We are now six days into Try Transit Month, an effort to encourage people to consider using fixed-route or on-demand service to get around the community. It has now been 13 days since the Jefferson Area Regional Transit Partnership met on September 23 Since October 2017, the advisory body run by the Thomas Jefferson Planning District has served as a clearinghouse for different providers.
Karen Davis is the interim director of Jaunt and she stated one of the biggest challenges facing all bus fleets.
“The driver shortage continues,” Davis said. “Jaunt is going to move to match [University Transit Service] and [Charlottesville Area Transit’s] recruiting and retaining bonus programs to try to entice more people into the door.
Charlottesville Area Transit Route 5 will no longer serve the Rio Hill Shopping center, according to a release from the bus agency. The release states the property owner has requested the change, and that means two stops within the shopping center will become dormant. The 31 acre property is owned by SCT Rio Hill LLC, a firm associated with the retirement system for employees of the state of Connecticut.
The manager of the Rio Hill Shopping Center said in June 7 letter to the city that planned renovation implements a vision that does not involve public transit.
At the same time, Albemarle County and the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission are doing the exact same work as part of a study partially funded by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.
Boris Palchik is a transit planning project manager with Foursquare Integrated Transportation Planning, a firm hired to help conduct the work. The other consultant is Michael Baker International. Palchik ran a meeting on July 26 that sought to get initial feedback for the study.
“It’s really a feasibility study and implementation plan for expanding transit service in both population and employment centers in Albemarle County,” Palchik said.
On Monday night, Charlottesville City Council officially adopted a resolution canceling a project to build a 300-space parking garage at the corner of East Market Street and 9th Street. Part of the decision hinged on a notion of whether the city was doing enough to get people out of their cars and into other modes of transportation.
In 2015, the firm Nelson Nygaard conducted a study of parking downtown, and one of the recommendations was to maintain existing supply through something called “transportation demand management.”
“Strong promotion of TDM efforts and continued enhancement of alternative travel options will serve Charlottesville well in maintaining its reputation and charm as an attractive, livable and sustainable city,” reads page 8 of the study, which was the most recent official review of parking downtown.
Specifically, the plan recommended creation of a “Transportation Management Association” to help encourage alternative modes of travel. In early 2008, local community member Randy Salzman brought the idea up to the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). That’s the local body that makes decisions on regional transportation projects. Salzman arranged for them to hear from a professor of sustainability from Curtin University in Perth, Australia. Here’s Peter Newman, who co-authored a book with UVA professor Tim Beatley called Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change.
“Now we’ve had all of our cities do regional plans in the last five years and they have all concluded the need for more sustainable future based on less car-dependence with transit prioritized with corridors and centers to make sure the structure of the city changes,” Newman said.
The idea at the time didn’t get much traction.
At the May 27 meeting of the Regional Transit Partnership — a sub-group of the MPO — Salzman once again appeared to promote the idea.
“We need to understand why people take the bus or don’t take the bus, why people bicycle or don’t bicycle, why people drive or don’t drive,” Salzman said. “There is another car culture that has done this exceptionally well and that culture is Australia where they have just as much of a car ownership culture as we have in the United States.”
Salzman mentioned a program called TravelSmart, which has now transformed into a program called Your Move. People who register are assisted in getting used to different forms of transportation. Salzman wants this community to take on the same approach, perhaps by expanding the existing RideShare program.
“Right now because of the stars aligning at the federal level, this area could go after a grant that would be the leadership for helping America,” Salzman said. “Understand the individuals and how we can help them change as opposed to building the change, building all the transit and then not using it.”
The Regional Transit Partnership consists of the University Transit Service, Charlottesville Area Transit, Jaunt, and other agencies. A non-voting member of the body is Sara Pennington, who runs the RideShare program as part of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District.
“Transportation doesn’t just work in a silo,” Pennington said. “There are so many moving parts and moving pieces and the more that we can work together and band together to help each other out, the better.”
Much of Pennington’s work this past year has focused on telework, which was crucial for many during the pandemic.
