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Charlottesville public transportation alternatives to car-based travel highlight accessibility, sustainability issues

Amid high gas prices, Charlottesville transportation services and researchers reflect on current transportation options

<p>With people looking to public transportation amid rising gas prices, the use of such transportation as a more sustainable and less costly alternative to individual modes also raises concerns regarding accessibility for riders, even among the University Transit Service.</p>

With people looking to public transportation amid rising gas prices, the use of such transportation as a more sustainable and less costly alternative to individual modes also raises concerns regarding accessibility for riders, even among the University Transit Service.

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With recent sanctions on Russian energy boosting the cost of crude oil — and as a result, gasoline prices in Charlottesville and elsewhere — public transportation has become a prominent alternative to less affordable and less sustainable individual transportation methods, like cars. Though it is unclear how long gas prices will remain elevated, retail gas prices may continue to rise, inducing Charlottesville residents to depend on more sustainable transportation methods, such as buses, which may not offer equitable transportation for all residents. 

According to a study published in 2014, increases in gasoline price to over $3 per gallon affect transit ridership in the U.S. Gasoline prices surpassed $4 per gallon in March, and this is already possibly reflected by increased daily transit ridership

The uncertainty of future oil prices and car-dependent transportation presents an opportunity to simultaneously address the environmental sustainability and accessibility of transportation alternatives. When car engines utilize gasoline and other forms of fuel, they release carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. While greenhouse gasses are necessary for absorbing and radiating heat back to Earth, post-Industrial Revolution carbon emissions have magnified the effect, raising Earth’s average temperatures to levels harmful for natural life. 

Conversely, individuals can significantly decrease carbon dioxide emissions and potentially save money by taking the bus instead of driving a car. Within Charlottesville, there are several public transportation services with varying fees and routes, such as the Afton Express, the Jaunt CONNECT bus, vanpools through Enterprise and the Charlottesville Area Transit. Some services like Jaunt are free, while others such as the Afton Express charge a monthly cost — $88 per month. In response to rising gas prices, U.Va. Parking and Transportation provided a summary of local transportation options and the savings in comparison to traveling by car, including savings of up to $299 per month with Jaunt, a fixed route-commuter service serving Albemarle and neighboring counties. 

Andrew Mondschein, associate professor of urban and environmental planning, said these transportation options are only viable for Charlottesville residents if they are accessible in the first place. 

“We still see transit as kind of a social safety net, and that’s a really important thing to do,” Mondschein said. “But at the same time, what we heard in our focus groups was that if it doesn’t acknowledge that people have a right to access the same types of destinations … it’s actually going to lead to worse outcomes when the system is less usable.”  

As detailed in the 2020 assessment on transportation equity and accessibility within Charlottesville that Mondschein co-authored, accessibility is the ability to connect people to the specific places they need to travel to, whether it is for groceries, work, health care or other life needs. The assessment incorporated community members’ inputs through focus groups and interviews with regional and transportation leaders. Some of Mondschein’s research on transportation equity and accessibility highlights weaknesses in Charlottesville’s transportation systems, such as insufficient routes to the U.Va. Health System, insufficient infrastructure — such as sidewalks and street crossings — and low financial accessibility.

Due to these structural weaknesses in Charlottesville’s transportation systems, Mondschein points out that people may not have reliable transportation to work or other places they need to be. While some services such as Jaunt have been expanding access to provide free service to Americans with Disabilities Act-certified passengers, 24.1 percent of Charlottesville residents live below the poverty line, and solutions to insufficient transportation may still pose a financial barrier. 

Mondschein also explained that there may be an increased demand for responsive transportation to accommodate gaps in bus schedules. However, if these systems require digital financial transactions, residents who do not have reliable Internet access or credit cards may not be able to obtain emergency transportation. 

Additionally, even if residents are encouraged to opt for more sustainable transportation methods, Mondschein said transportation discounts and policies in Charlottesville specifically do not increase accessibility for those who most require transportation. 

“The kinds of discounts we provide and the kinds of subsidies we provide are still really focused on making it cheaper to drive,” Mondschein said. “The city is still considering building more parking in downtown Charlottesville in order to meet a perceived economic need for supporting those businesses with drivers.” 

As gas prices continue to rise, people are left with two main options — reduce the amount they travel or reduce the amount of money on other necessities and sources of spending. For those who depend on cars for transportation because public transportation is financially or physically inaccessible, there may not be environmentally or financially friendly options available — especially within Charlottesville.

For University students and faculty, UTS continues to monitor usage of its services. According to Patrick Clark, Parking and Transportation mobility and alternative transportation manager, and Rebecca White, Parking and Transportation Director, UTS is largely designed to support those around and on Grounds.

“We run our service in a very compact service area, very small service area, and run very frequent service in that service area, and we’re looking for about 30 passengers an hour,” White said. 

Prior to the pandemic lockdowns, UTS utilized bus routes for certain times during the night, but switched over to Safe Ride due to lower demands for bus services — which reduced the carbon footprint of their transportation services. However, demand has increased as COVID-19 regulations have relaxed. 

“We had to take a step back and see how best to address this demand,” Clark said. “Based on pick up and drop off locations … we can figure out what the common trip patterns were, and what times of night.”

Since then, UTS has reinstated night routes and settled on a mixed model system, where fixed routes align with high-density trip routes, and on-demand van services cover the remaining trips to better meet increased demands. While they initially had approximately ten hubs for the OnDemand service, they have since expanded to fifty hubs.

“Six out of seven nights we had an improvement in our trip completion, and seven out of seven nights we had a significant reduction of wait time,” White said.

Additionally, scooters are available around Grounds and in Charlottesville, offering a convenient transportation option between the UTS routes in Charlottesville. While UTS may be more limited off-Grounds, transportation services like the Virginia Breeze bus lines or the Amtrak remain available between Charlottesville and Washington, D.C.

“We do realize that it is not easy to really see how your needs fit into these options,” White said. “We’re really trying to reverse that, and think of it from the passenger’s point of view.”

In general, sustainability transportation policies within Charlottesville and elsewhere are dependent on residents’ local needs, physical accessibility, financial accessibility and urban infrastructure, among other factors. If gas prices continue to rise, the viability of current transportation options in Charlottesville may vary widely for different groups of people.

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