What Buses Can Learn from the Scooters

By Andy Shenk (this post reflects the author’s personal opinion)

The scooters have exposed two of the biggest shortcomings of Cincinnati's bus system.

I would guess most bus systems in America deal with them, too.

Nobody knows where the buses go or how to pay.

When I see a scooter on the sidewalk, I intuitively know what to do because the instructions are so simple: Download the app and start riding. You can't miss the "$1 to start" plastered on the base of the scooter.

When I see a bus, I don't know how much a fare costs or how to buy a ticket. Worse, I don't know where the bus is going or where it will stop.

Solving this problem is much more complicated than slapping a sticker on the side of a bus like a scooter. Buses travel long distances on fixed routes and there's significantly more information to process than a scooter ride that might last half a dozen blocks.

But the end goal should be the same. When I see a bus (or a bus stop), I should intuitively know the possibilities: Where is this bus going and how do I pay?

If every bus disappeared overnight, what evidence would remain of a system that provides 13 million rides annually and serves dozens of cities and townships?

Apart from the post stamp-sized signs stapled at each stop and the handful of transit centers (Government Square, Uptown, Oakley, etc.), Metro has almost no physical presence in Cincinnati.

High-volume routes such as the 33 (Glenway Avenue) and 43 (Reading Road) have little more than a few benches and shelters, scattered here and there without rhyme or reason.

The 33, which ranks as the busiest route in Metro's system (by average passenger load), has zero brand awareness in the city. You could say the same for the 17, 43, and 4, even though combined these four routes carry millions of riders each year.

For the bus to become intuitive, the re-branding process should be both physical (street-level improvements such as modern shelters, real-time arrival info, and bus-only lanes) and emotional (coding routes by color and name).

Likewise, paying for a fare should be as easy as hopping on a scooter.

Metro currently charges $1.75 for a single ride within Zone 1, $2.65 for Zone 2, and $0.50 for a transfer, which makes paying with cash a nightmare.

It is possible to buy Metro passes in increments of $10, $20, and $30, which streamlines the payment process on the bus. But passes are only sold at a handful of locations.

Metro's buses, however, already have the technology to accept tap cards, which have been adopted by most major transit agencies in America and around the world.

Give the tap cards a creative name like the Big Bus or the Queen Card (San Francisco calls it the Clipper). Make the cards ubiquitous in every convenience and grocery store in the city. Incentivize riders with discounts and eliminate transfer fees when using the tap card.

When I want to ride a bus, it should be easy as tapping my wallet to the fare box and taking a seat.

At the same time, advertise Metro's already-excellent EZ Ride app more aggressively--which allows for mobile ticketing--especially to visitors who may not want a tap card. Offer single rides and all-day passes for flat rates that make sense.

Managing a bus system is incredibly complicated and Metro does a terrific job juggling a thousand moving parts. But consumers don't care about the effort that goes into training drivers, scheduling routes and maintaining vehicles.

Which leads me to my next point: Better, simpler branding for our busiest routes.

I want to ride the Green bus to Northside, the Orange bus to Price Hill, and the Blue bus to Norwood.

After four years of riding Metro, I more or less understand the current numbering system, but damn if it isn't hard keeping the 17 and 19 straight sometimes. The numbers, which date back to Cincinnati's original streetcars, are completely anachronistic, if they were ever useful to begin with. It would make far more sense to re-number buses 1-20 from west to east and use letters for crosstown routes.

But colors could be even more effective since buses, signs, shelters, and maps are easily coded by color. Instead of wondering whether or not a bus like the 17 goes through Northside, Green signs and shelters dotting the route and Green buses on the street would serve as easy visual reminders that Green buses serve Northside.

It would also give Metro the opportunity to create an eye-catching system map where the colors actually meant something and you didn't need to squint to decipher route numbers.

Electric scooters felt like something from the future when they landed overnight in Cincinnati. Our buses should feel the same. Given the insane competitiveness of the transportation industry, as taxpayers and city residents we cannot afford for our public transit to limp along, dependent on handouts to serve an ever-dwindling customer base.

Buses are not the issue. It's how they've been packaged and sold for decades that is to blame.