Our City Online


How much is Columbus Missing Out on Without Rail Transit?

Walker Evans Walker Evans How much is Columbus Missing Out on Without Rail Transit?
Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page

Columbus has regularly been cited as the largest city in the United States with no passenger rail transit service of any kind at all. And yet, despite that fact, our city seems to be doing ok. Urban Analyst Aaron Renn has referred to Columbus as “The New Midwestern Star” and recently stated that Columbus has “been growing at a reasonably rapid clip in both population and jobs, beating the US average significantly, though not measuring up to the Sunbelt boomtowns. Columbus is basically what I mean by the ‘best practices’ city.”

So does Columbus actually need passenger rail service? Aren’t we doing pretty well without it?

“Those are famous last words,” says Art Guzzetti, the Vice President of Policy at The American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

“We’re doing pretty well aren’t we?” he echoes. “That is not a forward-looking approach required to make a community grow. What does Columbus aspire to be as a region in the future, and how can we all observe the trends that are already happening? It’s better to figure out how we can skate to where the puck is going.”

Guzzetti hopes that some of the answers can be found in a new report released this month by APTA that showcases new information about the economic impact of public transportation investments. He’ll be speaking today as a special guest at a Columbus Metropolitan Club luncheon focused the ROI of public transit.

“This report was intended to be a new benchmark for a new way of monetizing the impact of transit projects and investments,” explains Guzzetti. “In the past it was too often that people were saying that transportation projects would create a certain number of jobs only looking at the construction phase. That’s important, but you can create those kinds of jobs spending money in a lot of different ways. Transit investment does more than that — it sparks development in the community with ongoing, permanent jobs and provides new access and increased productivity. The report puts some new numbers to that.”

The analysis reveals that every $1 billion dedicated to transit spending produces more than $3.7 billion in additional GDP per year after 20 years. That calculation takes into consideration not just the direct investment in transit spending, but also the community’s productivity gains from a reduction in automobile traffic, business access to a larger labor market and talent pool as well as other factors.

“Columbus has been trending positive in so many ways,” says Guzzetti. “It’s a state capital, a university town, and a city that’s growing — it has a lot going for it, but how can you keep working on making the city appealing in the future? Public transit has to be a part of that future because the needle is moving in that direction all around the country.”

Additional reports from APTA back up Guzzetti’s claims with a variety of findings:

The “Millennials & Mobility: Understanding the Millennial Mindset” report states that 40% of Millennials feel the need to be digitally connected during travel, 46% state that their need to save money drives their transportation choices and 35% say they live in a community where it makes sense to use transit.

The “A New Partnership: Rail Transit and Convention Growth” report finds a direct relation between airport-based rail transit services and convention center competitiveness. Hotel performance in cities with rail connections are 10% higher than “non-rail” cities, and hotels within close proximity to rail stations have a 12.5% higher occupancy rate and 50% higher room rates.

The “New Real Estate Mantra – Location Near Public Transportation” study shows that unsurprisingly, properties all across the US that are in close proximity to transit stops outperform their regions as a whole by over 41%.

“I spend a lot of time looking at cities, but it’s not my place to specifically say a Streetcar would be right for Columbus,” says Guzzetti when asked about the previously proposed local system. “Streetcars have worked well in other markets, but its up to the community to decide. I do know there is a visioning process coming forward, and I hope that’s the opportunity for Columbus to come up with a long range plan to spark economic development and create a vibrant community for younger generations.”

To read the full “Economic Impact of Public Transportation Investment” report from APTA, CLICK HERE (PDF).

For more information about the Columbus Metropolitan Club luncheon, visit www.columbusmetroclub.org.

Print Friendly


  • DexRider

    Unfortunately, the scourge and divisiveness of the the politics of funding rail and urban transportation far outweigh the benefit that the city could realize. We live in a “I’ve got my car” region …..

    • Guzzetti makes the very point in the article that it’s short sighted to build for the needs of today without looking to the future. Both Millennials and Baby Boomers are saying they want improved transit systems. Build for their preferences in another 5-10-15 years or they’ll move somewhere else where they can find what they’re looking for.

  • My car has been in the shop for more than 2 weeks now, and I’ve been figuring out that our public transit system is lacking. It took me between an hour and fifteen minutes to an hour and a half to get to Easton from the University district. That’s a fifteen minute drive or less!

    I also got stuck out in Reynoldsburg with no option but to call a cab to get home. I think COTA does it’s best with what it’s got, but it seems like a 2-3 hour commute each day for people without other options is kind of ridiculous.

