The Fun Bus

November 8th, 2012

I’ve been talking to Cincinnatians about transit for a while now. In bars, on the internet, in dark alleys at 3 in the morning…

One thing keeps popping up more than anything else. People tend to see very specific deficiencies in the transit system and they naturally think about very specific ways to fix them.

The problems they think about usually run something like this:

  • Students need a better way to get from Ludlow to UC
  • Young professionals need a bus they can use to get to all the bars
  • We need something to move shoppers and tourists between OTR and the Banks

Here’s How they think about solving these problems:

  • A new route should run from Ludlow to UC
  • There should be a new route that goes to all the bars and places that YPs live
  • We need a new Streetcar!

The way people tend to frame the issue or problem that they see almost invariably focuses on the needs of a relatively small demographic-their demographic. It also focuses on a relatively small area-the one they spend a lot of time in. In fact, it tends to focus on whatever this particular person or group is concerned with at the moment.

The solution tends to address only this specific problem, and it tends to do it with a completely new transit service dropped on top of the existing system.

If you’re a university, you tend to care about how your students get to campus. If you’re a YP with new money burning a hole in your wallet, you just want to get to a bar quickly and come back late. If you’re invested in OTR properties, you want something that will bring shoppers and people with money past your place.

People think about their problem, and they come up with a solution to it. They think and think, and the more they think, the more they’re convinced that their solution solves every aspect of their conception of the problem. The error of course, as my loaded words have probably pointed out by now, is that their conception of the problem is just that-only theirs. YP’s are not going to adequately address the transportation needs of a large and diverse population. Neither are OTR property owners or the NAACP or any other demographic.

What we need are planners to facilitate and lead the conversation. The planning profession (at its best) seeks to look at complex urban issues as holistically as possible and work with diverse people to lead them to solutions that are the best for everyone, everywhere. It might seem like planners just aren’t in the budget at our local transit agencies. More likely, they’re overworked or not allowed the authority or autonomy they need to properly direct the process. Instead, we get things like the One for Fun, the #1 SORTA bus created by a ‘partnership’ between SORTA and dozens of arts-and-culture-type organizations like the Museum Center, the Conservatory and the Zoo.

The #1 is a planner’s nightmare. It nominally serves only one group’s interests(arts organizations), and it doesn’t even do that well. Indeed, it’s not unreasonable to say it’s a transit rider’s nightmare too. Here’s the original route map from when the service was rebranded in 2010

original #1 map

Looks more like a list of sponsors than destinations

It’s hard to believe anything could be harder to read than that.(But wait! This was originally only available on the website as an 18MB PDF file.) It’s not just the bad design with the clunky legend, noxious colours and decontextualized streets. It’s the fact that the route doesn’t make any damn sense. Almost any place you want to go, from almost any point on the route, you can get to faster and more directly by walking or taking a different transit line. Further, the routing is so convoluted it’s impossible to remember or even make sense of, making a joke of the suggestion that it would be used primarily by choice riders, particularly by the kind of people who would patronise the symphony.

But back to my point! The reason the #1 is a poor route(indeed, it had the lowest ridership of any route last I heard) is because it was organized and arranged by a coalition of arts organizations. They(collectively) have no idea how an entire transit system, a network of dozens of interconnected lines, works holistically to benefit a very large and diverse group of people such as makes up Greater Cincinnati. It’s just not their line of business. They only know that it would be nice if one bus went past all of their galleries and museums.

And this makes perfect sense from their perspective! They can hardly be faulted for simple ignorance of an extremely complex system. They see, daily, a huge number of people-their customers and constituents-circulating between the Museum Center, the Zoo, the CAC, and the various galleries. They naturally think that a transit line that connected everything door-to-door for this group of people they work with would be a blessing. It would be one stop shopping! People hop back and forth between institutions all the time! Why not put all that commotion in one place? It will makes things so simple!

Except it doesn’t. It makes things more complicated, isolated, disconnected, confusing, and most of all, inefficient.

When interest groups,(arts organizations, YPs, UC, or OTR landlords in our examples), most very well intentioned, start to make specific suggestions about transit, it’s past time for planners to step in and lead the discussion toward solutions that address their needs and the needs of others in a common solution(or package of coordinated solutions).

So if you’ve wondered by now just what exactly I would tell these arts organizations, it would be something like this:

Your organizations are of great benefit to the city. You’re good neighbours, and I want to make sure that as many of your potential customers as possible have convenient access to your facilities. I’m excited to see that so many of you are located within a couple miles of Downtown. The density and frequency of transit in this area is already quite good compared to other parts of town, so you’re all off to a very good start! It seems we need to make clear to your customers how the transit system works, how people can catch buses, and where they go so that your customers can make full use of what is already in place. To the extent that this is inadequate, and I fully realize the system is far from perfect, let’s talk about how we can improve access for not only your business, but the neighbourhood and community as a whole. Let’s look at where people are going, what your next door neighbour is looking for from the transit system, where his customers are traveling from.”

I expect if we took that more holistic approach, we’d come up with a more holistic problem statement and very different solutions. We might find that there isn’t so much a problem of people not being able to get to and from the art museum as a complete lack of transit in Mt. Adams as a whole. We might find that the ambiguously shifting route of the #31 makes the connection to the #33 near Union Terminal confusing for commuters as well as museum visitors, and indeed that opening up shuttered stairways from the Terminal to Dalton street would go a long way toward connecting the building with the rest of town. We might find that Downtown would work better for everyone if routes were consolidated and took predictable, overlapping paths toward and away from Government Square creating very high frequency transit streets for circulation across the CBD. We might find a lot of such things if we look a bit deeper than our own issues when we think about transit.

So, homework: The next time you think you have a good suggestion for the transit agencies, something that would solve a specific problem you see in the system, please think for a moment about how it would help someone in a wheelchair in Mt. Healthy get to their weekend job in Madeira. Or how it would help people in West Price Hill cross the Mill Creek and get up the hill to Corryville. If you can’t imagine any way at all that it does either, you might want to go back to the drawing board or ask for some help from a transit planner.

And just for FUN:

The one for FUN

Just ONE more, then 1’m dONE.

The ONE for FUN

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