I-Team: Most Metro riders have nowhere to sit while waiting for the bus

CINCINNATI -- Nearly every day, 77-year-old Barbara Wolf walks from her East Walnut Hills home to catch her bus on Madison Road.

It's a trip that requires traveling across several city blocks and crossing multiple busy intersections. When she finally reaches the stop, she usually has to stand and wait some more. That's because her stop has no bench or shelter to accommodate her while she waits.

 

"I'm very cautious about how long I stand and wait around for a bus," Wolf told the I-Team. "I think it's very hard on people, especially mothers with children, people with packages, seniors, people with injuries. It's difficult."

Wolf's stop isn't alone. In fact, it's the norm: Thousands of stops across Cincinnati Metro's network of bus routes offer neither a place to sit nor any shelter from the weather, an I-Team investigation has found.

The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority -- which operates Cincinnati Metro -- is in the process of evaluating its nearly 5,000 stops and measuring the need for more benches and shelters. The grassroots nonprofit group the Better Bus Coalition also has started their own count of existing benches and shelters, at least along Metro's most heavily ridden routes.

One such route the coalition has studied is Metro 33, which connects Government Square on Fifth Street to the city's most populous neighborhood, Westwood. The route single-handedly provides roughly a million rides each year, accounting for 8 percent of Metro's annual ridership on 44 local routes, according to SORTA data obtained by WCPO.

According to the Better Bus Coalition's count, of the 33's roughly 100 stops, more than 80 lack a bench or shelter.

The coalition's president, Cam Hardy, said the 33 represents a problem that pervades Metro's entire system, and he worries it sends the wrong message to both current and prospective riders.

"It can be very, very bad of an experience for current riders and people who might want to take it in the future," Hardy said.

'It's been a long time coming to this point'

Wolf said she didn't always have to stand and wait for the bus.

While giving WCPO a tour of her daily trip to the bus stop, she pointed out where on Madison Road she used to find a bench.

"There used to be two benches down here, and then they moved the bus stop down here, and they disappeared," she said.

The gradual disappearance of Metro bus stop benches dates back to 2006, when City Council decided the advertising firm providing the benches wasn't doing enough to keep them in good condition. The city's decision to remove the benches prompted a drawn-out legal battle, resulting in the benches' ultimate removal from city streets.

Barbara Wolf rides Metro nearly every day. (Craig Cheatham/WCPO)

As a result, more and more stops began losing their benches and other infrastructure designed to make riders' waits more comfortable.

But some stops don't even offer a safe place to stand -- let alone sit.

Stops like the one located -- until recently -- on Daly Road at Pinehollow Lane in Springfield Township don't just rank among Metro's worst, but among the worst in the country. That's according to a recent national survey of North America's "sorriest" bus stops, published by the online transit magazine StreetsblogUSA.

As WCPO previously reported, the stop didn't even offer a sidewalk, let alone a bench or shelter. Riders had to wait either on the shoulder of Daly Road or over the guardrail on an embankment. The Metro stop made it all the way to the final round of Streetsblog's March Madness-style "tournament," until it fell to a "sorrier" stop in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The stop's nomination for the dubious award prompted Metro to relocate the stop farther down Daly where the environment is less hazardous.

Hardy said Metro's nomination in the "sorriest bus stop" competition shined a small but bright spotlight on a much larger problem.

"I think what it did was raise awareness to just how bad our bus system is," Hardy said. "The bus stops are definitely a part of being a bad bus system. Through our research, we found busy bus stops across the city that serve tons of people a day -- very busy bus stops -- that have nowhere for people to sit."

The Metro stop on Daly Road near Pinehollow Lane in Springfield Twp. was nominated for the country's 'sorriest' bus stop. (Pat LaFleur/WCPO)

SORTA's chairman, Kreg Keesee, heads the transit agency's board of trustees. He admits Metro has work to do in making more stops safer and more welcoming to riders.

"We recognized this as an issue about a year ago," Keesee told WCPO, pointing to Metro's growing budget problems over the last decade. "Obviously funding is an issue for us. We're facing a deficit going into next year and the future if we don't do something."

Metro is haunted by a 45-year-old funding structure, according to SORTA spokeswoman, Brandy Jones.