  • I think talking about rail vs bus misses the point. Columbus needs higher frequency and higher speed transit service to more places for more hours a day. It’s about facilitating density to create vibrant places and providing freedom of mobility without owning a personal car. Once the buses are coming every 5 minutes and are standing room only, then you need to think about the capacity enhancements that come with rail. In the meantime I think Columbus would benefit from something like what Houston is doing: http://streetsblog.net/2014/05/12/the-plan-to-transform-houston-transit-without-spending-a-dollar-more/

  • Getting rail transit is almost like getting a union card or a 4 year degree. It lets you get your foot in the door and get in the minds of people wondering about whether or not to move here because they’re not sure if Columbus is a big and exciting city. Even though we’re growing now, an awful lot of people wouldn’t even consider moving here because of things we don’t have (e.g. rail transit, etc.). Also, I don’t think it’s a good idea to wait for the density to increase before doing rail because from what I’ve been reading, it seems like rail stimulates density by increasing housing and other development near it. Also, I think Houston has rail transit doesn’t it?

  • Roger, this is exactly what I am talking about. Columbus needs a stronger purpose and need. Building a train to join the train club is not a good reason to build a train. Build a train because the demand is there to make it a more cost effective way to move large numbers of people.

    As for the Houston reference, it looks like Columbus is now undertaking the exact type of route restructuring that was done there. Well done COTA!

  • John,

    Hi. I understand your very valid point that it’s not good to build something just because everyone else is doing it, but if I want to do something anyways for my own reasons even if everyone else is doing it, it’s still worthwhile. And, I think doing this particular thing would be a big positive for the city because of its characteristics (induces development by the train stops, reduces car traffic and the need to build more and more highways, etc.) in addition to being in the train club. Plus, if a train went down 315/Olentangy area, I’d be happy to take it to work. But, being in the train club is also a big positive in that it will help people overcome their view of Columbus as a nowhere, boring place so that they’d be willing to move here. That pays dividends in the long run. If I have a high school diploma, I’m more likely to get a job interview even if I don’t really need it for a particular job. Also, on the demand/density thing, it kind of seems like the chicken and the egg thing. Demand/density and train stops/mass transit kind of feed off each other it seems like. But, I admit that we are still a vibrant city, for now, without a train so who knows?!


  • orcaman42

    What you’re all missing out on with the idea of “rail” transportation, isn’t just a matter of going from one side of town to the other quickly. Where you make money on your rail service is when you integrate multiple cities public transportation systems together. In this day and age in other cities with rail, it’s nothing to jump on a train have lunch in Cincinnati, dinner in Cleveland & back to Columbus for an evening show while being connected to wifi for free the entire trip. Is your co-worker from Dayton? Cool, did they come in this morning? What about your hairdresser, from Athens…. Having rail isn’t just about a city keeping to itself. It’s about being able to easily connect into other cities as well. A day trip out of town so the kids can go to the Columbus Aquarium becomes much easier. Again, In my humble opinion this is where Columbus should be now, while debating now if the want to expand into Chicago in 10 years, Toronto, Pittsburg & more. Other cities & states already have such systems in place up & running TODAY. As it stands New Mexico’s “rail runner” is already contemplating connecting into BART in California & Colorado’s system as well. These things are large & take time to build, but if Columbus doesn’t get off its ass it’ll miss the boat. Light rail over High St would be a great start, all the way through campus. Rail can also take the weight off of the busses so they’re not as full, freeing them up to serve those in the suburbs more frequently while cutting exhaust fumes downtown.

  • Urban.InFill

    When I chose to move to Columbus in 2000 I did so because a better public transit system was said to have been in the works. It was a deciding factor.

    Over a decade later it was still being discussed, but not much had changed. Frankly, I got tired of waiting for something that I felt was an essential part of the way I wanted to live. I moved away.

    A little over three years in Chicago and I haven’t driven once since leaving Columbus. With trains that run every 2-3 minutes during rush hour, express bus service at my front door, and in a high-density neighborhood, things are easily accessible.

    With lower property taxes and the lack of an automobile, I’m saving about $10,000 a year – providing a better standard of living than I’ve had in a long time.

    • In the past three years in Columbus, we’ve added car2go, cogo, lots of new bike infrastructure, bus lines, lyft, uber and other options. You could probably be going car-free here at this point too. ;)

metro categories