The TJPDC will soon hire a consultant to create a regional transit vision plan at a cost of $350,000, with half of that amount coming from a grant from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. A selection firm is reviewing three proposals for the project and an announcement on who will do the work may be made later this month.
The TJPDC is also working on a $106,215 study about expanded transit in Albemarle County, above and beyond a second study that Charlottesville Area Transit is conducting to add service to U.S. 29 north of its current terminus at the Wal-Mart. Jessica Hersh-Ballering is a transportation planner and said the firm Michael Baker International has been hired to do the work.
“We are planning our first public engagement session for that project in late July or early August,” Hersh-Ballering said.
Karen Davis, the interim CEO of Jaunt, said her planning manager’s recent appearance at a Central Virginia Regional Housing Partnership panel discussion may lead to the resumption of a discontinued service between the North Fork Research Park and points south. Stephen Johnson talked about the possibility of on-demand transit at the May 20 event. (watch)
“I got a call from UVA Foundation talking about a service we had done for them that is right now discontinued, Park Connect, he was so well-spoken that they called me and said ‘hey, on-demand could actually meet our needs better than the model we were using,” Davis said.
Later this summer, Charlottesville Area Transit will begin a public period for proposed route changes.
(This installment originally appeared in the June 9, 2021 episode of Charlottesville Community Engagement)
At a work session on May 25, 2021, Charlottesville City Council was briefed on upcoming changes to the city-run bus system. Charlottesville is the sole owner and operator of Charlottesville Area Transit, and Albemarle County pays the city for service each year. Ridership on CAT has declined significantly in recent years. In 2013, ridership was at 2.4 million. By 2018, that dropped to 2.05 million. (view presentation)
Garland Williams has been director since August 2019 and previously served as director of Planning and Scheduling for the Greater Richmond Transit Company.
Near the beginning of the pandemic, the city hired Kimley Horn to review the system to recommend changes to make it more efficient on the other side.
“This is not designed to be a total revamp of our system,” Williams said. “This was kind of stop-gap measure because as you know, over the last six year CAT’s ridership has been declining precipitously so what we’re trying to do right now is stop that, build a nice foundation, and then build from there.”
At some point this year, we’ll know exactly how many people are believed to live in our communities when the U.S. Census is released. But, projections from the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia as well as their yearly estimates depict a growing region. As the cost of housing in Charlottesville and Albemarle’s urban ring continues to increase, many will choose or have already chosen to live in communities half an hour away or more. Data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey shows the vast majority of people commute to work in a single occupant vehicle? But does that have to be the case?
In May, the Central Virginia Regional Housing Partnership held a panel discussion on the topic. For background, housing is to be considered affordable if rent or a mortgage payment makes up thirty percent or less of household expenditures. Households that pay more than that are considered stressed.
“It works out that a cheap house is not truly affordable if it has particularly high transportation costs [and] if it’s located in an area where people have to spend a lot of time and money traveling,” Litman said. “A lot of experts now recommend that instead of defining affordability as 30 percent of household budgets to housing, it’s defined as 45 percent of household budgets dedicated to housing and transportation combined.”
Litman said transportation costs are more volatile for low-income households because of the unpredictability of fuel prices and maintenance costs.
Stephen Johnson, a planning manager with Jaunt, said the cost of time must also be factored in.
“If I can only afford to take public transit, but that means my commute to work is going to take five to ten times longer, then that’s time that I’m losing to spend on other things,” Johnson said.
Johnson said people also can lose jobs if a transit connection doesn’t work out. He said this community has public transit options, but they are not compelling for many.
“When we put ourselves in the shoes of somebody’s who is deciding to take transit or drive, there are four factors that one would consider,” Johnson said. “The first would be the financial cost. The second would be the time cost. The third would be reliability. Can I rely on getting there on time? The fourth I think would be flexibility. Will my transportation allow me to make a last-minute change to my schedule? To travel with a friend, or to bring home a bunch of shopping.”
