Read Part I, “Public Health, Transit and Investment,” here.
COVID-19 has decimated public transportation in cities nationwide; the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority (TARTA) was already struggling when COVID-19 arrived in Lucas County. But with new leadership and new ideas, a crisis might just turn into an opportunity.
In April, TARTA received nearly $19 million in CARES Act relief funds, an amount roughly equal to a year’s worth of fare revenue and local property tax contributions combined. And last week, transit consulting agency TransPro began work on a strategic planning initiative for TARTA’s future. But the challenges facing TARTA are significant.
Plenty of American transit systems have long struggled with declining ridership and funding, but 2019 was a relative high note. Transit ridership nationwide rose a respectable if less than spectacular 0.3%. In urban areas with populations between 100,000 and 500,000 (like Toledo), total bus ridership was down 0.79%–not ideal, but nonetheless an improvement over 2018’s 1.19% decline.
From 2018 to 2019, in just one year, TARTA’s total ridership dropped by over 20%. In pre-lockdown 2020, ridership sank further still, down another 8.8% in January and 9.6% in February compared to 2019’s already record-low numbers. Through the early 2000s, TARTA’s annual ridership hovered around 4.5 million. In 2009, it was still over 4 million. In 2019, it was less than half that.
Last year, TARTA cancelled all Sunday bus service, abruptly transitioned leadership and shelved a much-hyped driverless shuttle project. Compared with peer city transit systems, a 2019 study awarded TARTA the dubious distinctions of highest operating cost per trip, fewest passengers per revenue-mile and fewest passengers per revenue-hour.
Even for a chronically troubled transit agency, TARTA’s 2019 was rough—and all this was before the pandemic.
“Looking at coming to TARTA, this could seem daunting,” Laura Koprowski, TARTA’s Chief Communications and Customer Experience Officer, said. “I thought it was exciting.”
Koprowski took over the position three months ago, in the midst of a public health crisis that has decimated mass transit ridership and revenues nationwide. She grew up in the Toledo area and completed her graduate studies at Bowling Green State University before her career took her to Columbus.
This year, however, she left her position with the Ohio Public Transit Association because she saw an opportunity in her hometown. Even to many Toledoans, that choice might seem a bit odd—Toledo isn’t exactly known for its public transit, after all. But Koprowski explains her thought process by recounting a conversation with TARTA’s new general manager a few months ago.
“Kim Dunham said, ‘Everything at TARTA needs to change. Everything needs a fresh look. Everything is open to discussion,’” Koprowski said. “Transit systems usually don’t go through those kind of projects and efforts but probably once in a couple decades… Sign me up!”
Like Koprowski, Dunham is fairly new to the position (and, unlike Koprowski, to Toledo). Before joining TARTA, she led a modernization and information technology initiative that has transformed paratransit in New Haven, Connecticut. Her work on the East Coast caught the attention of TARTA’s board of directors, and now Dunham is bringing out-of-state experience and new ideas to refresh Toledo’s public transit as the transportation industry confronts unprecedented challenges.
As with many transit operators, TARTA is, historically, no stranger to hard times. Really, it’s spent more of its existence in distress than not. TARTA was born of another sort of crisis: the slow bleed of depopulation and revenue drain that has shaped many mid-size American cities since the mid-20th century.
After the Second World War, interwoven booms in automobile ownership and highway investment dealt a devastating one-two punch to mass transit nationwide—and Toledo was no exception. TARTA rose from the ashes of another perennially distressed transit system, the Community Traction Company (CTC), a private entity that served as Toledo’s primary transit operator from 1921 to 1971. In 1950, the CTC logged 40 million bus rides. By 1970, ridership had fallen to a quarter of that.
Toledoans approved a buyout of the badly overextended CTC in 1971, and TARTA was established to assume the defunct CTC’s operations. Since then, although there have been ebbs and flows, ridership has been characterized by periods of slow decline and stabilization. In 2020, however, ridership is in free fall.
