On the morning of March 27, commuters on the early morning Star Line Trolley run were surprised when a passenger brought out her violin and began to play.
An otherwise drab trip along downtown Roanoke’s Jefferson Street corridor was momentarily brightened into a space for music and entertainment.
Meanwhile, two Valley Metro buses were trundling through town on their winding routes. Displayed inside the buses in space usually reserved for advertising were art panels selected by directors of Community High School’s Marginal Arts Festival.
These two buses were identified in the Marginal Arts Festival guide as galleries in their own right, with bus numbers instead of addresses directing viewers where to find them.
These efforts, organized by RIDE Solutions, the Greater Roanoke Transit Company and the Marginal Arts Festival, were part of Art by Bus, a program to raise awareness of the importance of public transit to the Roanoke Valley and encourage people who had never used it before to explore it as a transportation option.
Public transit serves a vital benefit in the Roanoke Valley. Each year, Valley Metro and the Smart Way bus carry more than 2 million passengers over 10 million miles.
These riders come from all walks of life and ride for every purpose imaginable – commuting, doctor visits, shopping, visiting friends and relatives, and more.
Many ride so they don’t have to drive, saving money and reducing traffic congestion on our roads. Others ride because they have no choice, relying on public transportation for access to jobs and services that allow them to be productive members of society.
Public transit helps the valley live up to its reputation as being a great outdoor destination by reducing vehicle emissions, making our roads more efficient by reducing congestion and limiting the need for parking, which can encourage more green space. From an economic development and quality of life perspective, public transit is increasingly important to the Millennial generation, which is less likely to want to own cars and more likely to want to live in traditional, walkable urban neighborhoods where public transit is a convenient connection to elsewhere in the community. As the Roanoke Valley seeks to grow existing businesses and attract new ones, the workforce that will support those enterprises will see robust public transit as a necessary component of the community.
But we know that not everyone can or wants to ride the bus, and we know that even when someone does want to leave the car at home and take transit, it’s not always viable. On the same day that violinist Erin Hunter cheered a bleary-eyed trolley crowd with a morning klezmer tune, a transportation conference hosted by RIDE Solutions and the Cabell Brand Center at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine featured a panel of three women who discussed the role transportation options played in their quests to lift themselves out of poverty. All were or had been transit-dependent, and one described how a trip to Walmart on her way into work one morning meant catching the bus at 5:30 a.m. and spending the next three hours on the bus, a huge time commitment for a trip that would take most of us 30 minutes.
Valley Metro’s pulse system – wherein every bus must come downtown to a central transfer point before flowing back out to the rest of the city – stretches cross-town trips out to an hour or more. While this might mean that riders will be able to get where they need to go eventually, it does commit large amounts of their time to riding the bus, time that could be spent with their families or other pursuits. For drivers who are tired of paying out the nose to fill their tank and are looking for alternatives, it keeps a bus trip an unfeasible option.
There are efforts under way to envision a better public transportation system. The Regional Commission has been working on a Transit Vision Plan for the whole valley, rethinking where transit needs to go, how often and how it gets there. For things to really change, though, public transit needs the support of the public. Routes and schedules are limited by funding and potential ridership, so without support from citizens advocating, constructively, for improved transit through their neighborhood groups, change will be slow in coming.
By bringing art and performance on board the bus, we wanted both riders and nonriders alike to not only pay attention to public transit, but reconsider its value to our community and to become active in supporting it, either as a new rider or as an advocate. As the Roanoke Valley continues to grow as a great, vibrant place to live and as a major economic engine for Southwest Virginia, its public transportation is going to need to grow with it.
Jeremy Holmes isthe coordinator of sustainability programs for the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission.This article was first published by The Roanoke Times.