Bus enthusiasts picked for a new transit-rider committee in Roanoke say they know how to make Valley Metro better: make it go more places more often and with a few more amenities so it appeals to more people.
In their vision, ridership grows rather than contracts — as is happening now — while poverty decreases and health improves, both for people and the environment.
The recently launched Transit Passenger Advisory Committee could possibly begin a new conversation about bus transportation in the Roanoke Valley. The people picked for the committee are a man representing disabled riders, a nurse, two college faculty members, a business owner who worked as a transportation consultant and a professional transportation planner.
The volunteer group held an organizational meeting Nov. 21. It reports to the Greater Roanoke Transit Co. board of directors, which runs the Valley Metro bus system. The board wanted the committee established after a bus board seat for a resident was eliminated in 2018 to provide greater governmental representation.
“I see us as being potential ambassadors to the public to help get the word out about what Valley Metro is ... that it’s not just for people down on their luck,” said committee member Rachel Ruhlen, a transportation planner at the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission who commutes primarily by bicycle but also uses the bus. “It’s a legitimate form of transportation that anyone and everyone should be able to use.”
Valley Metro estimates 1,500 people per day rides the blue, white and green buses that circulate six days a week in Roanoke, Salem and Vinton.
Ruhlen applauded Valley Metro’s decision to pilot a smartphone app on certain routes, calling it a needed modernization. But it’s also time for Valley Metro to equip its ticket agent in the bus station, known as the Campbell Court Transportation Center, to accept credit cards. The agent takes only cash and checks.
Committee member Laura Hartman, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Roanoke College and a once-a-week bus commuter, predicted that buses and bikes could eventually displace personal vehicles as the chief form of transportation here and elsewhere. But, right now, due to transit’s limitations, “I can’t choose to get around without a car in this area,” Hartman said.
Invest until riding the bus becomes “a no-brainer” and “better than driving,” she said.
“I think we have a moral obligation to provide good transit for people that need it. And good transit. Not stingy, begrudging transit that barely meets your needs but, actually, good transit. I think that that’s an imperative as a society who cares about the vulnerable among us,” she said.
She argued that the buses should run every 10 to 15 minutes rather than hitting the stops every 30 to 60 minutes during the 15 hours a day when the service runs, 5:45 a.m. to 8:45 p.m.
“My preliminary research is indicating that transit is essential for bringing people out of poverty, that transit is a very clear supporter of public health — it makes people healthier to use transit,” Hartman said. “I know these are big concerns for the city of Roanoke.”
Right now, Valley Metro’s users are predominantly the working poor, according to a 2014 survey that found that 71% of Valley Metro riders lived on an annual income below $20,000 and that 63% worked. Nearly 85% don’t own a vehicle, the survey found.
Committee member Sean McGinnis injects engineering studies at Virginia Tech with an environmental focus in his role as director of the VT Green Engineering Program. He’s also a paid city contractor who computes the carbon footprint of city government and Roanoke as a whole. He said he values strategies to get people out of cars and reduce transportation-generated carbon emissions and has commuted from Roanoke to Blacksburg on the Smart Way bus for nearly 15 years. Transportation emits about a fifth of the total carbon output of the city, which was 2 million metric tons in 2017, he said.
Hope Trachtenberg-Fifer, a nurse, volunteered for the committee after frequently riding STAR, which provides door-to-door service to people who are physically or mentally unable to ride the bus.
Fifer suffered a broken hip. Her concerns? Most bus stops along Valley Metro routes consist of a small, sometimes muddy patch of roadside with a sign, she said, describing this as a possible area for improvement.
“The overwhelming majority of bus stops don’t have any seating, don’t have any shelter,” she said.
Valley Metro has put money into improving some of its more than 800 stops with seating and shelters, but has a long way go. It does not currently plan to equip each one.
Committee member Stephen Grammer, a frequent Valley Metro rider, indicated he believes government can find the money for better transit. A top interest of his is expanding service into Roanoke County. Although his speech is slowed by cerebral palsy, he silently expressed excitement in that topic during the first moments of the first committee meeting by visibly rocking his electric scooter.
Chris Andrews, owner of the Black Lantern Inn in Roanoke, doesn’t ride transit but formerly worked as a school system transportation consultant. He said he volunteered to give his time and energy to a cause he sees as important. He’s curious whether Valley Metro could add stops in the Tanglewood area to the free Star Line Trolley, which connects downtown and Carilion Clinic’s main campus via Jefferson Street. Valley Metro receives local private sector money to operate the trolley, but the $10 million system is funded primarily by ticket sales and money from Roanoke, Salem, Vinton and state and local government grants.
Bus service leaders previously have received many suggestions for system improvement, including some of the same ideas the committee is generating, and say they have done what they could within money constraints. Officials also contracted for a professionally written expansion and development plan good through 2028. It runs 195 pages.
“We are providing every bit of service that we possibly can given the resources available to us now,” said Bill Bestpitch, a member of the Roanoke City Council and president of the bus board. “We would all agree we would love to expand it,” noting that such requests go back “many, many years.”
Bestpitch said the National League of Cities named transit a key part of its municipal infrastructure platform on which it plans to lobby candidates competing in the 2020 election. If federal and state governments respond by furnishing more money, “then it will be much more realistic for us to be able to expand some of the services,” Bestpitch said.