Stranded In Central Ohio
Anita Rosvanis, 38, lives in the Linden neighborhood on Columbus’s North Side. She commutes to Gahanna to work as a home health care aide.
That’s a journey of several miles, undertaken entirely by bus.
Reliable, efficient and affordable transportation is key to securing and keeping a good-paying job. Most Central Ohioans still get around by car, but not all.
For residents dependent on public transportation, commuting to work is a costly endeavor – both in money and time – and one that poor Columbus residents can seldom afford.
Three Buses And A Walk
Rosvanis walks to her COTA stop weekday mornings around 10 a.m. The single mother of three starts her journey by checking the bus schedule with an app on her smartphone.
“I hate this because I could be at home spending time with my daughter, but the bus wants to come later and later and later,” Rosvanis says. “‘Cause at the house it said, what, 10:07, and now it’s saying 10:13. And I don’t like missing this bus because then I’ll miss the second bus and have to wait longer.”
The bus arrives at 10:14.
Rosvanis rides the first bus for about 7 minutes, gets off at Cleveland and Innis, then waits about 10 minutes before the second bus picks her up.
A 30-minute ride takes Rosvanis to the Easton Transit Center off Morse Road near I-270, where she waits several minutes for a third bus. This bus takes her to her last stop north of Morse on Hamilton Road.
By the time Rosvanis arrives in Gahanna, she has traveled on three buses. But her trip is not over. She still has to walk about half a mile on Morse Road to the apartment complex where she works.
There is no sidewalk.
“Now I just have to walk on one side of the street, because on the other side it’s a real narrow path and when cars come you get sideswiped,” Rosvanis says.
Rosvanis’ one-way trip takes her 1.5 hours. At work, she makes $9 an hour.
“Majority of my money goes toward child care and a bus pass, and the rest will go on utilities, or food, or whatever I need for the house or for my kids,” Rosvanis says.
No Car In Columbus
The most recent Census report shows 89 percent of all Franklin County commuters take a car, truck or van to work. Just under 3 percent take public transportation.
The average commute time in Central Ohio is about 20 minutes. For Rosvanis, it takes about four times as long.
During those three hours a day, round-trip, she could otherwise be caring for her kids, going to school or training for a better job.
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Jason Reece, an Ohio State University assistant professor in city and regional planning, says being dependent on the transit system can limit people’s job prospects, especially for African-Americans.
In the city of Columbus, 19.7 percent of African-American residents don’t own a car. That’s compared to 7.6 percent of white residents and 9.1 percent of Latino residents.
“If you think about issues like employment and economic empowerment for that community in particular, transportation is going to be a tremendous barrier,” Reece says.
Even looking at the entire Columbus metropolitan area, the disparity still exists. African-American households are three times more likely than white households to go without a car.
When using public transit, African-American commuters also have longer travel times, on average, than white commuters. That gap has only increased since 2000.
Reece says Columbus’ transportation problem only grew as jobs moved to the suburbs, places traditionally underserved by COTA buses.
“For those folks who are really dependent on those, that really used to be kind of the bread and butter jobs of a middle-class economy, they’re seeing their employment opportunities kind of push further and further out into some of the exurbs and really out to the farther parts of the region,” Reece says.
Direct bus service to jobs outside of Columbus is critically lacking, too. A recent study found that Columbus is the second-largest city in the country without intercity public transit – neither bus service nor light rail.
“We’ve not had the investment in public transit that we’ve needed probably for several decades now,” Reece says. “And as a form of infrastructure, we really need more resources directed to transit.”
Suburbs Vs. Downtown
COTA is certainly aware of the city’s shift to suburbs. When the organization relaunched its route system, then-president W. Curtis Stitt said their goal was to shift the focus away from downtown.
“We are trying to make better connections to where people work,” Stitt said. “There are more and more jobs further and further out.”
One of these job centers is in the Groveport area, now a hub for warehouses. Many warehouse workers, though, had to walk up to 2 miles from the nearest bus stop.
In response, the communities of Groveport and Obetz stepped up to provide a shuttle to take workers from the last COTA stop to the warehouses. They call the initiative GREAT: Groveport Rickenbacker Employee Access Transit.
Groveport’s transportation director Bob Dowler says the cost to operate the shuttle, $500,000 a year, is just a good investment.
“I think that what we really have to look at here is that the majority of tax revenue for both the Village of Obetz, and I can speak more to the city of Groveport, comes from income tax revenue from the people that work in these businesses,” Dowler says.
Employers see the impact as well. Tony Malone, a manager at Radial Corporation, a product distributor in Groveport, says the GREAT shuttle helps him retain employees.
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“We were in a situation where we had associates that couldn’t stay on full-time because they either lost the ride or didn’t want to walk,” Malone says. “So this makes it much easier, much more accessible.”
“You Have To Work”
While opportunities increase in the suburbs, downtown Columbus is itself seeing more jobs in the service industry. And those janitors, security guards, kitchen staff and others still struggle to get to work.
A pilot program, which starts next spring, will try to improve public transit in the core of downtown. Building owners in the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District plan to raise about $4.5 million to provide free COTA service.
The hope is to encourage some 45,000 employees to take the bus, freeing up parking spaces to lure more businesses.
“Right now, less than 5 percent of the people in downtown take transit to work,” says executive director Cleve Ricksecker. “If we can double that or triple the number of people who ride the bus downtown, the impact of that is significant in many, many ways.”
Free downtown bus service, however, won’t help Rosvanis on the city’s North Side. She continues to pay to ride a bus – or rather, three buses – to work.
“I want to provide a good life for myself and my children,” Rosvanis says. “You know, and just staying at home, bills aren’t going to get paid, my kids aren’t going to get new clothes or shoes or anything. So you have to work.”
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