Getting Around the City: A 50-year-old bus system works to reinvent itself

Cities are engines of our local and national economies, and centers of creativity, culture, and entertainment. But they are under more pressure than ever. This is the latest in a monthly series, The Case for Cities, that looks at how Cincinnati and similar cities can grow by becoming places of choice, as well as models of social justice.

Richard Peak is a transit expert. He’s been riding the bus since the ‘70s, from both sides of town, from downtown, to work, to the grocery. On a sunny Thursday morning, the 60-year-old caught the 21 in front of Small’s Hardware in Cheviot. Destination: University of Cincinnati for a doctor’s appointment. Neither he nor his wife drive, so they take the bus everywhere.

Peak has been riding so long, he seems to have every route committed to memory. The 21 arrived right on time, at 7:30 AM, and made its way down Harrison Avenue. As it neared the intersection with Queen City Avenue in South Fairmount, a police car, lights flashing, had Queen City blocked. “That’s going to be a problem for the 6,” Peak remarks.

After a dozen or so stops, the 21 pulls in to Government Square downtown, and Peak alights with his wheeled cart half full with plastic bags carrying things he’ll need for the day, including a printed bus schedule. Slowed by arthritis, he uses the cart to steady himself on the short walk to Area C, where the 46 has just arrived to take him to Clifton.

Peak’s knowledge of the Metro system may be encyclopedic, but he’s hardly alone in his reliance on the bus. Metro provided nearly 10 million rides last year. After seeing years of declines, Metro management is working to boost ridership, making changes that can turn the bus into a better option, including improved frequency, expanded weekend service, and new routes, paid for in part by new funding.

In April 2020, just weeks after the COVID virus emerged and the economy shut down, voters in Hamilton County did something historic: they agreed to raise the sales tax to pay for the region’s main method of public transportation, the Metro bus. That had never been done before, and at least three other attempts since the ‘70s to raise taxes to pay for public transit had failed.

It’s a wholesale change in how Metro is funded, and it may promise the kind of advancements in public transportation that urban experts agree are essential to a city that works for all, and enables mobility for those who can’t afford cars, and those who choose not to drive.

"Places that consider good mobility as a public good are more equitable, healthier, more productive, and are able to deliver a better urban experience to residents," says Vikas Mehta, a professor of urbanism at UC's School of Planning. 

The new funding had made possible a reimagining of the bus system, a vision that its leaders call Reinventing Metro. The new plan is a long-term prospect, as the funding formula that voters approved will last for 25 years. Some changes have already been made, and more are about to begin.

Richard Peak on the 21By the end of last year, some routes saw better frequency, including one of the system’s busiest routes, 17, which runs from Pleasant Run to downtown. Weekend service was extended on some routes, and 24-hour service was added on some. Two new crosstown routes were added, responding to a longstanding complaint that the route system was too downtown-centric.

Beyond these improvements, major innovations will be rolled out this year. Metro has begun to implement a bus rapid transit system, something proponents say is akin to light rail on wheels, and enables speedier, smoother service.

And in May, Metro will begin a pilot of on-demand service that it calls MetroNow, allowing riders to call for service, a la Uber, but within zones, and for a fraction of Uber's cost.

Both those services are expected to expand over time.

“We're talking about doing transit very differently than it's been done,” Darryl Haley, CEO of Metro, said in an interview.

Haley rose through the ranks at Metro over 16 years, was named interim CEO in early 2019, and earned the full-time appointment later that year. He gets the value of a robust transit system to the life of a city and its surrounding suburbs.

“Our core purpose is to connect this region,” he says. “We're looking at building a transit system where it doesn't matter where you live. You can connect to the entire region from wherever you are,” he says.  

Metro CEO Darryl HaleyWith new leadership and a new stream of dollars, it’s possible to envision a new Metro. It wasn’t always that way. Ridership steadily declined for years. Budget deficits became common. Financial problems led to cuts in service, which further reduced ridership. There seemed no way out of the spiral.

