Metro Is On The Move In Cincinnati Area
By Harrell Kerkhoff, Busline Magazine Editor
It’s full speed ahead for Metro, the Cincinnati, OH, public transportation provider that has implemented key initiatives, programs and plans for stronger travel options in the Queen City area. The results are paying off. Case in point, it was recently announced that Metro has provided more than 1 million trips in the month of January 2023, marking the first time the transit system has reached the ridership milestone since early 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the region. Metro is also outpacing the national average for transit ridership recovery.
“That is something we’re really excited about. We all know COVID changed the world, but at Metro, we made some decisions early on to keep all our services going,” Darryl Haley, Chief Executive Officer & General Manager for the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA)/Metro, said. “When the pandemic arrived in our area, Metro’s ridership dropped like other parts of the country. Most people were not going to their workplace, school, to the mall, etc. However, a certain percentage of our ridership had no choice. They worked in health care and such businesses as grocery stores — places that had to stay open so our communities could survive.
“We made the decision to not cut service. We also did not implement employee layoffs. Each person who worked at Metro received at least a 40-hour paycheck, helping us continue to run 100 percent of our service, even though ridership significantly decreased.”
Metro received a big ‘shot in the arm’ in May 2020, during the early days of the pandemic, with the passage of Issue 7. It provided additional funding to expand services. Voters approved a measure that established a 0.8 percent sales tax levy to support Metro bus operations, as well as fund infrastructure improvements within Metro’s Hamilton County (OH) service area. Cincinnati is the county seat of Hamilton County. One-quarter of that revenue (0.2 percent) is designated each year for an infrastructure fund, to be used for such transit-related projects as roads, sidewalks, and bridges within the county.
Prior to the passage of Issue 7, Metro officials introduced “Reinventing Metro,” a plan used to reach out to community members. Community engagement also continued after the levy’s approval.
The ongoing objective of Reinventing Metro is to offer the Greater Cincinnati region bold, new transit innovations that will help grow the regional economy and better connect community residents to jobs, education, health care and entertainment. Since the start of Reinventing Metro, the transit system has expanded overall service by approximately 20 percent.
“We’re running 24-hour service (involving seven routes) for the first time in the history of Metro. In response, ridership increased 176 percent for one of those routes. We have also added two crosstown routes and greater frequency within different parts of our service region. So instead of buses coming every half hour per stop on our busiest routes, they are arriving every 10 to 15 minutes. We have also added new service on the weekends. Some routes didn’t have a Sunday service until now. Efforts have been made as well to simplify numerous route alignments and Metro’s fare structure,” Haley said. “Our core purpose is to connect people in the region. We can’t do that as well if we are reducing routes and/or frequency. However, thanks to the support of the people living in Hamilton County, with the passage of Issue 7, Metro experienced a 68 percent increase in monthly ridership in January (of 2023) compared to the previous January (2022). Now, one month does not make a trend, but our ridership for January (of 2023) is just about equal to our ridership in January 2019, before the pandemic.
“Also, while the rest of the country is approximately 65 percent of their overall pre-pandemic transit ridership, we’re nearing 85 percent.”
Metro Senior Vice President of External Affairs Brandy Jones added: “I think the successes that Darryl talked about, while not reducing our service over the past few years, shows how committed Metro has been to its customers. They know they can count of us with safe and reliable public transportation in this region. That has helped us recover faster than some others. We are also very excited about new services planned for our service area.”
Getting The Word Out
Metro officials continue to invest heavily in marketing new programs, spending a lot of time and effort educating the public about improvements taking place.
“We have implemented a marketing campaign based on the theme ‘Riding Is Believing,’” Jones said. “The idea is that once a person boards a Metro vehicle, all those past misconceptions about using public transportation will go away. Thanks to friendly customer service and such modern technologies as on-board Wi-Fi, charging ports and security cameras, passengers can gain a sense of confidence that they are safe and secure. We have also added extra measures, since the pandemic, including increased sanitization.
“It helps that service hours and frequency have been expanded, while a new ridership app allows passengers to track where their bus is, and when it will arrive. That greatly takes confusion and guesswork out of using public transportation. We also have ticket vending machines all over the city, making it easier to pay for fares. It used to be riders had to go downtown to a sales office, which was only opened Monday through Friday. Now, the ticket vending machines are operational 24 hours a day.”
She added: “Holistically, we have given a lot of thought as to what needs to take place from the time a rider leaves his/her house to the time that person arrives at his/her destination. Our objective has been to make the riding experience as easy and convenient as possible. Our marketing efforts have surrounded those elements, creating an awareness for new riders that if they give Metro a try, they too will become a ‘believer.’”
Metro has also hired a ridership development director to work with area businesses, with the objective of helping business leaders attract new employees through better public transportation options.
“It’s important to help those running companies to understand how public transportation can connect current and potential employees to jobs, and then to retain those people with a safe and reliable way to get to work,” Haley said. “The whole idea behind Reinventing Metro is to make sure no matter where you live in the area, you can have great access to health care, jobs, education and entertainment options.”
