Transit guide explains Cincinnati bus riding basics

A good map makes it easy to see what’s important. Highways don’t look the same as local roads on a good street map; similarly, major transit corridors shouldn’t look the same on a map as a bus that only runs twice a day.  Cincinnati activist Nathan Wessel created a map that highlights the most valuable and convenient Metro bus corridors – the transit equivalent of major arterial streets – and separates them from inconvenient and specialized routes.

“These frequent routes are the backbone of Cincinnati’s transit infrastructure, and understanding them is vital to riding the bus without stress,” Wessel explained. “A good transit map not only needs to represent spatial relationships, but show where and WHEN transit exists.”

Click to enlarge (PDF)

One of the biggest challenges of using transit in Cincinnati is understanding it. The new rider is presented with a complicated fare structure as well as a mess of schedules and maps so overwhelming and disjointed that many would-be riders give up. Metro is making strides towards streamlining the system, but in the interim, Wessel’s map makes understanding how the buses work a lot easier.

This map reduces the jumble to a legible system with an easily visible structure of primary, secondary, and tertiary routes that change clearly in both space and time. “The map is laid out so that people who are new to riding the bus can quickly and easily see which route they need to take, and how to do it,” Wessel said.

Long term, the goal is to have the map printed, distributed, and available potential transit riders. For example, the easy to understand transit map could be included in a welcome binder presented to incoming freshmen at UC, or handed to new out-of-town P&G employees looking for a place to live on a bus line. When printed, the map folds into an approximately 3-inch by 3-inch square with downtown routing information and some other important specifics on the back side.

Wessels is still looking to raise funds to make his idea a reality, as well as official acknowledgment from the the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, which operates Metro, and the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky.

  • I ran in to Nathan on the bus last week and he showed me this. I can tell you after seeing his prototype in person, that this could be of HUGE benefit to riders and, in turn, to Metro who could certainly use the additional fare revenue from increased ridership this may bring. The map makes Metro’s whole system much easier to read. While the system is quite complex, Nathan has done an excellent job of putting it all in to an easy to read, discernible map. I can’t wait until its published!

  • Neil

    Cincy should take a cue from Chicago and actually post basic transit rules for the routes on the signs but possibly a bit more detailed on frequency. See this for a good example:

  • Its amazing the amount of crowdsourcing I’ve seen on this, there are a couple googlemap based route maps floating around also.
    I think the #1 metro could do is a location based bus locator showing us on our smart phone where the next bus is so we know when to expect it.
    UC is already doing this with their shuttle buses.

  • Jon

    I think it’s embarrassing that TANK, and transit systems in Morgantown, WV, Pittsburgh, PA, Charlotte, NC, and Boise, ID are all linked to Google Maps but Metro hasn’t done it.

    Google Transit is amazing for its convenience, and its accessibility. Every time I’m in Chicago, NY, or San Francisco I can simply use google transit and know exactly what line I need to take to get anywhere. There’s no reason Morgantown, WV’s transit system should have this and we shouldn’t.

  • Matt Jacob

    Jon, while I agree that Metro needs to get connected to the world through things like Google Transit, not everyone has a smart phone to rely on for this information. A concise readable map will always be a necessity for any transit system that wants people to utilize it.

    This is something Metro should already have and something that they should always be looking to improve and market. If Nathan had to make is own map (which is well designed and thought out) to understand the system, then Metro is failing at its mission and it’s no wonder why more Cincinnatians don’t ride the bus.

  • What is with this obsession with Google Transit? Every Metro article that is published gets someone commenting about the need for Google Transit. My experience is that Google Transit is often not all that accurate and that it often does not send you on the best route.

    With that said, Metro has been working with Google Transit for some time now, but it is a two-way street. And from my understanding there have been some issues on Google’s end incorporating Metro into their Google Transit database. I know that leaders at Metro think this is something important to have incorporated, and that they have made efforts to get their system incorporated into Google Transit. I’m not sure why it isn’t there at this point, but I would imagine constantly dwindling resources does not help.