There may have been reluctance to ask voters for more money after a 2002 tax levy proposal failed by a 2-to-1 margin. But the 2020 levy passed, narrowly, and changed how Metro is funded. It's no longer Cincinnati’s earnings tax, which was reduced, but a countywide sales tax.  

The bus rapid transit project will start on two north-south corridors – Hamilton Avenue and Reading Road. How it ultimately looks and works remains to be seen, as design and engineering is only now beginning. Metro’s current timetable is for construction to begin in 2025, and BRT service to begin in 2027.

But some features are being planned: “Stations” will be constructed on platforms, as opposed to “bus stops.”  Fares will be purchased at machines before boarding the bus. Metro is still determining where the stations will be built, and is in the process of getting community feedback on that. There may be changes to traffic-signal timing.  Buses on the corridors could get “signal priority,” meaning when they approach a red light, the red phase will be shortened, and when they approach a green light, the green phase will be lengthened so they can keep moving.

Metro Chief Strategic Officer Khaled ShammoutBus-only lanes may be constructed, but that hasn’t been finalized yet, said Khaled Shammout. He is Metro’s chief strategic planning and innovation officer, and much of the rollout of Reinventing Metro will fall in his lap. With their own lanes, buses would be able to “jump the queue” at a traffic light, getting an early green before the other lanes, so they could move ahead of traffic. Public safety vehicles would be able to use signal priority too, he says.

The idea is to reduce commuting time along those busy corridors, and get bus riders to their destinations more quickly.

The new stations will bring improvements to the sidewalks and landscaping in those communities, and Metro officials say the more efficient mode of transit will spur economic development along those routes.  “We hope to bring benefits to the entire community, not just to our riders,” Shammout says.

The tax levy also created a transit infrastructure fund, so 25% of the money raised is dedicated to help fund sidewalks, intersection signals, and other road infrastructure, as long as a bus route is within a half-mile of the project. The proposed replacement of the Western Hills Viaduct was awarded $205 million from the fund in the first year, and $39 million was awarded to 36 projects in 25 municipalities in the second year.  

There are more than 30 BRT systems in the U.S., including in Columbus, Cleveland, and Indianapolis.

In May, Metro plans to begin its MetroNow on-demand service.  New vehicles are on the way that look like Sprinter vans that will seat 10 people. The pilot project will start in two northern zones: the Springdale/Sharonville area and the Colerain/Mt. Healthy area. Both zones have a high percentages of minorities and low-income residents who are expected to use the service.

“They don't have much transit right now, and the big buses on fixed routes may not be the best solution for some of these neighborhoods,” Haley says.

A MetroNow van (rendering)Users will be able to use an app or call to get a ride within the zones, for a flat fee of $2, and connect to the broader Metro network if they want.

These projects will be the start of a long-term plan to make Cincinnati’s public transportation system more effective and improve mobility for everyone, Haley says. “You should be able to live anywhere, work anywhere, have access to health care anywhere, education, social services, and it shouldn't be determined on where you live,” he says. “Reinventing Metro is not about lines on a map. It's about connecting this region in a way it's never been connected before.”

Riding the bus has traditionally been, and still is, essential for those who can’t afford cars, or can only afford one car in a family. But a better system will attract new riders who are environmentally minded, want to live in a city that is greener,  and has invested in effective public transit, he says. “People are making different choices today than they made 10 years ago,” he says. “People are making the choices to own one car, or not to own a car.”

Effective, easy to use, well-designed public transportation will help attract and keep a younger workforce here, Haley says.

UC's Mehta, who has consulted with Metro on planning and design, agrees. "We have to modernize transit, such that is not a minimal service we provide for the poorest workforce," he says. "We have to provide transit as a public good for all."

That will play out over the next several years as the Reinventing Metro plan is carried out, Haley says. "We're really excited about what we're building here," he says. "We're doing something special in this region. And you ain't seen nothing yet."

You can read earlier articles in The Case for Cities series here.

You can view and listen to The Case for Cities conversation series here.

The Case for Cities: Cities of Choice are Cities of Justice series is a partnership between UC School of Planning and Soapbox Cincinnati, made possible with support from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. Foundation.

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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.