A COTA bus on High Street in Downtown Columbus

The series in which STB writers travel around to other cities and make wild generalizations about their transit and land use is back, with a slight change in venue. I visited Columbus and Detroit in mid-October for a Wikipedia conference and spent plenty of time on the buses and bikeshare in the cores of both cities, gaining a decent enough understanding of their mobility situations. That being said, both cities sprawl out a bit and I was only able to really see the urban cores and inner neighborhoods of both cities, so there may be perspectives on both systems that I’m missing out on.

First up is Columbus, anchoring the largest U.S. metro area without a single passenger rail service, as Amtrak had ceased service in 1979 and the streetcars were dismantled in 1948. Several light rail proposals have come and gone, along with plans to build a proper inter-city rail system across Ohio, and have only left us with nice fantasy maps and a city that still dreams of building a greater transit system.

While there are no trains to ride, Columbus is not completely bereft of transit options. The majority of service within the city is provided by the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA, pronounced “koh-tah”), which covers all of Franklin County and spills over into neighboring areas that were absorbed by Columbus. COTA was recently awarded the 2018 Outstanding Public Transportation System Achievement Award for a mid-size city from the American Public Transportation Association, equivalent to the large-city award that King County Metro received this year.

The city also has a fairly good docked bikeshare system, named CoGo, which is operated by ex-Pronto managers Motivate and integrates with the Transit smartphone app. Stations are plentiful and easy to see from major bus stops in downtown and near the university campus, but more residential areas are lacking in stations (so don’t count on them if you’re using an AirBnB). Columbus also has private-operated electric scooters from Lime and Bird, which can be found just about anywhere and generally don’t block sidewalks despite what many detractors have claimed.

Anyway, on to the report card.

Segments ridden

  • Route 1: Downtown to OSU Campus
  • Route 2: Near East to OSU Campus
  • Route 2L (Limited): Downtown to OSU Campus
  • CMAX: Downtown to Hudson Street
  • Route 22: Near East to OSU Campus
  • CABS Shuttle
  • Bikeshare and Scooters

Scope and Service: B

A station on CMAX, Columbus’s brand of BRT

COTA brands its bus routes on maps and signs with three basic categories that are based on their frequency: Frequent, with buses every 15 minutes or better on weekdays; Standard, with buses coming every 15 to 30 minutes apart; and Rush Hour, which are freeway express buses that run out to suburban park-and-rides. The frequency of the “frequent” routes is rather good and covers a good chunk of the main routes that radiate out from Downtown Columbus and follow major streets.

All corridors run with normal stop spacing of two or three blocks, with the exception of Route 2L (the L is for Limited) from downtown to the university on High Street and the CMAX on Cleveland Avenue. CMAX is the city’s first “BRT” line that COTA debuted in January 2017. It has fancier stations with real-time arrival screens and visible beacons (much like Swift in Snohomish County), but lacks off-board fare payment, level boarding, and dedicated lanes in most areas.

As the system is arranged in a fairly strict hub-and-spoke, with only one pair of frequent routes forming a loop around the northeast quarter of the city, you’ll have to deal with downtown traffic even when traveling to another destination. Luckily, the traffic in Columbus is fairly light for a major city and buses aren’t usually delayed by catastrophic jams. The urban and “hip” parts of Columbus are also centrally located and fairly easy to bike between thanks to the flat terrain.

Once onboard, however, those unused to transit outside of Seattle and larger cities will find a few quirks that can seem bizarre at first. Alongside stop announcements and service alerts, the on-board ticker and audio system will occasionally play a short advertisement from a local business or organization, which comes standard for systems starved of adequate funding. And while the advertisements and extras like the bus destination, operator number and coach number are given plenty of airtime, the most essential piece of information (the next stop) was only given a quick scroll. On the bright side, an advertisement did remind me of a local pizza chain I had meant to visit and forgot about, so it wasn’t totally pointless.

Routing: A

The Downtown Transit Center in Columbus

If you look again at the system map (which itself is fairly nice), you’ll notice that the frequent routes are faithful to a single set of streets with some degree of strictness. A few routes bend in downtown and head east into some of the city’s older residential neighborhoods, which increases their utility, but the twists and turns of other big-city bus networks are not found here. This is all thanks to a major bus restructure completed in May 2017 with the help of Jarrett Walker and Associates.

And speaking of downtown, transfers between routes are generally handled at three “zones”, two of which are anchored by traditional enclosed bus stations with off-street bays. While stop-changing users will have to rely on the map instead of posted signs, the on-street bays were generally uncrowded and able to handle some of the timed arrivals for a small pulse of buses.

Also of note is the numbering scheme, which assigns numbers based on their general location. Routes headed through downtown get numbers 1 through 19, north-south routes get 21 to 29, east-west routes get 30 to 39, and so on. It does leave a bit of confusion with certain peak-only express routes, but is otherwise a very good system for tourists and locals alike.

Ohio State University also runs its own free campus shuttle that is open to students and visitors alike. The buses were designed with all seats facing the aisle (like an efficient subway train), likely to cope with the crush of people riding to and from The Stadium when the Buckeyes are playing; luckily for me, they were playing 250 miles away and were blown out in an upset.

On an aside, I happened to be traveling through downtown on the morning of the Columbus Marathon, which shut down the main transit artery on High Street. Buses were properly rerouted to a temporary super-transfer station just a few blocks away, but this tourist found it rather confusing to figure out which direction a bus would go and which bay to use. There weren’t any transit staff on site to help out confused riders, so I had to gamble on a bus with the right number and an unclear destination.

Grade/ROW: D

While traffic isn’t a problem for most of Columbus, it wouldn’t hurt to dedicate some of that underused street space for transit. Sadly, however, there’s only a few blocks in downtown that have dedicated bus/taxi lanes, which were blocked for construction when I came to visit, so I was unable to gauge their usefulness.