"Metro is facing over the next 10 years $184 million in deficits, and it's been a long time coming to this point," Jones said. "Our funding structure has been the same since 1973," she said, when Cincinnati voters approved funding the bus system with a 0.3-percent income tax increase.

Despite multiple efforts to update its funding model, Cincinnati Metro remains Ohio's only major metropolitan bus system not to receive funding through a county-wide sales tax.

The outdated funding model doesn't just limit Metro's ability to install new benches or shelters, Jones said: Expanding service to more neighborhoods, increasing arrival frequency on more routes -- even replacing the dozens of buses running past their lifespan -- have become pipe dreams.

'It's demoralizing to the bus riders'

Just as removing benches from bus stops around the region was a long process, so too will be replacing them, Keesee said. That's primarily because of the red tape involved.

"I know it sounds simple, right, but the benches and shelters have to meet code requirements for anything we're doing," Keesee said. "So there are certain demands about what it is you're allowed to do."

Some of those requirements involve making sure a bench does not impede the right-of-way on a sidewalk for anyone using a wheelchair or other mobility assistance device.

Another factor involved, Keesee said, was making the benches and shelters worth the investment from the advertising firm that ultimately pays for them.

SORTA Board of Trustees Chairman Kreg Keesee discusses bus stops with WCPO on Oct. 8, 2018. (Eric Clajus/WCPO)

"If we're using advertising dollars to pay for (the benches), then obviously they're looking for higher volume" ridership at the stops with benches or shelters, Keesee said. "Generally, the higher-volume locations would get shelters, and then from that benches, and then some we'd have to work on finding funding to do the rest."

But to the public eye, the complexity of the process is eclipsed by the simplicity of having somewhere to sit and wait for a bus that in some cases might not arrive for 30 to 40 minutes.

That's the case for folks like Karen Bankston, who say things like convenient bus stops are a basic ingredient to the growth of any metropolitan region.

Bankston formerly ran the Cincinnati Childhood Poverty Collaborative, and she told the I-Team that bus stops without benches or shelters say to the community that its leaders "don't care."

"When you drive through and you see neglect, the sense is -- to me it's not even hopelessness; it's that no one cares," she said. "When that doesn't work well, and it's not meeting our needs, then that begins to feel like no one cares."

Hardy agreed: "It's demoralizing to the bus riders," he told WCPO. "I look at it as a poverty program. It's like, 'Here, poor people, take what you got. This is all we're going to give you, and just be grateful for it.' That's why we're here. We're rejecting that notion."

No clear path forward

The bureaucratic and financial hurdles involved in installing new benches and shelters led Hardy and his cohorts at the Better Bus Coalition to take matters into their own hands -- in more ways than one -- but even their grassroots efforts have hit some setbacks.

Earlier this year, they pushed harder than any other organization to advocate for a 2018 ballot measure to enact a county-wide sales tax to fund Metro.

Those efforts failed to convince the transit board.

At about the same time, volunteers also began donating time and money to build small benches for stops where none currently stand, but even those efforts have met some resistance as questions have arisen about their legality on city sidewalks.

In a statement released Wednesday, city spokesman Casey Weldon said the city would not fine the Better Bus Coalition for their benches, but their placement needs to be evaluated: "For the safety of residents and liability reasons, the Better Bus Coalition needs to ensure their benches are placed in safe locations and are structurally safe in according with Cincinnati Municipal Code," Weldon wrote in an email to WCPO.

The coalition's latest proposal: an "adopt-a-stop" program where benefactors can donate time and money to maintaining or improving a specific bus stop or bus stops.

But both Hardy and Keesee -- who said he personally has sponsored five of the BBC's bus benches -- agree: Grassroots efforts aren't enough.

"I support the (Better Bus Coalition's) effort, but we need to do it on a broad scale," Keesee said. "I think we'd all like to move faster, and we're doing everything we can to move faster."

As for SORTA's efforts, Metro is currently in the process of soliciting proposals from possible vendors to finance benches and shelters through advertising revenue, and has launched its review of bus stop infrastructure. Results from that audit should become available in December.

Meanwhile, riders like Wolf are stuck waiting, if they're one of the lucky ones, for a Better Bus Coalition bench to arrive at their stop -- even if there's no guarantee it will be there to stay.

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