Part of this effort is to also recognize that young people represent future ridership growth. For
many years, Metro has partnered with the University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati State Technical and Community College to assist college students and staff with a discount public transportation program. It helps offset high gas prices and parking hassles associated with commuting to school, work, athletic events, shopping, and socializing. Service is also available for the Cincinnati public school system.
“Metro provides, on an annual basis, over 1 million trips to 7th through 12th graders,” Jones said.
Haley added: “There are members of the next generation who are making different choices with their transportation options. Not everyone today is getting a driver’s license when turning 16. There are also families choosing to have one, rather than two or three, automobiles due to the cost of gas, insurance, and upkeep. We make sure those people know that Metro provides another option. That can involve significant savings, helping those same people upgrade where they live and have more money for such things as vacations. We, at Metro, can help change people’s lives by providing different transportation options, which allows them to make better decisions with their dollars.”
Recognizing that the world continues to change is important when designing and implementing better transportation options for ridership.
“Not everyone works five days a week in an office. There are people as well who work second and third shifts. More people are also wanting to live in ‘walkable’ communities, and only need one or no cars. It’s therefore important public transportation finds ways to better connect those people to where they need to go,” Haley said. “Metro operates in a growing, thriving region. That is why Reinventing Metro is so important. The plan is helping Metro make solid changes in service and programs, allowing more people to connect within the community.”
Such improvements have laid the groundwork for two of Metro’s most exciting new offerings in years: an on-demand service, MetroNow!, slated to launch this spring (2023); and a bus rapid transit (BRT) program, which is being designed for the Hamilton Avenue and Reading Road corridors throughout Hamilton County. The target date for the BRT project is 2027.
As part of its Reinventing Metro plan, MetroNow! will provide regional transit access to neighborhoods that historically were underserved or had no public transportation service. Throughout 2021 and early 2022, Metro developed an accessible, on-demand and localized mobility service that included connections to its network of fixed bus routes. Previously referred to as “Mobility On-Demand,” MetroNow! will soon launch involving two service zones. Following those initial pilot launches, Metro will roll out several additional service zones in the future.
Currently, Metro provides two main types of service: fixed-routes with predetermined stops and destinations; and on-demand, shared-ride paratransit service, known locally as “Access,” for people with disabilities that prevent them from using fixed-route service. With MetroNow!, Metro aims to offer an additional on-demand option that is more flexible and closely caters to customers’ individual needs.
According to Haley, MetroNow! will be viewed as a neighborhood shuttle system, operated with vans that will stay within specific zones throughout the day. A passenger using MetroNow! can use an app, much like Uber, to request a trip within that zone. MetroNow! can also connect passengers to the broader Metro fixed-route network.
“One of the two zones that we are starting MetroNow! on includes an area that has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the state. Yet, there are health care facilities throughout that zone,” Haley said. “With this new program, we can better connect people to health care in that area. We also feel MetroNow! will provide residents, within those zones, better shopping options. They will have more say as to the purchase of needed items, such as groceries.
“We are expecting to gain a lot of valuable information with the rollout of the first two MetroNow! systems this spring, and hope to add four more by the end of the year.”
Bus rapid transit, commonly known as BRT, is another new initiative at Metro.
“BRT has been described as ‘passenger rail on rubber tires.’ BRT buses move very quickly through a corridor, with the help of technology, such as signal prioritization and queue jumping. With the latter, a BRT bus moves to a dedicated lane as it approaches a traffic signal. The traffic light for that lane turns green first, allowing the bus to get a ‘jump’ on vehicles that are next to it,” Haley said. “BRT buses also provide level boarding, helping people in wheelchairs and with such items as grocery carts and bicycles.”
He added BRT systems create economic development as well, often involving the building of affordable housing and new businesses.
Another part of Reinventing Metro involves Transit Infrastructure Fund (TIF) grants. Metro recently took part in a signing ceremony that celebrated the second round of such grants, awarding $39.2 million to 36 road, bridge, and other infrastructure improvement projects across 25 Hamilton County communities.
“TIF is another critical piece of our Reinventing Metro plan. This year’s recipient projects reflected pedestrian safety improvements, the addition of bike lanes, trails, and fiber optics, as well as bridge repairs — all of which go to ensure a future-focused, multi-modal community for all commuters in our region,” Haley said. “Those projects will become a reality, thanks in part to such funds, and represent another step on our path to transform the region.”
In last year’s inaugural round of grants, Metro awarded $227 million to 30 projects across 22 Hamilton County communities.
Haley also discussed the Everybody Rides Metro (ERM) foundation, which was created by the SORTA Board of Trustees and received its 501(c)(3) status in 2006. The foundation was the first of its kind in the country and has provided more than 2 million bus rides since its creation. As part of the Reinventing Metro Plan, SORTA has committed $500,000 per year to support low-income riders. Since January 1, 2021, ERM has distributed these funds by subsidizing 100 percent of the cost for partner social service agencies to provide Metro fare media to individuals in need of medical, social services, or work-related transportation — all to help those people maintain well-being and enjoy a better quality of life.
