talk about an awesome aesthetic – the ferry uses paddle steamers. I’m not sure how much effect they actually have on the boat’s movement, since there was clearly a motor running the thing as well, but I cannot complain about having a big beautiful wheel on the back of the ship. The boat itself was nice, with a warm lower deck and a freezing upper deck. Seating is in the form of surprisingly comfortable wooden benches. Also, the boat uses the same announcements as the buses, and you know what that means: more ads for facebook.com/hrtfan, except on a boat this time!
It’s a short trip in harbor waters, so the boat moves pretty slowly. There was one more stop in Portsmouth, North Landing, before heading to Norfolk. This stop seems to exist entirely to serve an apartment tower next door, but hey, someone did get on here, making for a grand total of three riders. On a boat with a capacity of 150. Well, the ride was still really nice, offering a beautiful view of Norfolk as we cruised to its pier, where a whole ten people were waiting to go back to Portsmouth.
You know, I’ve been pretty harsh on HRT. But I’ll give this to them: the experience of riding their ferry service is amazing. The rest of the system needs a lot of work, but the ferry? Yeah. I liked the ferry. But really, I think their biggest folly is not using their rail asset to the fullest extent (or really to any extent). Terminating routes at Tide stations will allow them to run more frequently, and heck, maybe they’ll be able to end up with a bus route that runs better than half-hourly! And HRT, if you need any help, look toward Richmond – they know what they’re doing, and they’ve managed to do it with only a measly semi-BRT line. As for you, reader, thanks for joining on this Virginia adventure! I enjoy this new format of service changes (longer overviews of the systems, rather than multi-part shorter posts in more detail), and hopefully you do too.
Oh, also, the Norfolk Greyhound station was sooooooooooooo bad: