Queen City Metro is moving out of the bell-bottom era and into the 21st century.If MetroMoves — the proposal for an ambitious makeover of bus service in Cincinnati — comes to fruition, on-street monitors will use global positioning technology to tell riders precisely how many minutes until the next bus arrives. Instead of fussing with exact change, riders will use debit cards to pay their fares.
But new gadgets are only a small part of the plan. Metro relies now on a fan-shaped collection of routes, centered in downtown, running north and south. MetroMoves calls for a web of routes running east and west and from suburb to suburb, connecting most of Hamilton County and beyond. Serving the connections would be 26 transit hubs occupied by businesses tailored to each community's needs, such as daycare centers, news stands and dry cleaners.
MetroMoves, which might cost between $108 million and $192 million and require 10 years to complete, is the result of a yearlong, publicly driven reworking of Metro.
After spending years just trying to keep bus service running smoothly with dwindling federal dollars, Metro leaders realized in the mid-1990s the bus network was stuck in the 1970s, with no plan for the future, according to Metro General Manager Paul Jablonski. Beginning in May, Metro has solicited public input on how to improve service, collecting more than 30,000 responses via cards, hearings, letters, e-mails and phone calls. Planners visited other transit agencies around the United States and borrowed ideas.
MetroMoves doesn't mean the transit agency is abandoning its existing riders. The plan is a huge expansion built on a foundation of traditional routes and services.
Our mother, the car
A full membership in American society costs $6,908 a year. That's the average cost to own, insure, maintain and license a car for 15,000 miles, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Can't afford it? Can't drive because of an illness or injury? That means you can't get around most U.S. suburbs, where development is tailored to accommodate cars instead of pedestrians and mass transit.
"We spend much more on our cars than we do for health care, recreation and other major expenses," says John Schneider, transportation advisor for Downtown Cincinnati, Inc.
Only housing demands more of our money than car ownership, according to Schneider.
"That seems kind of weird to me," he says.
The suburbs are where many new jobs are. From 1993 to 1996, Cincinnati lost 0.6 percent — or 1,597 — of its jobs. Meanwhile the surrounding suburbs' job base grew by 12.4 percent, or 54,221 jobs, according to a study by the Brookings Institution. Getting buses to job centers such as Blue Ash isn't a problem, Jablonski says. But how far do you expect a rider to walk from a bus stop to an office? A quarter-mile is one thing, but a mile is another, Jablonski says.
Road-centered, sidewalk-less, parcel-by-parcel development makes mass transit planning more difficult. So is anyone building housing and businesses centered around transit hubs in Greater Cincinnati?
"Not that I know of," Jablonski says. "What we seem to be doing is trying to react to land use decisions that have already been made."
Boone County did, however, require Kroger to set aside space for a park and ride facility at one of its new stores, according to Mark Donaghy, general manager of the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK).
Transit-oriented planning is happening elsewhere around the country. Tim Reynolds, Metro's director of strategic planning, says the Metro staff was impressed by transit hubs for buses and/or light rail in Columbus, Dayton, Denver and Minneapolis.
The transit hubs provide the opportunity to do several things in one place: catch a bus, cash a check, eat lunch and so on. Other hubs are tied to job training centers or government offices. Some have attracted development to neighborhoods that hadn't seen any in decades, Reynolds says.
Two local transit hubs are in the works — one on the riverfront and another at Knowlton's Corner in Northside. Even without MetroMoves, the agency would probably begin work on a transit hub for key transfer points at Peebles Corner and at Eighth and State streets in Lower Price Hill, Jablonski says.
MetroMoves is both an attempt to catch up with Greater Cincinnati's suburban development and a plan that prepares the Tristate for the possibility of light rail.
MetroMoves includes four new express routes as precursors to potential light rail routes, designed to get riders used to using mass transit in these corridors. The routes are also designed to connect some of the 26 transit hubs, including several between downtown and West Chester along Interstate 75; Fields Ertel Road along Interstate 71; Northgate along Colerain and Hamilton avenues; and Western Hills along Glenway Avenue. Others are possible as well, such as a downtown link to Northern Kentucky University along Interstate 471.
But light rail can't work alone, according to Schneider. Light rail needs to be centered around transit hubs and shuttles to form a web of transit connections conveniently serving as many people as possible, he says.
Metro planners strongly back light rail, but MetroMoves' new routes don't depend on light rail to work well. Rail simply moves people along key routes more quickly than buses. For example, the average light rail train can carry 300 people — the capacity of six buses, Schneider says.
Somebody's going to pay
MetroMoves would expand service greatly in Hamilton County, but almost all of its buses would still stop at the Ohio River. TANK buses cover the three Northern Kentucky counties, but only reach as far north as Sixth Street in Cincinnati.
A downtown Metro rider can reach Harrison with a Metro express bus, but must transfer to TANK to reach the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. Why not merge the two transit agencies into one organization with one name and one fare? Consultants hired by Metro and TANK say a merger across state lines would not be worth the bureaucratic hassle and expense. Instead the two transit operations will provide their own local service and cooperate on regional routes.
The two agencies are likely to send their buses farther into each other's territory, Donaghy says. Maybe TANK riders need a route to the University of Cincinnati, and Cincinnati riders might use a direct airport connection.
Donaghy and Jablonski talk a few times a week and often attend the same meetings. They're working on buying a compatible communications system and have coordinated on bus and other equipment purchases. Riders can already buy a joint bus pass for TANK and Metro.
Metro will need more money to pay for MetroMoves. A fare increase is one possibility, Jablonski says.
"I am very sensitive to keeping transit (fares) reasonable," he says.
Jablonski hopes 80 percent of the cost for MetroMoves comes from federal sources, with Ohio and local sources contributing 10 percent each.
MetroMoves is not yet finished. Metro planners are collecting more public feedback in April and May.
Planning now can prevent a transit crisis 10 or 15 years from now, according to Carl Palmer, Metro's director of transit development.
"The reality is, there will be a cost, whether we implement the Metro plan or not," Palmer says.
The Urban League of Greater Cincinnati hosts a hearing and MetroMoves display from 5 to 8 p.m. May 3. Hearings and displays will be at branches of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County from 4 to 8 p.m. April 24 in Green Township, April 26 in Symmes Township, May 1 in Anderson Township, May 9 in College Hill, May 10 in Norwood and May 14 in Sharonville. ©
Proposed New Routes
· Neighborhood shuttles — 25-seat buses circulating among centers where people live, work and shop, including:
Main Street/Mount Adams
Southwestern Warren County
Cincinnati Cultural Loop
· Four uptown express routes to the University of Cincinnati area
· Two rush hour Sun Run express routes connecting downtown to Sharonville and Dent
· JobBus overnight service from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. for third-shift workers
· Four all-day express routes along potential light rail corridors