Danville, Virginia may have the recipe for a resilient transit system

Headlines of doom and gloom have long plagued Danville. For the two thirds of Virginians residing in the state’s “Urban Crescent”—stretching from Northern Virginia through Richmond to Hampton Roads, Southern and Southwest Virginia can seem like irredeemable boondocks.

The relatively recent heralding of Danville as the “Comeback City” shows there’s more nuance to the region. Either despite or because of its past hardships, Danville has pioneered a model of resilient transit service other cities across the nation could reproduce.

Overcoming the struggles of Southern Virginia

Since Danville’s peak in the 1990s, the largest city in Southern Virginia—most famous for tobacco and its large stock of Victorian homes—has lost 23% of its population. Projections by the University of Virginia’s Demographics Research Group forecast Danville will lose another quarter of its 40,693 residents by 2030.

Facing a similarly estimated 23% loss of residents over the next decade, the neighboring city of Martinsville voted to begin reversion talks with Henry County—a process that would see the independent city downgraded to town status within the county. Danville, however, is no Martinsville.

Over three times the size of its neighbor, Danville seems to have the heft and the can-do attitude to make a comeback. As the editorial board of the Roanoke Times recently noted, “Danville is undergoing a remarkable transformation, from a Southern mill town without any active mills to a poster child for how to build a new economy out of the ruins.”

After the closure of the Dan River Mills—once the area’s largest employer—joblessness rose to one in four residents. In response, the city invested in top-notch workforce training at the local community college that has drawn new manufacturers to set up shop and even the Governor of Arkansas for a visit. In 2019 alone Danville added 1,500 jobs to its economy, more than any other Virginia locality outside the Urban Crescent.

Just beyond its city limits on fields that once grew tobacco—the cash crop that built Danville––today 2,300 solar panels stretch across the landscape. This six-megawatt solar facility is just one of three the city financed to power Danville’s revival. Within the last year alone this one solar installation has saved the city over a half a million dollars in energy costs and caught the eye of tech firms looking to expand in lower-cost parts of the Commonwealth.

Such investments have become emblematic of Danville’s approach to its revitalization. From the brand new downtown YMCA (one of the busiest in the country) to the trendy River District with its breweries and coffee shops, parts of Danville feel downright cosmopolitan.

Startups from North Carolina have also taken note of its resurgence and begun to treat Danville as an affordable outpost of the Research Triangle. The city’s transformation has proven so stark that The Atlantic even embedded two reporters there for a month-long exploration of what lessons Danville holds for the rest of small town America.

The theme that emerges from these anecdotes of Danville’s economic redevelopment—resilience—also informs the city’s approach to its transit service. As the Roanoke Times’ Editorial Page Editor, Dwayne Yancey, explains it: “Whatever Danville has done, it’s mostly done on its own, which ought to be a pretty powerful message but also perhaps a scary one to some communities.”

Tough times for transit?

A casual glance at Danville Transit’s recent ridership numbers proves alarming. In 2013, the city’s public transit agency provided 445,677 rides; last year the system only clocked 338,614. That means overall passenger volumes on Danville Transit have sunk by nearly a quarter. The data on the city’s fixed routes looks even bleaker.

Over the last six years, ridership of Danville Transit’s 11 bus routes has decreased by 30.57%. After losing one in four of its passengers over the same timeframe, the director of Charlottesville Area Transit recently declared that city’s bus system to be in a “death spiral.” So why isn’t Danville in a similar panic?

City leaders point to two factors that influence the public’s demand for transit: the jobs market and the price of gas. In 2013, Danville was still deep in the grips of the Great Recession and one in ten adults in town couldn’t find a job. Six years later, unemployment hovers at near record lows of around 5%. Furthermore, the cost of a gallon of gas in Danville is down to $1.54—nearly half the price in 2013. That means more people who can afford a car if they want one and thus choose not to rely on the bus no matter how good the quality of service may be.

Danville’s transit system. Image by Marc Adelman of Danville Transit used with permission.

Dial-a-revenue stream

Another part of the answer is the surging demand for Danville Transit’s dial-a-rideservice—a form of on-demand, door-to-door microtransit typically provided by smaller shuttles. Back in the 1990’s city buses ran Monday through Saturday from 6 am to 6 pm, similar to other agencies across the state like Petersburg Area Transit.

Based on survey data from its riders looking for more early morning and evening coverage, Danville decided to begin offering dial-a-ride service in 2000. Over the years the Danville Transportation Department of Transportation gradually expanded operating hours to make the service available twenty-one hours a day: from 4 am to 1 am all week.

Marc Adelman, Danville’s Director of Transportation by the author.

According to Marc Adelman, Danville’s Director of Transportation for the last 27 years, the idea behind the dual service was to give riders “the flexibility to use either the fixed routes which serve more densely populated areas, educational centers, and commercial districts or the dial-a-ride service which predominantly supports work trips to locations that are not located near the fixed route network.”

Danville’s bet on flexible service has paid off. Since 2013 its dial-a-ride business has increased by half. Calls for paratransit and seniors have surged 48.91% and 57.18%, respectively. At just $4 a ride, Danville Transit’s on-demand service remains such a bargain that it has even kept Uber and Lyft at bay. Mapping out dial-a-ride service calls can also reveal patterns as to which destinations and neighborhoods the city could possibly support better with fixed service.

By diversifying its transit offerings over the last two decades Danville was simultaneously able to to expand service and stabilize its revenue. “Although fixed route ridership has declined due to lower gas prices and the health of the economy, our on-demand services have enabled stable revenue over the same period,” explained Adelman. “The goal of public transit is to support mobility and independence for people. Danville Transit is like a balloon. Our service has to change with the trends going on around us. Diversification and flexibility are the backbone of a healthy transit system.”

