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A New Look at Transit

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Micah Clark Moody
GOPC High School Intern

Earlier this year, on April 30 the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) bus lines looked approximately the same as in 1974, four decades ago. On May 1st the routes were changed as part of a system redesign. By COTA’s estimate, 71% more jobs and 53% more people are now within a quarter mile of the new routes.

As suburbs across America continue to grow population and service-sector jobs become more dispersed, there is a need to re-think transportation systems. Older bus routes mean more transfers and climbing trip times, which no longer effectively serve citizens who need to get to service-sector jobs. System redesigns incorporate express routes and routes that directly connect residential areas to employment and education. The goal is to serve riders better by decreasing ride times and linking people to job hubs. Better service increases ridership and revenue.

I have experienced the improvement. I live in a suburb of Columbus and take classes at Ohio State University. There are two bus routes I take to campus. Both take 10 minutes more than driving but avoiding the hassle, expense, and liability of dealing with a car on campus makes public transportation my best option. My quickest route is the express. There are 12 strategically placed express routes in Columbus timed to come about every 15 minutes with 3 minutes transfer time. This guarantees my trip home is quick and never more than 15 minutes delayed.

A route I commonly take now gets me to campus without a transfer: the 31 winds through apartment complexes, and passes through campus. With the new system, the 31 can also take a rider to Easton shopping mall without needing a transfer. Leaving a grid system means the 31 connects people living in small apartments to campus and suburban jobs, two important destinations, without waiting for a transfer.

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COTA’s redesign is Ohio’s most dramatic example of public transportation system over-haul, but many Ohio cities and regions are taking a new look at their system of transportation. Akron is currently working on their Driving Metro Forward Project to reevaluate and redesign the bus system. Cincinnati, facing a widening transit budget deficit, is working to change its three least productive routes.

The success of line redesigns has been demonstrated far past the Ohio border. Nationally, the most ambitious change was in Houston, Texas–America’s 4th biggest city–which unveiled new routes in Spring 2015. After losing 20% of riders in 13 years Houston METRO resolved to change their system. Despite an economic downturn, two years following the change ridership increased 7% while overall Texas transit ridership fell an average of 6%. Albany, New York has had the most striking redesign success, increasing ridership 25% since 2009. They shifted from a slow dispersed system to a few concentrated expressways where buses come every 8-15 minutes. Albany also expanded “universal access” programs with universities and local businesses. Participants pay a flat rate up front then all members ride free. COTA and AkronMETRO have similar universal access relationships.

Line redesigns aren't a complete solution to public transportation’s challenges but they do increase transit efficiency, thereby better serving their riders. Greater Ohio Policy Center supports transportation innovation and recently began co-facilitating the 2017 Ohio Transportation Local Leadership Academy, a series of workshops which includes representatives from Cincinnati, Akron, and other cities. The project strives to achieve vibrant regional visions through transportation.