Riding green: JAUNT’s all-electric van gives a peek into the future of regional transit

JAUNT CEO Brad Sheffield presented the all-electric bus to the public February 22. PC: John Robinson JAUNT CEO Brad Sheffield presented the all-electric bus to the public February 22. PC: John Robinson

Braving the frigid weather, nearly two dozen people gathered in front of Regal Stonefield & IMAX last Wednesday to see the newest addition to JAUNT’s fleet: an all-electric transit vehicle.

The first of its kind in the region (and the first in operation in Virginia), the Ford Transit 350HD passenger van, which will be used for JAUNT’s on-demand service, is fully accessible and can accommodate 10 passengers, along with two wheelchairs. On a single charge, it can travel up to 120 miles.

“For about a decade, transit has been investing in electric vehicles, [but] it’s been mostly big buses,” JAUNT CEO Brad Sheffield said at the press conference. “It’s only been within the last year that we’ve seen that the technology has reached the cost-point that buses like the ones JAUNT operates…[can be] made into electric vehicles.”

“This is a spark, hopefully, to get more of that investment for additional vehicles to be converted,” he added. 

JAUNT paid $185,000 for the van, approximately $140,000 more than its gasoline-powered equivalent. However, it will cost only .08 cents per mile to operate the van, compared to the .15 cents per mile it costs to run it on gasoline. And, of course, it will produce fewer emissions, a significant factor as the city works to become carbon neutral by 2050. 

If it receives enough funding from state and local governments, JAUNT plans to convert six more of its 78 on-demand transit vehicles within the next year. And by 2030, Sheffield hopes that a majority of JAUNT’s fleet will run on electricity. 

However, JAUNT is not alone in its efforts to advance the region’s public transit. Lucas Ames, who serves on JAUNT’s board of directors and on the Jefferson Area Regional Transit Partnership, says the group has been discussing ways to connect Charlottesville Area Transit, University Transit Service (UVA’s bus system), and JAUNT’s services, so that they feel like “one public transit entity.”

“Right now, there’s a lot of struggle [for] people who want to switch between services. The technology doesn’t match up. There’s different payments,” says Ames. “From the user perspective, [they] really do feel like three separate systems.”

Through the partnership, it’s possible to create a pass riders could use for both CAT and JAUNT (UTS rides are free), as well as develop an app that includes all three transit systems.

But before the region can move forward with such initiatives, “we need to invest in data analysts within our transit agencies,” says Ames. “The technology and data that each system uses…needs to be put forth and shared so that as a community we can see what’s happening in transit from a data perspective.”

Diantha McKeel, a member of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors who also serves on the partnership, agrees that the transit services must share their data in order to make any real progress.

“The county has a desire to expand services…[but] we’re really trying to get better data,” she says. “At this point in time, I still can’t tell you where my Albemarle County riders are getting on and getting off of the buses.”

CAT has listened to the partnership’s concerns, and has already begun sharing its data on a monthly basis with the city and county, says CAT director and RTP member Garland Williams.

According to Ames, another priority on the RTP’s agenda is reducing single-occupancy vehicle trips, especially for those who travel into Charlottesville for work.

It has already started working on one potential solution to this issue: commuter lines. Last month, it recommended that the city, county, and UVA allocate funding for Afton Express, which would connect Charlottesville to Staunton, make four trips a day, and have just a $3 fare price. If the funding is approved, commuters could begin using the route as early as 2021.

The partnership, however, plans to get community input on commuting, among other issues, through an in-depth study on the region’s transit vision. If the city and county agree to fund the study, it will be conducted by the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. 

In order to meet every resident’s needs, McKeel ultimately sees the region expanding both its fixed routes and on-demand service in the future, pointing to towns like Danville, which have successfully done that.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We should be able to learn from other communities what they’re doing right and how they’ve been improving their ridership,” she says.

But as the different transit services grow, they must work to hire and retain more bus drivers (and pay them a fair salary), an issue RTP has already begun discussing, McKeel says. And, as JAUNT is already doing, they must continue to find ways to make their transit vehicles more green.

According to RTP member and UTS director Becca White, UVA is already exploring ways to use alternative fuel vehicles, such as electric buses, in order to meet its goal of being carbon neutral by 2030. 

While the RTP has also created a subcommittee on electric vehicles, it’s unlikely CAT will be getting electric buses anytime soon, says Williams, as it’s currently focused on addressing its issues with decreased ridership.

“As the technology [behind electric vehicles] gets better, CAT is open…to introducing technology that is proven,” he says. 

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