New Chesterfield Police Chief

Richmond mass transit returns to the middle of the road

RICHMOND, Va. -- You've likely noticed that Richmond's new "Pulse" bus rapid transit system will have many of its stops right down the middle of Broad Street when the 7.6 mile express route opens sometime between New Year's and June.

And you may have wondered what it's going to be like, getting on or off a bus in the middle of the RVA's bustling main drag.

Well, for nearly half of Richmond's ground-breaking history of mass transit, that's exactly how we rolled.

"We had the first successful (electric) streetcar system in the world in Richmond," said local historian and collector Richard Bland. "The design was developed on the streets. They had to rebuild the car in various ways, experiment for four or five months until they got the car operating because it had never existed before."

The rails typically ran right down the middle of Broad and other streets at a leisurely 15 miles an hour or so.

It literally changed the world.

"It completely changed the matrix design of the hub of a city," Bland said.

Representatives from cities across the country and the world came here to see our electric marvel and how it made our suburbs grow - and glow.

For 60 years, from 1888 to 1948, streetcars roamed the center of the streets of this city, powered by a hydroelectric power plant on the mighty James River that also brought electricity to the new suburbs.

But after WWII, Richmond and the entire nation changed with a growing population explosion and our booming love affair with automobiles.

"And to some extent this was challenging for a fixed rail system," Bland said. "Also, new types of suburbs were beginning to be developed . . . and they needed to expand the outreach of Richmond transit.  It was cheaper to do it by bus."

The last of the street cars rolled on November 25, 1949. Many were saddened to see these faithful steeds disappear from the river city.

After the city converted to buses, Richmond burned many of its old street cars, like some other cities did as they drifted off the rails.

But some of ours survived are reportedly still running in Portugal.

It's interesting to compare the old streetcar photos and rail construction back then with the new Pulse line taking shape in Richmond.

What is old is new again.

Will the return to the middle of the road meet with the same success and admiration?