Day #022: A user-worthy interface for GRTC

If only the GRTC were more like Chipotle.

Inspired by Michael Bierut’s 100 Day Project, 100 Days to a Better RVA strives to introduce and investigate unique ideas to improving the city of Richmond. View the entire project here and the intro here.

  • Idea: Three small changes to improve the GRTC interface and make buses worthwhile.
  • Difficulty: 3 — The GRTC doesn’t have strong external incentives to stay up all night ironing out the kinks, dreaming about the future, and empathizing with the finest details of a rider’s struggles.

Goods and services rarely succeed without interfaces worthy of the consumer’s time. Chipotle would be a fraction of itself without the efficient assembly line clad in stainless steel with fresh chicken cooking in the background. The iPhone wouldn’t have its following without that sleek rectangular shape, rounded corners, and single home button.

Only exceptional products can transcend worthy interfaces–and even then, they are usually wasting untapped potential. The Greater Richmond Transit Company has a decent and affordable bus network for a mid-sized city, but their interface creates barriers that have relegated their buses to transportation of last resort.

Bus stops no longer display runtimes and they lack maps. The useful app falls short without runtimes, and the tracking feature is close to being truly effective. Payment can be a real pain, and buying “Go Cards” requires trips to other stores.

How many people worked tirelessly finding hormone free suppliers, developing recipes, hiring staff, finding real estate, and doing most of the heavy lifting for Chipotle? Their work may have been wasted without the efforts of sculptor Bruce Gueswel despite him only doing a fraction of the work. How many lines of code went into the iPhone? Despite all of that labor, a small team with some clay and sketchpads ultimately made it a product worth buying.

The GRTC and its hard working employees have done most of the heavy lifting. They have taken the football 95 yards and need only take it the final five yards to be considered a viable transit system for people of all ages, incomes, and locations around RVA. The problem: you don’t get the points unless the football makes it into the end zone.


Planning a trip on the bus basically requires a computer or a smartphone. Stops lack physical maps, and the runtimes–that used to require craning one’s neck and dodging traffic to read–have since been covered up with tape.

I dream of a world where most use public transit, but for now, the buses’ largest customer base is people who can’t afford automobiles. How people without smartphones or internet access ride the bus is entirely beyond me. It’s time for every stop in the city to have a physical system map, list of run times, and printed announcements of service disruptions and changes.

There is a cost to updating and maintaining physical maps–especially during the last six months when routes have been shuffled like a game of musical chairs. This cost is probably significant, but what’s the point of making the exponentially larger investment in actual buses if the interface isn’t practical for your largest customer base?

The App

The “aha moment” that started my life as a bus rider came in March1 when I discovered I could track the bus on my phone from my dry, climate-controlled apartment. The GRTC was finally speaking the language of millennials!

The app has several convenient features that make the bus a practical alternative–even for car owners. Unfortunately it has two flaws that leave it well short of its potential.

First, it doesn’t list the runtimes or have a system map so it has to be used in tandem with the webpage. Second, despite having real-time tracking for the entire system, buses can only be tracked 15 minutes before each stop. This means shuffling through all the other stops on the route in order to locate the bus. Fixing these problems would help attract and retain an entire new generation of riders.


We live in an era when people pay with cards. Having cash, much less change, is quickly becoming an exception rather than the norm. Whether a rider is paying $1.50 for local routes, $1.75 for a trip with a transfer, or $0.75 for the reduced fair, they are expected to have exact change. Unless I’m riding back from the laundromat or arcade, this transaction cost creates a barrier that leaves me dreaming of car ownership. The GRTC needs to add on-bus machines that accept cards, cash, and change without distracting the driver or slowing service.

For now, riders can purchase “GRTC Go Cards” in increments of $5, $10, and $25 to make traveling easier.2 “GRTC Go Cards are designed to save you time”–but they can only be purchased at 3rd party retailers. Why even bother taking the bus to work if you have to go purchase a card every eight days?

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The GRTC budget is already a nightmare. Justifying additional costs would be challenging but not taking steps to make the system more user friendly in order to boost ridership and revenue sends a depressing signal: the buses are here solely because it’s what’s expected of a mid-sized city.

Public transit is good for society, community involvement,3 the environment, and health.4 Doing anything less than fighting every day to make it the cheapest and easiest way to get around town is inadequate for a city on the cusp of greatness like RVA. The GRTC already has all of the tools to realize these important goals, they need only sharpen them in order to improve the interface and make riding the bus as effortless as possible.

Love this idea? Think it’s terrible? Have one that’s ten times better? Head over to the 100 Days to a Better RVA Facebook page and join in the conversation.

Photo by: UR Living Learning

  1. Two months after I sold my car to live a walkable lifestyle. 
  2. It’s worth noting that $5, $10, and $25 are evenly divisible by none of the three most common fares of $0.75, $1.50, and $1.75. The GRTC isn’t nickel and diming customers…but they are quartering them. 
  3. Jeff Speck, Walkable Cities: Harvard professor Robert Putnam states that “each ten additional minutes in daily commuting time cuts involvement in community affairs by ten percent-fewer public meetings attended, fewer committees chaired, fewer petitions signed, fewer church services attended, and so on.” 
  4. Jeff Speck, Walkable Cities: A Miami study found that “after driving their cars across the city for forty-five minutes, university students had higher blood pressure, higher heart rates, and lower frustration tolerance.” 
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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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