Charlottesville has too many blessings to list up in just one sentence. But the devastating pandemic has forced us to confront our challenges and reflect upon the uglier realities of our town, and perhaps there has been no better time to reconsider our values and reimagine our vision for a better Charlottesville.

Charlottesville prides itself on being a progressive, diverse, and welcoming city. Yet, a New York Times/ProPublica exposé revealed the racial divide in our public schools. Skyrocketing house prices drive out longtime locals. And if you are born poor in Charlottesville, you’ll probably stay poor. In a landmark study by Harvard economist Raj Chetty, Charlottesville placed 2,700th out of 2,885 jurisdictions in upward economic mobility, a cornerstone of the American Dream. There are only 185 places in America where you can be born poor and have a worse shot at the American Dream and 2,699 better places.

Beyond our housing crunch, which will only worsen as our area population is projected to swell past 260,000 in the next decade and 280,000 by 2040, is our looming climate crisis. Transportation is the leading cause of CO2 emissions in our area, and our traffic is laughably bad for our size. What can we do to address the economic fallout of COVID-19 and these long term challenges of housing, equity and climate change? Here is a simple solution: make Charlottesville Area Transit buses free and frequent.

Even before the pandemic, CAT was in trouble. Though CAT served 1.8 million riders in 2019, that represented a loss of nearly a quarter of riders over the past four years. As newly appointed Transit Director Garland Williams said last year, it has put CAT in a “death spiral.” Because state and federal funding are contingent upon ridership (currently 24% and 22% of the CAT budget), less ridership means less funding, which means service cuts, which further decrease ridership, which equals less funding. Now, with barebones pandemic service and ridership loss of nearly 80%, CAT is fighting for its life.

It may seem paradoxical to permanently make fares free for CAT when it is in a desperate situation (fares have temporarily been eliminated as part of COVID-19 precautions). But making CAT free is the most financially prudent solution. Let me explain: CAT receives funding from a variety of sources, but its 75 cent fares (35 cents for seniors) hardly provide any. Indeed, only 8% of its budget comes from revenue (in comparison, 46% come from the city, Albemarle County and the University of Virginia). That 8% is not purely from fares; it also comes from advertisements.

Though not even 8% of funding comes from fares, collecting them is a headache for CAT. One of its biggest problems is malfunctioning fareboxes. The cost of collecting fares is high, the return is low, so why not eliminate them to eliminate costs and worries of tickets, theft, handling/storing money, and broken fareboxes? Plus, making CAT fare-free would be the easiest way to increase ridership.

In college towns like Corvallis, Oregon (home of Oregon State University), just making fares free increased ridership 38% in one year. Coupled with service improvements, Chapel Hill went fare-free and more than doubled ridership in a few years. So no fares mean no costs collecting fares. No fares mean more bus riders, which means more funding from the state and federal government, which means more resources for more service, spurring more ridership, buoying a virtuous circle.

Free fares are a good start. But an inconvenient bus, free or not, is still inconvenient. Today, our bus system has circuitous routes that try to cover too much with too little, ultimately doing most of our city a huge disservice. Apart from the free trolley-style bus (note: our most ridden and only fare-free route), no bus runs frequently enough (every 15 minutes or less) to be convenient. To take the bus, one must time their schedules to once-an-hour buses. Once aboard, they must endure a meandering route that takes much longer than driving. Therefore, CAT service is a last-resort, only for those who cannot afford a car.

A place like Charlottesville that aspires to be a world-class city deserves much better. Within our existing framework, it is possible to redesign CAT to cover the city with routes of at least every 15-20 minutes. How? Making straighter, more efficient routes. Here is an example of a redesigned map adhering to these principles:

These two easily implementable proposals, to make CAT free and frequent, won’t just save CAT. It will help transform Charlottesville into the more sustainable, equitable city we want to become, at a fraction of the cost of say, the unnecessary, newly proposed $10 million parking garage downtown. It will be a boon to local businesses, whose jobs and services will become easily accessible to all. It will cut CO2 emissions and traffic while reducing the need for costly road projects and parking garages. It will promote denser, more sustainable housing development. In the end, it will save the average Charlottesville family from having to own two cars, where they can live comfortably with just one, or even none.

As UVA psychologist Shige Oishi found, above all factors, the more walkable a neighborhood was, the more likely residents were to climb up the economic ladder and achieve the American Dream. Charlottesville already has a head start, with walkable areas like downtown and the Corner. Reimagining CAT can be part of a grander vision of turning Charlottesville into a 15-minute city, where everything one needs is within a 15-minute walk, bike, e-scooter or bus ride. (Editor’s note: Shige Oishi is the writer’s father.)

Farther into the future, with more ridership and more funding, CAT can expand and enhance service into high growth areas in the counties, partnering with JAUNT and UVA’s University Transit Service. But it all starts with making CAT free and frequent. After all, no matter where you live, or how much money you have, we should all have the right to mobility, the freedom to go wherever we please.


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