Talking Transit: Rethinking Our Routines

Recently I had an opportunity to ride COTA to work with its CEO Curtis Stitt and MORPC Executive Director William Murdock. How great is it to be in a metro area where the bus stop is about a 1-minute walk from my front door, the bus is clean, the driver is courteous, and the entire trip takes less than 10 minutes? I can’t even get my car out of my parking garage that fast. But is it really that easy?

There’s no doubt that comprehensive public transit is critical for Franklin County residents. Based on US Census and Ohio BMV data, more than 65,000 households and 108,000 residents (age 18-65) in our County don’t own a motor vehicle. How do they get around, and are those methods efficient and effective?

A substantial number of them take COTA! Based on data provided by COTA staff, there are just over 1.5 million boardings per month of all COTA buses, or about 61,232 boardings per weekday. Factoring out students, employees, and guests, we estimate about 50,000 of those boardings are folks 18-65, or 25,000 people routinely using the buses to get to and from work.

This is admirable, to be sure. But how do we make it higher? I asked my aide, Michael Daniels, to do a little research. We looked at our combined calendars and made some comparisons. Michael doesn’t own a car, and takes COTA. I generally drive, and if our events are off the major city arteries, Michael rides with me.

In a span of the two weeks we chose at random, we made 41 work-related trips to somewhere. Of these, 30 were as fast or faster taking COTA than driving, and the total round-trip time was about 15 hours. This is where our region excels with public transportation – just think about the gas, wear and tear, and parking costs that could be saved on these trips.

The other 11 trips, however, were quite a different story. Round-trip driving time for them totaled 5.2 hours. Every one of the destinations was reachable by COTA, but the total round-trip ride time for them would have been 22.4 hours! That’s 17.2 hours difference in transit time – more than two full work days. It seems if you want to get around downtown and adjacent neighborhoods, a bus pass makes a lot of sense, but if you want to visit Grandview, Gahanna, Dublin, Easton, Polaris, or the airport, you either have to drive, or give up half a day for travel time there and back.

COTA riders seem to feel this as well, with many of them hedging on day-to-day payment decisions vs the commitment of purchasing monthly passes. The data from COTA tell us that on an average weekday, 34.1% of riders paid cash on the bus, 17.1% used a day pass, and 30.2% used a 31-day pass. If those cash and day pass riders could commit to monthly ridership, they would save substantially.

Clearly, we can and must do better if our region is to become the thriving global metropolitan area for which we are all striving, and if we are to truly provide opportunities for all of our residents. To do this, we need a three-sided approach and partnership – public, private, and personal.

The public sector – specifically local and regional governments and authorities – must play a significant role. We must have a comprehensive transportation strategy focused on growth and accessibility to centers of employment and commerce to give residents the ability to earn and to spend. Fortunately, COTA and MORPC have already developed, and continue to implement and evaluate, a coordinated plan for Franklin County that focuses on enhanced bus service. We also must continue to push for safe walkways and bikeways, and for dedicated shuttle, rapid bus, carpool, and, my favorite, rail. MORPC must continue to be a leader in this area.

The private sector will be a major catalyst in any expanded and enhanced transit strategy. After all, getting employees to work and customers to the point of purchase is what drives our economy. Business leaders can contribute to efficient and effective public transportation options by encouraging their employees to use alternative modes of transportation, providing bike racks and information about carpooling, and offering discounts on COTA passes for employees. Additional incentives for employees can include wellness credits and special recognition events. For customers, businesses could craft promotions, including discounts and special offers for alternative transportation users. If you can show your AAA card and get a discount, why not your COTA pass? Creative thinking will be the key.

No amount of public construction or private sector incentives will work, however, unless we are each mindful of our personal travel habits. How do we get around? How well do we plan our errands? How many goods and services do we buy locally and hyper-locally? How do we define what ‘walking distance’ means? I personally need to think of how to change my behavior and not just default to driving my car everywhere. An enhanced transit system will occur only when we take personal ownership, question our choice of transportation, and speak to our public officials and regional business decision makers.

Published April 17, 2013


I’m proud to serve as board chairperson of MORPC, which is leading the way in this critical economic and quality of life issue. Let them know what you think by visiting www.morpc.org. Plan your next trip on COTA by visiting www.cota.com.