Two years ago, Columbus’s biggest transportation claim to fame may have been that it was the largest U.S. city without rail transit.
But since then, the Ohio capital has been on a roll. In mid-2016, Columbus won the U.S. DOT and Vulcan’s Smart City Challenge, which is pumping about $50 million into transforming it into a place now commonly referred to as “Smart Columbus.”
The city’s large student population, mostly at The Ohio State University, regularly takes sustainable transportation options. But Columbus’s workforce hadn’t gotten the memo by the latest commuter data of 2016, when more than 80 percent still drove alone.
Part of my own takeaway on public transportation, after visiting this week for the excellent Association for Commuter Transportation’s Emerging Mobility Summit, was that Columbus has a lot of promise.
The High Street bus lines that run constantly (including the free CBus circulator) could drive major economic improvement and a vibrancy to the downtown corridor similar to places like Arlington, Va., and Curitiba, Brazil. The buses already have excellent real-time-arrival signage. The next step will be getting more people to ride the buses all the time, not a small task.
But there is a lot of hope in Columbus.
When recently confronted with what seems like a downtown parking shortage, city leaders banded together to come up with the atypical solution of not building more parking lots. With businesses vacating the downtown and moving to the suburbs where parking is plentiful, a private business-improvement group convinced its 550 members to pay for free mass-transit passes for their 43,000 or so employees, with the fees going to the Central Ohio Transit Authority.
It will be fascinating to see if the plan can lift the paltry number of 6 percent of downtown workers currently taking transit.
(Take a look at our article back in 2015 noting that free passes is not a strategy to scoff at.)
The Smart City Challenge should be helpful in spurring the plan along, perhaps both financially and in terms of boosting the image of transit for city residents and workers.
“This money is not just a transaction. It represents a change in our community. We believe it is a tipping point for Columbus,” said Jordan Davis, the director of Smart Columbus, during a panel discussion at the ACT conference.
She also noted that Columbus is “the fastest-growing city in the Midwest.” And while traffic congestion isn’t necessarily a huge problem, with all those people arriving and with such high drive-alone rates, it could increasingly become an issue.
To address it head on, Smart Columbus has begun an Accelerator Partner program to get the commitments of employers to change out their fleets to electric vehicles and provide workplace charging stations but also to “change our culture of commuting in Columbus,” Davis said.
Among the early goals the program has set to accomplish by the end of 2020 for reducing drive-alone trips:
- Single-occupant trips to large workplaces will decrease by 10 percent.
- 50 companies will offer mobility benefit packages to their employees, and
- 150 “ride and drive” events, which include test drives in electric vehicles, will be held.
Davis said many of the city’s companies have never done surveys to understand their commuter footprints and behaviors.
“We found early on that companies can get hung up on questions of how hard it is to do this, so we want to get them acting quickly [by contributing to them] a nominal amount of money to get them started. The goal is to create an internal accountability and then get them to invest in their own goals and get to longer-term goals,” she added.
And as David Williams, dean of Ohio State’s engineering school noted, also at the ACT conference, if any place can help turn around the U.S.’s longstanding drive-along culture, it might as well be Columbus.
He said “all this comes down to” is having “a smart operating system that is all built on data.” To walk that talk, the engineering school has recently hired a whopping 65 faculty staff to deal with data in addition to the 60 it already had on the data beat.
In general, Williams quipped, “There’s a change of culture that is going to be required to prepare us for autonomous vehicles. The current generation is far better equipped to deal with those issues than my generation is.”
For other good takes on Columbus’s growing role as a transportation leader, check out these articles by Streetsblog (on transit ridership levels), CityLab (on Millennial hotbeds), and TransitCenter (on how important route design is for transit).