Virginia on the move!

by Matthew Crespi

When we began the SHSF Transit Mapping Project over a year and a half ago, we set out to answer the question of which community and technical colleges in the United States have public transit within walking distance. The answer to that question is not a static one, however, and as we compile our maps, they represent a point in time. While some trends are persistent — e.g., which areas prioritize transit and education in their budgets and planning, which areas have the population densities to support different kinds of transit options, where legacy infrastructure is a help or a hindrance, and more — transit agencies are constantly tinkering with routes, schedules, and offerings.

The global pandemic that’s been present for our entire investigation has put additional pressures both on public transit infrastructure to adapt and on community and technical colleges to update their offerings. Investments in new technologies for more dynamic on-demand paratransit and remote instruction have offered help, while markedly decreased ridership and revenues have posed enormous challenges to our nation’s transit operators. Changing commuting patterns have offered both challenges and opportunities for transit agencies to rethink routes, offering a mixed bag of blessings and obstacles to community college campuses depending on where they sit.

While putting together our Virginia data, it quickly became clear that as a state (Commonwealth, actually), they’ve been doing their level best to see this time of rapid change as an opportunity to the greatest extent possible. In a time when most places are cutting routes, we’ve seen Virginia experiment with new service, both intercity and in the form of local transit.

Take the I-Ride Transit program for example. It’s operated by Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia, but its newly launched services in Franklin and Smithfield are open to riders of all ages. They’ve even covered their new vehicles in local photography and artwork under the hopes that it will attract attention and encourage ridership. Well, it certainly caught our attention, and it should be a boon to students attending Paul D. Camp Community College in Franklin, which now has a transit stop right out front. The first time we looked at that campus, the closest stop we could find was a half mile walk away, doable for some students but prohibitive for other aspiring enrollees.

In some areas, however, the geography and transit patterns just won’t support new bus routes, but colleges and transit agencies in those areas aren’t giving up. Consider Rappahannock Community College, whose five campuses are spread out near the Chesapeake Bay and its contributing waterways.

We could only find a fixed-route transit stop near one of these campuses, but through a partnership with Bay Transit, students can not only ride buses but access door-to-door paratransit services for free. The paratransit service isn’t perfect — it requires 24 hours advance notice, only operates during business hours (not useful for night or weekend classes), and may be capacity constrained at times — but it’s a great start and an increasingly promising adaptation to a world with irregular commuting patterns. And free rides completely solves the cost problem, one of the three biggest challenges for student transit (alongside “does it go where I need it to?” and “does it run when I need it to?”).

While the limitations of most paratransit systems are such that we still give campuses with only paratransit a gray “no nearby stop” node on our maps (in that very few have the capacity to become the primary mode of accessing campus for a large chunk of the student body), we’re excited about the future of paratransit. And that future looks ever brighter as technologies for dynamic vehicle routing and paratransit management increase in both capability and adoption.

So as we launch our maps, keep in mind that today’s problem spots could easily be tomorrow’s success stories. It is in fact our greatest hope for this project that these maps help make that transformation a common occurrence. If other states can approach transit access like some of Virginia’s more innovative local institutions do, we have no doubt we’ll see more successes coming soon.

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Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation (SHSF)

SHSF focuses on access to public services and accountability for abuse of authority. To learn more, visit us at www.shs.foundation