Columbia Parkway's Impending Traffic Nightmare and how Metro can Save the Day

By Mark Samaan, Better Bus Coalition Data Manager

What if I told you we could make commuting on major roads and highways faster just by running more frequent bus service?  When people think of mass transit reducing congestion they think of long commuter trains coming in from the suburbs in the morning to take drivers off the inbound highway lanes, and then heading back out in the evening to take drivers off the outbound highway lanes.

However, frequent express bus service serving major job hubs can improve the speed of traffic substantially while providing an efficient alternative to driving to dense areas for work.  On Cincinnati’s main roads (Glenway, Hamilton, Vine, Reading, Montgomery, etc.) frequent bus service already removes hundreds of cars per day per route from the roads during rush hour, and thousands of cars over the entire day.  Rush hour traffic is still congested, but it could be much, much worse without bus service.

Columbia Parkway on the eastside of town carries a lot of cars.  During its busiest hours (8 – 9 am & 5 – 6 pm) there are roughly 2,500 cars heading west (towards Downtown) in the morning and a similar amount heading east in the evening.  The City has recently announced plans to stabilize the hillside that Columbia runs along, which means multiple lane closures and heavy construction for the next 2 years at best.  This is a traffic nightmare that we can see coming around the corner.  It also presents an opportunity to try something innovative – something that can keep traffic moving as smoothly as possible for the duration of the construction.

The primary destinations for commuters on Columbia are Downtown and Uptown, the two largest employment centers in the region and where many residents on the eastside are employed.  It is very much used by 9 – 5 workers, and those who work around those times.  When a lot of people on one side of town are going to two very dense job centers, express bus commuter service is very useful in reducing the amount of cars on the road during the busiest times.  This is partly why ODOT’s Eastern Corridor project aims to reduce congestion on major eastside roads such as SR 32, US 50/Columbia Parkway, and I-275 to I-471 through roadway and mass transportation improvements.  Although the roadway expansion is on hold, the expansion of mass transit services is very much still on the table.

The existing express service on Columbia is, well, mediocre given the frequencies of service and the abysmal on-time performance rates.  3 routes run on Columbia on weekdays during rush hour: the 25X – Oakley/Mt. Lookout, the 29X – Mariemont/Milford, and the 30X –Beechmont/Anderson.  The 25X runs twice in the morning, the 29X runs six times in the morning, and the 30X runs five times in the morning.  This is not how many times the bus comes per hour, but how many times it comes all day.  These three routes represent the entirety of Metro’s downtown express service on Columbia.

So let’s imagine what great commuter bus service can look like for the eastside.

First, in order to meet commuting needs, a bus route needs to come at least every 15 minutes during peak for the route to be useful to the most amount of people.  For example, if a bus only comes every 30 minutes and a potential rider needs to be at work 10 minutes before the bus would get them there, then they will either be 10 minutes late or 20 minutes early.  If that same bus route came every 15 minutes then the split is 10 minutes late or 5 minutes early.  This is more reasonable than 20 minutes early as the rider has less ‘wasted’ time.  More frequent service also means that people with flexible schedules can pick the trip that makes the most sense for them on any given day, instead of being stuck with the same every 30 minutes trip that doesn’t work with their changing schedules.  Lastly, if a rider misses their bus they only have to wait 15 minutes before the next one comes instead of 30 minutes.

Second, the bus route needs to be time-competitive with driving.  It’s already cheaper to take the bus, especially if you pay to park, but as we all know time is money.  No one with options is going to take a bus that takes an hour to get them to work when driving takes 30 minutes.  Luckily most of our express routes serving the eastside are already time competitive, with the 25X Oakley/Mt. Lookout route taking 24 minutes to get downtown from Hyde Park Plaza (Paxton & Wasson).  The drive from the same location in rush hour takes 15 – 25 minutes depending on traffic, NOT including the time it takes to park and walk to your job.

Last, the trip needs to appear to be cheaper than driving and parking.  It’s not enough for it to actually be cheaper, as people need to feel that they are getting good value from switching to the bus.  The existing fare within the city limits is $1.75 and the fare if boarding outside the city limits is $2.65, with monthly passes costing $70 and $106 respectively.  These fares may seem to be pricier than driving and parking, especially if you already pay for a monthly downtown parking pass.  However, when you sit down and calculate out how much you pay for gas, maintenance, and putting more miles on your car, taking the bus is far and away the cheaper option.  A marketing campaign which highlights the money saved by taking the bus is needed to convince people to leave their cars at home.

An alternative to that is to lower the fare on these routes to encourage more rides during the duration of Columbia’s construction.  While this will reduce the amount of money Metro gets from existing riders, the increase in ridership will bring new fare paying customers onto the bus and make up for the decrease in revenue.  The resulting drop in car traffic will also justify the fare decrease as the entire point of publicly subsidizing mass transit is to get the social benefits that come with it, not to make back an arbitrary percentage of expenses in fare revenue.

The existing 25X, 29X, and 30X express bus routes need to be expanded during Columbia’s construction with the service geared towards taking cars off the road.  This program will not only ease congestion for the next two years, but provide a model for future projects as a way to bring more riders into the bus system.  Cincinnati, we do not have to tolerate gridlock level traffic for the next two years on the eastside.  We need to be smarter with our existing transit network and heavily encourage people to leave their cars at home.  The reduction in headaches caused by congestion will be worth it.

 

Service Change Suggestions:

-25X Oakley/Mt. Lookout to Downtown Express

·         Service every 15 minutes from 7 – 9 am and 4 – 6 pm

·         Fare dropped to $1 each way, or $40 for the month (pass can only be used for this route)

 

-29X Milford/Mariemont to Downtown Express

·         Service every 15 minutes from 7 – 9 am and 4 – 6 pm

·         Fare dropped to $1 each way in Cincinnati, or $35 for the month (pass can only be used for this route)

·         Fare dropped to $2 each way outside Cincinnati’s city limits, or $80 for the month (pass can only be used for this route)

 

-30X Beechmont to Downtown Express

·         Service every 15 minutes from 7 – 9 am and 4 – 6 pm

·         Fare dropped to $1 each way in Cincinnati, or $35 for the month (pass can only be used for this route)

·         Fare dropped to $2 each way outside Cincinnati’s city limits, or $80 for the month (pass can only be used for this route)