Faces of Metro: A glimpse into the various reasons Tri-Staters ride the bus

CINCINNATI -- Jeremy Moses spends a lot of time on Cincinnati Metro's route 78 bus line.

"Everything from doctors' appointments to leisure opportunities, like going to the Bengals games, or to see my parents down in Florence," Moses told WCPO.

"I really use it for every area of life."

Moses is part of the roughly 10 percent of Tri-Staters who don't use a car to commute or run errands, according to U.S. Census data.

Jeremy Moses relies on Cincinnati Metro to get him around town. (Michael Benedic/WCPO)

For Moses, it wasn't a choice: He lives with spina bifida, a neurological disorder that confines him to a wheelchair. His condition means he cannot drive, but he sees Metro bus service as something that enables him to maintain his independence.

"It allows me a means to move about the county, move about the city, as freely as I want to," he said.

Each time Moses boards the bus, he's contributing to the roughly 15-16 million rides taken on Cincinnati Metro each year. While Moses' disability is what started him using the bus, the reasons people ride the bus vary widely -- whether it's ability- or economically driven, a matter of practicality or a lifestyle choice.

Often, the different reasons for taking the bus come with equally varying benefits and challenges.

With Metro facing a budget gap in 2018 and coping with an aging fleet, WCPO decided to take a look at those who use the bus and why to illustrate its importance. We profiled four Metro users from across Hamilton County, from varying neighborhoods and walks of life. Here's what we found:

In from the outskirts

Metro's bus system operates with what's called a "hub and spoke" structure. That is, Government Square on Fifth Street Downtown serves as the "hub" with various routes branching out from it, like spokes on a wheel.

Cincinnati Metro system-wide map. (Provided)

This means people who live in some of the peripheral areas of the county might have to commute into Downtown and then transfer to a different route to reach their destination -- especially if they're trying to get to a different suburban area.

Nothing stretches the length of a commute quite like a bus transfer, Moses said. He lives in Springdale but runs errands throughout Hamilton County at least two or three days each week. 

The process is time-consuming, he said, and takes a lot of planning.

Metro's routes 20 and 78 stop near Moses' apartment complex on Ardwick Lane, where he lives with his roommate. It takes him between five and 10 minutes to wheel to his bus stop, depending on which route he's catching.

Some of the times, his roommate will run to the grocery or take care of other errands. But often, Moses takes care of those things himself, which means planning out what could easily turn into a three- or four-hour trip just to run to the grocery store.

"If I need to go to Kenwood, I have to go Downtown on either the 78 or the 20, and then go back out on the 4 or the MetroPlus."

To get to his preferred Kroger, it's not always such an undertaking, he said. But because those routes only pick up once or twice per hour, that means if you miss your bus, you're stuck waiting for at least a half-hour if not longer.

On Sundays, the bus only arrives every two hours.

"If I need to go to Kenwood, I have to go Downtown on either the 78 or the 20, and then go back out on the 4 or the MetroPlus," he said. That trip normally takes two to three hours, one way, he said.

Metro does offer multiple express routes intended for suburban commuting into the city, but many say it lacks crosstown routes that connect the region's suburban neighborhoods.

Moses said that's his top suggestion for improved Metro service.

"Number one, I want to see crosstown routes in most sectors of the county," he said. "I don't want to have to transfer Downtown to go from here to Western Hills or here to Anderson or here to Kenwood.

"If I could go from here to Western Hills direct, that would be great."

 

Wheels on the bus

Moses actually serves as two types of riders who rely on Metro. He is not only a suburban commuter but also one who is using Metro with a disability.

His "number two" suggestion for improved bus service: making sure every single bus stop is wheelchair-accessible. There are some not currently equipped to handle Moses' wheelchair, he said.

As far as the buses go, even the aging fleet's oldest buses are wheelchair-accessible.

"The buses are wheelchair-friendly," he said. 

But sometimes the lifts and ramps the buses use to board people in wheelchairs break down.

"It rarely happens, but when it does happen it often means an hour wait if I need that specific route," Moses said. "When that happens, then it becomes an instance of, 'OK, I have to get the next bus.'"

The more frequent problem, Moses said, is the bus stops that do not conveniently accommodate his wheelchair.

Sometimes the stops are inconveniently placed in relation to the street crossings, Moses said.

"Curbs can be a problem. Crosswalks are an issue," he said. "For example, for the 78, if I really want to chance it, I'd just go across direct from the apartment complex to where the bus stop is." There is no crosswalk at that spot. 

"However, there are times, like when I'm dressed up for something, I don't want to have to do that," he said.

It's proved to be a problem that made him change grocery stores.

"When I first moved up here, I wanted to go to the Kroger in Woodlawn," he said. "The stop going in toward Downtown on the 78 is accessible, but the stop coming back, directly across the street, is not accessible. There is no curb cut, no sidewalk, no anything."

Other times, the vicinity of the bus stop is not completely paved.

