Mar 5, 2024 - News

COTA ridership climbing since pandemic drop

Data: COTA; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: COTA; Chart: Axios Visuals

Annual ridership is moving in the right direction for the Central Ohio Transit Authority, though it remains well below pre-pandemic levels, per data shared with Axios.

Why it matters: Public transit is key to cities' broader health and vibrancy.

  • It makes for cleaner, greener communities, opens up possibilities for those who can't afford a car, and frees up parking lots for other uses like housing or public gathering spaces.

By the numbers: Last year, the transit authority saw more than 11 million riders — a nearly 22% increase since hitting its lowest point in 2021.

Yes, but: Ridership is just 57% of what it was before COVID.

Between the lines: Our post-pandemic lifestyles are impacting travel patterns, with remote and hybrid work changing how, where and when we commute — and forcing cities nationwide to rethink public transit routes.

  • A national workforce shortage is also making it harder to keep routes staffed and expand services, per the American Public Transportation Association.

The big picture: Ridership remained below pre-pandemic levels in nearly all major U.S. metro areas as of fall 2023, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Kavya Beheraj report.

What they're saying: COTA has been gradually restoring its services to pre-pandemic levels and will continue making changes to attract more riders, spokesperson Jeff Pullin tells Axios.

Zoom in: New employee benefits aiming to improve recruitment and retention include a $100 monthly student loan stipend and paid family leave. A union contract approved in January includes 16% raises over three years.

  • In 2021, bus fares became simpler and more affordable, and in 2022, all Columbus City Schools high schoolers started receiving free bus passes.

What's next: COTA's next goal is to begin offering midnight service later this year, which should boost third-shift worker ridership, Pullin says.

  • A recently awarded state grant will also fund a feasibility study for a new route connecting Dublin and Intel's Ohio One, plus other job centers.
Illustration of a bus dividing a green and gold background, with elements of ballots behind it.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Bus expansion on the ballot

The biggest changes planned for Central Ohio transit in the years ahead could depend on voter support in November.

What we're watching: Franklin County residents are expected to vote on doubling the existing COTA sales tax from 0.5% to 1%, in part to support a transportation initiative called LinkUs.

Zoom in: The plan would fund at least three bus rapid-transit corridors, plus related investments like sidewalks, bikeways, trails and roadways to better connect our communities.

  • The corridors would offer many benefits akin to light rail, such as dedicated bus lanes, off-board fare collection, signal priority, and level and multidoor loading platforms.

What's more: COTA's service hours would increase by 45%, including select, high-ridership lines that would operate 24 hours a day, Pullin tells us.

  • The effort would also add more COTA//Plus zones, a "last-mile service" that has grown more popular every year since launching in Grove City, Westerville and the South Side in 2019.
  • This allows COTA riders free service to and from bus stops anywhere in those communities.

Context: Columbus is the state's fastest-growing region, but funds transit at lower levels than other major cities, like Cleveland (1%) and Cincinnati (0.8%).

What's next: Aug. 7 is the deadline to place the issue on the Nov. 5 ballot.

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