  • I relied on Google Transit to get me to a job interview in Washington DC and it directed me to a train stop that didn’t exist – no, I didn’t get the job.

    Like Randy said, the situation at Metro is a vicious cycle. Lack of improvement leads to decreased ridership, decreased ridership leads to lack of improvement. Imagine what could be done if there was a one time influx of money to bring the system up to speed.

    I’ve been following Metro’s twitter feed, and they made a good point that if bus riders and transit supporters don’t voice their support for Metro, it is harder to make a case for increased funding and collaboration with businesses.

  • This map is a great idea, but I have to say as a map itself it’s just a bit too abstract in its layout. I understand that simplifying the underlying base map is the “in” thing to do, riding on the success of the London Tube map, but this one seems to go too far with it. The way Madison and Erie are shown in Hyde Park for example is very odd, with both streets being shown on separate lines going in different directions than they do in real life. I’m not saying it has to be drawn on a 100% accurate road map, but it should be a bit more realistic so that relationships among roads and neighborhoods aren’t turned around and made even more confusing.

  • Nathan Strieter

    After the embarrassment that is the poster/map for bus #1, this is a refreshing rider’s take.
    The simplification is exactly what Metro needs after years of maps that are far too realistic and stand to confuse those who do not understand the hill layout of the city. A map like this combined with the efforts of METRO to establish bus hubs in the near future would be a public transit breakthrough for Cincinnati on par with future streetcar extensions. The biggest challenge for transit understanding of where and when services occur. Thanks to Nathan for a map that meets the challenge.

  • Zachary Schunn

    I connected with Nathan at a UC|Sustainability meeting (sorry, had to plug that), and I already sent him a few comments when he sent around a draft. I must say this version is much-improved (mainly easier to read), and would do wonders for riders if available both as a PDF on SORTA’s website and in print version at bus stations. Let’s face it: a lot of riders, if not most, still rely on print versions. And, aside from it being surprisingly hard to find the pamphlet for the route you need (do you know how often I see, say, a pamphlet for the 33, 51, or 66 bus on a 17?), they are impossible to read.

    To speak to what someone said about it not being realistic enough: that was one of my original comments. But, on the other hand, I like the simplicity of it. Once you’ve figured out the route you need, you can always use Metro’s pamphlets (again, assuming you can figure out how to read them) to learn where/when the bus comes. Which is much better than checking out every route until you find the best one.

    “I’m not sure why it [Google Transit] isn’t there at this point, but I would imagine constantly dwindling resources does not help.” -Randy

    I was talking to someone about this, and supposedly it’s due to a difference in technology. Google’s code methods are much more modern than Metro’s, which are primarily text-based. Which, of course, ties back to money in terms of cost of tech, training for programmers, etc.

  • Jon

    Yes, not everyone has a smartphone today. But in 2011 smartphones will overtake regular phones and every year more and more people get them and their costs go down. While I’ve never had an issue with Google Transit in 3 years, I’m sure it’s not perfect, but either way, a Metro-specific smartphone app is more and more necessary as each year goes by (and almost every other market adds them).

    My TANK administration friends say Metro is worried about safety of their data and does not support the open source aspect of Google Transit. Of course, that could be wrong and just a rumor, but it it’s true it’s a silly excuse. Everyone agrees that Metro is highly underfunded and City council just authorized drawing away even more metro funding for the budget, but at the same time if TANK can have a widely accessible phone-friendly way to quickly find routes and bus arrival times, Metro shouldn’t be more than several years behind.

    If you want to grow ridership, you need instant availability- very few people are interested in carrying maps around anymore.
    (I promise, I’m not always a negative Nancy!)

  • This is awesome!

  • Jake Mecklenborg

    It’s clear that smart phones alone are not significantly improving public transit ridership. Pretty much all it’s allowing people to do is wait until the last minute before walking out to the bus stop. Transit maps and schedules have been on transit company websites for ten years and even they haven’t succeeded in significantly improving ridership. It’s not because people can’t understand the maps or schedules — it’s because the level of service is not car-competitive. The type of people who have smart phones have cars and the type of people with prepaid cell phones tend not to, yet somehow figure out where to stand to catch the bus.

