The Queen City or Bus[t] – Andy Shenk

In his first blog post, Andy Shenk helps cincyopolis think about the role of public transportation in community development by giving us a picture of what his life in Cincinnati has been like since he arrived here – without a car. 

DSC_2795For much of the city of Cincinnati and surrounding metro area, car ownership is a given. Thousands of jobs are not even accessible without one. Try finding a restaurant, school, or shop that advertises information about the nearest bus stop; you’ll soon realize that directions in Cincinnati are for cars only. Big, fancy parking garages sprout overnight; bus stops are lucky to have a little green sign, perhaps a bench every half mile or so.

Cars are so tightly stapled into Cincinnati’s consciousness, life without them is difficult to imagine.

And yet, twenty percent of Cincinnatians do not have access to a car.  20%!!  Let that number sink in.  Sixty thousand people, most of whom live outside the urban basin, mainly rely on bus service that is slow and infrequent.  From Westwood to South Cumminsville to Evanston, Cincinnatians are stuck in crumbling neighborhoods with limited access to jobs, education, and grocery stores.

I repeat: twenty percent of Cincinnatians do not have access to a car, my wife Nikki and I included.  Here is a glimpse of what that has meant for our lives here.

DSC_2799A bit over a year ago, Nikki and I arrived in Cincinnati on a Megabus from Chicago. Dropped off in a Queensgate parking lot, we began our new lives by lugging our suitcases through downtown, then waiting almost an hour for the 1 to take us up the hill to Mount Adams.  So much for a warm welcome to Porkopolis; I think the pigs had an easier time getting to the slaughterhouse.

Later that afternoon, I jogged to Covington to get a router from the nearest Time Warner Cable store. Burned once by the 1, and not sure what to make of the TANK, it seemed quicker and more efficient to travel five miles round-trip by foot. (And yes, I know about Uber, but we were nearly broke.  Twenty dollars in cab fares didn’t fit the budget.)

Now I regularly bike to Covington for work, and I often remember that first excursion. Carrying my bike up and over a pedestrian overpass on Columbia Parkway, I catch myself gaping each time at downtown Cincinnati and the Ohio River, nestled beneath the Kentucky hills. It’s a remarkable view, one of my favorites in a city blessed with stunning panoramas.

DSC_2768

A few weeks ago, Nikki and I went out for dinner with friends in Norwood. We had what we thought was a perfect plan: a restaurant located next to one of Metro’s most reliable routes, the 4, which also stops an easy ten-minute walk from our apartment.   We had no trouble getting to the restaurant and enjoyed a relaxing meal and good conversation. At 8:30, I checked the bus app on my phone; we could catch a bus for downtown at 8:53. Perfect timing.

Around 8:45, we started wrapping up the conversation. It’s always a bit awkward to cut a visit short because of the bus, but we are trying to get used to it. We said goodbye in the parking lot and turned to cross the street, only to watch in horror as the 4 went hurtling by on Montgomery.

It was cold that night and there wouldn’t be another 4 for at least twenty minutes. Uncomfortable asking for a ride from people we didn’t know very well, we smiled and waved as they pulled away.

Inside, both of us were seething and even more pissed after shelling out $10 for an Uber ride. We’d tried hard to get it right, even picking the restaurant and watching the time, only to be screwed into wasting money on a stupid car ride.

At the same time, Nikki and I have it better than the average person without a car. When we get stranded or the weather is miserable, we can, if absolutely necessary, order an Uber on our smartphone and get going in minutes. It’s a luxury but one we can now occasionally afford. For thousands others around Cincinnati, barely missing the bus means a 20-30 minute wait without a place to sit or protection from the elements.DSC_2807

When you take a broader look at the city and bus service, the picture is bleak. What do you do if you live in Price Hill and work at Kenwood Towne Centre? Or commute from Avondale to the airport for work each day? Can you really afford a vehicle when you are earning $8-10/hour with minimal benefits (if any)? That said, who can spend ninety minutes on the bus when a car gets you there in twenty minutes?

Imagine, three hours per day on the bus. In Cincinnati. For jobs that barely pay the rent.

I’ve lived in Moscow and New York City. There, an hour-plus commute is nothing out of the ordinary. Life in a mega-city is exhausting and expensive and everyone knows it.

In Cincinnati, we’re fed a different narrative. Jobs are relatively plentiful and the suburbs offer cheap rent and easy access to the interstates. But while many hang onto middle-class status, thousands across our city can’t afford the one item around which the system revolves: a car. Far-flung jobs and spotty bus service make getting places a logistical nightmare.

Don’t get me wrong. More cars
are not some magic potion. Compared to public transportation, cars are expensive, dangerous, unhealthy, and require staggering amounts of public investment.

I think there are other ways for our city to move forward, building on the infrastructure we already have, without blindly paving bigger roads and more parking lots. Smart public transportation is good for everyone, whether you live in South Fairmount or Hyde Park.

It’s not charity; it’s designing a city that better manages resources and capitalizes on its biggest asset: the 300,000 of us spread across fifty-two neighborhoods.

 

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19 thoughts on “The Queen City or Bus[t] – Andy Shenk

  1. Charlie Hinkley

    Welcome Andy! Love your post. I too rely on Metro to get around the city, and am frustrated by the frankly abysmal state of our public transit system. In my experience, the buses are often late to the stops, not early.

