Columbus Shows What Free Bus Passes Can Do for Ridership

May expand program to 40,000 workers downtown.

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If Cleve Ricksecker gets his way, over 40,000 workers in downtown Columbus, Ohio, will get free transit passes next year. Downtown Columbus has a parking shortage. One so bad in fact, commercial buildings are having trouble leasing space because there isn’t enough parking to serve would-be tenants. Ricksecker, executive director of the Downtown Columbus business association’s Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District (CCSID), is confident buses are the solution.

CCSID just wrapped up a pilot project during which they gave free transit passes to 844 workers at four companies from June 2015 to January 2017. The results were encouraging, with bus ridership among participants increasing from 6.4 percent to 12.2 percent. That’s good, especially considering citywide, only 3.6 percent of commuters take transit and 79 percent drive alone.

“Columbus is a very auto-centric city,” says Ricksecker. “Indianapolis is the only city we’re aware of with a worse record on transit. We’re the two most auto-centric cities among our peer group.”

Joshua Lapp, a city planner with his own firm and vice chair of advocacy group Transit Columbus, says many downtown employers incentivize driving by paying for part or all of their employees’ parking, while very few offer subsidized transit passes.

Over the last decade, new buildings have risen over much of the remaining surface parking in downtown Columbus. At the same time, Ricksecker says, the city has seen an uptick in solo driving. The result is a lack of parking in a city that loves driving and a downtown commercial building vacancy hovering around 19 percent.

“In the core 400 acres of downtown where most of the office towers are located, there’s no block of parking left. When a commercial office tenant leaves the core of downtown, brokers have an impossible time re-leasing that space because there’s no parking for prospective employees,” he explains.

The business association calculates they’d need about 4,000 additional parking spaces to meet the demand. Since the city has neither the space nor desire to spend the money to build that much new parking, they had to get creative. In came the free transit pass trial.

If the pass plan is fully implemented with the 41,165 employees in the special improvement district and participants switch to transit at similar rates as during the trial, CCSID estimates it would free up 2,400 parking spaces. About half of the $5 million program cost would come from property owners in the CCSID paying a 3-cent-per-square-foot annual assessment. If CCSID can come up with another $2.5 million in funding by this summer, the program will launch in 2018 and run through the end of 2020.

Many of those 41,000 downtown employees are lawyers and insurance brokers and bankers, but the program will benefit lots of low-wage service industry workers as well. “The lower your wage the harder it is to pay for parking or transit passes. This program would help stabilize the workforce downtown,” says Ricksecker.

The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) is offering the district deeply discounted annual transit passes for the program. A COTA spokesperson told the Columbus Dispatch, “We’d like to have more riders. … If the numbers do grow, we’ll change a culture.”

A handful of U.S. cities have experimented with incentivizing transit use by offering free rides including Trenton, New Jersey, and Denver in the late ’70s and Austin in the late ’90s. The results were mixed. Both Trenton and Denver implemented free off-peak rides. They saw a respective 16 percent and 36 percent jump in off-peak ridership, which critics say doesn’t offer as much insight as peak-hour free transit would. In Austin, ridership spiked a whopping 75 percent, but the system also expanded during the experiment, which likely accounts for some growth. A later study said that the normalized results were closer to 10 percent ridership growth.

Each program was canceled, in part, because some riders and drivers complained about “problem” passengers — joy-riding and vandalizing teens, and inebriated or homeless people riding all day. There was little evidence that the experiments got people to switch from solo driving to transit.

That said, the Columbus experiment is more akin to employer-provided transit passes than systemwide free transit.

“We’re really encouraged by the results of the pilot,” says Lapp. “This pass program provides that flexibility that can get people out of their cars and turn them into transit riders. They can try out the bus without giving up their parking spot or having to pay for both modes at the same time.”

Lapp thinks the program is coming at a great time. COTA is getting ready to roll out a redesigned bus network and working on its NextGen plan for future transit projects, potentially including more bus rapid transit.

“When the transit pass program is expanded, it has a lot more potential than even the pilot program suggests,” he says. “The foundation is there so there are a lot more opportunities to grow.”

Ricksecker is also hopeful that free transit passes could help bring about a shift in transportation culture. “Commuting habits are so engrained, it’s really difficult. As the parking supply has disappeared, we haven’t seen people shift to transit. This is really an intervention. We’re buying people free transit passes so they give the bus a try. It’s all about changing behavior.”

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Josh Cohen is Crosscut’s city reporter covering Seattle government, politics and the issues that shape life in the city.

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Tags: busescommutingparkingcolumbus

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