The new transit plan: Sensible, Feasible, Good

November 22nd, 2012

SORTA has released their preliminary transit plan, and I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised by how sensible the recommendations are. I was a little bit worried after looking at what is available online about the plan…

...blurry maps, vague descriptions...

…blurry maps, vague descriptions…

…but I attended the public meeting on Nov 15th and it filled in a lot of what was missing. It’s a good plan; one that makes reasonable changes based on sound planning and data analysis, and does so within existing resources and reasonable timelines.

SORTA presentation

Everyone loves a slideshow!

Here are the highlights, at least the ones I think are important:

There are two parts of the plan:

The first is a package of short term recommendations that can be implemented by late 2013 at the earliest and will be possibe with the existing budget simply by shifting some resources around. I’ll start with this part here.

The second part is much more comprehensive and long-term but unfunded. The date attached to this part of the plan is 2023, but as we all know, a decade is a long time and things can happen more or less quickly depending on circumstances. They’ve estimated that this part of the plan would need an additional $47 million in operating funds, or a roughly 53% increase over the current budget of $89 million. That’s a big increase as a percentage, but not huge relative to other important things in the region. I’ll get to this part of the plan in another post.

First of all, take a look at the last post for a side by side comparison of the whole all-day system. Here’s the whole map with the proposed changes again:

Map of SORTA's proposed changes

PROPOSED changes. Click for full size.

At a glance, it’s not enormously different. On further inspection, it still isn’t, but the changes are important to consider. Here we go! Generalities first, then the specifics.

Frequency changes: One line, gets a small frequency cut, but a number of others, 6 or so I think, all get slight increases in frequency for at least some part of the day or an extended schedule with the same frequency. “Within the existing operating budget??”, you say. Yes, within the existing operating budget. At least three lines are losing a significant part of their length and the resources used to run those will be used to operate a higher level of service on those and other lines. We’re(in a really fairly small way) diminishing the spatial span of transit and increasing it’s intensity.

Creating a grid: Well, maybe it’s not totally a grid we’re talking about creating. Ours is a city of hills and irregular streets, precluding the possibility of more than a tiny grid. It’s also one that has a very unusually radial transit system that isn’t itself at all necessitated by that same presence of hills and valleys. All lines in Cincinnati tend to lead toward Downtown, even in Kentucky(which has no direct lines between Newport and Covington despite the presence of several bridges), and even for lines where one would think a trip downtown might be superfluous such as for the #27 or the #24. Indeed, a trip inward requires a sharp change of course for them.

What’s meant is the shaping of the transit system into something only more closely approximating a grid. Really, we’re talking about adding or emphasizing lines that could be considered parts of a layered beltway system, if I may dare to apply such a tarnished word to something I care for.

highways of greater cincinnati

A beltway circles a city providing, hypothetically, a way around rather than through it.

“Cross-town” has been a popular word here in Cincy to describe this kind of line, but it would be more accurate to call them “around-town” lines. The proposed #41(more below) takes this around-town path, not just going east-west, but turning north-south and going more fully around the city than any line we’ve recently seen.

What’s the benefit of all this? Well, to the extent that it allows people to make more direct trips, it’s enabling trips that otherwise might not have happened or quickening those that would have happened anyway but with a less direct series of connected trips. If we’re serious about creating a multi-layered transit beltway, it may be good concurrent policy to streamline the process, and minimize the cost, of getting a “transfer” such as through the use of stored-value cards and a digital system that tracks time between boardings. If we want people to have readier access among different lines, a fare policy that makes such use more expensive is at cross-purposes.

Simplifying complex routes: Some lines have weird little deviations from their typical course that only happen at certain times of day, typically at rush hour. Sometimes, these only apply to one direction of travel. There may be reasons given for these deviations, such as to avoid an extremely crowded way, or to better serve a place commuters are going, but it’s my general opinion that the benefits of an extra minute possibly saved, or the cost of a few extra people walking a bit farther are almost always outweighed by the cost of the complexity added to the line and the system as a whole.

It takes a lot of work for riders to understand and conceptualize a transit line and the way it connects with the city and with other lines. When you add some time and day/time specific changes, you can actually as much as double or triple the amount of information that it’s necessary for people to remember. An example is in order:

#31 schedule map

“Only-sometimes” services are indicated here with lighter color. Which route will you be on? Does it matter? Maybe. Check the schedule to find out. You have one on you, right?

