Low Metro bus service levels could be keeping some from rising above poverty

'It's the civil rights issue of our time'

CINCINNATI -- Nakela Williams doesn't have to worry about getting her steps in every day. Living car-free in Westwood and going to school in Over-the-Rhine guarantees she walks plenty.

Williams is one of Cincinnati's 5 percent of commuters who rely on Cincinnati Metro buses to get to and from work or school, but -- as she'll attest -- riding the bus doesn't just mean riding the bus. It also involves a 15- to 20-minute walk to and from the bus stop at each end of her commute.

That's on top of the 30-45 minutes she spends on the bus each way, depending on traffic. And as it turns out, having a lengthy commute such as Williams' can make it difficult to boost one's socioeconomic status, research shows, including a 2015 study out of Harvard University.

Nakela Williams is a single mother and full-time student at Chatfield College's Over-the-Rhine campus. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

Williams is studying human services at Chatfield College, located on Central Parkway. On top of going to school full-time, she works part-time at Chatfield's resource center. She is also a single mother of two kids -- a 5-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter.

"Typically, leaving home I catch the 6 bus, so I have to walk down Guerly Road, down Sunset to Queen City, so that's a little over a mile -- about a 15- to 20-minute walk," she said. "Coming home, it's easier to walk down the hill, so I catch the 33 and I walk from Glenway. It takes about 15 minutes."

Williams' commute averages around an hour each way. That's around the same time that Harvard's study identified as the cut-off point for a commute that could hinder one's resolve to work and build a career.

Williams' resolve, though, has not been hindered.

"It definitely wasn't a choice, but I just have to deal with it," she said, "because it's either catch the bus, deal with the commute or sit in the house and don't go to school, don't go to work, don't do anything with myself."

75,000 jobs

Williams is by no means alone in her long bus commute.

A 2013 University of Cincinnati Economics Center study found that Cincinnati Metro buses do not stop within a quarter-mile of 75,000 jobs across the Tri-State. That's about 50,000 in health care and another 25,000 in manufacturing. While more than 70 percent of all Hamilton County business establishments are within a quarter-mile of a Metro route, Metro may not be providing adequate levels of service to access some of those jobs, the study found.

"This study tells us that our services are delivered efficiently," said Jason Dunn, board chairman for the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, which manages Metro operations. "But we’re not yet connecting people to jobs as well as we need to. We need to deliver our services differently to meet the needs of today’s worker."

SORTA data show that roughly 64 percent of Metro's 16-17 million bus trips each year are work-related. While SORTA does not track average work- or school-related commute times specifically, the average ride distance is approximately five miles, or 20 minutes, according to SORTA spokesperson Brandy Jones.

Twenty minutes would be an improvement to Williams' commute, she said. While the ride into school usually only takes about 20 minutes, she said, the ride home can take as long as 45 minutes.

But it's not the time spent on the bus itself that Williams said is the biggest challenge.

"The biggest challenge is the walk," she said. "When it's really hot, it's really bad, and when it's cold, it's really bad."

UC's study found that fewer than 4 percent of Metro commuters live within a quarter-mile from the stop they need to get to work.

The mile or more walk to the bus stop poses an extra challenge when Williams needs to run errands with her kids, she said.

"Even if I don't have school, like maybe when my kids have a doctor's appointment -- that's a long walk for a 5- and a 6-year-old, especially when it's cold or hot," she said. "And then when it's hot, my son has asthma, so it's: Get the water ready, get the inhaler ready, just in case because you don't know where it's going to go."

'Just not enough'

Nearly everyone in charge agrees current service levels aren't cutting it. Metro CEO and General Manager Dwight Ferrell will be the first to acknowledge the system's shortcomings.

Regarding Metro's roughly $100 million annual budget, Ferrell told WCPO's "This Week in Cincinnati," "It's just not enough to do what we need to be able to do."

 

It's a funding problem Ferrell called "literally decades in the making," pointing to the Great Recession of 2008-2009 as the most recent factor causing a reduction in service.

"Like every other entity in the country, we saw this economic downturn, and Metro reduced bus service by about 20 percent," he said.

This, he said, included some elimination of routes. Metro has had to reduce or eliminate three routes in the last three years alone, Jones said. A look at Metro's system map -- which also includes routes provided by the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky and Clermont Transportation Connection -- shows the various areas where service is scarce if not non-existent.

Source: Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority

But the bigger impact on service was on the buses' headways -- that is, how frequently they arrive on each route.

"(We) made the decision at that point that, rather than shrinking the footprint of the service area, it would thin out, and so it spread headways," he said. "As a result of that, we have trips and services sometimes once an hour. If I've got to take two buses and one's an hour and the other's an hour -- if they don't meet up precisely, I've got a really long day."

Transit 'transcends politics'

One area where Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and his rival in this fall's election, City Council member Yvette Simpson, agree is the need for enhanced bus service.

"It's insufficient for the needs of the community," Cranley told WCPO. "In order to be efficient as an economy, you've got to have a bus service that can get people from their home to work and back."

 

Simpson agrees. "It's not working for anyone," she said.

Both leaders also agree that public transit is critical to pulling oneself out of poverty and earning a living.

"We've taken a deep dive into the issue of poverty, and one of the biggest barriers for folks who are willing and able to get back in the workforce is being able to get to their jobs," Cranley said. "Sometimes they have cars and their car breaks down, or they don't have a car, and that's a huge problem."

For Simpson, who often speaks about her own experience with childhood poverty, that struggle is personal.

"I've told the story of my grandmother having appointments with Job and Family Services, and I was getting on a bus, taking the 78 (from Lincoln Heights) down to have an appointment with a case manager -- that meeting lasted 15 minutes -- getting back on the bus, riding the bus for an hour back home," she said. "A two-hour round trip for a 15-minute meeting.

"It's not reasonable. The time to have this conversation is now. Quoting what the Washington Post said some time ago, this is the civil rights issue of our time. It's the great equalizer if we do it well," she said.

 

SORTA's board of trustees is considering a proposed sales tax increase for Hamilton County in order to boost Metro funding. Metro's current budget includes roughly $50 million coming from the city of Cincinnati's earnings tax. Cranley has proposed an accompanying income tax decrease to alleviate the burden of a sales tax increase.

Metro is facing a $3 million budget shortfall for 2018 alone, and that deficit could grow to more than $300 million over the next decade, according to SORTA data released earlier this year.

'Any extra time I get'

In the meantime, Williams said she will continue to deal with the reality of using Metro every day.

It's a reality that includes painstaking scheduling, budgeting and waiting, often in the rain.

"There's no shelter (at my bus stop), just a bench," she said. "If it's raining, you're just wet."

She said she's grateful that her kids can rely on the school bus to get to and from school, but it's bittersweet for her as a Metro user.

"It's kind of like a slap in the face, really, because the school routes can come here, but otherwise we're secluded," she said. "If I couldn't walk as far as I need to, I'm just stuck here unless I have a ride. I see a lot of people up here where I live that don't come off of this hill because they can't get to the bus stop or they don't have a car."

And as for the time it takes Williams to commute by Metro?

"I could sleep a little bit later," Williams laughed. "I could possibly make breakfast in the morning. Any extra time I get, I could get a lot done."

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

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