When TANK crosses the river

October 27th, 2012

There’s a lovely logic to the way TANK arranges their stops in Downtown Cincinnati.

Government Square transit diagram

Lines running all day through Downtown–doesn’t include peak-only/express routes

This means that it’s easy for anyone to remember where to catch their bus, and particularly that anyone who’s just taking a quick run from Downtown to either Newport or Covington can just go to the right spot and jump on any bus that comes by.

Going to Newport on the Levy? Go to Vine between 4th and 3rd and catch the 11, 12, 16, or 25, one of which will shortly whisk you across the Taylor Southgate bridge.

Going to Downtown Covington? Walk on over to 4th St between Main and Walnut and you’ll catch whichever of the 1, 3, 5, 7, 12, 25, or 33 that comes by first. They’ll take you over the Clay Wade Bailey bridge into Covington.

In either case it doesn’t matter which you catch and the buses are collectively coming often enough that you don’t need to check a schedule.

Except… did anyone remember the Southbank Shuttle?

The Southbank Shuttle goes back and forth between Covington and Newport through Downtown. It’s main stop, in front of Fountain square on 5th, boards in the same place for both directions of travel. It is a block away from the other two main TANK stops in Downtown: on 5th St between Walnut and Main, and south one block on 4th St.

The Southbank Shuttle sells itself as a quick way to get across the river. Indeed, ‘quick’ is in one important respect a very good word for the line. It’s TANK’s most frequent service, running every 20 minutes in both directions. And it does indeed cross the river as quick as anything.

TANK crosses the ohio river

Line thickness indicates the frequency of the service. The thicker the line, the more frequently transit runs. Where lines travel the same path, you can get a rough guess of total frequency by adding the widths–after all, for the portion of the trip where the lines run parallel, it doesn’t matter which one you catch since they all go to the same place!

But let’s take as an example a trip between Downtown Cincinnati and the Covington transit center to see how the shuttle fares as an option. A quick glance at the frequency map above shows two possible paths from Downtown: the Clay Wade Bailey bridge or the Roebling bridge. Now really, this shouldn’t matter, as long as you make it to Covington but the fact that the stops are different for each path is critically important. There’s no place where they all meet, and you can’t wait at multiple stops. You have to choose one, so which one do you pick? Rationally, you should pick the one where it’s most likely a bus will be coming very soon to take you across the river.

Look again at the map above.

You should wait at the stop on 4th to catch the 1, 3, 5, 7, 12, 25, or 33. Their total frequency combines to something much greater(if surely slightly less regular) than that of the shuttle.

That doesn’t sound so bad–two options, you might say–are better than one, right? Nope. Multiple options for the same trip make each option worse. Where transit lines overlap they complement each other. Their collective frequencies increase, meaning that for trips within the span of redundancy, people spend less time waiting for the next vehicle to arrive and relatively more time actually in motion.

SORTA recognizes this fact with their numbering. The 4, 17, 43, and 11 all branch out once they get a few miles from Downtown into sub-routes identified by a name after the number(’17-Mt Airy’ for example). The number common to what are truly different lines belies the importance of understanding overlapping transit lines as a unified service. You can also see this very clearly in the color scheme of New York City’s subways which come together in Manhattan before branching apart in the other boroughs into lines with both a color and a letter or number identifying them.

New York City Subway Map

One of at least a dozen versions of an iconic map.

The shuttle is effectively duplicating something that already exists: a reasonably quick and easy way to get right across the river. That duplication isn’t at all a bad thing as long as it builds on and amplifies the effect of other services. If the shuttle took the same bridges across the river and stopped at the same stops Downtown, it would likely have little if any immediate impact on the ridership of the shuttle but could increase the effective frequency of short trips across the river to Covington, saving time for all people making that trip.

Why does the shuttle feel the need to be a rebel? It’s clear that TANK is marketing it to a different audience. First of all, it has a different (and somewhat kitschy)vehicle.

southbank shuttle


It has a different schedule format. It has a different schedule structure(every 20 minutes throughout the day rather than less regular times and tapering off in the evening). It has it’s own page on the website. It’s even $0.50 cheaper than any other line. And of course it has a different routing across the river and different Downtown stops.

Let’s assume that there are some legitimate psychological/marketing reasons for such differentiation. I’ll assume TANK knows their customers better than I do. Still, that differentiation could exist on top of other transit lines already going to the same places, allowing some people who don’t care about wooden seats and cheaper fare the option of catching a ride across the river on a different line with substantially less time spent waiting.

