The case for bus service in the suburbs

By Andy Shenk

As someone who has never lived more than a mile from downtown in Cincinnati, I don't have much personal experience riding the bus beyond city limits. And, until recently, I will admit to having a degree of ambivalence about bus service to our county and region's more far-flung corners. Better to double-down on dense city neighborhoods as opposed to diluting bus service to serve the suburbs, or so I thought.

I still believe we should beef up bus service in the city, but I am now equally passionate about the suburbs. Let me explain.

For years now, I've subscribed to New Geography, a blog which frequently seeks to demonstrate the superiority of the personal vehicle, and car-oriented development, when it comes to access in a metropolitan area.

Drawing on statistics which demonstrate the car's overwhelming advantage when it comes to access to jobs and stagnant or falling ridership on public transportation, the blog makes the argument that, with very few exceptions, cities would be better served continuing to pour money into car infrastructure.

The case is compelling, particularly when you examine the accelerating dispersion of employment in American cities. The days of downtown-centric metro areas has passed; now jobs tend to cluster along interstate corridors.

Take Greater Cincinnati, for example. From the booming job centers in Florence to Blue Ash to multiple clusters along the northern rim of I-275, downtown is only one of many employment destinations in the region.

While some businesses are attracted to downtown Cincinnati's resurgence, others prefer cheaper land and ample parking in the suburbs.

Residential trends are also discouraging for proponents of higher-density cities. Once again, we see two factors at play. While our urban core enjoys a renaissance and residential options increase, neighborhoods elsewhere in the city continue to empty out. Whether motivated by rising rents or a basic lack of decent housing, it is not surprising that people decide to move to homes in newer neighborhoods that may also be closer to the region's job hubs.

This is bad news for public transportation, which works best in high-density neighborhoods.

But counter to the car-centric mentality, which seems to infect most civic leaders in middle America, public transportation has an important role to play in the suburbs.

What the car lobby conveniently omits, of course, is that 1) not everyone owns a car, and 2) cars break down.

Though cars indisputably offer the quickest travel times and greatest access to jobs in Greater Cincinnati, not everyone can drive. Whether due to finances or health, hundreds of thousands of people in our region do not have reliable access to a car. For many who do own, meanwhile, one costly repair or accident could mean losing a job with no back-up transportation available.

If employers want to fill jobs and keep growing, they need public transportation to work in our suburbs. There is no way around it. Talk to leaders at the Chamber of Commerce: One of the biggest complaints from business owners is that potential employees have no way of consistently getting to work on time.

Greater Cincinnati has numerous job clusters with thousand of jobs, conveniently located along interstate interchanges, yet for the most part, these jobs are unreachable by public transportation. At best, there may be a few buses each morning and evening from Government Square connecting to a handful of job sites.

Forcing everyone to connect through Government Square or Covington's transit center is also part of the problem. Downtown routes make sense for people who live in the suburbs and work in the city. But they make very little sense for everyone else.

I believe the solution is two-fold. Within Greater Cincinnati, we need two different systems of public transportation. The first entails an expansion and enhancement of Metro service in city neighborhoods and along key corridors. The second would be highly flexible, demand-responsive service from neighborhoods and municipalities throughout the region to job hubs and perhaps medical complexes and educational institutions, which are often big employers to boot.

We can never serve everyone with direct one-ride access to a job or other destinations. But we can build a far more efficient system that reaches many more jobs by re-thinking the way the bus operates.

We need a multi-dimensional system: One that provides more efficient, robust service within dense neighborhoods, with anchors throughout the city and near-in suburbs. Imagine hubs in Price Hill, North College Hill, Northside, Bond Hill, Norwood, and Madisonville. With frequent service throughout the urban core, these hubs would also serve as launch pads for commuter buses that would blanket the county and region.

Transfers would be an important element of the system, but instead of needing to take a bus downtown, riders would have a shorter commute to a hub, where they could catch a direct bus to work. These buses would feature express service and utilize highway shoulders and/or bus-only lanes to avoid congestion.

The suburbs make public transportation more challenging. People are right to critique public transportation investments that do not take in consideration the car's competitive advantage.

Cincinnati, however, can build a system that takes these challenges into account. We know that a sizable percentage of our population does not have reliable access to a car and would benefit tremendously from increased access to jobs. We can talk until we're blue in the face about how cars are better than buses, but for many it simply isn't an option.

Instead of whining about the problem or splintering our efforts into piecemeal attempts to get people to jobs, let's do some critical demographic analysis, figure out where people live and work in our region who would be most likely to use public transportation, and get to work building a 21st-century bus system.