Many bus stops in Greater Cincinnati don't have benches, and riders and transit activists have said they won't stand for that much longer.
Now, a solution is coming.
The Cincinnati Planning Commission has approved a policy change that will allow the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority to include advertising on bus benches, opening up a revenue stream that could fund 100 to 150 benches at stops across the city.
But the move reversing a 2009 policy restricting the ads didn't come without consternation from some members of the planning commission worried about the city opening the door to wood and concrete benches some say are eyesores and ads that might be "offensive" in nature.
SORTA's Metro bus service has struggled with budget deficits and declining ridership over the past few years, meaning it will have a hard time financing a significant number of the metal slat benches it wants at $1,500 a pop. But allowing Metro to sell advertisements or accept sponsorships on those benches could add a revenue stream that will help pay for them.
Over the past few years, a proposed Hamilton County sales tax has been floated, then batted down, as a solution to the transit agency's financial woes. A levy could end up on the ballot next year. Or not.
Cincinnati transit activists with the Better Bus Coalition haven't waited for the levy, however. Last June, the group began placing wooden benches they constructed themselves, funded by donations, at stops in neighborhoods like Clifton, Northside and elsewhere. Those benches are partly "symbolic," Better Bus Coalition's Mark Samaan told planning commission, but also meet riders' needs.
The change in policy would apply only to benches placed in public right-of-way by a recognized transit agency. SORTA CEO Darryl Haley says Metro will only put out metal benches. City standards also allow wooden benches, however — a wrinkle that caught commission member John Eby's attention.
Eby said he wants bus riders to have a place to sit, but was also concerned about blight.
"In Hyde Park, we're going to have metal benches," he said. "In Westwood we're going to get concrete and wood benches with a 'buy this ugly house' ad on them."
Commission member Christopher Smitherman echoed those concerns, saying that he didn't want lower-quality benches to pop up in low-income communities. He also questioned what power the city or SORTA would have in preventing lewd or offensive advertisements on the benches.
Haley said that SORTA's advertising policy prohibits ads featuring violence, tobacco products, nudity or sexual content, among other restrictions. He also assured the commission that the bus bench program would be uniform.
"We have no intention of installing wooden benches," he said. "We're installing one kind of bench."
Assistant City Manager John Juech strongly encouraged the commission to pass the changes to the bench policy.
Juech also promised to work with Eby to adjust the city's bench standards.
"This has been a contentious issue," Juech said. "I have a pretty strong viewpoint on it, and that is that we should move forward... I can't tell you how many people in my daily life and work with the city tell me 'we need a place to sit.' "
It's unclear how future changes to city policy could affect the Better Bus Coalition's efforts. The group's benches aren't officially approved by the city, but Samaan says the Better Bus Coalition did share their design with various city departments to get feedback on their legality. Eby called the group's benches "clandestine," but also admitted he was impressed by them and liked the fact they didn't have backs — meaning there was no place to stick advertisements.
"If we had to do metal benches, it would kill our program." Samaan said, citing the cost. He suggested the city ban wood-and-concrete-style benches — the kind Eby mentioned specifically — instead.