The Potter household wakes up about 7am. A hissing blue flame licks the bottom of a silver teakettle, aromatic coffee brews in a French press. John Potter stands beside his eldest son, Max, peering skeptically at the boy’s Grape Nuts.
“How much maple syrup did you put in there?” he asks. The bedheaded 10-year-old, clad in an orange UVA t-shirt and Cavalier basketball shorts, returns a plastic bottle to the refrigerator and stirs his breakfast.
From his kitchen window, Potter can see Meadow Creek flowing into the Rivanna River, and fog rising from the long, frosty grass in Darden Towe Park on the other side. He bought this house five years ago with his wife, Brynne, a midwife. Because she may be called out at any hour of the day or night, last spring the family purchased their second car, a green 1994 Mitsubishi pick-up truck. It still sports the previous owner’s “Peace is Patriotic” bumper sticker.
Most mornings, however, John walks past his cars parked on the edge of his cul-de-sac, Bland Circle, past the single-storey homes on St. Clair Avenue. He crosses a path on a strip of City-owned grass between St. Clair and Peartree Lane, passing a backyard garden on his right and to his left black birds that sit on power lines above a humming transfer station.
“This is what makes it work, this neighborhood is pedestrian-friendly,” he says. Although it’s only 30 degrees outside, Potter says he’s comfortable in a collared shirt and a brown sweater. At 7:32, right on schedule, the Route 2 bus crests the hill on Peartree and coasts toward Potter. The bus, a 30-foot-long striped rectangle wearing a Vanilla Pepsi ad on the front, stops with a cough of its hydraulic brakes. The Plexiglas door folds open and Potter’s three quarters tinkle in the fare box.
Is this the sound of a revolution? Maybe. City Council wants to save Charlottesville from the tyranny of the automobile, and they believe salvation begins with convincing young urbanites like Potter to leave their cars at home and take the bus.
Potter isn’t climbing on this bus simply to save the world from greenhouse gasses, however, nor even America from its dependence on foreign oil, nor, primarily, Charlottesville from traffic. He’s doing it mostly to save money. A parking spot outside his office at UVA’s Stacey Hall, on W. Main Street, costs $60 a month. Potter can buy a book of 40 bus tickets, enough to last him a month, for $21.
“Environmental concerns are definitely a factor for me, and I get to save money doing that. Riding the bus is all about comparative advantage,” says Potter. “You weigh it out, and do whatever makes sense.”
Peartree Lane is the northeasternmost point on the Route 2 bus line, meaning most mornings the bus is nearly empty when he boards. On this Friday morning, only two women are aboard when Potter climbs on. He grips the canary yellow bars on his way to a gray seat near the back decorated with a black grid and yellow, blue and red squares. The overall effect is like a McDonald’s trying too hard to be hip.
The bus chugs down Locust Avenue, picking up passengers at Martha Jefferson Hospital, City Hall and along Water Street. On W. Main, Potter spots a co-worker.
“God knows where he parked,” Potter says, surmising the man left his car in one of the City’s free two-hour spots, which means he’ll have to move his vehicle at least four times that day if he wants to avoid a ticket, a dance known as the “two-hour shuffle.”
Last month, the City brought four transit experts to town from points across the country and asked them how the region can reform its bus system. In some ways, the experts’ responses were encouraging––the region’s growth and increasing density means Charlottesville could be a model for efficient transit in a mid-size city. In other ways, the news was not so good. As much as any other issue, the bus system reflects the fractious City-County-UVA relationship that makes it hard for leaders to follow the experts’ leading piece of advice––make a plan and make it happen. Now.
“Traffic in Charlottesville isn’t nearly as bad as Washington or Norfolk, but that’s not the issue,” says one of the experts, Robert Dunphry, a fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C. “It’s bad enough now.”
Faithful bus rider Elizabeth Cockerille says she’s all for a new transit system. “I like the bus,” she says. “I’d like to see parking lots on the edge of town, where people could park and ride the bus into Downtown.”
But before Council can think about getting suburbanites to get out of their cars and into mass transit, Cockerille says the Charlottesville Transit Service (CTS) needs to do a better job of serving people like her, those who have no car and rely on the bus as their sole means of transportation.
“Why do they have to spend money on people to come in from another state?” Cockerille wonders, referring to the two-day October transit summit that cost $12,000 (most of which was paid for with Federal funds). “They’ve got people right here who know what the bus system needs.”
