Despite decline in bus commuting, Cincinnati Metro still above national average

10 years of census data shows commuting decrease
Posted at 7:38 AM, Dec 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-09 13:43:04-05

CINCINNATI -- Bus commuting in the Tri-State might be slightly down from 10 years ago, but the percentage of Hamilton County commuters using Cincinnati Metro is still higher than the national average.

That's according to new data released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau, part of its annual American Community Survey.

The new data estimates, compiled in the bureau's "2015 5-Year American Community Survey," show slight decreases in bus commuting across the Tri-State's counties that provide large-scale bus service -- namely, Hamilton County in Ohio and Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties in Northern Kentucky -- when set beside a comparable 2006-2010 five-year census data set.

The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority oversees operations of Cincinnati Metro in Hamilton County and the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky oversees its own bus system across the river. 

Why aren't more people riding to work?

Here's a breakdown of the five-year census data sets, comparing the 2006-2010 period with the five years to follow:


Taking into account a slight decrease in total population, between 2011-2015 Hamilton County saw about 1 percent fewer residents who commute primarily by bus than in the five years prior. Campbell County bus commuters remained the most steadfast -- holding at about 2.2 percent of commuters -- and Kenton County reflected a similar level of bus commuting with only a .3 percent decrease.

Boone County saw the biggest drop in bus commuting, falling about 2 percent between the two time periods.

Transit officials say access to jobs is likely the central factor driving the slight decline in rides to and from work.

"(The decline) seems consistent with the disconnect that we're seeing between where jobs are and where our service is," SORTA spokeswoman Sallie Hilvers said in an email Thursday.

It's a disconnect that came to light in a study conducted about a year ago by the University of Cincinnati Economics Center, which found that roughly 75,000 jobs in Hamilton County are not easily accessed by a Metro bus route. The study is part of the Metro’s Futures Task Force’s investigation into where and how it might grow its bus service. SORTA launched the initiative early 2015.

The majority of those underserved jobs are in the health care and manufacturing sectors, the study found.

Hilvers said the SORTA board of trustees has directed transit authority staff to develop a plan to better connect Hamilton County residents to jobs as part of its funding plan for 2017.

"We hope to share that plan in early 2017," she told WCPO.

The transit authority earlier this year unveiled an ambitious, five-year initiative -- dubbed "Reinvent Metro" -- that also includes some general steps toward increasing access to jobs and integrating newer technologies like mobile apps and real-time location data as a way of improving service. It's also intended to increase ridership numbers, which fell overall this year to about 15 million rides, down from an average of closer to 17 million rides in years prior.

"Reinvent Metro" aims to boost annual bus ridership in Hamilton County to 21 million rides per year by 2022.

A tale of two SORTAs

The newest census numbers bring into further relief two somewhat opposing narratives surrounding the Cincinnati Metro bus system.

On the one hand, as both the census data and UC's economic study revealed last year, lack of access to such a large number of Hamilton County jobs could be contributing to the slow but steady decline in bus commuting as well as a drop in overall ridership.

Despite this, the Economic Center's study also found Cincinnati Metro to offer the highest service capacity and the most efficient service among comparably-sized cities across the U.S.

Shortly after the study was released, SORTA board chairman Jason Dunn said, "This study tells us that our services are delivered efficiently, 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."

Metro's high efficiency -- for the level of job-access it provides, that is -- is only compounded by the census data's revelation that Hamilton County bus commuter rate -- 3.6 percent -- remains higher than the national average, which sits at 2.6 percent.

Here are some other noteworthy takeaways from this year's round of local commuter data:

Slight rise in bike commuting

As WCPO previously reported, 2014 saw one of the most dramatic increases in bike commuting in the city of Cincinnati, compared to the national average increase, according to data released last year. This year's five-year estimates confirm that this is a trend that persisted throughout the past decade, although at varying rates.

As for Northern Kentucky, the Census Bureau's five-year data was inconclusive, with some margins of error actually wider than the totals counted.

Walking kept at a steady pace

Across the Tri-State's center counties, the number of residents who commute primarily on foot has remained pretty even, ranging from 1-3 percent. Hamilton and Campbell counties boast the most pedestrian commuters, each at or slightly above 3 percent, while Boone County saw only slightly more than 1 percent devoted walkers. Kenton County sat in the middle, with about 2 percent.

Driving solo remains the heavy favorite

The Tri-State's heavy reliance on automobiles persisted steadily throughout the last decade, showing no signs of changing. Campbell County is alone in the bunch, having seen a 1 percent change in how many residents commute primarily by car: a 1 percent increase over the last 10 years. Boone County is the only county that saw a decrease, but only by a statistically insignificant .4 percent, according to census estimates.

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