  • Nate Wessel

    Thanks for all the comments.

    My issue with smartphones-beyond that I don’t and won’t have one, as most people who ride the bus- Is that they do not allow a true understanding of the transit system. Google gives people very explicit directions for how to catch a very specific bus in response to a very specific request. It does not give them an understanding of the way the system is structured. If people cannot understand transit(indeed they can’t if computers must tell them exactly what to do) they do not have any freedom to use transit without relying on that device or to move spontaneously through the city. Google does not communicate to people where they CAN go-just how to go where they already want to go. I hope this map makes people aware for example that it’s really easy to get from downtown to the west side, or from CUF to Evanston. With that understanding, they might think of the bus for their next trip in that direction.

    The goal is to make the bus lines memorable, and accessible to people who aren’t experts on Cincinnati geography. This is something most subway maps are really good at. They have big simple lines and clear connections. I think this is the biggest reason so many people are crazy about rail based transit-It has better maps!

  • Nate Wessel

    Y’all can download the full resolution here: or email me at

  • That is a brilliant comment Nate, and is exactly the reason why I do not use a GPS navigation system in my car (when I actually do drive).

    People have become reliant on these technologies (which are great technologies), but if you truly want to understand a system, city or an area the best way to do so is without the aid of these technologies. You may run into some trouble along the way, but you learn from it and it allows you to substantively understand what it is your doing the next time around.

  • Zachary Schunn

    To second Randy’s comment, GPS’s are boring. Where’s the fun in never getting lost?

    Oh, and I just want to say: I already had to use this today. I wanted to remember which bus/buses went from Mt. Auburn to downtown.

  • AMY

    Well if this helps people not familiar with metro, thats great. But seriously, the bus system isn’t complicated at all. Been taking it since I was a kid. Old people and mentally ill people use the metro without any major issues, gps, fancy maps, etc. lol. So I think yuppie transplants can figure it out too.

    “The type of people who have smart phones have cars and the type of people with prepaid cell phones tend not to, yet somehow figure out where to stand to catch the bus.” EXCELLENT POINT!!

  • Ryan L

    Everyone here makes excellent points about the maps. Something I never really thought about was how many routes connect different areas. This map really does help me understand the system, and the big picture is something a lot of people overlook. I have friends who can’t drive from Mason to Batavia without a GPS, and it is almost all interstates.

    While I agree that the maps are important, I also think that Metro needs an app for their system on smart phones. I am a UC student and use the bus to get to work from Faux Clifton. The first time I used the bus, I used the trip planner on SORTA’s website. If there was an app, I would have used that since I have a smart phone. I didn’t look at a giant map of the region and find out which bus connects me to my destination. As I become a little more accustomed to the system, I start looking at other routes to see where they take me.

    Metro will always have low income residents without smart phones utilizing their service, and that will be a constant source of ridership that they must tend to. But if they ever want to expand and get more people to ride Metro as a luxury, and not a necessity, they need to get an app (or integrate with Google if it works, though I have never used Google Transit). Once you get people riding Metro as a luxury (like me) by letting them find routes that are most effective in the easiest, most convenient method for them, they can start using it on a daily basis and get to know the system.

    I am at the point now where I would use a map to locate a new bus route, but a month ago I would be plugging in my address on SORTA’s website. It isn’t a tough concept to grasp, but it takes some getting used to: and that is where an app is helpful.

  • T

    Smartphones are not the answer to Cincinnati’s transit issues. Neither is this map. I understand and appreciate the point behind it but as someone who can rattle off most bus routes and times, I can’t figure out that map at all.

