COTA is expanding and ridership is up. What improvements should be made to the system next? Here are some of my ideas, most of which focus on improving the speed of service or making it easier to use and understand:
1. Simplify the route structure (see details)
Keeping routes on the major streets and making fewer diversions will decrease travel times and make the system less confusing, which will therefore encourage ridership. Although diversions can get the buses closer to some customers, it's generally not worth the increase in travel times, labor costs, and especially lack of clarity. Just look at this map. Can you tell me how the #19 works? How about the #10? There's too many loops, diversions, and different termination points. With some of these routes, I would rather drive and know where I'm going.
2. Increase the spacing between stops (see details)
This is also designed to improve travel times to be more competitive with cars and to give customers a clearer picture of exactly where buses stop. I say if there are too many stops to show on a map, then there are too many stops.
I would caution though that the exact ridership patterns should be analyzed before removing stops. If the buses rarely stop at a location, it isn't doing much harm to leave it in the system. This idea would benefit the busiest portions of the system the most.
Smart Cards would help to get infrequent riders to ride more often. More importantly, it would reduce dwell times - the amount of time a bus spends at a stop while customers board. I recommend that COTA partner with a private credit card company to provide this service to customers.
TSP can allow buses running behind schedule to extend a green light or truncate a red in order to reduce delay. This improves the reliability of bus service, reduces bus bunching, and has only a minimal effect on cross-traffic.
4. Re-brand the busiest routes as colored lines. Promise frequent service (15 minute headways or better) between certain hours, seven days a week.
This will make the system look more "rail-like" on a map and the more frequent service should encourage people to ride without worrying about a schedule. It also creates the kind of hassle-free service that can influence people when making decisions on where to live or whether or not to own a car.
5. Implement Freeway Bus Rapid Transit
Until we can get a rail system, I recommend utilizing Columbus' excellent freeway system and shoulder running to bypass congestion. I say freeway BRT is like commuter rail with multiple spur lines. You can find a lot more details by following the above link. Click the map below for a potential regional system.
6. Install real-time bus arrival information at stops
Real time arrival information has the potential to overcome the uncertainty associated with riding buses. One of the most frequent arguments for rail is that people feel more confident a vehicle will arrive when there are tracks that they can see. Even better that seeing tracks in the street though would be seeing a sign that says how long until a vehicle is coming. With real-time information passengers would know when the next bus is coming. If it's going to be a while, you could get something to eat, run an errand, or just relax without standing in the street craning your neck to see if a bus is coming. Real-time information would reduce the amount of time people feel like they have been waiting for the bus, making the entire trip seem shorter.
7. Invest in Commuter Rail
Columbus needs a way to shape land-use into compact, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods well outside of Franklin County. I think commuter rail on existing freight right-of-way will be the most affordable way to get relatively long distance lines that could spur greenfield transit-oriented development (TOD).
Inter-city rail will connect Columbus to the rest of the state and the midwest. Streetcars can give people coming into downtown a stress-free way to transfer from inter-city rail, regional rail, or bus lines. Even when the level of service is the same as a bus, people are biased towards rail, and it will carry more passengers.