Speeding change: A driver’s take on updating city bus routes

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Juwhan Lee, operations manager for Charlottesville Area Transit, comes to the job with plenty of practical knowledge—an asset in a time of change for the agency. Photo by John Robinson. Juwhan Lee, operations manager for Charlottesville Area Transit, comes to the job with plenty of practical knowledge—an asset in a time of change for the agency. Photo by John Robinson.

GPS data, customer complaints, drivers’ opinions: A lot gets weighed when plotting and tweaking new city bus routes. But Juwhan Lee of Charlottesville Area Transit said there’s one step in the process that you can’t leave out.

“The best way, really, is just to take out a stopwatch and run the route,” he said.

And it’s usually Lee behind the wheel. The 35-year-old operations manager for CAT has been driving buses since his college days at UVA, and his practical knowledge has helped him and Lance Stewart, CAT’s acting manager, navigate in a time of change.

When former CAT manager Bill Watterson left the city in February, it left the agency without a chief—and without a staffer trained in transportation planning. Stewart, facilities manager for Charlottesville and its schools, stepped in. He oversees about 65 drivers and a complex budget at a time when funding is tight, ridership is growing, and the results of a long-planned study could soon spur significant changes to the city’s transit system.

In May, Charlottesville City Council entered a $116,000 contract with consultant firm Nelson Nygaard to examine the possibility of a transit overhaul. But in the meantime, Stewart and Lee are attempting triage on what they say are a couple of troubled routes plagued by delays. Last week, they held a public information session at City Space where residents were asked to weigh in on several possible adjustments.

They got an earful from residents concerned about service changes, but Lee cheerfully said that comes with the territory.

“Transit is sort of the redheaded stepchild that nobody wants to pay attention to,” he said. When things are running smoothly, people take it for granted, “but as soon as one thing goes wrong, it’s a big deal. That’s sort of the nature of the business.”

Lee came to Charlottesville in 1996 to attend UVA, and was soon driving buses for University Transit Service. He majored in history (“It’s done me wonders,” he joked), but he stayed on with UTS and climbed the ranks, ultimately becoming operations manager and helping redesign the University bus system. He came to CAT less than a year ago, and Stewart said Lee’s understanding of the day-to-day logistics of running a transit system has been indispensable.

A big benefit is his ability to relate to the drivers, who the two men said are CAT’s best source of information on what’s working and what isn’t.

“A lot of what we’re looking at stems from the drivers’ reports,” Lee said. “If we’re having issues on routes, that’s really what kicks it off.” Next comes a serious sit-down with Google maps to examine alternative itineraries, then numerous test runs. Lee has logged a lot of hours and miles in recent weeks taking empty buses through their paces, his phone stopwatch counting off the minutes as he makes dummy stops to get the timing just right.

Now he and Stewart are weighing public input and remaining philosophical about the process, even as they await a mid-October public presentation by Nelson Nygaard that could change the conversation completely.

“It’s a balancing act,” Lee said. But he’s careful to remind people that when it comes to making a city’s bus fleet run on time, “there’s no quick fix.”

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