Columbus thinks outside the bus route to get more riders

The transit authority's chief innovation officer is testing a microtransit service and opening an Innovation Lab to test new mobility solutions.

The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) has three advantages you may not expect in a Midwestern city: a chief innovation officer, a microtransit project, and growing ridership.

Sophia Mohr is COTA's first chief innovation officer. Her last job was at NetJets where she was the vice president of owner experience, design and strategy. That company sells fractional ownership in private jets. Customers buy shares of a specific aircraft which includes a set number of flight time in that aircraft type. 

Mohr said the challenge in her new job is the same as the one in her former role—making sure customers have a positive experience with the service.

"The setting is different but we want to think about the experience in the same way," she said.

Mohr said that she sees the transit system as a mobility provider and her job is to find new and innovative ways to accomplish that.

"Prosperity in Columbus really means prosperity for all and transportation is a big part of that," she said. "Columbus is one of six transit agencies where ridership is increasing."

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The National Transit Database found that among smaller cities, Columbus, Richmond, and Indianapolis are gaining ridership after revamping their bus networks. This reflects the same trend in seven larger cities where ridership is also increasing, including Seattle, Pittsburgh, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Detroit, and Las Vegas. 

The key is to reorganize the bus system to increase frequency or cover new areas with a high demand for transportation. In the next few months, COTA will open an innovation lab to develop new partnerships and test new mobility solutions.

"We want to solve lots of different mobility problems in Columbus and we are inviting public and private companies to do that with us," she said.

Successful test of microtransit

In July 2019, Columbus launched a pilot project using the same technology that powers a similar shared shuttle service in Cupertino, CA. Via provides the platform that COTA is using to expand service in Grove City, a suburb southwest of Columbus. When the bus routes were first established, the community was much smaller. The fixed routes don't reach the new hospital and industrial park in the city. 

The COTA Plus shuttle service solves that problem by providing short trips to get riders from home to a bus stop or to other locations in Grove City, including the Southpark Industrial Park, the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, and the Mount Carmel Grove City Hospital.

Mohr said this service solves the first mile/last mile problem that makes it hard for people who live too far from a bus stop to use public transportation.
 
"We have a lot of other communities interested in that option for their part of Columbus as well," she said.

Customers can book trips through the COTA Plus app or by phone. COTA Plus vehicles arrive within 15 minutes and take riders anywhere within a defined zone in Grove City. Bus riders don't pay any extra fare to use the COTA service. People traveling within the Grove City zone pay $3 per ride through the app.  

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The Central Ohio Transit Authority is testing a new microtransit service in Grove City, Ohio.

Image: COTA