Metro Turns 50
Established in 1973 as a tax-funded, not-for-profit transportation provider by SORTA, in August Metro will officially celebrate 50 years of fixed-route and paratransit service to Hamilton County and the surrounding southwestern Ohio region.
Metro currently operates 35 local and 10 express routes; the latter being designed to move passengers quicker to specific destinations. Besides serving Hamilton County, which is the third most populated county in Ohio with an approximate population of 830,600, Metro also provides commuter service to the outlying counties of Warren, Butler, and Clermont. These are direct express routes provided by Metro to and from downtown Cincinnati, and are funded by the three outlaying counties.
Metro also provides its Access paratransit service. It’s origin-to-destination transportation involving smaller buses for people whose disabilities prevent them from riding fixed-routes.
“We (at Metro) understand the challenges members of the paratransit community have when they travel. A major objective for the future is to make paratransit travel within our communities easier. One way is to consolidate the certification process between our area’s public and private paratransit carriers, making it less burdensome,” Haley said. “We have received federal dollars to help with that process. We feel there are some exciting things in store for the future as it pertains to paratransit.”
That includes an app that will soon be available for paratransit riders, designed to help them track their scheduled ride, including an accurate arrival time.
Metro’s current fleet includes 357 fixed-route buses and 50 Access paratransit vehicles. With that equipment, the transit system provided nearly 10 million fixed-route and commuter trips in 2022, as well as nearly 170,000 paratransit trips. Vehicle upgrades continue at Metro. That includes evolving the fleet to alternative-fuel vehicles.
“We are currently awaiting the arrival of three all-electric paratransit vehicles, as part of Metro’s focus to helping improve our system’s environmental footprint,” Jones said.
Efforts in that area are ongoing.
“We are finishing a study as to what direction Metro should follow when it comes to using zero-emission vehicles. The report will soon be presented to our board,” Haley said. “We understand, to remain an important part of this community, Metro must have a ‘green’ fleet. That is one of our major objectives for the future.
“I am happy to report that our transit centers now include electric car charging stations for those customers who have their own ‘green fleets.’ Those chargers are helping us connect with customers in a different way.”
Looking For Operators
Whether it’s transporting bread, steel, or human passengers, one thing is certain — there is simply not enough drivers (operators) today. It’s a challenge facing every type of transportation company imaginable, with no end in sight. It’s also a challenge that Metro officials are attacking head on.
“The labor challenge is real. We would have rolled out more service by now if we could have found additional operators. Metro has been extremely aggressive trying to attract operators. That includes a $2,000 bonus after training. Candidates do not need a CDL to apply. We will pay for their CDL, and the training involved to pass the test. We will even drive them to the facility to take that test,” Haley said.
He added Metro, which has approximately 1,100 employees, is a great place to work. One major benefit involves an historic union contract which was signed last year.
“It was the largest increase in our union contract since I have been here. Starting salaries were raised from approximately $16 to $21 an hour. Other key benefits included a 14 percent retirement match,” Haley said. “We also have a very robust ‘Employee of the Month’ and ‘Employee of the Year’ program and celebrate driver appreciation day. It’s important to understand that drivers and other Metro employees work on the front lines within our community. They interact with people every single day, making an important difference.”
Jones said that several Metro operators have been recognized for years of safe driving performance, with Haley adding that it’s not a job for everybody.
“It’s a job that requires operating a 40-foot vehicle with 30 to 35 souls on board. You must be focused. We also look for people with great personalities and who are very friendly. Bus operators are working with the public, and members of the public should feel comfortable on our buses,” he said. “Metro operators are very good at helping people find their destinations. Our operators go through an 8-to-10-week training program, which involves both classroom and driving instruction. They become an important part of the community. All our employees do.”
Support Remains Strong
One way to judge how well a transit system is operating is to look at the support it receives from community members and local government bodies. That support has been strong at Metro for quite some time. The passage of Issue 7 is a good example.
“That speaks volumes as to how the community understands the value and impact that investing in public transportation is for our region. One key aspect of the levy is that it had bipartisan support. So many people, from different backgrounds, supported the measure,” Jones said. “We have also enjoyed great support from the state and federal levels.
“Ultimately, our passengers are the reason we exist. Our commitment is to provide them with a clean, safe, reliable, and friendly trip — every single time, every single day. That means our fleet must be well maintained and include modern amenities. We also understand the importance of providing a convenient way to travel.”
The includes recent installation of 23 bus shelters and 37 benches, with plans to install 400 benches and 200 more shelters in the future. There are also plans to build new transit centers in the Walnut Hills, N. College Hill and Uptown districts of Cincinnati, the latter of which is an area where the University of Cincinnati and several medical facilities are located.
Both Jones and Haley said they are proud of Metro’s past accomplishments and future goals.
“It’s earnest and meaningful work, helping people within a community connect to the places they need to go,” Haley said. “It’s an honor to serve this community.”