Take the bus: Is this public transit’s moment?

Photo: Eli Williams Photo: Eli Williams

Charlottesville is a growing city. We’ve added 5,000 residents since 2010, with another 10,000 in the county. And by 2040, projections from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service show an additional 6,000 people in Charlottesville and 33,500 in the county (roughly), bringing our total population to more than 196,000.

Now imagine if all of those people are relying on their cars to get around. The typical suburban household generates 10 vehicle trips per day, according to the Institute of Transportation Engineers. Without an efficient public transit system, our traffic and parking problems—not to mention greenhouse gas emissions—are likely to get much worse.

Transportation makes up almost a third of the carbon emissions generated within the city limits, says Susan Elliott, Charlottesville’s climate protection program manager. Investing in public transit will be crucial for meeting the new, more ambitious climate goals that are currently being set by the city, county, and UVA. And in addition to helping manage traffic and greenhouse gas emissions, public transportation can also reduce household costs, and is vital for those who can’t afford a car.

Charlottesville wasn’t built around mass transit, but as the city evolves and rethinks its ideas about density, we also have the opportunity to support a 21st-century transit system. And now might be just the right time. In 2017, the area’s planning district commission created the Regional Transit Partnership to help our patchwork of transit systems work better together. The city will soon hire a new director for the city-owned bus service, Charlottesville Area Transit, and other developments make this a promising moment for public transportation. 

While systemic change is needed, it’s also up to individuals to change their habits and commit to making fewer trips by car.

“Setting a personal goal, like to avoid driving one day each week, could help people have an impact and transition into being comfortable with other available options,” Elliott says. To hold myself accountable and inform the work I do at the Piedmont Environmental Council, I’ve spent the last month retraining myself to go as car-free as possible.

After some growing pains, I learned how I can make Charlottesville Area Transit work for me. Now, I want to help others figure out how they can change their commute and to help our localities and institutions find solutions for others. For those who live outside the central core of Charlottesville, that will require a better regional bus system.

Environmental advocate Sean Tubbs embarked on a month-long experiment to ditch his car and rely on public transit to get around. Photo: Eze Amos

Declining ridership

I bought my house, near Buford Middle School, in 2008, in part because there was a CAT stop six houses away. For five years, I frequently took the bus to work, a mile and a half away from home. I could get there in 15 minutes.

But in 2013, City Council approved a major realignment of CAT routes in order to increase the efficiency of the buses. The intent was to make routes more direct, but the changes coincided with a ridership decline that continues to this day.

In 2013, CAT reported just over 2.4 million trips to the U.S. Department of Transportation. By 2017, that number had fallen by nearly 9 percent. Ridership on all CAT routes declined another 5.35 percent from December 2017 to December 2018.

My decision to stop riding is reflected somewhere in those numbers. What had been a fairly straightforward journey to work became difficult and confusing. Rather than a straight shot downtown, Route 4 now looped around UVA hospital. Route 6 took 30 minutes to get downtown. Driving became the default, a choice I could make because my former employer paid for my parking pass.

It is conventional wisdom in transit planning that people are more likely to take the bus if they can simply go to a stop where a vehicle will come along every 10 minutes. However, expanding the system to run buses more often takes money.

Better road ahead

One reason that hasn’t happened is that for years, the region’s public transportation scene has been fractured. Charlottesville Area Transit, which had a budget of $7.42 million in 2017, has been owned and operated as a branch of city government since 1975. Albemarle County pays for service on several routes but has traditionally had no formal say in how the agency operates.

JAUNT, a public service corporation founded in 1975 to provide mobility to senior citizens and those with disabilities, has evolved over the years to also provide commuter routes from outlying counties.

And University Transit Service, the bus system at UVA, is its own separate entity, providing high-frequency service in a 1.5-mile area.

A previous attempt to merge all three into a Regional Transit Authority was aggressively studied at the end of the last decade, but the idea did not become a reality, in part because the General Assembly refused to allow a referendum on a sales tax increase to pay for expanded transit.

But the new Regional Transit Partnership, combined with other recent encouraging developments, could finally put us on the road to making mass transit a viable alternative to driving a car.

In recent years, JAUNT has launched a series of ambitious routes to bring additional service within Albemarle County’s development area. These include an early morning and late afternoon hourly service to Hollymead Town Center called the Route 29 Express, as well as a public route between the University of Virginia Research Park and Grounds. The latter even offers wi-fi.

On August 5, JAUNT is expected to launch service between Crozet and UVA Grounds via Charlottesville. This is the first of several new commuter routes the agency hopes to begin. 

Public transportation factored highly in the final report from UVA President Jim Ryan’s University-Community Working Group, with calls for greater regional cooperation—a move that would be welcomed by city and county officials.

City Councilor Heather Hill, a member of the regional Planning and Coordination Council, says it’s important to look at the role UVA plays in our transit system, given how many of its employees and contractors come into the city from across the region. And Albemarle County Supervisor Diantha McKeel says UTS can help with data on where people live and where they’re going, to help the partnership determine community transit needs.