Johnson said public transit is cheaper to use than driving, but the other three factors are more difficult. He said transit in the area could be reformed by greater investments and better planning.
“An Albemarle planner might come to me and say ‘we’ve got this community, it’s got a lot of cul-de-sacs, a lot of houses, and we’re really struggling with congestion. Can you put a public transit band-aid on this and fix it?’” Johnson said. “In that case, the game board is already set and there’s only so much we can do as a player but I think if we can expand our idea of what transit planning is, when we think about things like density, how can we take those A’s and B’s and cluster them together so that when we put a bus out there we can cover a lot of trips?”
Litman said a goal is to not necessarily encourage people to go car-free, but to work to create areas where more trips can be taken in a walk, a bike-ride, or by getting on the bus. This was more common before the middle of the 20th century.
“So if you go back to the older neighborhoods, they’re all very walkable,” Litman said. “They have sidewalks on all the streets. You have local schools, and park, and stores that were designed. The neighborhood was organized around the idea that at least some people will rely on walking. We lost that for a while and now there’s a number of planning movements and approaches that are trying to establish that.”
Litman said developers and local governments should be working together to encourage more than just single-family housing.
“If you’re building new neighborhoods, those that allow what we call ‘the missing middle’, compact housing types like townhouses and low-rise apartments are going to be far more affordable and therefore far more inclusive,” Litman said.
But back to transit. Jaunt mostly provides on-demand service, but does have some fixed-route service. Johnson explained what works best in what situation.
“Fixed route options are much more appropriate public transit option for dense urban cores and we see that in downtown Charlottesville and urban Albemarle County,” Johnson said. “Demand response is a much more appropriate technology for more rural areas and that’s the majority of Jaunt’s service area are the counties around Charlottesville and Albemarle.”
However, Johnson said transit in urban areas could be transformed if systems adopt on-demand tech. Jaunt has been working on a pilot project to provide service to Loaves and Fishes on Lambs Road, a site not accessible via Charlottesville Area Transit.
In this community, there are three transit systems. They are the Charlottesville Area Transit (CAT), the University of Virginia Transit Service (UTS) and Jaunt. In September, BRITE will begin the Afton Express service between Staunton and Charlottesville. How do all of these many pieces come together? Here’s Stephen Johnson again.
“Charlottesville and Albemarle are working together through the Regional Transit Partnership to try to help build a cohesive vision there of how Jaunt and Charlottesville Area Transit and UTS can all work together to provide a cohesive transit system for the residents of Charlottesville and Albemarle,” Johnson said.
Preparations continue for a study of how transit could work better in Albemarle County. Some fixed-route service is provided by Charlottesville Area Transit, which is owned by the City of Charlottesville. Jaunt provides fixed-route service between Crozet and Charlottesville as well as paratransit service throughout the region.
The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission is shepherding a Regional Transit Vision as well as a study of additional service to serve Albemarle’s urban areas. A kick-off meeting for the study will take place in early June. Jessica Hersh-Ballering is a planner with the TJPDC. She spoke at the April 22 meeting of the Regional Transit Partnership.
“This is a project to determine the best way to expand transit service to three priority locations in Albemarle, and those priority locations are Pantops, north 29, and Monticello,” Hersh-Ballering said. “The goal is to apply for funding to implement that service in fiscal year 2023.”
To do that, the study will need to be completed, including public review, in order to apply for a demonstration grant by next February.
Albemarle Supervisor Diantha McKeel is the chair of the Regional Transit Partnership.
“I just have a comment, Jessica,” McKeel said. “I looked at that February date in February and thought, wow, that is a tight timeline but I’m sure you all have figured it out.”
The University Transit System is a member of the Regional Transit Partnership and they updated community officials on the results of a recent passenger survey. The pandemic skewed ridership last year, with almost 90 percent of people taking shuttle routes to the Health Complex, a figure that was 57.25 percent in 2019. Academic routes usually make up just over forty percent ridership, but that dropped to ten percent last year.
The University Transit System is completely separate from Charlottesville Area Transit, but does offer some service on some streets in the City of Charlottesville.
