For the second time in three years, Columbus’ Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) has earned the Outstanding Public Transportation System Achievement Award in the midsize category, with an annual ridership between four million and 20 million passenger trips.
COTA’s President/CEO Joanna M. Pinkerton says she credits much of the agency’s success to its more than 1,000 employees and forward-thinking board of trustees who look toward the development of more innovative, community-focused mobility solutions.
“We as a team and also as a board are completely committed to looking at all decisions through the lens of equity, diversity, and inclusion,” Pinkerton adds. “And, that commitment really causes us to reach out and look more at the outcome of our service as opposed to only measuring the metric that an ethical transportation model would indicate for success.”
Customer comes first
In 2019, COTA adopted a new five-year strategic plan that outlined the agency’s dedication to its core values of providing equitable and inclusive transportation.
That same year, the agency recorded its highest ridership since 1988 — a total of 19,141,454 riders compared to 18,914,789 in 2018, which indicated a 1.2% increase and a 4% increase since the agency’s Transit System Redesign in 2017.
“This is our ‘North Star’ strategic plan for guiding principle to improve the customer experience, provide access to mobility options, prioritize the use of data and analytics, and achieve organizational excellence,” Pinkerton says.
Currently, about 77% of COTA’s leadership team consists of women and/or people of color, and that number is almost 40% at the agency’s manager and director level.
Considering Ohio’s population is more than 50% women, Pinkerton says having a leadership team reflective of the state’s population helps ensure they are making customer-focused
Some of these decisions have led to the development of the region’s first BRT line, CMAX, which travels from downtown Columbus to Westerville, providing access to more than 200,000 jobs along the corridor, three post-secondary institutions, and two health care institutions; the launch of the C-Pass program for downtown employees, which delivered more than 1,242,000 free trips in 2019; and the agency’s commitment to adopting low and no-emission transit vehicles.
“We’re seeing higher pollution rates in certain neighborhoods, lower quality of life, and health impacts,” Pinkerton explains. “So, we’re very committed to making sure we have a completely no or low-emission fleet by 2025.”
In the process, COTA has switched more than 65% of its vehicles to CNG and is looking to go electric within the next decade. The agency reportedly plans to start performance monitoring and research on its first two New Flyer electric buses upon delivery in April 2021.
New changes on the horizon
In response to growing ridership and community needs, COTA intends to expand its on-demand microtransit service, COTA Plus, by the end of this year.
“We expect to launch microtransit in a neighborhood on the south side of Columbus, where you see unemployment rates that are about 20% different than the rest of the region,” Pinkerton says. “We’re really targeting people who need mobility the most and looking at where they’re traveling to and what their needs are, whether it’s access to work, social services, or medical care.”
Pinkerton also says that COTA is experiencing a significant uptick in its mainstream on-demand paratransit service, up more than 5% during the last six months.
Even amidst the difficult decisions about how to alter service during the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency continues to move forward with its long-term plan to launch a new on-demand service called LinkUS, a mobility corridors initiative that will help address traffic congestion, provide new mobility options, expand access to resources, and promote equity and economic vitality along key regional corridors.
In the short term, COTA will continue its partnership with Via to provide on-demand emergency bus services, under a program that is now called COTA//Plus Bus-On-Demand. Through that program, riders can hail on-demand, full-size mass transit vehicles, and to ensure social distancing, the ride is limited to 10 customers and wait times average to about 15 minutes.
“We’re seeing a lot of shifting with hourly wage workers as the different levels of emergency change, which seemed to change almost on a weekly basis [during the pandemic,] Pinkerton says. “So, that was a huge experiment for us that’s going really well.”
Additionally, working with dozens of the region’s largest employers that represent more than 5,000 employees, has helped COTA streamline shifts in ridership so the agency’s service levels can match community needs.
“We’re working with all three hospitals, all seven universities, and more than 60 nonprofits to understand what their service levels will be on a weekly basis,” Pinkerton explains. “It’s all about the people, it’s about your customers, and it’s about your employees. When you take people into consideration, you make better business decisions. That’s part of our success [now] and that’s how we operated pre-pandemic.”