Steering the bus: JAUNT’s Brad Sheffield looks to the future

JAUNT CEO Brad Sheffield is leading the paratransit organization into the 21st century, exploring new fixed-route services and 
other innovations. Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith JAUNT CEO Brad Sheffield is leading the paratransit organization into the 21st century, exploring new fixed-route services and other innovations. Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith

From its origins in 1975 as a public service corporation transporting elderly and disabled customers, JAUNT (that’s Jefferson Area United Transportation) has grown to cover a six-county, 2,600-square-mile service area while welcoming the general public onto its 85 vehicles. Recently, the organization has been expanding into commuter routes for areas underserved by public transit.

JAUNT’s 29 Express Shuttle, for example, travels between Hollymead, UVA, and downtown Charlottesville for $1.50 a ride (free for UVA employees and students). And in August, it will launch the Crozet Connector, with service between Crozet and UVA Grounds. We talked to CEO Brad Sheffield about how JAUNT fits in to the transit landscape, and where it’s headed.

C-BIZ: How is JAUNT growing beyond its original mission?

The core of what JAUNT was and is and will be is very focused around paratransit for disabled and elderly passengers. Once our growth in that area stabilized, we could focus resources on rural areas, where our service is open to anybody. This doesn’t outweigh our core services. It’s a new area we’re able to focus on because we’ve stabilized our core.

Can you tell us about the new Crozet Connector service?

The route will be added on as a layer to the demand-based approach [in which customers arrange rides in advance as needed]. That curb-to-curb approach works well for those who can’t walk or access a common bus stop. The Connector is looking at those who might walk or drive to a common parking lot or downtown Crozet and catch the commuter route, which gets there faster.

Looking ahead, what is the place for JAUNT in the local transportation landscape? How does it fit in with newer services like Uber and Lyft?

JAUNT’s approach and level of service are highly unique. We struggle to find a peer for ourselves across the state or even nationally. That’s largely because, in the ‘70s, the area formed JAUNT before ADA services were a federal requirement. We provide a highly efficient and robust service, and while some systems just look at operating the buses, we’re looking at who we’re transporting.

The whole Uber/Lyft dynamic has challenged the industry to think about how we can provide a service. The on-demand transit technology is out there; it’s just emerging in the public transit realm. Our customers may not have to continue to call a day ahead. We’re making sure it’s an evolution of who we are, not just an additional service.

JAUNT is a partner in Perrone Robotics’ autonomous shuttle pilot program. What’s your goal for that venture?

We were approached by Albemarle to help Perrone explore into this market. Now that the technology is making its way into transit for fixed-route services, we need to make sure it’s not creating greater inequity. We wanted to be involved to help better inform the conversations.

I don’t believe in my lifetime there will be technology that can detect someone’s disability. That level of sensitivity or understanding is what we bring to the table. Does it mean that the divide gets bigger—the fixed-route cost drops significantly and the paratransit continues to cost the same? If it shifts to where those who rely on something like JAUNT are further marginalized, that’s a problem.

How can JAUNT be part of the larger goal of reducing local carbon emissions?

Electric vehicle technology hasn’t made its way into the type of vehicles we operate, but it’s getting there. It’s cost-prohibitive for us right now, but the more localities like the city place an emphasis on the importance of it, the more the industry will invest in making that a priority. What infrastructure needs to be in place for charging and maintenance, and how can we go after the funding that could help provide those resources?

We are of significant-enough size that we should be thinking about what we can do differently.  JAUNT can lead the way, but it’s got to be a regional commitment.