People always want to extend their sympathies to me when I tell them I got where I was going by riding a Metro bus.
Maybe I'm poor, can't get my car fixed, don't have a car, don't have a driver's license or have some other reason that I'm down on my luck and must abide by a bus schedule, pay a couple bucks and sit with all those people who aren't riding by choice. But even though I'm not especially poor on most days and own a reliable car, I've gotten into an old habit again recently: riding the bus to work.
What got me? Convenience, for starters.
The bus that passes near my office in Cheviot heads out of the city going northbound on Elm Street on the west side of Washington Park. I live on the park's east side, so I have a short walk out my front door and across the park to the bus stop across from Memorial Hall. Voila, I'm on my way.
About 15 to 20 minutes later — depending on traffic and the number of stops for boarding and unloads — I get off the bus just about 50 paces to my office's front door.
On the way home it's even better because the bus ride is usually light (thanks to my "negative commute" that goes against the rush hour traffic) and it drops me about 20 feet from my front door. I've signed up for Metro's "Guaranteed Ride Home" program, so if I have to get home in a hurry because of an emergency or unexpected late hours (say, past when the last bus heads back downtown at midnight) I can get reimbursed up to 80 percent of the cost to get me home, up to $45.
And I can do that four times a year.
Figuring that a No. 21 bus comes by about every 20 minutes during the day and adding in high gas prices (though trending downward), it makes a lot of sense to leave my car parked at home all day.
I realize I'm one of the lucky ones. Though some improvements have been made in the form of cross-town routes, most Metro riders still have to deal with the spoke-and-wheel system that involves a trip downtown, a transfer to another bus and then a ride back out to the suburbs on another route. A trip in a car that takes 30 minutes becomes a 90-minute or two-hour ordeal on a bus. Not fun. Not even tempting.
Cincinnati's transit system is woefully insufficient and underfunded thanks to an archaic agreement placing most of the burden of paying for the system on the city. Though some federal and state funds supplement Metro's budget, those figures have been declining severely in recent years.
Instead, the bus system is paid for mostly through a referendum passed by Cincinnati voters that added 1/10th of 1 percent to the city's earnings tax (taking it to 2.1 percent). Even though Metro travels into Butler and Warren counties and lots of other areas inside Hamilton County, the city spends the most to fund it. Until that system changes, local officials have said, it would be difficult to make major changes.
Up north a bit, Dayton's buses in the downtown area are powered by overhead electric power lines. Some stops even have LED displays to inform prospective riders which routes will make stops there and about how many minutes it'll be until the next bus comes. It's a novel idea Metro might want to consider.
Metro has begun work to revamp its Web site, say officials with the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, the agency that operates Metro. Thank God. Though the site has wonderful mechanisms in place that allow trip planning by placing addresses of your "start" and "end" stops, getting it to work is a whole other story. The alternative — reading PDFs of printed bus schedules — leaves a lot to be desired.
Having a convenient, reliable public mass transit system is an earmark of a progressive city that attracts new residents, keeps old ones and is able to compete in a global marketplace. Yeah, a good bus system can do a lot.
So, besides saving money on gas and allowing you to read (or sleep) on the way to work, the bus (or light rail or streetcar or subway) will be a major player in the future of our entire region. It's not just a way for the meek to get to and from jobs or downtown. It's about making Greater Cincinnati a better place to live.