A bus that picks up Reynolds Community College students from downtown Richmond. (Charlie Paullin/The Mercury)
Two-thirds of community and technical college campuses in Virginia are within a half-mile walking distance of a public transit stop.
For the remaining third, students traveling by public transit must walk more than half a mile to reach campus, with a quarter of all Virginia campuses located more than four and a half miles from the closest stop.
“Training for hands-on professions like nursing or welding requires in-person instruction,” said Abigail Seldin, co-founder of the Civic Mapping Initiative, the group that collected the data on Virginia in hopes of improving accessibility for students. “And, as we learned from the pandemic, high-speed internet is not yet available to all students at home. If states want to fill these high-demand jobs, transit access to community and technical college campuses needs to be a priority.”
Since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools in Virginia have reopened for in-person learning, and public transit agencies have been finding ways to increase ridership by increasing stops and offering free services.
Community and technical colleges, say some policymakers, should be important targets in those efforts.
There’s a trope in higher education, said Seldin, that students, particularly in community college, are “one flat tire away from dropping out.”
The Civic Mapping Initiative has been tracking proximity of community and technical college campuses to public transit across the country. In 2021, researchers found that only 57% of 1,373 community and technical college main campuses nationwide have transit stops within walking distance. An additional 25% could be made “accessible through very low-cost investments in extending existing bus lines.”
The Virginia-specific study, completed last year, includes 70 campuses in the commonwealth.
A total of 24 campuses in Virginia fell beyond the half-mile walking distance from a transit stop, data show. Seven of those campuses are less than five miles from an existing transit line but are not yet connected to it.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, most people are willing to walk for five to 10 minutes, or a quarter to half a mile, to a transit stop.
Reynolds Community College’s Parham Road campus is one campus that lies more than a mile from the closest public transit stop.
Joe Schilling, a spokesman for the college, said the school recognizes that transportation is one of students’ access barriers and operates shuttle services at three of its four campuses. Students at the downtown campus in Richmond have access to Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) buses.
GRTC recently announced it would extend fare-free services until June 2024.
State agency actions
Several Virginia state agencies said they were aware of students seeking transportation solutions.
Community colleges are working with transit agencies to address transportation needs, and local foundations are raising funds to help students, according to Jim Babb, a spokesman with the Virginia Community College System. He said the system does not monitor the various efforts under way at each campus.
“Virginia’s goal to become the best state for education requires addressing student needs, including college costs beyond direct tuition and fees,” Laura Osberger, a spokesperson from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, wrote in an email to the Mercury.
Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation spokeswoman Amy Friedenberger said the agency is available to “facilitate” relationships between universities, transit agencies and local governments interested in improving access to public transportation services. DRPT has visited college campuses and coordinated closely with higher education institutions in designing the intercity Virginia Breeze bus service, which attracts many college students, she said.
“Solutions are going to vary by locality,” said Seldin, “but the availability of solutions that work for the local area is dependent on there being a relationship between the transit agency and the institution.”
Del. Dan Helmer, D-Fairfax, said any investment in campus transit accessibility would greatly impact Virginians’ lives because of the barriers it would lift for students.
“I think it’s a real opportunity … that can be transformative for the lives of individuals who want to do meaningful work and transformative for companies here in Virginia that need access to skilled workers,” Helmer said.
Kathy Hollinger, CEO of the Greater Washington Partnership, an alliance of employers focused on making the region from Baltimore to Richmond “the most inclusive economy in the nation,” said in an email to the Mercury that transit access is “not equitably distributed” in the region.
She said once the partnership found out about the Civic Mapping Initiative’s study in the fall, the group immediately reached out to Seldin.
“When all residents can easily travel to various businesses and activity centers, reach a broad range of jobs, and access an education by transit or other affordable trip options, we will be one of the most inclusively growing regions in the country,” Hollinger said.
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