Here, the #31 already takes a reasonably difficult path; it’s not direct, it has a long two-way section and it’s not nearly a straight line. The addition of two different only-sometimes segments doubles the number of streets it travels on, and in the east substantially alters it’s course. How could you possibly remember this course, including all of the specific times it goes a different than usual way? Generally, you can’t and so the #31 is ruled out as a line that can be used(in many segments) intuitively and without checking a schedule. In the proposal, these only-sometimes segments are eliminated for a number of lines, and that’s a very good thing for people who are just beginning to understand how the system works and how the lines function together. It’s also good for cartographers who are trying to make simple, easy to read maps. It may be slightly disconcerting for people who are used to things as they are. Change is always disconcerting for some.

Shifting eastward: Between Downtown and uptown, services are generally shifting a bit to the east. The #19, formerly on W. Clifton Ave will move over to Vine St, the #51 and #39, formerly on W Clifton will be removed from it entirely, the #46, formerly on Vine St will move over to Liberty Hill and Auburn Ave, and the #4 on reading will be getting a bit more service from the new “m+”. Jefferson Ave could see a lot more service than it has now.

Now for the specifics:

Routing changes(in ascending order):

The #1 will be getting a much needed haircut. It will operate only between Mt. Adams and Union Terminal, still with an oddly circuitous Downtown routing, but without the undulating trip into uptown. It will also run slightly later.

New and improved route 1

#16: No huge changes here. The proposed alignment takes Liberty west. I don’t know anything about the utility of such a change, but I love simplicity as a general rule. Cutting out streets makes giving directions and understanding things easier for everyone.

route 16 currently


new #16 routing on liberty st


However, because it eliminates the redundancy on Lynn st, it may eliminate the option to wait on Lynn for either bus if all you want to do is go north, or more specifically, to Northside where the lines coincide again. #16 isn’t very frequent at all though, so it’s not likely many people are doing that.

#17: The only changes are to the Mt. Airy extension. Instead of turning west on Northbend, it goes all the way to Galbraith, swapping places with the #41. It ultimately terminates at exactly the same place.

Current #17 routing


proposed route for the #17


#19: The major change to the #19 is that it will now go through Corryville(up Vine) rather than Clifton Heights(up W. Clifton). The #19 is the blue line below.

current route #19

it-plan/ ‎Current

the proposed alignment for the #19


Other than that, the Cheviot-Groesbeck extension gets dropped completely, which doesn’t matter much since it’s a little only-sometimes deviation anyway. The line is thus significantly simplified in it’s outer reaches. The area served by the Cheviot-Groesbeck extension is mostly covered in this plan by the new #41 which will run all day and provide different, but much more consistent service.

current allignment for #19


new allignment for the #19


#20: Very minor changes out in the suburbs.

#21: The #21 will take it’s southern turn a few blocks earlier, but otherwise remain unchanged. This is apparently due to low ridership on the far western portion of the line.

current line #21


Proposed #21


#24: The #24, which I recently wrote about as an exemplar of complex routing, would get a bit of a trim in Mt. Washington…

#24 in Mt. Washington


the new alignment for the #24 through Mt. Washington


…and would stop in Uptown rather than turning south through Mt. Auburn and Liberty Hill toward Downtown.

24 current route


24 new route


This would speed up the trip, and necessitate a transfer for anyone going between the Downtown area and the far east side. That’s not a huge deal though, as the #24 crosses some very high frequency lines going straight Downtown before it even gets to UC. In many cases, it would likely be faster to transfer than to have stayed on anyway. With the current pricing structure, that hypothetical trip will be $0.50 more expensive, but the planner presenting the plan said that that portion of the trip wasn’t actually all that well used anyway. Generally, the #24 will be a faster trip and some of it’s current service will be reallocated for more effective uses.

#31 & #32 Cleaning up only-sometimes routing.

#39:  In one of the most dramatic changes, the #39 would merge with the #51 making a huge east-west line.

current route of the #51


the proposed route for the #51


This is very exciting. I used to live in Clifton Heights, so I’m a little sad to see that my (former) direct access to Xavier would be cut, but there really never were too many people on that leg of the #51. This new #39/51 route, which would surely be called the #51 to keep with the #X1 naming convention for ‘crosstown’ or beltway lines, would be the first line to provide legitimate access from the northern uptown plateau rather directly to the west side. That’s not at all possible now. It may look from the map like the #64 could sorta accomplish that but through CUF it runs along McMillan which is in fact well down the hill from where most people live, and because of steep, wooded hillsides, largely inaccessible to most of the neighborhood.