Overall, TANK’s stops in Downtown make a lot of sense, but the shuttle’s separate stops for the Downtown-Covington segment keep TANK from really making the trip across the river both quicker for short trips, and easier to understand for everyone.

6 responses to “When TANK crosses the river”

  1. Nate says:

    Just found another recent article about the shuttle. There’s actually a great comment at the bottom from one of the original drivers from when the service started in the 90’s. Apparently it actually originated under a different organization, with a different route, and more for the purpose of tourism than transportation. This goes a log way toward explaining the origins of the differences in style and routing.


  2. Jon R says:

    As a driver I may not know the full story, but here is what I can piece together. Everything stated in the article that you posted in the reply is spot on. The shuttle is not meant for standard passengers. It was set up to increase and encourage tourism and still does a pretty good job. When I first started working for TANK, Southbank was much different both on the public front and the operations front.

    Publicly the only major difference was a paint job. A few 30 foot Gilligs were bought to allow for the tighter turns when we used to go onto Sixth Street in Covington. The route was every fifteen minutes, to the point that a schedule was just a map and a list of start and end times. Our route was much broader, going up to Sixth in Cincinnati and Covington as well as serving more of the Covington hotels.

    Operationally it was even more interesting. Six busses gave the Shuttle a 15 minute headway with 15 minute breaks in both Covington and Bellevue. Additionally, a relief driver gave you two 30 minute breaks and a 45 minute break. As an aside, most of the drivers were very high seniority.

    A lot of this change for two reasons. The Roebling Bridge weight reduction in 2007 excluded all TANK busses from using the bridge, and management was, at times, hostile to the Shuttle.

    Management decisions led to the number of busses on the route to be cut from 6 all the way to only 3 at the worst. This led to 20 minute headways and the drivers getting no breaks. After a change in leadership, 15 minute headway was achieved with 4 busses, and eventually a fifth rush hour bus to give the drivers meal breaks. The route was trimmed down to a spartan loop through downtown and excludes the more affordable Covington hotels.

    The Roebling Suspension Bridge is the main artery for the Southbank Shuttle. After it closed in 2007, it would take five years for it to return to the Shuttle route. The current trolley fleet was purchased with the sole intent to return to the bridge. Its lightweight construction just made the 11 ton limit.

    I love my trolley work. I get to meet people from all over the world and welcome them to our city. It is a shame that as I write this we are once again off of the Roebling due to safety concerns. It is a shame that I will have to be a snow bird of sorts as the winter hours start. Right now, both are only temporary and as soon as the weather warms up again I will be back on the trolley, helping people explore and enjoy my city.

    • Nate says:

      Thanks for the detailed reply! Your comment of Queen City Discovery made a lot of sense out of why the route is treated differently from the others.

      So is the shuttle now running on the Clay Wade Bailey? I could have sworn I saw it on the roebling just last week when I was up in Devou Park. Do you think there’s a chance TANK would ever consider changing the stop configuration in Downtown? I’d love to take the shuttle–I actually think it’s kind of a cute little bus-but I can’t justify it since I’m usually going to Covington and the other stop has less of a wait.


      P.S. I’m jealous. I would love to work for a year or two as a bus driver. I always have the best conversations with TANK drivers too :)

      P.P.S. Do you happen to know the ridership numbers for the shuttle? I’ve been meaning to try to get my hands on that data for the whole system, but since it’s on my mind…do you have any idea where I could find ridership statistics for an average weekday by route?

    • Jon R says:

      Glad I could help.

      Recently Kentucky Transportation Cabinet found cracks in the Roebling Bridge. Until repairs can be made the weight limit was lowered to 3 tons. There are some SUVs that can’t make that limit.

      If I remember correctly, the Shuttle has been seeing yearly ridership in the 300,000 range. It has been setting monthly increases for 15 months. I suspect that you would have to contact Gina Douthat for more. You might try the monthly board meetings as well.

      Jon R

  3. […] that last post got me to drawing, and here we are a few days later with a new map of TANK’s lines as they […]

  4. Marilyn Lewis says:

    Nate, hi. I’m writing a brief annotated list of cities with good transit, based on this site’s research https://www.walkscore.com/cities-and-neighborhoods/. Cincinnati is above the center of the pack. Would you be interested in doing a quick email interview? I’d like to ask what’s good about the city’s transit system.

    Marilyn Lewis, MoneyTalksNews.com