Columbus, Ohio USA
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COTA Moves On
By Joel Knepp
May/June 2017 Issue

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The #3 bus made its last run through our neighborhood on Sunday night, April 30. For at least 33 years and probably longer, the #3 ran from Mound Street through downtown, through the Arena District, Victorian Village, Harrison West, across the Olentangy River into Grandview Heights, and up Northwest Boulevard through Upper Arlington to Kingsdale Shopping Center and back again, each time passing and often dropping off or picking up riders at stops by our house. On its northbound run this behemoth stopped just 13 feet from our wall many times each day; we could almost lean out the window and shake hands with the passengers. For good or ill, those days are gone. The old faithful #3 will no longer serve Victorian Village and Harrison West; instead, it has been redirected to run through Grandview Yard, that new suburban enclave across the river.

The Central Ohio Transit Authority, usually known by the acronym COTA, was formed in the early 1970s to take over bus service from the failing Columbus Transit Company. The buses back then, and for many years to follow, were loud, stinky purveyors of pollution, collectively spouting forth tons of carcinogenic particulate matter from their nasty diesel engines, adding insult to the injury already inflicted on our air from the many factories in and around the Short North. Newbies to the ‘hood should count themselves lucky that they will never need to inhale the greasy aroma released every night by Dixie Margarine and its descendants at the corner of West 1st Avenue and the Olentangy River. The less-than-charming scent of rotten pseudo-butter was often enhanced liberally with eau-de-COTA and occasional hints of Weinman Pump, Columbus Coated Fabrics, and other wafting effluvia. This was the era of good jobs and bad air for the Short North. I blame the whole mess for my late-onset asthma.

Over the waning years of the last century and into the waxing years of the current one, the factories and blue-collar jobs they provided disappeared, along with their noxious emissions. COTA gradually transitioned to buses powered by more efficient diesel engines, compressed natural gas, or hybrid electric motors. Slowly but steadily the buses got a little quieter and a whole lot cleaner. When many buses run just a few yards from your windows each day, this is a significant quality-of-life improvement.

I started riding COTA’s Neil Avenue/ OSU bus to and from work downtown back in the early ‘80s. We always had a jolly crew of downtown office workers at my stop who cheerfully provided quarters if I came up short. Then came the strike, and bus service suddenly ceased. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. As a progressive union member, I figured if COTA wasn’t willing to keep its employees happy, then they didn’t need my business. I began walking to and from work and continued for most of the next twenty years, relying on the bus only in rare instances of severe rain. For a couple of years I was allowed time off from my job in the Rhodes Tower to catch the West Broad bus to and from a volunteer gig as a reading coach at Dana Elementary School in pre-hip Franklinton, formerly known as The Bottoms. That bus ride was always an education for this privileged middle-class boy, providing a close-up look at our citizens who have not benefited from the information and technology revolution but rather have taken a major hit from the loss of jobs described above.

In recent years of semiretirement, increased leisure time, and the greatly enhanced attraction of downtown activity, I have been pleased to avail myself of COTA’s C-Bus service, which requires only a walk to High Street for a no-charge trip to downtown, the Brewery District, and back. You just smile and wave at the passing pay-to-ride #2 buses and wait for the little blue and white C-Bus. A more personalized free service, this one not from COTA, has just become available. It’s called Hopper Cart, a small electric shuttle that comes when you summon it with a mobile app, like Uber, and takes you where you want to go within a defined service area, which appears to be the city core and includes the Short North.

Until the May 1 change which resulted in the demise of the old #3 line, COTA’s main goal seems to have been to get people to and from downtown on weekdays, with little or no movement around perimeter communities. Thus, to get anywhere other than downtown, one often had to go downtown and transfer to another bus. In many cases this meant double the hassle, distance, and time for the many folks who depended on the bus to get to work outside the center city. COTA’s new TSR (Transit System Redesign) initiative seems to be addressing this shortcoming by creating more direct routes around the city and county that don’t require a downtown transfer, with an emphasis on enhanced service to suburban employment centers, more weekend service, and more frequent service on heavily used routes. Better late than never. COTA has tome-like short- and long-range plans on its website with the stated objective of serving 25 million passengers per year by 2025. Their long-term goal is “…developing a bus network that allows riders to live a transit lifestyle.” Wow… a transit lifestyle!

COTA’s ridership has decreased in recent years, so it’s high time for a new approach. But with this change, as with every major change in transportation patterns and services, there are winners and losers. In terms of close-in city neighborhoods, Grandview Yard wins and the Short North loses. With more and more people and their cars packing into the new construction at the Short North’s western edge and our parking and traffic challenges steadily increasing, one can’t help but wonder why COTA would choose this “rob Peter to pay Paul” approach which punishes us and rewards Grandview Yard. Why can’t both have bus service? I guess we’re no longer deserving of the transit lifestyle.

Gone now from our corner on the poor underbelly of Victorian Village are the cigarette butts, candy wrappers, and half-consumed beverage cups with which COTA riders decorated our gutters and sidewalks for the last 33 years. Also gone are the roaring buses which intermittently shook our old frame house and made TV audio, stereo, and conversation momentarily impossible. The new quiet is going to take some getting used to. I have a feeling that as auto traffic increases, a more constant version of the noise will replace it.  

Joel Knepp lives in Victorian Village with his wife Lynda McClanahan, an artist.
They performed as the musical duo Nick & Polina for many years in the area.

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