Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Saturday Night on Richmond's Drunk Bus

Listen to audio version here

In 2009, Richmond police increased sobriety checkpoints to cut down on the 43 percent of fatalities that were related to drunk driving in 2008. By September of 2009, local police had arrested 13,800 people for DUI as part of their Checkpoint Strikeforce campaign. The second prong of the campaign is called HERO and aims to “raise awareness about the importance of planning a night out by appointing a designated driver”. Jim Porter has made lining up a sober driver easier.

In August of last year, Porter began operating a bus that drives people from Ellwood Thompson's in Carytown to The Market at Tobacco Road in Shockoe Bottom. He bought the original To the Bottom and Back Bus for 2400 dollars in hopes it would reduce drinking and driving. Unlike GRTC, the 2BNB also known as the drunk bus or as Porter likes to call it, the safety bus, fills a specific niche during times when many people frequenting Richmond bars, restaurants and clubs are likely to be intoxicated. Porter said:

“GRTC is big time I mean they have a massive transportation system. They deal with people who have to go to work so that’s a whole different mind set. We deal with people who want to go out and enjoy their evenings.”

When Porter was a teenager in Richmond, he says he roamed the same 60 block loop down Main and up Cary he drives each weekend in his bus. Porter's dad allowed him to borrow his Winebago if he had a designated driver for the evening. Now he is that designated driver for about 1700 people every Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 6pm to 3am.

“You can go out as designated driver but there’s always that temptation,” Porter says.

Porter recently added another bus and a GPS system. Potential riders can track the bus on the 2BNB website or on their smart phones, call the bus or simply wave their arms when it comes down the street.

Porter hopes to expand his business with more buses and routes. He wants to shuttle between U of R and Carytown, down boulevard to the Diamond and the Bowtie theatre and he wants to start a tourism bus taking visitors around town from their hotels. The bus is funded by advertisements and donations from restaurants and bars like Cary St. Cafe and Vault and also Loveland Distributing Company which provides Porter with a place to park the bus. But Porter says the bus is still in an experimental phase and having money to operate the bus is something he worries about.

“We’re showing we can run the bus so we can show to sponsors and advertisers that it’s feasible to do,” he says. “When you move around the amount of people we do, we wanted to show it could be safe and enjoyable.”

Along with reducing drinking and driving, Porter hopes to enhance hospitality and tourism in Richmond. Porter is almost always on the bus and says he seldom forgets a face. He greets regulars and asks them what their plans are for the night, gives people advice on where to go, hands out canned drinks called "Anti-Hangover Resurrection" and gives riders wrist bands with 2BNB's website and phone number imprinted on them. The bus is rowdy with blaring music, always, and it is proving to be a place where people to meet and socialize.

Elliot Cleveland lives in downtown Richmond says although he has a bicycle and a scooter he prefers to take the bus to his friends' houses and bars in the Fan and Carytown.

“I ride up I ride down, I ride all around,” he says. “Everyone should take advantage of it.”
“Absolutely,” another rider says.
“It’s a social event,” Cleveland says as fellow riders woo in the background.

Local street musician and member of Rockers against Drunk Drivers Leif Stringer keeps Porter company on the bus, playing his guitar for riders. Stringer refers to Porter as a saint, pointing out how many lives he must have saved picking up thousands of potential drunk drivers in the last six months.

“He’s really saving lives. I don’t think people every really think about that,” he says. “You get a bus full of twenty people, if you go downtown and pick twenty people up and bring them home, that’s twenty people that are alive.

At the end of the night, Chris Vogel was singing Hotel California with Stringer. It was his brother's bachelor party and he was the best man. Vogel had never taken the drunk bus before but found out from friends it could get them from the restaurant they ate dinner at in Carytown to Tiki Bob's in the Bottom. He said if he hadn't found out about the 2BNB bus, the dozen young men would have drove their cars.

“It was either drive drunk or take the bus. So we decide to choose the right way,” he says.

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