    Reply
  2. MJB

    Great inaugural post, personalizing a major issue and connecting it to economic justice and other issues. We should chat about Uber over coffee someday.

    Reply
  3. Barbara Didrichsen

    I’m an avid bus rider and commuted to work from my first-ring city suburb to downtown for many years. I agree with you: we need better transit, and not just of the hub-and-spoke variety. That said, the next time you come out to my neck of the woods (the Montgomery Rd corridor — Norwood, Pleasant Ridge, Kennedy Heights, Silverton, Kenwood) — at least on weekdays/nights — try the Metro Plus. It runs every 10-12 minutes for much of the day (a bit closer to 20 after 7 pm or so), and has limited stops. It’s designed to connect people along Montgomery Rd from the Kenwood Mall to the universities, hospitals and downtown. I LOVE it, and have advocated that SORTA expand it to week-ends and other routes.

    Reply
    1. Andy Shenk

      Thanks for the comment – I love the Metro Plus! I think it’s been a great addition to the bus system. Unfortunately, Nikki and I live in Mt Adams, so it’s not very accessible, unless we’re leaving from downtown after work. Generally, to get to Xavier games or Kenwood Mall, we end up using the 4, which has several stops on Gilbert that aren’t too far from our apartment.

      I completely agree: I think the Metro Plus should be further expanded. Ultimately, we need a strong network of high-frequency, limited-stop buses that will cover the entire city.

      Reply
      1. John Schneider

        #43 is terrific. I used it for over thirty years. It was so frequent, in all those years, I never had a schedule. Just walked to the corner, and before long it came along.

      2. Andy Shenk

        That is a great idea regarding the 43. I did know it had the highest frequency of any bus in Cincinnati, but haven’t had a reason to use it yet. I’ll definitely keep it in mind when I’m further out on the Metro Plus/4 line.

  4. John Schneider

    Great post. You’re right about buses routinely coming early, especially when they are inbound to the CBD. One of the biggest problems Metro has.

    Reply
    1. Andy Shenk

      Thank you, John! Even though I’ve used public transit in lots of cities, Cincinnati’s system has been quite challenging at times to figure out.

      That said, I don’t mind buses coming early or late, so long as I know another is coming in 5-10 minutes 🙂 I may have been a little spoiled in Moscow, but I think we can make it happen here, too!

      Reply
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  6. Quimbob

    Dunno your age but I do remember extensive bus service in Springfield as a kid. Then I remember it getting shut down, restarted…
    Dunno what they have now.
    I moved here on a bicycle & no car.
    As Mr Schneider noted, the inbound buses tend to run early in the evening stranding countless people. Then they sit at the edge of downtown waiting for time to catch up before going to Government square. LAME.
    It’s ridiculous to think buses are going to run every 5-10 minutes all the time but it’s not ridiculous to expect drivers to keep a goram schedule.

    Reply
    1. Andy Shenk

      My family lived in Northridge, so I doubt we had much access to the Springfield buses, but I’m looking forward to visiting Springfield at some point soon. It will be strange to view everything through adult eyes – it’s been 10 years since I even visited..

      I agree 100%. 5-10 minutes for buses in completely ridiculous, but, for good or for bad, I’m a hopeless romantic. Whether it takes 10 years or 40 years, I hope we can make it happen.

      Reply
  7. Kristofer Weyler

    you complain about potentially having to wait for 20 minutes to catch another bus? i’m not sympathetic. you’d rather shell out the cash for an uber. our instant gratification culture, or the big cities you’re accustomed to. not saying our public transit is perfect, but the bus doesn’t pick people up on every stop. therefore the timing might change. i’m never pissed when i miss the bus. for me, it only means i have to wait a bit.

    Reply
    1. Andy Shenk

      Thanks for the comment, Kristofer! I agree – 20 minutes is not the end of the world. If I was a little more patient, I would have waited for the next bus. But I do think it’s worth looking at how we spend our money and resources as a city. I think improved public transportation would benefit everyone – hopefully I can make my case in future posts.

      Reply
    2. neilworms

      That’s no excuse to not push for better service. BTW the industry standard for adequate headways is at a minimum 15 mins. There are a very few buses in Cincinnati that meet that criteria and that should change.

      Reply
  8. neilworms

    Kathy: Can you send this description (with permission from the author) to Vice Mayor Mann who took it upon himself to work on a Megabus stop location. I’ve already written to him about how terrible the Megabus stop is for those of us who use transit (in my case a Chicagoan who visits family in town quite a bit). The Megabus location is ridiculous and the previous administration was more supportive of better stops in safer/less isolated and more transit friendly locations:

    “A bit over a year ago, Nikki and I arrived in Cincinnati on a Megabus from Chicago. Dropped off in a Queensgate parking lot, we began our new lives by lugging our suitcases through downtown, then waiting almost an hour for the 1 to take us up the hill to Mount Adams. So much for a warm welcome to Porkopolis; I think the pigs had an easier time getting to the slaughterhouse.”

    This ties into what I wrote Mann, that this stop is not a good way to welcome out of towners into the city, though IMO its pretty much in keeping with the overall culture of Cincinnati not caring about anything beyond West Chester.

    Reply
    1. Andy Shenk

      Thank you, Neil! I’m so glad to hear from someone else who’s fed up with that Megabus stop. I will do what I can to advocate for a changed stop. Hopefully Kathy and others can help, too!

      It really has to move. There is absolutely no excuse for the current location.

      Reply

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