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Ridership: The Columbus Way

Central Ohio Transit Authority
Columbus, OH

There is a way of doing business in Columbus. In fact, it’s called the “Columbus Way,” a term coined in a Harvard Business School case study about the region.

While the moniker is simplistic, the collaborative approach among business and community leaders in Central Ohio is paying dividends. The Columbus Way has been so instrumental to the region’s growth that economic forecasters anticipate up to one million new residents and 600,000 new jobs in the next few decades.

The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) sees opportunity ahead and, by putting forth revolutionary solutions to increasing ridership today, we are taking steps toward a mobility-rich environment for our new neighbors.

Not long ago, COTA undertook a massive redesign of our fixed-route system with two primary goals in mind: improved coverage and increased ridership. The redesigned network was implemented May 1, 2017, making 103,000 more residents and 100,000 more jobs accessible to high-frequency lines. Ten months into 2018, we are seeing the results as October ridership is up nearly 7 percent and summer ridership up as much as 9 percent from the previous year. We achieved all of this while using fewer buses, same capital resources and same talent—but by looking through the lens of social service agencies and employers.

Similarly, this summer we launched a program for downtown workers, which is demonstrating ridership gains well ahead of expectations. The “c-pass” program allows 45,000 downtown workers to register for a transit pass—free to each employee, thanks to a collaboration among employers, downtown commercial property owners, the Special Improvement District and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. These partners collaborated on a $4.5 million funding plan focused on reducing congestion and pollution and enhancing downtown real estate property values/occupancy rates.

Since coming online in June, more than 400,000 rides have occurred through c-pass, and express service from surrounding suburbs has increased 16 percent.

The program has been so successful that we are investigating the next iteration of c-pass. With job centers developing rapidly throughout the ­Central Ohio region, the potential exists for multiple c-pass-like partnerships to develop among property owners, local government entities and our planning partners.

We have also added BRT to our portfolio. Our new CMAX service has reduced commute time along a heavily traveled 15-mile corridor, connecting growing suburbs, two hospitals, major employers and postsecondary campuses to economically challenged neighborhoods and downtown—jobs, education and healthcare all served by one improved line. The $48.6 million investment incorporates traffic signal prioritization along with free Wi-Fi and USB ports. The result has been a ridership increase of 16 percent on weekdays and Saturdays and 27 percent on Sundays.

Working with our community leaders in the employment, workforce, education and healthcare industries, we are trying to imagine how the health of both our people and our economy improves when mobility barriers are eliminated.

So, where do we go from here? Using the Columbus Way model, we will look to deepen relationships with the public and private sectors and identify how partnerships with new mobility providers can entice the next generation of riders. Some of these solutions are in the early planning stages, while others are conceptual.

Among those in the early planning stage is a new, flexible microtransit option that will connect job centers to nearby fixed-route service. The service will be owned and operated by COTA, with our drivers at the wheel of smaller vehicles serving in an on-demand capacity. The latter is a result of a historic agreement between COTA and Transport Workers Union Local 208. Having the support of the union is a huge boost as we move into the pilot phase.

Other ventures to help drive new ridership will be born from our exciting partnership with Smart Columbus. In 2016, our city competed with 77 others across the nation and won the Smart City Challenge, a $40 million grant from U.S. DOT. COTA was integrated in the long-term planning of that investment to ensure that data sets, operating systems and new research can be deployed with both personal and public transport.

The Smart Columbus Operating System was recently launched, and the region’s first multi-modal trip planner and common payment system are planned for unveiling in 2019. Soon to follow will be smart mobility hubs placed at COTA infrastructure throughout the city.

The core of our ridership will still be our fixed-route system. And it should be, as it currently operates at a nationally recognized level of efficiency and utilization acknowledged by APTA as the 2018 Outstanding Public Transit System (midsize). But for our region to be economically and environmentally sustainable, we cannot sit still. We are renewing our commitment as the region’s integrator of mobility solutions—the first place the business community looks to address challenges facing our mobility infrastructure. Our vision: no emissions, no traffic deaths, no congestion and mobility access for all with unique, solutions-based funding opportunities that transform how a community moves.

The Columbus Way is not complicated in concept and it is an approach that can be adopted and adapted throughout the country. Collaboration, ideation and integration supported by public officials and the business community is not unique to Central Ohio, but I can confidently and proudly say our region does it well.

"Commentary" features authoritative points of view from various sources on timely and pressing issues affecting public transportation. APTA would like to hear from you. If you are interested in submitting a original, thought-leader Commentary for consideration, please contact Senior Managing Editor David A. Riddy
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