    Go-Metro’s big issue is reliability not confusion among visitors to the city or new students. I would take Go-Metro more if I could rely on it. I can’t. In larger cities with transit systems, there are either consequences for buses being late or back-ups. This is the only city I’ve ever lived in or visited where – if I want to take the bus – I have to look up the times it’ll get me somewhere and go wait outside. Every other city, I want to take the bus/subway – I just go to it. It will get there at a reasonable time and get me where I am going at a reasonable time. Go-metro…not so much.

    My fiance went out of town a few months ago, I wanted to go to Whole Foods from Clifton. After 1/2 hour waiting for the first bus that was late to take me up to UC to transfer to the second, I walked over to return back home. I waited until he got back to take the 10 minute car ride to Whole Foods versus the 1.5 hour in each direction trip by Metro.

    Metro is the only system that I’ve experienced without work friendly bus times. If I want to take the 17 downtown to work, I’ve got to either get there 20 minutes early, 5 minutes late or 15 minutes late (dependent on which timed bus blesses me with their presence). There is no in between. I just want to get to work at 8:30 – why is that difficult?

    I think the one thing that makes the system super complicated is that other major cities (I know, I jest, Cincinnati isn’t a major city) don’t require you to go online or downtown to see a system map. They have it on bus poles, shelters, etc.

  • Ryan L

    I take the 31 to work every day, and the only time that I miss the bus, is when I am one minute late. The bus is on time each morning on my way to work and each evening on my way home. The only time I have experienced significant delays is when I was trying to take the 17 to a Bengals game a couple years ago. That was because the bus was stopping at every stop to pick up more people.

    I think the bus system is reliable, and with a bus route like the 17 that comes every 11 minutes, I cannot see how you must wait outside fifteen minutes to get a bus downtown. With the amount of frustration you express about the system, I doubt you are a regular rider, and doubt even more that you can rattle off just about every route and time.

    The map is not intended to tell you exactly where to catch a specific bus to get to any destination, it is meant to give you an overall view of the transit map so you understand how the system works. It seems really simple to me, but I do think that smart phone integration and other things (reloadable cards, single day passes, etc) the system can definitely improve from where it is at today.

  • Zachary Schunn

    “I think the bus system is reliable, and with a bus route like the 17 that comes every 11 minutes, I cannot see how you must wait outside fifteen minutes to get a bus downtown.”

    I’ve taken the 17 every day, off and on, to work and back for 3 years. Not only is it commonly 5-10 minutes late, but it’s not rare for a certain bus to just not show up. After a few years of riding the 17, I’ve learned to adjust my work schedule (thankfully I have the flexibility to do so) to avoid certain times and certain drivers. For example: never take a bus that arrives at UC at 8, 9, or 10 am, because it will be full of students and thus very late. Plus, sometimes these full buses don’t even stop and you have to wait another 15 minutes for another one. Also, avoid the bus that arrives at Hughes as class is starting. As far as drivers go, this is much harder to time because they switch them up every day. But for about a year, there was at least one certain driver that conducted the 17 every morning, who would stop in the middle of her route for a cigarette and a coffee. Thus, riders were left waiting on the bus for 10 minutes wondering where the heck she went. Thankfully, I haven’t seen her in a while.

    For all the tardiness, rude drivers, etc. you’d be surprised to hear that one of my biggest complaints is what happens when the bus is EARLY. See, the Metro is based on landmark stops (on the 17 they include Knowlton’s Corner, Hughes, and Fountain Square going south), with numerous stops in between. When a bus is early, instead of stopping at this landmark stop and waiting to get back on schedule (as you would think would happen), the bus idles slowly down the road in the right lane. This is what drivers are taught to do. Now, it isn’t rare for me to miss the bus I want and get a later one. Do you know how frustrating it is when you’re late for work, but you’re going to be even later because the bus is ahead of schedule but WON’T LET YOU OFF?!?

    I have so many other complaints in my 3-year history, but I’ll prevent myself from turning this into a full-out rant. T. is right; it’s the inconsisentency of the buses and poor customer service that are probably its biggest issues (well, after the anti-public transport culture of Cincinnati, of course). I ride the bus because I support public transport and it’s my cheapest option.

