Columbus, Ohio, Will Offer Free Bus Passes to 40,000 Downtown Workers

Please take the bus.


Downtown business interests in Columbus, Ohio, say rents are down and the office vacancy rate is rising—simply because there’s no place to park.

It’s the same complaint that downtown power brokers made during the 1950s, one that helped create the streetscape of U.S. downtowns, which features plenty of street parking, large single-use parking garages, and parking on the lower floors of office buildings and hotels. (Columbus is not exactly a parking desert, but it is also the country’s largest city without rail transit, and 83 percent of downtown employees drive to work alone.)

Last week, the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District opted for a cheaper and more novel solution than creating more parking spaces: Give 43,000 downtown workers free bus passes for 18 months starting next summer. The passes will be funded by a tax on downtown office owners but made possible by COTA, the regional transit agency, which is slashing the annual cost of a bus pass to $40.50 from $744. The hope is that 4,000 to 5,000 workers will sign up.

The Columbus Dispatch reports:

A successful program is expected to free up 2,400 Downtown parking spaces—the equivalent of four parking garages. Fewer cars commuting Downtown also means cleaner air and would save each worker who participates the $120 or more per month it costs to park Downtown.

The move comes on the heels of an 18-month trial that concluded in January and, Laura Bliss writes at City Lab, “doubled the share of bus commuters among 844 employees at four companies in the district from 6.4 percent to 12.2 percent.”

Generally speaking, free transit has a mixed track record. For big transit systems dependent on rider receipts to fund operations, it’s virtually impossible. For COTA, which relies on riders for about 20 percent of its funding (and sales tax for most of the rest), it’s a little easier to contemplate. One problem that plagues free transit systems, unfortunately, is that homeless people tend to ride on them all day. By limiting its offering to downtown workers, Columbus avoids that issue. (Though you might ask: Aren’t there residents who don’t work downtown who might more deserve a 90 percent discount on a bus pass?)

It seems unlikely that the state capital’s office workers drive because the bus is too expensive, but there’s also evidence that commuters in smaller cities might be more responsive to fare changes than their metropolitan counterparts. Everyone likes stuff that’s free. What’s more, Columbus—which won a $40 million USDOT Smart City grant to develop forward-looking transportation ideas—just redesigned its bus network to be more direct, frequent, and efficient.

More broadly, what’s happening in Columbus is an early look at how downtowns might adapt when transportation technology leaps ahead of 20th-century urban design. Parking will be less of a problem when vehicles don’t need to park, which has some planners excited about the age of driverless cars. But congestion will get much, much worse if all those cars roll around empty all the time.

So far, city governments haven’t demonstrated they’re prepared to deal with that eventuality (if statehouses dominated by anti-urban business interests will even let them address the problem). So it may fall to well-organized downtown business interests to develop solutions that make sense—or work with transit authorities to develop nudges, like a free bus pass, that ensure downtowns don’t get blocked up with private cars.