#41: Another big change here. The #41 would be even bigger, and importantly, still, less frequent than most lines. Size isn’t always everything. Basically, the #41 will stick to North Bend Road through College Hill, follow it all the way west to Boudinot, and take a long drive straight south to the Glenway transit center. It’s the thin green line running across the top of the frame below:

current route of the #41


new #41 route


#43: The only change here is that the Reading Road extension would terminate a mile or two further out in Evendale.

#46: Presumably because the #39 and the #24 would cut their legs into Downtown, the liberty hill/Auburn Ave corridor they formerly traveled could be left uncovered. It’s proposed that the #46 be shifted off of Vine St to take the same route they formerly took between Downtown and Corryville.

current route 46


proposed route #46


#49: The #49 and #64 do a bit of a flip-flop. As it is now, the #49 serves the Fay Apartments complex. It’s proposed that the #64 will instead.

current route #49


new route 49

Proposed. I feel like the diagram is falling apart a little here, as the new alignment has things a bit out of proportion. Oh well. I’ll fix it if things change for sure.

They still overlap, so a transfer between them is possible, just as it was before, but now the Fay apartments would have more direct access to not only Downtown, but also the west side. The #64 also changes from going through North Fairmount along Carll to pretty much just veering north of it once it crosses the viaduct.

#51: See #39 above.

#64: See #49 above.

m+: There’s a new line in town! And for some reason it’s going to break with the numbered naming convention for every other line. The “Metro*Plus” which sounds like a multivitamin for cities, would be a step toward what SORTA is calling BRT. It’s to have “limited stops” and operate around 15% faster than a “normal” line. On the maps above, it’s depicted in grey and runs parallel to the #4 for much of it’s length.

metro plus bus line

metro plus brt proposal

It seems like SORTA is still very much considering how to schedule this service. They suggested that it could run either all day, or only during rush hours. The former would have a roughly 30 minute headway(the temporal distance between two vehicles), the later, 15 minute(which would then come twice as frequently, but only for part of the day). In either case, without a more significant difference in speed, it’s not clear that the service would do more than introduce increased frequency to some corridors, and perhaps also confusion. “What’s this ‘m+’ bus I see? I’m supposed to be waiting for the #4, right??”

The m+ is a step toward ‘BRT‘, though not a really substantial one. It’s unclear why it should get a different branding treatment and planning consideration until it’s able(as the long term plan will propose) to offer really substantial frequencies and speed differences. When you’re trying to launch a new ‘brand’ that is strikingly different from what you already have, as I interpret the effort toward ‘BRT’ to be doing, you really must initially put forward something that is substantially different. This isn’t. Yet.

Overall, there are a lot of reasonable suggestions in here, a lot of really blurry hard to read maps(something to work on in the future), and with the long range plan considered, though not yet here described, some solid steps toward a more coherent and effective transit system in the future. Well done, SORTA!

4 responses to “The new transit plan: Sensible, Feasible, Good”

  1. […] number of maps this year that have highlighted property value data in Hamilton County, provided an exhaustive analysis of SORTA’s new transit plan, explained the theory of bus bunching, and is in the midst of an eight-part series critiquing the […]

  2. Jeremy Mosher says:

    I’m definitely excited by the emphasis on more cross-/around-town lines, especially as someone who has regularly taken the 41 for a few years now. (I believe the 41 will serve the massive new hospital out in Monfort Heights, which is a perfect excuse for the extension.) And the swap with the 17 Mt. Airy is an elegant, sensible fix that would bring that one rogue permutation of the 17 more in line with the rest of one of our biggest routes.

    Most importantly, though, I agree that all the route tweaking in the world is for naught if we don’t make transferring easier/more sensible aka free. SORTA lags behind a number of other cities’ systems that allow free transfers within a certain time limit, at the expense of ridership and the overall value the system provides. I frequently take the 17 uptown — want to stop and grab a coffee to-go at Sitwells or something for a dinner party from Ludlow Wines? Well, it’s not worth 50 extra cents to do so, so I usually pass. Giving passengers 30-40 minutes to make a free transfer would make the whole bus system more valuable to every business in the city. And by tying free transfers to a value-added card or the new ten-ride pass should ease the hurt from the loss of transfer fares, since those sorts of cards should encourage increased ridership, thanks to their convenience.

    Nevertheless, the short-term plan (not to mention the new 10-ride pass) does have me excited to see where else SORTA can catch up in terms of industry best practices. Dare I hope for 10-ride pass vending machines?

  3. russell haney says:

    I would love the new 17 route. The 41 would greatly help, as it would cut through to where i live, and the 21 would put me right by my door!

  4. […] also raises questions about the proposed realignments of several lines. CUF is slated to get significantly less service with the removal of the 51 and […]