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Capital Crossroads Working Towards Free Bus Pass Program for Downtown Workers

Brent Warren Brent Warren Capital Crossroads Working Towards Free Bus Pass Program for Downtown WorkersPhoto via COTA.
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When it comes to transit, discussions about light rail and streetcars — or high-profile, big-money initiatives like Smart Columbus — tend to grab the headlines. The Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District is betting that a much more modest program can help to revitalize Downtown while also putting a dent in Columbus’ infamous “car culture.”

It will cost about five million dollars to pay for free bus passes for as many as 40,000 downtown workers, and the property owners that are represented by Capital Crossroads have already agreed to an assessment that would pay for about half of that. This would be an expansion of the small pilot program that tested out the idea with a group of employees Downtown from June of 2015 to December of 2016.

Capital Crossroads is in the process of securing grant dollars to close the gap in funding, with a goal of starting the larger program in June of 2018 and running it through the end of 2020. It would cover workers in any commercial building within the Capital Crossroads boundaries. The City of Columbus and Franklin County have also indicated a willingness to participate in the program — meaning city and county employees Downtown would get the passes — and the owner of any residential building could also choose to buy in.

If a similar percentage of workers in the larger program switch to the bus as did during the pilot, it would mean as many as 3,000 fewer cars coming into Downtown every day. That in turn would free up parking spaces and potentially stimulate the office market, which has been hampered by a lack of parking despite the strong residential market and record-setting amounts of investment Downtown.

Similar programs exist in Seattle and Boulder, Colorado, but this would be the first transit-pass program in the country funded by property owners. Columbus Underground recently sat down with two of the architects of the idea from Capital Crossroads –  Cleve Ricksecker, Executive Director, and Kacey Brankamp, Director of Strategic Initiatives. Read on for much more on what could be a transformative program for Downtown Columbus.

On what was learned from the pilot program:

Ricksecker: So, we learned that people will ride, and that a significant number of people switched from driving as their primary means of commuting to the bus. Of those, there was a surprising variety of income levels. What that tells us, is that an executive making $140,000 a year may cut coupons as much as someone making a lot less — people like to save money. We also had an age spread, and even some people who gave up their contract parking. Our research also showed that the people who participated in the program commuted from all over the region.


On property owners and employers embracing the program:

Ricksecker: This is the first time in my 40 years in Columbus that property owners are saying that we need transit. So this is a big deal, and we’ve always thought that once you have the local support, the Downtown support, that makes it relatively easy to get the matching funds… so we’re now in a race for those.

Brankamp: One of the smaller companies from the pilot, they moved from a suburban location with free onsite parking to one Downtown where there was no parking. They got their employees enrolled in the pilot program, and then worked with COTA to provide some education about the bus system and how it works. And now they all take the bus, they love it so much that when the pilot program ended, they are now buying their passes.

On the wide range of potential benefits:

Ricksecker: What’s interesting about this program is that there are so many things it does. It builds ladders of opportunity for residents in places like Linden and the Hilltop, and every other neighborhood in the city of Columbus that needs access to jobs. It reduces carbon emissions. We’ll be able to measure that — if the estimate is that it takes 2,500 commuters out of their cars, that’s 5,000 trips a day.

We can measure safety, because if you remove all those trips during rush hour, you can measure how many accidents, how many fatalities you’ve prevented from taking place, so there are lots of different things it would do, and many ways of measuring it.

On the impact on low-wage workers:

Ricksecker: Downtown is an expensive place to work, and if you’re a low-wage employee, getting the money together to by a $62 monthly pass is kind of a big deal. What happens is that low wage employees end up paying $4 a day for transit, which ends up being $80 or more per month to take the bus.

Or they have to pay for parking, which is horribly expensive, as well, so what we’re finding is that there’s a real barrier for low wage employees to get and hang onto a job Downtown, and the tragedy of that is that only 30 percent of jobs in Central Ohio are available to people who don’t have reliable cars. The largest number of those jobs is in Downtown, so Downtown should be made the most accessible, if we really want to build ladders of opportunity for central neighborhoods like Linden.

On the program as a solution to the “peak parking” dilemma:

Brankamp: Demand for parking right now is at its peak, and the speculation is that in, arguably, in five to 10, but for sure in 20 years, that parking demand will drop significantly because of autonomous vehicles and ride sharing, and because more people will be taking transit.

So, we’re viewing this as a market intervention, and really a bridge to get through this period when we’re at this peak demand, because what’s coming down the pike is a much lower demand for parking. Property owners don’t necessarily want to be building more parking, because they think that it may not be needed, but they do need it today, and tomorrow.