Perhaps first among necessary fixes would be the 39-page bus schedule–– maybe if you’re a member of MENSA you can come into the office and interpret it for us [see sidebar].
Then there are the routes themselves, which Cockerille and fellow bus-rider Steve Abercrombie suspect were designed by people who’ve never actually ridden CTS.
“They don’t ride the bus, they stand up there on Market Street with suits and ties, interviewing people,” Abercrombie says.
A case in point––Cockerille and Abercrombie live at the Crescent Halls high-rise on Monticello Avenue. The grocery store nearest to them is the Food Lion on Fifth Street Extended, about two miles away. But to get there, Cockerille must board the Route 6 bus, ride it along First Street, Lankford Avenue and Ridge Street, then as it turns around back down Ridge, Monticello Avenue and Avon Street to Water Street. There, she transfers to the Route 12 bus to ride down Water to W. Main and 10th streets, Bailey Road and finally Fifth Street to the Willoughby Shopping Center.
“You don’t even want to hear about Friday,” says Cockerille, who on October 31 took the bus to Wal–Mart on what she claims was a seven-hour round trip.
“It’s a hardship to be on the bus that long,” says Cockerille, who travels with a snack, a water jug, a backpack and a cooler for perishable groceries. “You feel like you’re going to the other side of the world.”
Further complicating the long travel times is the fact that CTS passes some stops only once every hour. Route 6, for example, runs once an hour between 9:55am and 1:55pm.
“This is when the mothers on 10th and Page need to get out and do their shopping before kids come home from school,” Cockerille says.
“This town has a lot of intellect,” she says, “but no common sense.”
To get a closer view of the bus system, CTS does, in fact, hire riders to report on it. Last spring, for example, Mare Hunter rode the bus and surveyed riders, a step necessary for CTS to receive Federal funding.
“It’s more efficient than it would seem to those who say the bus is always empty,” says Hunter. “It’s jammed in midday, early morning and late afternoon.”
Hunter, a UVA graduate student in education, represents a new class of urbanites that Council hopes will become a new class of bus riders. She lives on Carlton Avenue in Belmont, and takes the bus to classes at UVA.
“The major reason I moved into town was to get out of my car, and I never looked back,” Hunter says. “I was living halfway to Scottsville, and it was a 30-minute commute to Charlottesville. I was separated from the movies or things I wanted to do in the evenings.”
With a slew of upscale apartments and condominiums in the works Downtown, City Councilor Kevin Lynch says Charlottesville is attracting people who would gladly leave their cars home—if the bus system were fast and easy.
“Trip time is one thing we have to focus on,” says Lynch. “The other is the whole quality of the riding experience. We want it to be enjoyable, not just necessary.”
Lynch proposes restructuring the current “hub and spoke” system, which sends all buses through Downtown no matter where their destination. He wants to replace it with a “backbone and feeder” pattern. With Lynch’s system, buses would cycle through neighborhoods every 15 minutes. Riders would catch the neighborhood bus, then transfer to a main route, where buses run from Downtown through UVA and up Route 29 every 10 minutes.
“The advantage is that you don’t have to consult the schedule, and you can be sure you don’t have to wait that long,” says Lynch. He estimates CTS would have to buy four new buses, at a cost of about $250,000 each, to accommodate the system. Council will be holding a work session in the winter to discuss Lynch’s plan.
Hunter says she has reservations about Lynch’s idea, because it means every rider would have to transfer. “I think about darkness or stormy weather, and people with baby strollers,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to have to transfer to get from UVA to my house.”
At 4:38pm on the same Friday afternoon, John Potter emerges from his office at Stacey Hall, weary from an afternoon battle with a computer virus, and walks to the Route 12 bus stop in front of the old Merchants Building, currently home to U-Haul. A line of cars stretches past him, all the way to the Hampton Inn at Ninth Street. At 4:47pm, Potter climbs aboard one of seven 25-foot buses in the CTS fleet.
“Now to pull back in,” mutters the driver to another rider sitting in the front seat. “Working on a Friday is terrible. All this traffic.”
At 5:06pm, Potter gets off the bus at the Locust-Calhoun intersection, then makes a 10-minute walk back to his house on Bland Circle.
“The bus was seven minutes late, but that’s a pretty typical interval,” he says. “I usually ride the Route 12 bus, because it’s more reliable at rush hour. Route 2 has to come down Emmet Street. It gets stuck at the light at Emmet and University, and loses a lot of time there.”
