There’s a lovely logic to the way TANK arranges their stops in Downtown Cincinnati.
- All lines can be boarded south of 5th Street
- Lines to or through Covington board on 4th St between Main and Walnut.
- Lines to or through Newport board on Vine St between 4th and 3rd.
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.
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.
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.
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.