But as someone who wants to reduce driving now, I realized I had to adapt to the system we have. I bought a 30-day pass for $22 and began my experiment.

Rethinking my commute

I started with the closest Route 4 stop, up a steep hill on Cherry Avenue. I used CAT’s app, which is supposed to allow riders to see when the next bus will arrive. Unfortunately, the tracking software that runs the app isn’t very precise. I would walk out of my house, check the app, and begin the trek to the stop, confident I had several minutes before the bus arrived. On at least two occasions, however, I watched the bus blow by the top of my street, even though the counter still told me I had minutes to spare.

Inconvenience will stop people from trying transit, and in years past, bad experiences had convinced me to not even bother to try. But with my rising concern about climate change, I knew it was up to me to take some time to learn the system. Eventually, I realized I should walk to another spot on Cherry Avenue, where the bus was more likely to be stopped at a traffic light, giving the app’s counter time to catch up. That also built a 10-minute walk into my commute, which is good for my health.

On the first day I had my pass, I made it a challenge to meet JAUNT director Brad Sheffield at Stonefield by taking the Route 8 bus. It took me just under an hour to get there from my house, and that included a brief pit stop to get a coffee downtown while waiting for a transfer. As I rode down Hillsdale Drive, I could envision the redevelopment of shopping centers into more homes and businesses closer to our core.

Sheffield is taking a customer-centered approach that’s worth listening to and emulating.

“We have to inform residents about all aspects of their transportation choices at the moment they are making the choice of which mode to use,” Sheffield said. “We have to go beyond simply comparing a bus route and schedule to travel time of driving a car.”

In other words, we need to consider all the benefits of public transit (and all the costs of driving). In my case, technology used by CAT has helped me get my commute down to about 20 minutes. That’s still twice as long as driving, but I don’t have to worry about paying for parking, I’m saving money on gas, and I’m getting some exercise.

On other days, I experimented with new routes to see how long it would take to get to parts of Albemarle as a passenger, reacquainting myself with the landscape. One day I took the Route 10 to Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital to meet with planners in Albemarle to talk about the future of Pantops. My conversations about land use have changed significantly now that I see the world a little differently as a bus passenger.

But I also experienced how inconvenient it can be when the system is disrupted. On the day of the Charlottesville marathon, I had planned to take the bus as far north on U.S. 29 as I could go, so I could go on an urban hike. However, many routes were canceled to make way for the race.  If I had to rely on transit to get to a job in the same location, I don’t know what I would have done.

On one Thursday, I used Route 9 to travel to a Little League game at McIntire Park. The journey to get there took much longer than I would have liked. Thankfully, the game ended before the final bus was scheduled to leave the YMCA at 8pm, so I wasn’t stranded. But the family of six I met on the bus who was traveling to the Dogwood Festival wasn’t so lucky—they had to take a cab home.

In 2010, 11% of households in Charlottesville and 6% of households in Albemarle County did not have a car. Source: Charlottesville Transit Study, 2013

What’s next

After a month of taking the bus, I feel much more in tune with what’s going on around me. I’ve managed to figure out how to learn the rhythm of the system in order to navigate it so I can drive less. I have bought a second monthly pass.

But not everyone is willing to spend 30 minutes or more on a commute that would take 10 minutes in a car. And what about those who don’t live near a bus route? After years of monitoring land use and transportation issues in this community, I feel we have a golden opportunity to make a serious push for a better regional system.

As the city prepares to welcome Tarron Richardson as city manager, and as the search for a new CAT director begins, the system has an opportunity to adjust to meet the needs of those who want to take public transit.

In the near future, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work going on to ensure the buses run much more smoothly. The regional partnership’s first major success is a funding agreement that will give Albemarle a more transparent look into how Charlottesville calculates the cost of providing service in the county. Such a move should inspire Albemarle to have more confidence in the system, and then more funding for more routes to expand coverage.

Another step forward would be greater integration between the University Transit Service and CAT, so areas of Albemarle and Charlottesville like Ivy Road continue to be served when the University is not in session.

And advocates would like to see further study of a route that connects Harrisonburg and Charlottesville, to provide an alternative to the thousands of people who commute every day from the Shenandoah Valley. The idea was looked at by area planners in 2017, but an initial effort to fund a pilot project was not successful.

But most importantly, we need a regional system that works together for the purpose of moving people across the region.

For this to happen, our transit systems must continue building working relationships. And we, as individuals, can work on changing our habits.

Since challenging myself to get out of my car a month ago, I’m experiencing Charlottesville in a much more human way. If I’m stuck in traffic now, at least I’m not driving. I don’t have to worry about where my car is parked, and my employer doesn’t have to pick up the tab.

I don’t plan on selling my car anytime soon. But relying on it less is possible, and I encourage you to give it a shot if you can.

Sean Tubbs covered land use and transportation for Charlottesville Tomorrow for many years. He currently works on smart growth issues for the Piedmont Environmental Council. You can follow his transit exploits on Twitter @seantubbs.