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The popularity of the local bus system is increasing, with more people riding to work and school and to run errands.
Ridership on the four fixed-route buses and the Call-A-Bus system jumped from about 171,000 in 2002 to nearly 231,000 last year, according to local transportation officials.
The number of riders is increasing at a faster rate than the population. The number of riders has increased 35 percent in the last nine years, compared to a population growth in the city of about 14 percent in the last 12 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
It cost the city $1.2 million to run the local bus system last year, up $400,000, or about 50 percent, from 2002. The bulk of the system is paid through federal and state funds. The local portion last year was $303,458, up about $78,000, or about 34 percent, since 2002.
The four local fixed-route buses are seeing increasing ridership from students and workers, said Cindy Setser, director of the Columbus Transit Department.
During the school year, some buses are standing-room only, she said.
And Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown said buses also get crowded at rush hour, indicating that commuters are using local public transportation.
The increased bus use reflects the city’s growth. Many employers, especially Cummins, are adding employees, developers are building apartment complexes and entrepreneurs are opening restaurants, especially downtown.
The downtown revitalization also is increasing vehicle traffic and the need for parking. A third downtown parking garage is expected to open next month.
“We really want to make the transit system work for downtown employees,” said Laurence Brown, director of the Columbus Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Setser said some newcomers call the Transit Department before they move to Columbus to make sure their potential home or apartment is near a bus route.
For example, Route No. 4, which stops at Steinhurst Manor, an apartment complex near Columbus East High School, brings lots of employees to the Cummins Tech Center, Setser said.
Cummins spokesman Jon Mills said in an email that sustainability and the environment are important to the company.
“Cummins certainly supports alternative modes of transportation that are positive for both the environment and health and wellness of our employees. Cummins actively supports car pooling as well as biking and walking to work and using local, public transit,” Mills said.
For other bus riders, the local public transportation system provides much more than a means to get from Point A to Point B. It’s a way to stay connected.
Jack Combest, 60, uses bus frequently to run errands, go to a restaurant or get to the doctor’s office.
Combest, a former Cummins employee, is on disability because he is blind.
After his wife, Jerry, had to give up driving about a decade ago because of poor eye sight, the couple rode the fixed-route buses about five times a week.
Since her stroke in 2010, they have relied on the Call-A-Bus, which they use about twice a week.
Without the buses, Jack said, “We would have to get a cab or rely on family members.”
Combest said the system allows him and his wife to retain a level of independence.
Laurence Brown, the MPO director, said an efficient and reliable public transportation system can provide solutions to vehicle congestion and parking constraints and reduce wear and tear of local roads.
He said local employers are adding employees — but they would prefer not to use precious space for parking lots.
“They’re having parking problems as it is,” he said.
Public transportation is “something we should look at as a solution ... rather than a liability.”
Mayor Brown said she agrees. A meaningful portion of the population relies on the system, and it helps alleviate traffic congestion and parking problems, she said, and it helps with the city’s long-term vision to reduce fuel use and the local carbon footprint.
To encourage further use of public transportation, the city is considering adding a route or a shuttle to the city’s west side.
Setser said the city has operated with the same amount of buses since the 1980s. The west side has seen significant growth. Additions since then have included retailers — Walmart, Sam’s Club, Menard’s — apartments such as Riverstone and offices such as the Circle K Convenience Stores complex at West Hill Shopping Center.
Setser said her office gets frequent requests for a route to the west side. No current bus routes cross the bridge out of town to the west.
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