City leaders gathered Thursday with local residents and transportation officials for a “transit summit” to identify ways to improve the
Charlottesville Area Transit
system. Bus riders said the system needs to be cleaner and more frequent, while a panel of experts said public transit in Charlottesville is at a crossroads.
“We are hoping to get good ideas from lots of people on how to improve transit in Charlottesville,” said Bill Watterson, the head of CAT. “We are serving almost a million more riders than we were six years ago, and we just had a year with our most ridership ever, nearly 2.2 million riders.”
Charlottesville’s City Council requested the summit and asked that local transit be studied for improvements that could increase ridership even further.
Lester Hoel, a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia and former director of the Center for Transportation Studies, was one of the panelists invited to provide feedback.
“You have a system that’s fairly mature, how much more can you do with it? In our view, there is really only one thing you can do and that is look at the frequency of service on those buses,” Hoel said.
“When you have a bus with a frequency of service of one hour … you’ll never use it,” Hoel said. “That’s not an [attractive] alternative. We are talking about [having instead] a frequency of service of 10 minutes, even 30 minutes is a stretch.”
Donna Carty is a city resident who said she recently returned to the community after living for 25 years in other cities where she didn’t need a car.
“If you want people to use your transit system, it’s got to be a full substitute for a car. If you have to have a car in addition … you are going to use it rather than transit,” Carty said. “A full substitute for a car means people can not only get back and forth to work and back home but can have a full social life and can volunteer [in the community].”
Brad Sheffield, a panelist representing the
Renaissance Planning Group
, said CAT was at a crossroads and might need to consider a major route restructuring.
“One [approach] is to do frequency improvements, which is either going to cost more money or [require] a sacrifice of certain parts of the route structure to improve the frequency,” Sheffield said. “The other direction is more of a restructuring approach of looking at a backbone or feeder approach where roads like Route 29 and Main Street act as a backbone and subsystems feed in.”
, who was interviewed in the morning by the panel, said she thought the restructuring approach should be considered.
“I really hope that we look in a concentrated way at the idea of a trunk and feeder system where we have busses in the city that run often enough that people can just take them without knowing the [schedule] ahead of time and just know that a bus is coming,” Szakos said in an interview.
“We need to make sure that we serve all the people who don’t have a choice, and the bus is the only way they have of getting places, and then we also need to reach out to the people that have choices, that drive cars, and get them on the buses,” Szakos said.
Belmont resident Cynthia Fahringer, a regular user of public transit, said in addition to improved reliability, the buses needed to be cleaner to get more riders.
“The bus system has become very stigmatized. … It’s filthy, it’s absolutely filthy,” Fahringer said. “If you want choice riders, you better clean up your act, and that can be dealt with very easily.”
“It is essential to have a bus that is clean,” Watterson agreed. “We want the bus to not have odors, we want there to not be trash, etc. You are having a bad experience and we are not doing a good job by you and we need to improve upon that.”
Watterson said in an interview that he has not received many concerns about the buses being dirty. He added that one of the goals of the summit was to get suggestions as to how use $110,000 in the city’s current budget for system improvements.
“I am not going to object if [the City Council’s] decision is that part of what we can do is add another person … so we can do more in terms of cleaning our buses,” Watterson said.
“I learned some things today … about potential next steps for our community as we think about ways to improve transit,” Charlottesville Mayor
said to close the summit. “When it comes down to it, the product has to sell itself. A clean, efficient and reliable system that’s comfortable is going to increase ridership in and of itself, so that needs to be a priority.”