Technology, declining ridership and changing demographics have spurred cities across the country to redesign bus systems that are more convenient. It's no easy task.
A few years ago, as the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) was marking the 40th anniversary of its bus service in the Columbus area, a new employee came into the office of Curtis Stitt, the agency’s president and CEO. She brought him a copy of a 1974 annual report that she had stumbled upon while going through the archives. As Stitt looked over the decades-old document, one thing stuck out at him. “The system map from 1974 looked very much like the system map for 2014,” Stitt says. “Forty years later, the routes looked pretty much the same. The question it naturally raised was: Does this system still work? The answer was no.”
Since the 1970s, Columbus has grown by nearly 60 percent, to a population of 860,000. It is now the 14th largest city in the country. Its geographic area has grown by a third as well, and the suburbs have sprawled in every direction. Jobs have followed people away from downtown, and the nature of the jobs has also changed. With the growth of the service economy, more residents work on nights and weekends instead of 9 to 5.
That meant that the traditional hub-and-spoke arrangement of the city’s bus routes didn’t make sense anymore. If people needed to get across town, or go from one suburb to another, they didn’t want to have to go through downtown to do it, especially if that meant transferring from one infrequent bus route to another.
The Columbus transit agency spent four years and $9.4 million studying its bus network, gathering public feedback and designing alternative routes. All of that work came to a head this May, when COTA switched to a completely new system. It doubled the number of bus lines with frequent service (every 15 minutes or less), deploying many of them along major roads far from downtown. The new routes added or increased service to the airport, shopping malls, a casino and many other job centers. By COTA’s estimate, the number of jobs within a quarter mile (a five-minute walk) of a frequent bus line jumped from 155,000 to 265,000. The number of people who lived within a quarter mile of those lines increased from 116,000 to 219,000. Plus, the agency beefed up service on Saturdays and Sundays. And Columbus did all of it without an increase in funding.
The problems that beset the Columbus bus system before its relaunch are all too common among this country’s transit agencies. In most places, as in Columbus, they go unaddressed for decades. But just in the last few years, transit agencies in more than half a dozen major cities have totally revamped their bus routes to focus on frequent, reliable service to job centers and dense neighborhoods. As in Columbus, transit advocates hope the recent redesigns in Indianapolis; Jacksonville, Fla.; Omaha, Neb.; Portland, Ore.; and, most of all, Houston, will lead to major changes in how cities think of and offer bus service. But the same advocates acknowledge that there is nothing easy about making these changes, even if the need for them seems obvious.
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