Columbus May Offer Free Transit Passes to All Downtown Workers

Downtown workers in Columbus may be able to ride the bus for free starting next year. Photo: Sam Howzit/Flickr
Downtown workers in Columbus may be able to ride the bus for free starting next year. Photo: Sam Howzit/Flickr

A few years ago, a group of property owners in downtown Columbus realized they had a problem: They were running out of room for car commuters. There wasn’t enough parking to accommodate more.

Rather than lobby elected officials to spend millions on parking decks, they came at the problem from a different angle — making transit more appealing.

For the last year and a half, Columbus’s Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District — which has property taxing authority downtown — has been piloting a free transit pass program for 844 downtown workers. It made an impact: The share of workers in the program who commute via transit increased from 6 percent to 12 percent.

Now the Special Improvement District wants to expand the program to all 40,000 workers downtown, reports Kimball Perry at the Columbus Dispatch:

Half of the $5 million cost to provide the passes for more than 2½ years would come from 550 owners of properties in the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District, who would pay 3 cents per square foot of space per year, said Cleve Ricksecker, executive director of the district. Capital Crossroads would seek grants from foundations and others to pay the rest of the cost.

Capital Crossroads would team with COTA to provide the bus passes for district workers from June 1, 2018, to the end of 2020.

If results from the bus-pass test hold up and the program opens to all 41,165 district workers, Capital Crossroads estimates that it would free up 2,400 parking spaces — about four parking garages — and allow for 2,900 more people to work in the district. Between 4,000 and 5,000 people would trade their cars for COTA on their commute, the district estimates.

For its part, COTA is offering Capital Crossroads a deal on the passes. A $744 annual pass would cost the district just $40.50.

“We’d like to have more riders,” COTA spokesman Marty Stutz said. “We (also) want a more robust and vibrant Downtown.”

Capital Crossroads hopes to identify matching funds to launch the program by next June, Perry reports.

More recommended reading today: At Boston’s WBUR, a writer who struck and killed a cyclist 20 years ago makes a plea for safer driving. And the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia explains a new local bill that would require the city to follow up after collisions to improve intersection safety.

  • Alon Levy

    This doesn’t sound very good. Downtown workers are usually the strongest constituency for transit, since peak-hour commutes to the CBD are where transit has the greatest advantage over cars. That Columbus is targeting downtown workers for free transit, and still only getting 12% mode share in the pilot, suggests it’s failing miserably.

    Do the buses in Columbus have dedicated lanes anywhere? If they did, they could get around peak congestion, and get riders even while charging fares.

  • Polis_Ohio

    Yes, but only during peak times and only on the main thoroughfare, High St.

  • Benjamin Recchie

    I think doubling the transit mode share is pretty good, considering how auto-oriented Columbus in general (and Downtown Columbus in particular) is. Columbus is much more like a Sun Belt city than its Rust Belt sisters Cleveland and Cincinnati–lots of freeways, lots of post-war sprawl, and many job centers outside downtown. But downtown is slowly replacing its ample surface parking with redevelopment, and the local transit authority is rolling out the first revamp of the bus system in many decades. It will take a long time to create a transit culture in Columbus, but this is a positive first step.

  • kevd

    if you think 12% is bad for Columbus, I can only assume you aren’t very familiar with Columbus….

  • I was surprised Columbus only has 40,000 workers downtown. Last I heard, Cleveland had 100,000. I’m sure it’s smaller now but it seems like Columbus’ employment is pretty dispersed.

  • Alon Levy

    Yeah, that’s really low. This suggests the most important thing to do is redevelop downtown parking lots, to make it easier to add jobs in the part of the region where people might take transit to work.

  • Marc Conte

    The number of workers within the Capital Crossroads SID that will be eligible for this program will be about 41,000. The SID boundary is just a portion of downtown. There are about 85,000 workers within the official downtown boundary (defined by the City for the purposes of an architectural review commission). This jumps up to around 100,000 if you add some major employers that are outside this official boundary but still in the area than most people would consider “downtown”.

  • Marc Conte

    In doing research to help develop this program, I compared commuting modes of downtown workers in several mid-size peer cities. The data from the 2006-2010 CTPP suggests that Downtown Columbus has to park 87 cars for every 100 workers. This is lower than places like Cleveland (78 per 100) or Charlotte (82 per 100).

    This program (a type of market intervention) should help Columbus get more in line with peer cities. The free (to the user) pass will be all the incentive some workers need to make the shift. Other workers will benefit from the education and trip planning that will get provided with this program. A big focus will be on educating workers about the other transportation options available for errands or emergencies when they are downtown without their car (CoGo bike share, car2go, MORPC Emergency Ride Home, car services, etc.).

  • When I graduated from college and moved to Denver years ago, my downtown employer bought me a transit pass. It made all the difference in the world. I honestly would have likely not considered transit were it not for the fact that it was provided and became the path of least resistance. I became a bus rider and still favor transit over my car, all because of that experience. Based on that, I think this is a great plan.

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