Employees in the New Albany International Business Park and the Rickenbacker International Airport commerce area near Groveport don't have to wear out their shoes when it comes to commuting.

In both instances, the respective cities have made taking public transportation to work easier, planning for bus routes provided by the Central Ohio Transportation Authority and then employing shuttle services from certain bus stops to help workers travel the last leg of their commutes.

Those examples have inspired COTA officials to look at ways to replicate that success.

The transit system's leaders are working with a consultant on a first-mile/last-mile study on how to help passengers with those parts of their commutes not covered by regular bus routes.

COTA has a $87,978 contract with IBI Group to look at what kind of partnerships could be worth developing to address transit gaps and challenges that central Ohio residents have getting to work or school, said COTA spokeswoman Lisa Myers.

The study began earlier this year and is expected to be finished by the end of the summer. Depending on the results, COTA could start more shuttle-service partnerships with other communities, Myers said. COTA also could decide to partner with such independent transportation providers as Uber and Lyft, she said.

Precedent

Several cities in the U.S. have moved in that direction.

In San Clemente, California, the Orange County Transportation Authority contracts with Lyft to provide connections to its main bus routes and regional rail system, according to a COTA presentation. Passengers pay the first $2 of the Lyft fare and the city pays the remainder, up to a maximum of $11.

Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority in Florida operates in a similar fashion, using Uber and United Taxi to serve areas where low ridership caused bus services to be discontinued. PSTA pays the first $5 in fare and passengers pay an average of $1 per ride, according to COTA.

In suburban Chicago, the Pace Suburban Bus Service has a partnership with the village of Rosemont to offer free shuttle services between Chicago's "L" rapid-transit system and nearby entertainment and retail destinations.

Meanwhile, Columbus is growing, Myers said.

"As it grows, transportation needs to grow and change with it," she said.

In working with New Albany and Groveport, COTA found those areas needed something above and beyond the bus company's typical Park & Ride program. COTA has 20 Park & Ride lots throughout central Ohio, Myers said, and at which passengers can park their cars and ride a bus into Columbus, or vice versa.

"The traditional model of transportation doesn't always work for these business parks," Myers said.

Shuttles

The shuttle model has provided a solution thus far.

SmartRide New Albany shuttles provide transportation for business-park employees from the Park & Ride on Forest Drive to their places of employment, said Jennifer Chrysler, New Albany's community-development director. The Park & Ride is stop 7368 on the COTA line. (COTA has several nearby stops on the Walton Parkway and on some roads in the business park.)

Annual shuttle ridership has been in the ballpark of 20,000 to 30,000 users since the city began using the shuttle service in 2014, according to city spokesman Scott McAfee. Because the business park is expanding and some office spaces are being refilled, the city estimates approximately 24,000 shuttle users in 2018, he said.

Figures provided by Chrysler showed 23,419 riders used the shuttles in 2015, 29,670 in 2016 and 19,546 in 2017. More than 4,000 have used the shuttles in the first two months of 2018.

Not counting office buildings, New Albany's economic-development website, newalbanybusiness.org, lists 51 businesses as being part of the New Albany International Business Park.

Towne Park is the company contracted to operate the shuttles, McAfee said. New Albany pays $130,000 annually for the shuttle service, McAfee said. That fee includes other uses for the buses, such as when the city needs to conduct tours of the business park for potential tenants, he said.

The city of Groveport and the village of Obetz launched their own shuttle service -- Groveport Rickenbacker Employee Access Transit, or GREAT -- in the fall of 2015, said Bob Dowler, Groveport's director of transportation. The two cities manage its operation.

Jeff Green, finance director and assistant city administrator for Groveport, said the shuttle service costs $490,585 annually. The village of Obetz pays $150,000 and Groveport pays the remainder, he said.

Four GREAT shuttles serve more than 60 businesses in Groveport and Obetz, Dowler said.

The GREAT/COTA coordination point is at Alum Creek Drive and London-Groveport Road at COTA stop 7063, and other stops with service are nearby. Green said no Park & Ride facility is included, so the shuttles operate from the COTA stops.

Dowler said ridership for 2017 was just over 25,000.

Ridership figures for the past 2 1/2 years fluctuate from the 200s to the 700s on any given week, with most weeks being in the 400s in 2017 until the final quarter of the year, when they routinely were above 500. Ridership figures for Feb. 26 to March 4 show 477 riders used the GREAT shuttles; all but 13 were on weekdays.

Although the shuttle service helped more people have the opportunity to work in the Rickenbacker commerce area, the service also made their commutes safer, because they no longer have to walk the last leg of their trip on roads with fast-moving traffic, Dowler said.

"There needed to be a different solution for that last mile," he said.

COTA tracks average daily ridership on its buses for three service periods per year: January through April, May through August and September through December, Myers said.

Average daily ridership typically is higher in the last service period due to temporary holiday employees, she said.

The average daily ridership tracks both how many riders embark COTA buses and now many riders disembark, Myers said.

During January through April last year, an average of 229 people got on COTA buses in the Rickenbacker area on a daily basis and an average of 276 people got off.

During the same service period, an average of 61 people got on a COTA bus at the New Albany Park & Ride and 67 people disembarked on a daily basis.

ssole@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekSarah