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There’s a great post on Human Transit about how Portland, 30 years ago, radically changed the design of their bus network. It went from a system where most routes ran downtown infrequently to a network of frequent routes running in a grid pattern. This requires passengers to make more connections between routes, but improves connectivity to destinations outside of downtown.  And it all happened before the first light rail line ever opened.

The 1970 network consisted of bus routes radiating from downtown across the gridded eastside, which constitutes about 3/4 of Portland. If you were anywhere on this network, you had a direct bus downtown — a slow, circuitous, and infrequent bus. Very few routes ran better than every 30 minutes during the day. Only two routes ran north-south across the east side, and both were too infrequent to transfer to, so you couldn’t really use them unless both ends of your trip were on them.

Portland 1970

Portland 2012

If you think Portland in 1970 looks a lot like Columbus today, I agree with you.  That makes me wonder, is it time for a change?  Has Columbus outgrown the downtown-based system?  Do we need better crosstown connections to OSU?  How about to newer job centers around the outerbelt? Do people need to get from Grandview to the Short North to the Airport without going downtown?  How about from Dublin to Worthington to Easton?

I think the answer to these questions is yes.  The fight over too many buses being on High Street downtown is just one indication that the downtown pulse system that has served Columbus well could use a change.  When was the last time Columbus did a complete redesign from ground zero for the bus system?  My guess is never, as most of the bus routes still follow old streetcar routes.

I think there are many good candidates for change.  I’m going to pick on the #5 as an example.  The #5 currently runs east-west on Renner Rd, Trabue Rd, and 5th Street to High Street and then along High Street to the south side of downtown.  The total trip time can be over an hour from the Giant Eagle on the west side to the end of the route at Mound & 5th.  However, approximately a third of that time (20 minutes) is on High Street duplicating service on the #2 and other routes.  If you terminated the #5 at High Street, it could run approximately three trips for every two today.  Passengers going downtown could connect to the very frequent #1,  #2, or some other route.  You could extend the #5 farther east by combining it with the #96.  It could provide a direct route from the west side, Grandview, Fifth by Northwest, and the Short North to the airport.  You could eliminate other duplicitous service on the #6 and #9.   Portions of the #8, #11, #16, and #18 also look like good candidates for reorganization to me. I know this requires a more complete network analysis, but it illustrates the possibilities.

Which routes would you change?

I haven’t been posting much at all lately, mostly because work has been crazy busy during the day and family time keeps me busy at night.  Frankly, I’m not sure my time availability will ever improve, but it’s likely that I’ll try to make more time for blogging in the future.

In the meantime, I want to point you to a site that is posting on a daily basis; Biking Columbus.  The site isn’t entirely about biking.  The author has created some very cool unofficial COTA maps using Google Fusion tables.  Note that the maps also show the frequent service portions of the bus network differently, as I did here and here.

Unofficial COTA Map from Biking Columbus

My wife, son, and I recently took a vacation to Michigan.  We left from Chicago on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, turned the corner around Lake Michigan, and started heading north towards Mackinac Island.  We stayed along the Lake Michigan coast for the most part, stopping in many little tourist towns along the way.  I didn’t take pictures in all of them, but almost all were very charming, with what appear to be very healthy central business districts.  I know the tourist money helps with the business aspect, but there were some trends and commonalities that I think are worth noting:

  1. Traffic moves slow in the downtown areas.  There were very few multi-lane roads.
  2. There was lots of on-street parking.  Angled parking was especially common.  Drivers looking for parking is part of the reason traffic moves slowly.
  3. Street trees were usually abundant, large, and shady.
  4. Buildings on the main commercial streets were intact.  There were solid street walls of buildings, not the gap-toothed building-parking lot-building-parking lot pattern.
  5. Parking was on-street or behind buildings in public lots.
  6. There was good signage directing people to main attractions and maps of the business district in many towns.

Here are some photos:

South Haven, MISouth Haven, MI

Holland, MI

Traverse City, MI

Charlevoix, MI

Petoskey, MI

Mackinaw City, MI

Mackinac Island, MI

Full Album Here

The Dispatch ran a story yesterday showing the results of a survey of Columbus Public Schools (CPS) students’ public transportation needs.  Over three fourths said they needed a pass for the school year for a variety of reasons, including transportation to and from extracurricular activities, school, work internships, and community service.  Granted, this is a stated preference survey, and if you ask people if they need free transportation, they’re likely to say yes.  Nevertheless, that’s a lot of students who need transportation options.

The issue is that the contract between CPS and COTA is changing in a way that could cost CPS more money.  They have budget problems, like everyone else, and want to limit their potential cost for transportation to just certain needs.  This essentially shifts some costs from the district to the students and their families.  I expect some, maybe even most, will be able to find another way to get to around.  They’ll get cars, get rides, take a school bus, bike, or walk.  However, some will probably have a much harder time participating in sports, work, or even getting to school.  I’m not sure I have much of an opinion on this yet, but it will be interesting to see how it works itself out.

Survey: Columbus students say they need COTA passes
By Rob Messinger
The Columbus Dispatch Tuesday September 27, 2011 8:30 AM

Three of four Columbus high-school students said they need a COTA bus pass this year in a survey the district conducted before the school board decides whether to dramatically scale back the program.

Superintendent Gene Harris last week presented a plan to revoke the passes of about 11,000 high-school students on Oct. 1, but the school board wanted more information before members made a decision. The topic is on the agenda for a meeting at 6 p.m. tonight.

More than 7,900 students responded to the survey conducted late last week, of which 60 percent said they don’t currently have a pass. Yet 76.2 percent said they needed a pass for the current school year, and the largest group (73.5 percent) cited transportation related to extracurricular activities as a need.

READ MORE

COTA Considering Fare Increase

It’s that time again. COTA considers raising fares every three years. Fares went up to $1.50 for a local ride in 2006, were delayed a year and raised to $1.75 in 2010, but they’re on the agenda again for 2012.

COTA board to debate fare increase for 2012
Despite surplus, riders expected to pay certain share
By Robert Vitale
The Columbus Dispatch Tuesday September 27, 2011 4:52 AM

Although they’ve piled up nearly $42 million in surpluses over the past three years, Central Ohio Transit Authority board members will begin discussions today about a potential fare increase in 2012.

The agency took in $10.9 million more than it spent last year, but officials said they want to make sure passengers pay their fair share for an operation that’s funded overwhelmingly by a portion of Franklin County’s 6.75 percent sales tax.

COTA long has sought to keep riders paying 18 to 20 percent of the agency’s yearly expenses, said spokesman Marty Stutz. With costs increasing faster than revenue, that share dipped to 17.6 percent last year.

READ MORE

First, I think it’s good that COTA considers fare increases on a periodic basis instead of waiting for a crises like many transit agencies.  Second, it’s also good that they have a standard for farebox recovery ratio, the percent of the operating costs covered by fares, that can be used to help determine when a fare increase is justified.  Given the goal of 18-20%, and the current ratio of 17.6%, I thought it would be interesting to see COTA’s historical farebox recovery ratios based on National Transit Database (NTD) data.

Year Farebox Recovery Ratio Fare Revenue Operating Costs
2000 20.1% $13,255,339 $65,963,988
2001 18.5% $13,195,008 $71,376,998
2002 19.6% $13,165,114 $67,291,912
2003 17.7% $12,497,957 $70,567,912
2004 16.6% $11,779,221 $70,960,352
2005 16.0% $11,756,470 $73,268,125
2006 19.6% $13,205,864 $67,361,346
2007 18.8% $13,071,440 $69,572,572
2008 17.8% $13,884,507 $78,134,053
2009 17.1% $13,817,908 $81,041,138
2010 17.6% $15,400,000 $87,500,000

Note: 2010 data based on numbers in Dispatch article, not NTD data.

You can see that operating costs usually go up, although there is some variabilty based on the price of gas and amount of service provided.  If operating costs increase, and service levels, ridership, and fares all stay about the same, then the farebox recovery ratio slowly declines over time until fares are raised to generate more revenue.  That’s where COTA is heading now, with the ratio under 18% for the last three years.  So it’s probably a good time to consider a fare increase.  Either that, or radically rethink transit funding all together.

Sorry I haven’t posted in over a month. I’ve been busy with work, family, vacation, and stuff. Here’s a Dispatch article that caught my eye and gave me an idea. Let me know what you think.

COTA upgrade: No more free bus rides for OSU alumni
By Robert Vitale
The Columbus Dispatch Monday September 19, 2011 4:42 AM

One of the perks of an Ohio State University diploma — free bus rides as long as the driver doesn’t notice that your student ID has expired — is coming to an end.

Technology upgrades by Ohio State and the Central Ohio Transit Authority mean students will have to swipe their BuckID at the fare box as they board COTA buses.

COTA isn’t imposing the requirement as a reaction to freeloading former students, spokeswoman Beth Berkemer said. “That’s just such a minute amount.”