"Some of the bus stops are actually not fully paved and don't have concrete all the way across," he said. "So you've got sidewalk, grassy area, sidewalk. If I have to go through the grass, that becomes a bit of an issue."

Metro offers Access Program as a solution for riders with disabilities who cannot feasibly or conveniently get to a bus stop, as a part of its compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. This is a service that picks Metro riders up at their door and takes them where they need to go. Destinations cannot be more than three-quarters of a mile from a regular Metro bus route. The process to become eligible involves an in-person transportation skills assessment.

Going the long way around

Beyond caring for her two young children, Nakela Williams, of Westwood, also works and takes classes at Chatfield College on Central Parkway.

Metro is what gets her to work and school.

But given the location of her apartment complex, it often means more than a mile walk just to get to the bus stop.

Nakela Williams commutes from Westwood to Over-the-Rhine each day for work and school. (Emily Maxwell/WCPO)

"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 end up taking about an hour, each way.

Williams' has one of some estimated 75,000 jobs not easily accessible by Cincinnati Metro, according to a 2013 University of Cincinnati Economics Center study. That study found 75,000 in the Greater Cincinnati region were not Metro-accessible without more than a quarter-mile walk to the nearest bus stop. 

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.

A Harvard University study found that a commute of an hour or more inhibits low-income workers from finding a job to pull themselves out of poverty.

Williams is an exception to this rule.

"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."

Her kids' school bus stop also requires a walk down the hill each morning.

 

'Intentional' riding

Nikki Shenk rides the bus from her Walnut Hills home to her Downtown office each morning at 6:30. Despite the early hour, it's always full, she said.

Nikki Shenk

"The bus is packed every time I get on," Shenk said. 

Shenk said the reason she goes in at 6:30 instead of 7 a.m. is because it works more conveniently with the bus schedule. She also is thankful that her employer allowed her to adjust her work schedule to accommodate the bus schedule.

"More understanding from workplaces to adjust schedules for timing would be good," she said.

Shenk is a bus rider who chose to live without a car before ever moving to Cincinnati. Being able to ride the bus informed where she and her husband lived and worked.

"We were very intentional -- knowing what the system was like, we were going to try to live someplace Downtown, Mount Adams, Walnut Hills," she said.

Shenk recognizes that she's fortunate to make this decision by choice.

"It's really hard if you don't have the luxury of choosing where you live and where you work," she said.

Shenk and her husband, Andy, moved to Cincinnati after having lived in a small town in Minnesota -- which was small enough not to require a car -- and Moscow, Russia, with a robust public transit system.

A big part of their move to Cincinnati was finding places where they could rely on bus service only. But that meant committing to a small area of reach in their everyday lives.

"Our life really is this 1-2 mile radius from where we live," she said.

Using the bus helps calm their lives, though, Shenk said.

"I like how it slows our life down a bit," she said. "I feel like I waste less time even though I'm spending more time commuting."

9-to-5 vs. not

Another "intentional rider" is Isaac Smith, but he will also say the expense of owning a car and his home's proximity to the popular Route 17 make Cincinnati Metro his best option.

Isaac Smith studies law and political science at UC. He's a daily Metro user, riding up the hill from his apartment near Clifton and Ludlow to the University of Cincinnati College of Law and Calhoun Avenue.

One of his key motivators for riding Metro has been the affordability, he said: Until this semester, UC offered students a Metro pass that offered unlimited rides throughout the entire bus system at the cost of $53 per year.

"I would take rides Downtown, I would take rides up to Northside to go hang out with friends -- anywhere I needed to go I knew I would have a way there on Metro," he said.

Smith said he's disappointed that the university has since changed that offering to a pass that offers students a $1 discount, but -- despite the increase in commute expenses -- Smith is still committed to riding the bus.

WCPO has reached out to a UC spokesman for comment, and is awaiting a reply.

It's not just cost for Smith, though. He also described himself as "fortunate" that most of his classes fall within the 9-to-5 work week.

Negotiating the bus schedule with his class schedule showed him how bus service is designed for those who work Downtown. He has also noticed how the timing -- because he's only traversing Clifton -- could be inconvenient for some students.

Isaac Smith is a law student and master's degree student at University of Cincinnati. (Andy Overton/WCPO)

"The bus is timed for frequency to get everyone Downtown by 9 and to take people home from Downtown around 5," Smith said. "So, in the event that you don't get out of class around 5 -- and I don't -- usually it's actually faster for me just to walk home instead of waiting to take the bus.

"The frequency is designed to serve people who are working Downtown in a 9-to-5 job," he said.

Smith said he worries that not enough students actually know about UC's discounted Metro pricing program. The university offers students an EZ Ride pass that gives them $1 admission to any route.

He also sees rider education as an issue.

"I bet a lot of students on campus don't even know that they can ride the bus," he said. "People I've talked to just don't know where the bus comes, where the bus goes, that there's a discounted option for getting on the bus. A lot of my classmates are just really unsure about how the system operates."

Pat LaFleur writes about transportation and mobility for WCPO.