Danville Transit’s transfer center by the author.

A forward-thinking fleet

A closer look at Danville Transit’s books reveals that while operating expenses have tripled since 1990, the cost to the city of providing mobility services has actually gone down by $30,000. The secret sauce behind Danville’s expanding transit offerings and simultaneous cost savings come down to three factors: Adelman’s personal touch, generous federal and state funding formulas, and city leaders’ commitment to putting people first.

Like Roanoke’s Valley Transit and Petersburg Area Transit, Danville once ran a bus network without a publicly available system map. Although individual route maps are helpful, without a system map that shows how routes intersect, riders struggle to understand how to transfer and navigate transit in an effective manner.

Shocked by the cost of hiring a professional graphic designer, Adelman made a system map for Danville himself. Whenever routes change, he simply updates them on the map, saving the city the seventy dollars an hour they would pay a private designer.

The rugged, self-reliant attitude of Danville Transit shines its brightest in the winter. Every morning after a snowfall, Adelman drives the city’s brand new plow through the streets to make a determination on whether it is safe for buses to run. If so, he personally plows the path for the city’s 11 fixed routes first and then begins to tackle other corridors.

The aforementioned snowplow only cost the City of Danville $4,000 to purchase thanks to the generous support of federal and state funding formulas. When transit agencies draw on federal monies, the national government typically picks up the tab for 80% of the new investment. That means the federal government gave Danville $80,000 for its new $100,000 snowplow. In Virginia, the state covers 16% of all capital investment costs for transit agencies, leaving localities responsible for just 4% of the cost.

In 2018, the city completed a new $1 million facility for the local Department of Transportation, but Danville only had to pay $40,000. Without the current generous funding breakdown, Danville wouldn’t have been able to afford any of the investments that have kept the quality of its transit high. “The state has been very conscientious of trying to keep localities’ costs down, and we greatly appreciate it,” said Adelman. After beginning his career in mass transit in Indiana where the state leaves all twenty percent of the remaining cost to localities, you know Adelman means it.

Where Danville has leveraged this generous funding formula to greatest benefit has been in its investment in a new fleet. Since Danville’s City Council voted to replace aging diesel vehicles with cleaner propane buses, Danville has switched 30% of its fleet. Adelman estimates that with their current replacement rate of four to five vehicles per year, the entire Danville Transit fleet will operate off of propane by 2025. Although not as environmentally beneficial as electric vehicles, the propane buses have reduced downtown pollution from exhaust and greatly lowered the system’s operating costs.

Transit for the people

The overwhelming support for transit from the city’s political leaders is the final factor behind the unexpected resilience of Danville’s mobility services. After City Council raised bus fares from 80 cents to $1 per ride in 1995, Danville Transit lost 17% of its ridership overnight. The lesson to local politicians was that transit riders are extremely cost sensitive and the best way to maintain ridership is to ensure fares stay affordable. Since then, keeping a one-way fare just a dollar has become something of a mantra for City Council according to Vice Mayor Lee Vogler.

The focus on maintaining affordability seems to have permeated every level of Danville’s decision-making on transit and led to policy changes that support working families, students, and the whole community. Up to two children can now ride for free with a parent. Those enrolled at Danville Community College, Averett University, and in the Piedmont Workforce Network all get half off on dial-a-ride trips if they show their student ID. The city even changed the dial-a-ride fare structure to allow integrated daycare and work trips so parents can get picked up, take their kids to daycare, and then get dropped off at work and count it all as just one $4 trip.

Following an increasing trend among transit providers, Danville has offered free fares on election day for the past two years, an especially useful pledge in Virginia—a state that votes for some level of public servant every single year. Such community-minded policy changes have also boosted the image of public transportation in Danville. “Providing the free service on election day and other holidays has improved the reputation of our transit service in recent years,” said Ralph C. Price, Chair of the local Transit Advisory Board.

Vogler credits the city’s entirely nonpartisan, at-large council for Danville Transit’s success. “No one fights for their own little corner of the city,” he said. “We’re all on the same page here in Danville. Until recently we used to compare ourselves to the United States Senate because we’ve always been respectful and constructive in our work.”

Perhaps it’s Danville’s small town nature that makes city leaders feel completely accessible to the common man. While riding the Route 5 bus south to Whitfield, one passenger turned around to thank Adelman for the new shelter he recently installed in the Walmart parking lot. After the store manager banned people from waiting for the bus in their lobby, she said the shelter was the next best thing to keep her out of the wind and cold while doing her shopping this winter.

Danville’s greatest challenge seems to be its shortage of drivers; however, Adelman is confident he can recruit the extra workers he needs to raise the 250 passengers per day dial-a-ride cap to 300 by spring. The belief in Danville Transit seems to rely on a faith in the workers, city leaders, and riders who make the system possible. “This is a community that has fought back and has taken a lot of positive steps to position itself for the future. The people here didn’t lay down and give up,” said Adelman.

While no one longs for the hard times of the past, without them Danville would be a different—and perhaps ironically worse off—place. Today, resilience lies at the core of the city’s identity.

“The theme of all of this is that we as a city adapt. When textile and tobacco declined, we moved to advanced manufacturing and technology. As transportation demand declined, we switched to a propane fleet and dial-a-ride service,” said Vogler. “We’re always adapting to the changes around us and often times anticipating them and planning for them rather than just reacting to them. That’s why they call us the ‘Comeback City.’”

Wyatt Gordon is Greater Greater Washington’s Virginia Correspondent. He’s a born-and-raised Richmonder with a master’s in Urban Planning from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and a bachelor’s in International Political Economy from American University. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Civil Beat, Style Weekly, and RVA Magazine. You can find him on Richmond’s Southside.

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