The Near East Transit Center, where you can hop on a bikeshare or shop for phones while waiting for your bus.

Given that we’re dealing with a bus-only system, one would be hard pressed to find abundant TOD in Columbus. The city is, however, undergoing an urban renaissance and funneling new development along the High Street corridor, which connects downtown to the hip “Short North” neighborhood and the Ohio State University campus.

Ironically, some of the most intense development is happening at the Easton Town Center, a suburban mall that was built with an open, low-traffic layout that is enclosed by acres of parking. Its developer recently announced a $500 million expansion plan to create a neighborhood around the mall, in a manner similar to Northgate’s planned redevelopment—sans the trains, of course.

A moment of praise is needed for COTA’s work in integrating some of the non-downtown transfer stations into buildings with retail and office space. If you don’t need off-street bays, then why bother making things harder for your riders?

Fares: D

All of this good and decent bus service had to have a catch, and it did.

Paying for fares is a bit of a mess. While the single-agency rule helps in limiting confusion to only one set of fares, trying to pay is an ordeal if you forget to bring enough exact change or visit on inconvenient days. You can buy a regular fare ($2) or day pass ($4.50) onboard from the driver, along with a transfer card with a magnetic strip, but from there things get painful. Transfers are only valid in one direction for the two-hour period, so you can’t make a round-trip, turn back, or take a joyride without paying an extra fare. Over-paying means getting a cash-back card that has to be redeemed at the downtown office, which is closed outside of business hours, and they cannot be used to pay for a new fare. With no smart card system in sight, cash-fumbling is the only game in town and means some painfully long dwell times.

Final Thoughts

Columbus was a rather nice city to walk and bike around, and the transit wasn’t too bad either. While I didn’t get a chance to try out the airport connector or the free downtown circulator shuttle, both seem to be fairly easy to use and are integrated into the rest of the COTA network. Perhaps another big push for light rail in the coming years could be successful with the city’s changing demographics and its recent run as an Amazon HQ2 finalist giving city leaders second thoughts about transit and its potential in attracting large employers.

Next, I’ll be reviewing Detroit’s system, which has some rail but is otherwise convoluted as a result of some suburban politicking.

9 Replies to “Transit Report Card: Columbus”

    1. Former Columbusite here. The OSU bus system probably isn’t shown on the COTA map because it’s not part of COTA. It’s run by OSU. The campus bus system was necessitated by a major planning faux pas OSU made over 30 years ago.

  1. “First up is Columbus, anchoring the largest U.S. metro area without a single passenger rail service,…”

    Wouldn’t Las Vegas be at the top of this list with the cessation of Amtrak’s Desert Wind line some 20+ years ago? Perhaps you’re excluding LV because of the monorail and hotel trams that run on the east and west sides of the strip. That’s fair enough I guess (though those rail options are pretty much geared for the tourist market).

    FWIW. The gentleman that compiled this list seems to be in agreement with you on Columbus however:


    Thanks in advance for the clarification. I look forward to reading your series. This piece was very informative as Columbus is one city I have yet to visit for work or pleasure.

    1. Yeah, Las Vegas has the Strip monorail.

      Columbus is the worst. I don’t go there because of the lack of train service. The cultural hostility to public transit is like something from the 1950s, and the disparity between rich and poor is shocking even for someone who’s used to third-world countries.

  2. Former Ohioan here:

    Ohio doesn’t embrace transit, culturally. When I lived there (Cincinnati), buses were reserved for “poor people.” This wasn’t a hard and fast rule, but a cultural one. If you could afford to drive, you drive, end of discussion. (I was difficult to deal with at times. No, I can’t work on a group project at your mom’s house in some distant suburb; meet me on campus. No, I cannot pick up said required material for class at some distant suburban vendor, the bus doesn’t go there, and because of tuition, I can’t afford a 20-mile cab ride.) Despite this weird social taboo, I took the bus round trip daily, because I could get a cheaper apartment, in a nicer neighborhood, away from school, and not need to drive and either battle or pay for parking. The bus I took was generally very empty. I had some nice conversations with several drivers. It was really a shame. The route was lined with mid-range apartments and went direct to the med school and main university campus, with a transfer to a downtown route about mid-way through the bus ride. It was the perfect arrangement for any student wanting decent affordable housing, as well as med students, residents, entry-level nurses, or university support staff. But…. nobody rides the bus. I’ll never understand it.

  3. Columbus is a textbook example of how the corridors that are easiest don’t go where riders want.

    In this city’s case, there are two major urban destinations: Downtown and Ohio State. Both are spread out so that one stop can’t serve an entire district. There are also no wide freeway or rail corridors that run through these hubs’ biggest attractions. There is an aversion to any underground solution and even a bit of aversion to an aerial solution. Of course, there are also more suburban interests and destinations like the airport that also want a hand in things — and people don’t like to transfer. Finally, driving and parking in Columbus is generally not too bad (except for Ohio State).

    It feels similar to Seattle — except Downtown is less dense, flat and more spread out with wider streets.

    IMHO the only way that Columbus will see light rail is if they plan a separated fast line from the north side of OSU through to southeast of Downtown with several stops in between. A bus tunnel like DSTT would be a good starting point strategy for some segments. Once that is in place, a regional express bus system with maybe DMU in some corridors would become very attractive.

    Of course, each successive proposal instead follows the predictable “follow the freeway” or “follow the tracks” vision, both of which are not optimal for a future Columbus light rail system.

  4. The Walker service changes are really smart; it’s a much more rational, better network than a couple years ago. (An upside of no one caring much about transit is that there’s less “save the 2” style NIMBY resistance to improving the bus system.)

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