“We are the public provider on 14th Street, Grady, Rugby, Arlington, Massey,” said Becca White, the director of Parking and Transportation at UVA. “People who have been around long enough know that CAT used to serve some of those corridors and were able to concentrate elsewhere while UTS agreed to be the public provider on those corridors.”
However, Charlottesville Area Transit said they are in talks with UTS about whether that will continue.
CAT Senior Project Steve MacNally told the Regional Transit Partnership about upcoming capital projects, including the potential for a transit hub and park and ride lot on U.S. 29. They’re looking for a suitable two acre lot.
“I’ve been busy looking at some vacant or unoccupied properties, looking at right of way issues, the access to those, and a number of other criteria,” MacNally said.
CAT is about to begin work on two studies of its own. One will look at the need for future facilities and a more dedicated look at the park and ride possibility with the firm Kimley Horn.
In response to a question from White, CAT director Garland Williams said he has not been in touch with anyone from the University of Virginia Foundation, which owns many properties in the 29 North corridor, including the North Fork Research Park.
“This is our kickoff to bring all those elements together, so the study is really going to look at whether the corridor itself is ripe for transit,” Williams said. “We do believe that it is.”
Williams added this could help CAT increase ridership which would in turn bring in more funding.
“Initially we have looked at potentially the airport to [the University of Virginia] as the initial corridor of looking at, kind of the route, but that’s up for discussion as we’re working with our consultant,” Williams said.
The work by Kimley Horn is separate from the work being done by the TJPDC on behalf of Albemarle County. Williams said the work is complementary and will function together. A third transit-related land use study in the same geographical area is a potential relocation of Albemarle school bus fleet to land somewhere in the U.S. 29 corridor.
Christine Jacobs, the interim director of the TJPDC, said the conversation was a sign of the role the Regional Transit Partnership can play.
“I think this is really exciting because there’s a lot of synergy and coordination that is occurring between some of these corridors and I just want to make sure I remind you that the PDC we will also be doing through the MPO in their North 29 study corridor from Airport Road all the way up into Greene,” Jacobs said.
All localities in the Thomas Jefferson Planning district except Nelson County experienced population growth in the last decade. To reduce the likelihood of traffic congestion, local governments and organizations are seeking ways to improve transit service throughout the community.
Last week, the Regional Transit Partnership held its first meeting of the year. One of the first actions was to allow a group called the Charlottesville Area Alliance to sit on the body as a non-voting member. Jessica Hersh-Ballering is a transportation planner with the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.
“The Charlottesville Area Alliance was formed in 2016 to lead the advancement of an age-friendly community,” Hersh-Ballering said. “Working with Albemarle and Fluvanna counties and the city of Charlottesville, they successfully applied to be a member of the AARP and World Health Organization’s age-friendly network to bring best practices to our area.”
This year, work will begin to create a vision for regional transit, as well as a second study to determine how to increase bus service in Albemarle County on U.S. 29 North, Pantops and Monticello. The TJPDC has issued a request for proposals for a technical consultant to do work that is partially paid for through grants from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.
Hersh-Ballering said study just got under way and the goal is to wrap it up in ten months in order to qualify for a different funding stream.
“That timeline is really strict because we’re hoping the implementation plan will put a transit provider in the position to apply for a demonstration funding with the next round of funding applications from the DRPT,” Hersh-Ballering said.
Currently, Albemarle pays Charlottesville Area Transit for fixed-route service. All but one routes currently terminate at the Downtown Transit Center.
Hersh-Ballering said the regional transit vision will recommend where different types of transit should be ranging from express, high-frequency local, low-frequency local, and on-demand.
“The corridor specific service recommendations are intended to be a visual document like a map that uses the initial work product to determine what type of transit service can be best supported on each corridor in the region,” Hersh-Ballering said. “If that sounds really familiar, that’s because that’s very similar to what Richmond did in their vision plan.”
The Richmond plan was endorsed by the Richmond Regional Transportation Planning Organization in April 2017.