The buses operated by the Central Ohio Transit Authority are equipped with outward-facing electronic signs at the front of the bus, above the driver, that tell people waiting at bus stops where the bus is going. When I walk to work in the morning, I see buses that are heading to Kenny Road, or East Main, or Hilliard, or West Broad, or Rickenbacker. These are all familiar street names and locations for Columbus residents.
My favorite bus name, however, is “Smoky Row.” It’s got to be the best “end of the line” name in the COTA arsenal.
Where is Smoky Row, exactly? I have no idea, even though I’ve lived in Columbus for years. It could be north, east, west, or south. And unlike other COTA bus destinations, Smoky Row has a certain lyrical, almost mystical quality to it that sounds like a Hollywood movie from the ’40s starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. You could easily see Smoky Row in big print up on the screen as the movie credits started to roll.
And the fact that Smoky Row is an actual destination in the Columbus, Ohio area adds to the mystery. You wonder how Smoky Row got its unusual name. Is it a low-lying area that is frequently obscured by morning mist, or was it once home to lots of smoke-billowing factories? And what’s there now? Smoke-filled nightclubs, perhaps? Hookah joints? Hipsters puffing away on their smelly vape devices?
I’m sure that, for patrons who take the number 74 bus every day, it’s just another boring bus ride — but for me, boarding the bus to Smoky Row would seem like the ticket to adventure.
Recently Kish and I went to a show at the Riffe Center, across the street from the Ohio Statehouse. We noticed a new Central Ohio Transit Authority sign, for “CMAX” as well as our old favorite, the CBUS.
It’s a new concept for COTA — a rapid transit bus line. The CMAX will make fewer stops, at major destinations on the most congested bus lines, with the goal of reducing travel time, reducing congestion, and creating better conditions for pedestrians. And, from the COTA website linked above, it looks like the ultimate plan is for the CMAX to include improved technology — like, perhaps, wireless options on buses. The Bus-Riding Conservative has long held that offering wireless could be the key to making riding buses really attractive to the Gen Xers, who he thinks would happily choose an option that would allow them to check out all of their social media contacts while they are commuting.
The first CMAX line will run along Cleveland Avenue, connecting downtown to Polaris Parkway — a route that COTA estimates serves more than 220,000 residents and 170,000 workers. The sign at High and State is for one of the stops at the downtown end of the route.
I have to give COTA credit — with the CBUS, the Airconnect bus that links the airport and downtown hotels, and now CMAX, our local transit agency is making a good effort to redefine “the bus” and provide service that is more targeted to what the community really needs. Here’s hoping that CMAX is another success story.
High Street is one of Columbus’ main drags. It runs north-south through the heart of downtown and connects it to German Village, the Arena District, the Short North, the University District, and Clintonville. Now city planners and the Central Ohio Transit Authority are wrestling with a thorny question: Should High Street also be one of Columbus’ main bus routes — or even be a bus route at all?
This exercise in urban planning is a tough balancing act. Many people (like the Bus-Riding Conservative) take the bus to workplaces in downtown Columbus, and COTA would like to encourage even more to do so. Moving bus stops to places several blocks away wouldn’t exactly encourage more ridership. At the same time, the buses are loud and contribute greatly to traffic congestion. In addition, many High Street business owners feel that the transfer stations, where bus riders gather to wait for their rides, may be used as locations for drug dealing, discourage foot traffic by potential customers, and are unsightly, besides. If may just be coincidence, but while downtown generally is bustling with rehabbing and construction, there remain many vacant storefronts and parking lots on High Street.
Earlier this week I walked to a High Street restaurant on a path that took me past the busy transfer station at Broad and High, where pedestrians must follow a gauntlet between the sidewalk structure and groups of people sitting on the wall in front of the Statehouse. It’s not exactly a pleasant walk, and it doesn’t show off the Statehouse in a great light, either. Although I recognize that urban planning shouldn’t be all about how I personally am affected, I’ll be happy to see fewer buses, and transfer stations, on High Street.
The Bus Riding Conservative never misses a chance to lecture the rest of us, often in mind-numbing detail, about the joys of using the Central Ohio Transit Authority. So I wasn’t surprised when the BRC sent me a clipping of a story about COTA establishing an express bus link between Columbus and New Albany.
When I read the article, I happily realized that it wasn’t the normal boring BRC fodder about the thrill of bus riding. There actually was an interesting aspect to the story, namely this: the newly established express bus route is for people who are commuting from downtown Columbus to New Albany, and not the other way around. The express bus will leave downtown at five scheduled times between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., make a stop at Easton Town Center, the colossal shopping megaplex on the I-270 rim, and then will rumble on to the New Albany Business Park. New Albany then will pay for a shuttle service to take people from the COTA stop to other locations within the business park.
That’s interesting for two reasons. First, it shows that the efforts to bring businesses out to the suburbs are bearing fruit — so much so that COTA sees a market for an express bus that helps the workers at those business get out to their jobs. It makes me wonder how much contracommuting is going on in the Columbus area. Second, the fact that people are living downtown and needing a ride out to the ‘burbs to work suggests that we might be able to avoid the prospect of runaway suburban sprawl that was forecast by a recent study by a city planning firm.
The area around Columbus is mostly flat farmland, so it’s not exactly full of scenic wonders. Still, I’d rather keep the fields of amber waves of grain (or, more accurately, corn and soybeans) than see more concrete, Home Depots, and Kohl’s outlets. The city’s footprint doesn’t need to grow any larger. Encouraging people to live downtown, and helping them get to jobs out in the suburbs, is one way of keeping that from happening.