On the potential to draw people onto COTA who have never ride the bus before:

Rickescker: Look at the CBUS, all of a sudden it’s kind of cool to take the bus… this program can create a similar type of phenomenon, but it would be the CBUS times 20, or more. In Seattle it was the bus system that saved their Downtown, and there’s no reason to think our bus system can’t do the same for Downtown Columbus.

Brankamp: I think we’ll see people converted, or changing their mindset, and that’s what we saw with the pilot program — by giving the free pass, it eliminated whatever the barrier might have been for people, and after they tried it the overwhelming majority felt that the bus was a viable commuting options.

Ricksecker: The great thing is that this will happen on the heels of COTA’s system redesign, along with improvements like mobile payments and WIFI… it’s going to be a different place in a few years.

On building a constituency for further transit improvements:

Ricksecker: What’s interesting about this, living in a town that has transit-phobia, is it’s a very practical, cost-effective way of promoting alternative transportation. It doesn’t cost a billion dollars like building a line from suburbs, and this will result in a significant shift – we don’t now how much over the long term, but it could be a lot more than the six percent that we’re estimating — and if it works, and we fill the buses coming into Downtown, it builds a case for other options coming into Downtown.

Brankamp: And that gives us a larger pool of advocates for better transportation options.

For more information, visit www.downtowncolumbus.com.

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  • LegalEagle89

    I just don’t see people giving up their personal, warm little boxes to save a couple bucks. This old bandaid of an idea should be considered a temporary solution until the city entertains serious long term solutions to parking and transit.

    • CB_downtowner

      I would think a couple of bucks goes a long way for many workers, especially on the lower end or for younger people. Parking goes as high as $100+. Plus gas and car usage. Sure, I’d like to see bigger solutions. But an opportunity to take hundreds of people out of garages and off the roads while increasing public transportation usage by the hundreds is a great step forward.

      • Yeah, at a quick glance, some garages are asking for $180/mo for parking, and many of them are full with waitlists. Saving $2000 per year is more than “a couple bucks” for most people if they can make the switch.


        • LegalEagle89

          I meant that people will not now all of a sudden switch to free bus fare because the current bus fares are already low. Most people are still choosing their warm personal boxes, despite the potential for savings. Its the same logic for buying groceries or eating out. It is cheaper and healthier to buy and cook your own groceries, but people don’t want to give up the convenience.

          Not saying it is a bad idea, it is just a band-aid.

          • Columbusite

            If you read the article, it says that the pilot program caused transit use to double from 6% to 12%. That is based on research, not ideas about warm boxes. Implemented across downtown, that is 4 parking garages worth of cars. I don’t know what else could possibly make such a big dent in the parking crunch downtown.

      • LegalEagle89

        There is little doubt that, if widely used, it would bring the benefits you cite. But it requires a lot of participation, I just do not see most people in this day and age giving up their warm personal boxes for $1000-$2000/year savings. Some? Sure, of course. Most? Seriously doubtful. That is why I ask for a better long term solution on top of this temporary band-aid solution.

    • Kristin Porter

      I work downtown, and I was part of the pilot program where they were testing this free-busing idea. I definitely rode the bus much, much more when I had that option. (Sadly, the pilot program ended in December.) It did actually make a big difference for me, as it did for many of my coworkers.

  • jman

    Glad to see this

  • jman

    Though we so, so badly need light rail, or some other alternative to bus transit. If other cities our size have it, why can’t we? What makes us different?

  • Pete

    This is awesome. Good job Capitol Crossroads. The numbers from the pilot are encouraging. I live in Clintonville and have a car but this article inspires me to take a bus ride.
    Two questions if anybody knows – won’t driverless cars need to be parked somewhere? Or is the concept that a driverless vehicle will be shared by many people and therefore busy moving around town all day.?
    Also, why does this program take a year and a half to implement? That doesn’t seem like good testimony on our city’s systems and procedures for getting things done.

    • 1. Think of the future of autonomous vehicles as a service rather than something you own. More like an Uber-style ride (with no driver) versus a car that you keep parked in your driveway and in a parking lot the majority of the day. Once you’re dropped off at work, the car heads off to pick up its next rider.

      2. Funding needs to be secured. Gathering a lot of money always takes a lot of time.

  • Columbusite

    There is a public hearing on this program today at city hall at 3:30. Please go speak in support of this idea.

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