COTA bus

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid out a lot of things about our society that are the ugly truth. One of them is that Columbus is still a city reliant on cars to get anywhere. The reduction of Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) service is living proof of that, as COTA has drastically cut back on service to focus on essential travel during Ohio’s Stay at Home Order.

On March 19, COTA’s Board of Trustees voted to make service free for the foreseeable future, and all passengers (with the exception of passengers in wheelchairs) to enter and exit through the rear door, which makes sense because it separates the passengers from the driver. Rush Hour Lines and other select routes were eventually phased out by early April. Buses were capped off at 20 passengers per bus, roughly half its normal capacity. Once a bus is at capacity, passengers standing at a bus stop are forced to wait for the next bus, which could be as long as two hours, depending on the route.

However, it was the changes that took place on April 27 that has essential employees concerned as COTA ridership drastically declined during the beginning of the Stay at Home Order. That was the day when COTA reduced service to its bare minimum, of having bus service from 7 A.M. to 9 P.M., seven days a week, with the last buses leaving downtown at 8 P.M. each evening. This was in a sharp contrast from buses running until midnight on Monday through Saturday, and until 10 P.M. on Sundays before the pandemic hit. This change, announced on April 22, was done with little to no warning to passengers, whose work schedules for the following week had already been lined out.

It is problematic because not everybody works a typical 9 to 5 shift. There are first-shift employees who normally have to catch buses at five or six each morning that are left out in the cold. And after the sun sets, you have evening employees that do not get off work until 9, 10, or 11 at night. Most of the remaining bus lines in service run only every hour, with three lines alternating routes every two hours.

There have been complaints posted on COTA’s Facebook Page by frustrated passengers who rely on COTA to get them to work. This is concerning because the average COTA rider cannot afford Uber or Lyft to take them places. One COTA rider questioned the timing of COTA’s drastic reduction on their Facebook Page by commenting on a recent COTA post by saying that COTA is “acting like the city is enforcing a mandatory curfew,” and why “COTA limited service right when (the State of Ohio) planned to lift restrictions.”

COTA’s generated response on Facebook comments goes along the lines of saying, “We do apologize for the inconvenience. We evaluate our service on a daily basis and hope to return to our normal schedule as soon as we can.” Other generated comments by COTA on their Facebook page in regards to the reduced service go along the lines of “We’re still working towards restoring our evening service,” and then COTA asks that people document specific line requests. COTA does not really have any concrete answers or an estimated timetable for resuming their regular schedules, as Stay at Home Orders are being lifted.

However, after only one week into the reduced service, COTA restored early morning service on six lines in 30-minute intervals, including the five of the most-frequent lines – Lines 1 Kenny/Livingston, 2 East Main/North High, 8 Karl/South High/Parsons, 10 East/West Broad, 22 OSU/Rickenbacker, and the CMAX. Five of those six lines run continuously every 15 minutes from 8 A.M. to 8 P.M. daily.

On June 1, early morning service will be restored on five other routes – Lines 3 Northwest/Harrisburg, 5 West Fifth/Refugee, 7 Mount Vernon, 31 Hudson, and 32 North Broadway, starting around 5 A.M. each day. On May 26, COTA added a COTA Plus On-Demand Pilot, operating from 7 A.M. to 8 P.M., serving parts of the Northeast Side of Franklin County, connecting with other COTA bus routes in the Easton, Gahanna, and Westerville areas.

The slow restoration of early morning service is only a start, however COTA still has a long way to go, including addressing evening service. The reduced COTA Service during this pandemic has shown that Columbus is still a car city, where people are reliant on cars from get everywhere. Before COTA expanded Weekend Service in 2010, buses stopped running early on the weekends, and some areas outside of I-270 did not have regular service at all. After the Transit System Review was implemented in May 2017, there was a mixed review of the changes. The pros being that it was easier to connect to different parts of Columbus without heavily relying on a Downtown connection. The cons were that people were so used to buses all meeting Downtown, and passengers that are direction-challenged were confused at where to board the correct bus.

As the average person can rely on their car to get to work, COTA has a lot of work to do to make riders fall in love with them again as the economy is slowly re-opening, and the Columbus region has a lot of ground work to do in order to make Columbus a transit-friendlier city.