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COTA Prepares for Rollout of Redesigned Bus Network

Brent Warren Brent Warren COTA Prepares for Rollout of Redesigned Bus NetworkPhoto via COTA.
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The bus network in Columbus is about to change in a big way, and the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) is working hard to get the word out before the new routes take effect on May 1.

Starting in March, street teams are set to deploy to the busiest bus stops, offering information about the changes to riders. A dual trip planner is available now on COTA’s website, allowing users to compare trips on the current system to what will be available in May. New call center staff are being hired to handle the expected increase in calls, and a marketing campaign is planned that will include targeted web ads as well as billboards and media spots.

Known as the Transit System Redesign (TSR), the project has been a work in progress since early 2014, with scores of public meetings held to explain the changes and take input from riders. Now that the roll-out date is near, COTA is ramping up its outreach and trying to explain the big picture for people who may not have been following along with the planning process.

Columbus Underground recently sat down to discuss the redesign with three members of COTA’s leadership team – Curtis Stitt, President & Chief Executive Officer; Josh Sikich, Transit System Redesign Manager, and Michael Bradley, Vice President of Planning and Service Development.

Read on for more about the reasoning behind the initiative and what to expect from the new system – we’ve broken down the changes into a handful of categories to better illustrate how the new network will be different from the old one.

Expansion of the frequent bus network:

The number of routes with service every 15 minutes or better will grow significantly in the new network.

“This frequent network really forms the backbone of the new service,” said Sikich. “The current high-frequency routes (the 1, the 2, the 10 and the CBUS) historically comprise about 40 percent or more of our ridership, so it’s trying to take what works and really more than double the size of that.”

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New high-frequency service will be coming to corridors that did not have it before, like James/Seltzer Road, Morse Road, Karl Road, West Fifth Avenue, Whittier Street, and Mt. Vernon Avenue.

The transit consultant Jarrett Walker, who was brought on by COTA early in the process to help to design the new network, argued at the time that adding so many new high-frequency routes will drastically improve the experience of riding the bus in Columbus. It will make connections between routes much easier and eliminate the inconvenience of long waits, which makes people feel trapped and not in control of their journey. It is also the key to increasing overall ridership on the network, he said.

Increased service on the weekends:

“Instead of having good service for five days and low frequencies on Saturday, and even lower on Sunday, the service will look pretty much the same seven days a week,” said Stitt. “People work on Saturdays and Sundays, so in order to make the service attractive, it’s important to add more consistent, reliable and frequent service.”

Other cities that have done similar redesigns – like Houston, Jacksonville and Richmond, VA – have seen big upticks in ridership on the weekends.

Taking some routes off High Street downtown, combined with more service to new job centers:

When COTA started, in 1974, downtown was the primary employment center in the metro area. The bus system at that time reflected that – and was in fact largely based on old streetcar routes that dated from a time when jobs were even more clustered downtown. The new system has routes that allow a rider to travel from one suburb to the other without transferring downtown. It also increases service to large jobs centers that didn’t exist forty years ago, like Easton, Rickenbacker, and Polaris.

“Downtown is still a major employment center, and over the past several years has also become one of the fastest growing residential areas in the City of Columbus – so there’s a need for people who live downtown to get out and go elsewhere at the same time,” said Stitt. “There is as much a need to come downtown as there was in the past, but there’s been so much change in terms of job growth elsewhere…those areas need service too.”

The new system also aims to reduce the volume of buses using High Street downtown, shifting some routes to Front Street, Third Street, and Fourth Street.

Straightening out and simplifying routes:

“We’re trying to straighten out some of the routes, so that they’re not deviating through a lot of neighborhoods,” said Stitt. “These deviations,  especially on high-frequency lines, really slow that service down.” He acknowledged that this will mean a longer walk to the bus for some people, but is confident that the new, more efficient routes – and the overall increase in the frequency of buses – will be a net positive for most.

COTA has provided numbers to back up that assertion, estimating that 116,000 people currently live within a quarter mile of frequent service. Under the new network, 219,000 people will live within a quarter mile of frequent service. A similar increase in service to jobs is projected.

“As we’ve created efficiencies in the network and eliminated some redundancy, that has allowed us to go in areas we never went before,” said Bradley, citing new service to Polaris and new crosstown routes in Hilliard and Gahanna.

Bottom line:

“The new network really connects more people to more places, and to more jobs, seven days a week,” said Sikich. “That’s really the heart of the story,  just more direct, simple, easy to understand service.”

COTA estimates an increase in ridership of about ten percent over three years.

“Here’s the take-home message,” said Stitt. “We’ve never done a comprehensive analysis or improvement of our system, and certainly after 40 years, with so much change in our community, we believe that these changes are overdue. This is our way of making sure that we’re providing the best service we can with today’s resources – it’s going to be a major improvement for our current riders, and it’s going to be a brand new product that we hope potential riders will be able to understand and use going forward.”

For more information on the TSR, see www.cota.com.

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