20 years in the transportation industry have made Koprowski a firm believer in the value of problems; destabilization can create opportunity. The hard part, however, is not only recognizing possibility when it appears, but also—crucially—doing something.
“We could all keep stealing that phrase: ‘don’t let a crisis go to waste.’ It’s a great opportunity. I feel very strongly because I’ve seen it: those who are really bold and imaginative now will come out faster and better,” she said.
And historically, that’s held true. Although it can look almost tame compared to today’s crises, the Great Recession of 2007-08 and the responses of state and local leaders continue to shape the economic geography of Ohio and the Midwest.
As the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) navigated that crisis, Koprowski saw firsthand how transit can catalyze development.
“We could have all said, ‘we don’t have resources, we don’t know what’s happening…we can’t do this.’ Instead, [a transit system redesign] united the Central Ohio region,” she said.
Beyond weathering the fallout of an economic recession, MORPC, the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) and a coalition of stakeholders across the Columbus region wanted to create an opportunity to buck the car-centric orthodoxy of older city plans.
At meetings with MORPC and COTA, Koprowski said, “we talked about scenarios of planning, all of them introducing, to different degrees, density.” Density is relative (not every town needs to be San Francisco), but the underlying principle is universal: every Ohio community could benefit from using land and space more efficiently.
Organizing development around sprawling car infrastructure has significant downsides: “it’s very expensive, it takes a lot of resources,” and it severely restricts mobility for anyone who doesn’t drive—a particularly important consideration in places (like Ohio) where the population is rapidly aging. If you aren’t accommodating the millions of Americans who are unable to access a car, “you’re probably not going to attract and retain the same number of residents and businesses,” Koprowski said.
“Whether it’s transportation or land use, we plan for people–and people need a different concept going forward,” she said.
Drawing on feedback from communities across Central Ohio and meticulous analyses of COTA’s existing service models and ridership patterns, COTA decided its bus system was flawed at its core: any meaningful solution would have to redraw the route map from scratch.
The old system was designed to funnel commuters into the central business district. While this “hub and spoke” approach could make sense in theory, it had serious shortcomings in practice. The “hub” was created on the assumption that Columbians would mostly work downtown. But in fact, employment centers had been dispersed across the city and suburbs for decades.
Operating on an obsolete model of Columbus’s economic geography carried significant societal costs. Without a car, moving between neighborhoods often became convoluted, inconvenient and slow, creating sharp barriers to opportunity for those who depend on public transportation.
The redesigned COTA system responded by prioritizing connectivity between neighborhoods, stressing access to the places where people actually work, live, shop, worship or otherwise need to go—citywide bus service designed to enable opportunity, equity and accessibility.
As Koprowski said, “it struck a chord that we have not been able to before,” both in Columbus and across the broader world of transit.
In 2015, Columbus applied to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. From a field of 78 applicant cities nationwide, Columbus was awarded the $40 million prize.
“Columbus won the Smart Cities grant and it embraced public transit. It didn’t have to—it could’ve been all the techy bells and whistles, and instead they prioritized… equality through transportation.” Columbus recognized that, by presenting a model for regional development in the Midwest based on equity, sustainability and connectivity, “[the city] may just attract new employers, new residents.”
And Toledo may have something to learn from Koprowski’s experience.
“The Central Ohio area is projected to grow in the next 30 Years by 25%. The rest of the state’s projected to decline by 3%. That is something we should really keep front-and-center. Now is the time,” she said.
The crises of 2020 have sent our economy into survival mode, but as entire sectors struggle to maintain the pre-pandemic status quo, Koprowski sees a critical moment to advance dramatic, long-overdue change in how we think about public transit.
“We don’t have to accept that destiny,” Koprowski said, “but we’ve got to get serious about it and think very differently.”
Now that the old “normal” is gone, new leadership is looking to make crisis into opportunity.