The reason, she said, is that “when we created this contract, there was an understanding we both would make an investment to upgrade our systems.”

…OSU students have logged more than 1.7 million rides on COTA buses over the past year, and students have paid more than $1.6 million for the service. That comes out to about 94 cents per ride, compared with COTA’s one-way fare of $1.75.

READ MORE

What interested me most about this article was the data in the last paragraph.  Students as a whole paid $1.6 million for COTA service and rode 1.7 million times for an average fare of $0.94 cents.  This is substantially less than the one-way local fare of $1.75 as the Dispatch noted, but it’s much higher than the average price per trip for the COTA system as a whole.

In 2009, COTA took in $13,817,908 in fare revenues and served 17,446,736 trips, for an average fare collected per trip of $0.79.  The reason the price per trip is so much lower than one-way fares is due to several factors.  First is transfers, which count as an “unlinked trip,” but are free between local routes and $0.75 to transfer from a local to express.  Monthly, weekly, and one-day passes can also offer riders a deep discount and reduce the cost per ride.  If you have a monthly local pass for $55 and ride every day to and from work (roughly 42 trips per month on average), then you only spend $1.31 per trip instead of $1.75.  Lastly, some riders such as seniors, children, and those with disabilities qualify for reduced fares.

There’s no doubt that some students utilize COTA much more than others, so some will get a great deal while others pay a nominal fee with little benefit.  On the whole, the OSU-COTA partnership look like a great deal for COTA by increasing their revenue and ridership.  Even the students who don’t ride COTA often though are probably not too upset about spending $27 a year (if attending for three quarters) for unlimited transit.  It’s negligible in comparison to all the other costs associated with tuition, room, board, and fees.  It’s a hell of a lot less than a parking pass.

This makes me wonder if implementing a similar system on a city-wide or sub-regional level would be a huge win-win.  Why not get rid of fares (or maybe just most fares) and add a small fee to every household’s property tax bill?  The 2005-2009 American Community Survey showed 453,580 households in Franklin County.  Again, the annual fare revenue collected by COTA was $13,817,908.  To balance the current revenue, those households would need to pay $30.46 per year on average.  The fee could be weighted based on the level of service in a community (it’s not really fair for someone in Canal Winchester or New Albany to pay the same fee as someone in Downtown).  Regardless though, I think the fees would be pretty small compared to a typical property tax bill of several thousand dollars.  They might even be small compared to the cost of a monthly pass ($55).  But now everyone can ride the bus as much as they want without the hassle of buying tickets,  monthly passes, or having exact change.  Just get on and get off, which is exactly how CABS works at OSU.  I think ridership would increase quite a bit just due to the simplicity of the system and the cheaper cost of riding.

An additional benefit would be faster service due to the lack of dwell time at stops.  There would be no more waiting for people to drop change into the machine, no more lines at the door waiting to board.  Just get on and sit down.  Lastly, I think this could be a more stable source of revenue for COTA, but there could be issues in making sure it’s easy to raise revenue as necessary.

In summary, COTA wins with higher ridership and lower costs (due to the smaller dwell times and less fare collection costs), transit riders win with cheaper and faster service, and non-transit riders win because the higher ridership would reduce congestion.  I’m sure many non-transit riders will say that COTA service isn’t worth even $30 a year to them, but I think a system like this has serious merits that should be discussed.

This COTA press release didn’t have images of the shelters, but Columbus Underground did.  Vote below to tell us which one is your favorite.

COTA Partners with CCAD, Brings Art to Transit

The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) has partnered with the Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD) to create new bus stop shelters!
CCAD students in an industrial design class were challenged to craft a new passenger shelter that would replace existing shelters in the central business district.

Students were asked to incorporate innovative materials, sustainable or “green” features, protection from the elements and compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. They need to include all of these features in a unique, signature design that complements the urban environment and serves as an attractive focal point to the streetscape.

Without knowing anything about cost, materials, or amenities that would be included, it’s hard to pick a definite favorite. Based on design alone, I like Finalist A the best. It looks like it might have a lean bar in addition to a standard bench. Portland has these at some light rail stations and I thought they were a very good way to provide more comfort for many people in a small amount of space. I’m a little concerned about the channelization of water off of the roof though.

I also like the very modern and transparent look of Finalist C. Finalist B seemed a little too traditional for my tastes. That said, I have no problem with the existing COTA bus shelters in downtown. I think they’re pretty nice looking too.

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