Getting Ohio to Work: Reaching Opportunity through Public Transportation Part II

Rural and Urban Public Transit Systems Face Financial Difficulties in Midst of Rising Demand

Alex Highley, GOPC Project Coordinator

This is the second installment of GOPC’s new series: Getting Ohio to Work: Transporting the People. To read the first blog, click here.

Ohio’s public transportation systems serve as a vital means of getting people to work on a daily basis, but struggle to meet increasing demand for service. Among Ohio’s 88 counties, 61 different transit agencies have a profound role on the state economy by transporting 115 million people each year. These transit buses and vans often exist as the sole means of travel for many Ohioans, and demand for their usage is expected to climb. However, transit agencies in Ohio operate under tight budgets and find it increasingly difficult to provide the reliable, on-time access they want to offer clients who need to get to job sites and access healthcare.

In urban Ohio, transit systems operate traditional fixed-route services utilizing 35- to 65-Foot “Heavy Duty Buses” that are able to transport up to 40 passengers at a time to concentrated employment areas. In contrast and appropriate for the local context, rural areas’ public transportation fleets are composed primarily of Dial-a-Ride, or demand response “Light Transit Vehicle” vans. These vehicles serve populations that are far less concentrated and the distances can be vast between typical pick-up and drop-off points. (Urban areas also offer Dial-a-Ride to riders with disabilities).

 Photo: Ohio Department of Transportation

Photo: Ohio Department of Transportation

In rural communities and small towns, demographic changes in the form of aging populations and increased poverty means that families are less able to pay for a car to get to work. Ohio’s senior population is expected to increase 66% by the year 2030, and this aging is expected to be even more pronounced in rural areas. Moreover, there are currently 27 counties that lack a transit agency, which limits riders to relying on health and human service transportation in order to get to vital destinations that are approved for those funds. Meanwhile, outward expansion of Ohio’s cities means that workers living in suburban areas have a farther distance to travel to work, as explored in the first blog of this series.

The need for additional transit investment is clear: according to the 2014 Ohio Transit Needs Study[i], the 115 million total transit trips in 2012 fell short of demand by 38 million rides, meaning 32% of needed rides were unfulfilled. Without increased investment, this gap in unmet demand is set to grow even further. Additionally, Ohio transit systems face pressing capital needs, with over 1,100 buses and vans on the roads operating beyond their useful life (this number is current to 2015 but not expected to have changed substantially in the last three years). This is 36% of the total transit vehicles on the road.

By 2025, Ohio’s systems will require an additional $562 million in order to meet Ohio’s workers’ rising demand for public transit. In the midst of financial uncertainty, many areas in the state are creatively finding ways to redesign their service for the benefit of commuters. Lancaster Public Transit, for example, increased ridership by 23,000 between 2014 and 2016, while decreasing operating costs by reconfiguring fixed routes. The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) also undertook a transit system redesign in order to serve an additional 100,000 people who live within a quarter mile of frequent service, with an estimated 10% increase in ridership over the first three years.

For more GOPC’s transportation work, please visit our Transportation Innovation page.

[i] Ohio Department of Transportation. “2015 Ohio Transit Needs Study”