Public transportation can seem like a lesser need in more rural areas, but for suburban areas like Williamsburg the transportation system is continuing to grow the local economy, provide environmentally friendly transportation options and create more services for the disabled.
Public transit across the state has been growing in recent years to address the increasing need of transportation for people with disabilities, said Jennifer DeBruhl, chief of transportation for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transport.
DeBruhl said one of the aspects the VDRPT measures when analyzing growth is the area’s demographics. In areas that fall in the middle of the spectrum of urban and rural, such as Williamsburg, she said there tends to be an increase in aging populations which means there are more people who might have limited mobility and less access to services such as health care.
“It’s about communities trying to be adaptable and meet increasing demand or need,” she said.
The Williamsburg Area Transit Authority, commonly referred to as WATA, is one of the public transportation services that has continued to grow paratransit services recently. In the last two years, disability-accessible services have grown about 20 percent and WATA plans to continue that growth by looking into other options to provide accessible public transportation, said Michele Canty, WATA’s marketing and communications specialist.
But the initiative is something that has only started in recent years, thanks to greater awareness of the need.
“I think disability advocates have done a really good job of explaining why changes are needed and why they’re important,” Canty said. “It opens an entire world to folks and gives them more access to a life with dignity and respect.”
Despite the growing disabled ridership, WATA has experienced an 8 percent decrease in overall ridership in the past year. According to a study from the American Public Transportation Association, a decrease in ridership is a trend for public transportation operations across the nation.
Canty said the reason is most likely a stable economy. During the recession, she said public transportation tends to see a huge increase in ridership while stronger economies result in a decrease because more individuals are buying cars.
But in an area such as Williamsburg that has a large service industry population, public transportation can become part of the backbone of the economy.
“This is a county and area that relies on workers that commute here,” Canty said. “Williamsburg and James City County wouldn’t be able to operate without them and many aren’t able to maintain the cost of having a car.”
Canty said about 70 percent of WATA’s ridership is for people working in the private sector and 10 percent are William & Mary and Williamsburg-James City County students.
According to data from WATA, for every $1 invested into public transportation, the community earns a $4 return on that investment. That’s because people are able to go shopping, get to work and participate in the community with greater ease.
“Public transportation is about making those vital connections,” DeBruhl said.
But as public transportation across the state and in the local area continues to analyze how to best address growing needs, the industry also has to consider how to entice riders in rural areas who might be more likely to simply drive a car.
DeBruhl said there are many reasons a community or individual should consider using public transportation more frequently.
One of which is creating an easier commute. If more people are using public transportation, then the roadways will be less congested which will also decrease the time of an individual’s commute.
Additionally, public transportation and ride sharing can be a more productive form of transportation because people get to do activities, such as reading or checking emails, that they wouldn’t be able to do if they were driving a car.
Public transportation can also improve the environment because it helps reduce the amount of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere.
“It all goes back to improving the quality of life,” DeBruhl said. “Public transportation makes a positive impact on communities.”