Potter touches on a major obstacle to attracting new riders to the bus system––buses have to wait in traffic, too, especially on W. Main. This problem will get steadily worse, as UVA plans to expand its health sciences campus eastward. Moreover, in September Council passed a new zoning code that allows for higher density and more residential development on W. Main.
“The traffic can be maddening already,” says Mayor Maurice Cox, who manages his own commute from UVA to Ridge Street on a bicycle. “One can only imagine hundreds of new housing units on that street. How are we going to decongest that street, so that people can live there?”
Based on the advice offered at last month’s transit summit, Council has discounted the idea of light rail in Charlottesville––which had been advocated by some transportation activists–– as inappropriate for a region this size. Instead, the plan is to build a bus rapid transit system, which would run from Downtown, along W. Main, through UVA to the Barracks Road Shopping Center. Such a system could either use a modern streetcar-type vehicle that runs on tracks or a bus with rubber tires that can travel on streets and veer onto a track to circumnavigate stoplights and congestion.
A bus rapid transit system, says Cox, will also help solve mass transit’s image problem. “If there’s a system that’s exciting to ride, if it has a look, an edge, we can get choice riders to ride it,” he says.
Questions remain about how exactly W. Main Street could accommodate two lanes of traffic plus on-street parking and an independent bus lane or trolley tracks. Such problems can usually be solved with money, though, so the first question Council is asking is how to pay for bus rapid transit.
“Funding is always going to be our biggest challenge,” says Councilor Meredith Richards, who sits on the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), which makes regional transportation plans. “That, and cooperating with the County and UVA.”
Currently, multiple funding streams feed the CTS annual budget––$3.75 million for FY 2003-04. Federal transportation grants total $1,034,139, while the State chips in $1,015,437. The City pays $993,813, and the County adds $234,751. Rider fares this year are projected to be $443,491, and UVA will contribute a projected $30,000.
Richards says the City would be a prime candidate for a VDRPT program that funds bus rapid transit programs for small communities.
“Ours would be a perfect project to see how bus rapid transit would work in a community that’s not ready for light rail,” she says. The City already has applied for VDRPT money to fund a bus rapid transit study, which could open the door for State money to fund the actual project.
Cox says he hopes to see bus rapid transit established by 2010, but getting there will depend on cooperation from UVA and, to a lesser extent, Albemarle County. The City is urging close cooperation with UVA’s University Transit System as Charlottesville would not want a campus bus system to compete with its own revamped system. Rebecca White, UVA’s director of parking and transportation, says UVA is willing to cooperate with the City, with some conditions.
“We’d like to see an open ridership, where UVA riders could ride everywhere and not have to pay a fare,” says White. “And we want our level of service on Grounds to remain consistent.
“In the end,” she says, “it comes down to what improvements we will see regionally, and what it will cost.” UVA’s bus system has an annual budget of $1.5 million, funded by a $100 fee assessed to every student, plus a portion of parking permit fees, and profits from charter bus rentals.
In Albemarle County, debate about transit is largely limited to Route 29. Supervisor Dennis Rooker says that in the next year, the County will talk about establishing a bus line running up and down Route 29, between the shopping centers being built along that highway. The developers of Albemarle Place, for instance, have pledged $20,000 a year for five years to fund such a bus line.
Farther in the future, Albemarle will face traffic problems on Route 29 similar to those the City now has on W. Main. The County is moving toward a grid system of interconnected streets along the Route 29 corridor that in theory will ease traffic. Will Rieley, a landscape architect and transportation expert who designed the Meadowcreek Parkway, says that eventually Route 29 will need interchanges at major intersections (Hydraulic, Greenbrier and Rio), but the State transportation department is in no shape to pay the $100 million those interchanges would cost. Transit, he says, will have to be a part of easing congestion on Route 29, especially with planned commercial developments at Hydraulic Road, as well as the Hollymead Town Center and North Pointe.
“There has to be a serious attempt to deal with transit as part of a system of transportation,” Rieley says. “It’s pretty clear that in our area, with the amount of growth we have, and the projects that are proposed right now, there is clearly not enough money in the next 20 years to accommodate the traffic, if it’s all private automobiles.”
To the average Charlottesvillian stuck in a jam on W. Main or waiting for the light to change at Hydraulic and 29, change seems a long way off. But Robert Dunphy, who advised the City during the transit summit, insists the City needs to lay the groundwork for these projects today.