    I don’t know. What with COAST and the tea party movement I’ve grown increasingly skeptical of improving the system via funding (through something such as another Metro Moves vote). That would be ideal, but there are of course other ways to fix the system internally. From the anecdotes I’ve heard (and I won’t go into them), there’s just a culture of mismanagement and poor execution at Metro. Let’s all cross our fingers that it went out the door with the last CEO, and Terry Garcia Crews will bring forth the changes she’s promised. I’ve been meaning to write to her/Metro for a while; maybe I’ll finally do that.

  • AMY

    RyanL, your comment about riding Metro as a “luxury” just kills me. I have had my boob felt, been harrassed by drunks and people’s jackass kids, and even had vomit splattered on me…metro is not a luxury and never will be. I dont care how yuppy/hipster friendly they make it with maps, wifi and all that sort of thing, the majority of people who will take the bus is the people who have to for mostly economic reasons.

  • Ryan L

    Perhaps I ride the only buses without pedophiles and drunks on every ride, but so far my rides have been very pleasant. I sit down, surf the internet on my phone, then pull the cord and get off at my stop. I dont have to drive in the freezing cold, only for my heat to turn on when I finally arrive at work. I dont have to scrape off the ice from my car every time it snows. I dont have to worry about sliding down the hills or having others slide into me. And I dont have to walk through a gravel parking lot at work that becomes a giant pond every time it rains or snows. Every time I go to work I get on the bus with other people who I feel are responsible citizens and I never feel in danger or disgusted. I stand by my claim that it is a luxury. I cannot comment on other people’s experiences but Metro has been good to me and I hope I continue to have good experiences riding it.

    T, I apologize for assuming you don’t ride the bus, but typically when people comment on an article with a name like T, I assume they are just commenting to get a reaction. Perhaps I have been reading too many comment sections in the Enquirer. Best of luck to you on future rides (if your experience hasn’t turned you away from riding). I hope Metro’s new CEO can get things in better working order.

  • Heather S.

    Only two suggested changes/additions to the map…neighborhood indicator points could vary in size based on number of bus routes passing through. And neighborhoods over a certain threshold of bus routes could have the route numbers listed next to the indicator (without being in a color). I agree that the current map has just too much on it to be easy to read and this one fixes SO many things. But, it just doesn’t quite indicate the greater extent of the “network” and possible connectedness. Yes, I know we’re primarily a spoke and wheel system. But, there is more interconnection to the network than currently indicated.

    Overall, Mr. Wessel, I think your map is fantastic! You obviously put a LOT of work in on this project.

  • Nate Wessel

    Thanks Heather! I really appreciate the compliment.

    I am still thinking about ways to improve the map, including hinting at other/continued routes. This map of Seattle:

    does a good job of that, and I’m using that as sort of a starting point. Note the little arrows at the ends of some routes indicating the direction of continued, but less frequent service.

  • T

    @Ryan L,

    Probably too many reads on the Enquirer -I just never go by my first name. I wish I had the wonderful bus experiences you have -clearly you don’t take “college” bus routes to/from downtown. I know that because I’ve never had the luxury of “surfing the Internet” on those routes as it is difficult to do that on a packed standing room only bus. Every Monday & Wen, I take the bus to/from work and only one day in the month January was I on time to work. I live somewhere where I can get the 17, 18, 19 -and in the 8AM hour – there are 3 buses that should get me to work on time. I don’t think it’s unreasonable that if I am waiting at 8:05 for a 10 minute bus ride that I should be upset when all three of those buses don’t come/are late and I get to work at 8:45AM. Metro doesn’t think it’s unreasonable either – as these wielded my numerous complaints on the matter. Metro is unreliable and inefficient. Plain and simple. No need bickering about the 17 or the 31 (which IS one of the most reliable routes) on the Interweb. They know it. We know it. You want to pretend that it’s a “luxury” – I can safely assume you’ve got the money and time for Metro to be cost efficient.

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