“This is a city that has a strong proclivity towards studies,” says Dunphy. “There’s some momentum to actually do something right now. So do it. Now.”
Route of the problem
Cliff Notes for the bus schedule
Charlottesville’s bus routes are sufficiently confusing that new riders will have to consult the bus schedule to figure out how and when to get where they need to go. The bus schedule, however, is just as confusing—if not worse. As a piece of literature, the CTS schedule, at 39 pages, is only slightly less weighty than Gravity’s Rainbow and about as garbled as Ulysses, so we offer these Cliff Notes to help you pass the test.
First clue: What looks like the front of the schedule is actually the back. Turn it over.
Next, look at the system maps on pages 2, 3 and 4 to find out what route comes closest to your house. Unfortunately, as the colored bus lines lack the context of a city map, it’s hard to use the system maps unless you’re a local or you have another map with you.
The individual route maps aren’t any better. The street names are so faint they’re hard to read, especially for the elderly or vision-impaired. If you have to transfer to another bus route, you’ll probably need a graduate degree in semiotics—and bifocals.
By now you’ve figured out that many neighborhood buses only come by once every hour, so you’ve probably decided it’s quicker to walk, bike or beg your buddy for a ride. Like everyone else who tries to read Ulysses, you stop reading the bus schedule at page 15.
Allow us to save you some trouble and reveal the ending: Route 23 did it.––J.B.
Station to station
What’s up with the east end transfer center?
Next year, the City plans to begin construction on a Federally funded $6.5 million bus transfer center on the east end of the Downtown Mall. You might think that the project would fit in with Council’s plans to reform the bus system, but it doesn’t.
Currently, every Charlottesville Transit Service bus circles the Mall, and riders must change buses on Market Street. The new transfer center will give these riders a nicer place to wait, but not for long.
This winter the City will discuss changing the CTS route to a “backbone and feeder” system. This would keep many riders out of Downtown altogether, and significantly reduce circulation through the east end station, tentatively dubbed “President’s Plaza.”
The City originally wanted to build the transfer center at a more practical spot near the Amtrak station on W. Main Street. In 2001, however, after five years of negotiation with owners Gabe Silverman and Allan Cadgene, the City had to either build the transfer center or give back millions in grant money, so it moved the project to the east end of the Mall, where it owned a site.
Now the City envisions a series of similar transfer centers along the proposed bus “backbone” between the Mall and Barracks Road. Mayor Maurice Cox is hopeful these centers would become the lynchpins of high density, mixed-use development along the bus routes.––J.B.
Hitchin’ a ride
What Charlottesville is learning from packed predecessor Portland
When City Council invited transportation gurus from around the country to Charlottesville on October 11 and 12, the experts all told the City that if we want to build a transit system that works, we should look at Portland, Oregon.
Thirty years ago, Portland’s transportation network faced problems similar to those Charlottesville is trying to solve right now. Portland was growing fast, and influential business leaders wanted to solve traffic congestion in with the Mt. Hood Freeway––a project similar to the Western Bypass proposed for Albemarle County.
Like the Western Bypass, the Mt. Hood Freeway was widely unpopular. So the three-county jurisdiction that governs the Portland area took advantage of a Federal law that gives local jurisdictions the right to use highway funds for transit development. With these funds, Portland started building bus lines. Three years ago, Charlottesville became the first locality in Virginia to similarly “flex” highway funds for transit when the City used $200,000 of State money to fund the free trolley.
Portland’s transit plans got a boost in 1972, when the region’s state senators crafted and passed a bill to place a boundary around Portland’s growth. As a result Portland’s growth didn’t stop, rather it took a more dense, urban form instead of suburban sprawl.
“Because of that, all our growth was planned, focused, thought about,” says Mary Fetsch, spokesperson for TriMet, Portland’s bus system. “That was the government taking the lead.”
The combination of dense development, money and redesigned bus lines has made Portland a model city for transit development, and Charlottesville is trying to emulate Portland’s successes.
For example, Council’s plans to redesign the current bus routes and add a bus rapid transit or streetcar system running outside of traffic along the W. Main and Emmet Street corridors follows Portland’s method. The TriMet system put up stations––similar to the transit center the City will build Downtown––at intervals along the streetcar line.
The result has been a boon for Portland developers, and for the Rose City’s tax coffers. Portland’s streetcar system is 4.8 miles long, and it cost $57 million to build. Since its debut in 2000, there has been $900 million in commercial development along the streetcar line.––J.B.