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Opinion: Columbus Needs to Aspire to Move Our People Better

Stu Nicholson Stu Nicholson Opinion: Columbus Needs to Aspire to Move Our People BetterPhotos by Stu Nicholson.
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It’s unfair to compare two cities like Chicago and Columbus: vastly different in size, population and other ways. But there are things I found in a recent visit to Chicago that Columbus (in its own context) should aspire to, not the least of which is to create a public transportation infrastructure that connects our city with other cities and connects Columbus with all of its neighborhoods and suburbs.

What we saw on the streets of Chicago was a city, county and region where one can easily live car-free if one chooses: trains and subways to almost everywhere, designated bike lanes and an extensive and well-used bike sharing system, and a city that is eminently walkable. We drove to Chicago, but only because there is no train service from Columbus and flying is far too much of a hassle. But when we got there, our Honda CRV sat in the parking garage. We went everywhere either on foot or using public transportation… two baseball games, three museums, restaurants and numerous other attractions (including walking the entire Miracle Mile).


stu-transit-photos-04Clearly, Chicago made decisions that created much of this infrastructure back in the late 19th Century and built it up over the ensuing decades. But Columbus had both a well-integrated streetcar, passenger rail and even an interurban trolley system up through the mid 20th Century. The difference is that we gave up on what we had and allowed it to all but disappear as we supposedly fell in love with the car and the so-called ‘freedom of the open road”.

Chicago faced the same choices, but it stubbornly and rightfully refused to give up on a major part of it’s deep and diverse transportation system. Instead, it invested in what it had and in innovations to make it even better.

Columbus is making strides in that direction with the City of Columbus Bikeways Plan, CoGo Bike Share, a re-energized Central Ohio Transit Authority and development of more walkable, bikeable and transit-friendly neighborhoods. But we need to commit to investing in moving more people by rail: off the highway/street grid.

Cleveland is currently the only city where Ohioans can choose to live car-free and connect to other neighborhoods and cities by rail. Cincinnati is building the first leg of a streetcar system and it’s newly hired Chamber of Commerce CEO is speaking out positively that the city should seek a connection with Chicago and other cities with fast, frequent passenger trains.

Columbus should be getting on track as well. For that matter, so should the rest of Ohio.


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  • stephentszuter

    I’ve been thinking that we need to start looking at an underground metro system, instead of just streetcars and light rail. Contrary to popular belief, Columbus is indeed dense enough, populated enough, and has enough of a need to start a basic underground metro.

    Living car-free is something that I’ve been striving to do in Columbus for a few years now, but unfortunately can’t make that connection to work that I need to in order to live car free. The increasing number of options have been very helpful, and I believe will be a bridge for many to the car-free life in Columbus.

    In regard to the above opinion, I agree wholeheartedly.

    • Displaced Columbusite


      I am a fan of mass transit as a fix for infrastructure concerns and have recently lived in DC where the Metro is terrific; truly makes almost all of DC walkable. Also, I have spent some recent time in central and south Texas (Austin/San Antonio) where there is seemingly none and they build highways higher and higher (not a fan). However, underground metro is prohibitively expensive for a city that doesn’t already have some sort of infrastructure built for it (e.g. DC/NY). That doesn’t mean other avenues are not available, but underground would be an incredibly hard battle to fight.

  • King Gambrinus

    I think Columbus needs better transit options and high speed rail service to other larger cities, but once you start talking about an underground metro the costs become astronomical. New York Cities 2nd Avenue subway phase 1 is two miles of tunnel and three stations and has a budget of $4.45 billion. It’s also expected to serve 200,000 people a day. The full cost of 8.5-mile line is expected to exceed $17 billion. The Cincinnati streetcar is 4.5 miles and has a cost of $102 million. I think we need to walk before we run.

    • stephentszuter

      Sure, makes sense. I guess when the other metros were built, they were preceded by a lot more mass transit than currently exists in Columbus. I just don’t know how much longer I can wait around… :/

      • Well, quit waiting and get busy living. While I certainly would prefer to have improved transit, I don’t feel that Columbus is a city not worth living in without it.

        • stephentszuter

          No, I definitely am having fun living here, but the lack of great transit is something of a hindrance. That’s all I mean…we’re not going to be as competitive as a city with great transit might be.

          What are out next steps in terms of implementing great trandit?…?

          • I agree that it’s a hindrance for the city as a whole, but not necessarily a hinderance for the quality of life for many people.

            Next steps? I don’t know if there are any. Perhaps joining up with Transit Columbus to see what initiative there you can get involved with?

    • Pablo

      I believe the high cost of the NYC project is geology, cost of labor, logistics and the fact that the project is in NYC. I’m not entirely sure that a subway in Columbus would cost as much per mile.

      That said, I’m more for street level activity that a streetcar can create.

      • True, the NYC project probably has some extra expenses tied to it, but even if a subway in Columbus could be built for half the cost… you’re still talking about an insanely expensive project compared to a light rail or streetcar line.

  • Jason Powell

    ^^New politicians and a better, more believable plan.

  • James

    Flying to Chicago on southwest couldn’t be more hassle free. Grab your luggage off the carousel and you can be inside the loop on the orange line in under 30 minutes. No cars. At least on the Chicago end.

  • G_Baker

    I seriously don’t understand why we don’t have a lightrail system. Or at the very least, a better bussing system. With the economy the way it has been, while even on the rise, there are more and more people who rely upon public transportation. In the late 90s and early 00s, people were moving out into the suburbs. But, in the last 3-5 years, more and more are moving back closer to downtown. Heck, when i was in high school in 2001-05, the Short North was still considered a crappy part of town, but it quickly became one of THE places to be. And getting from here to say, Hilliard or Dublin, to see family, is one hell of an annoyance. If anything, there should be easier access to everything within the outerbelt, and not just the east-side, or the hood.

  • peanutnozone

    This is a perennial topic on CU and I agree most of the time when it’s talked about. One thing, however, I don’t understand (and I’m willing to defer to those more knowledgable) is why a streetcar system is something to aspire to. Streetcars, if I’m understanding correctly, are subject to the same whimsy of the traffic that a bus would be. So, what gains are you making? I mean, I’m all for rail, but if you get there at the same speed as a bus, I don’t really see a benefit? If a mode of transportation is to succeed, it should have a notable benefit to other means available. That’s the point, right? To build some form of transportation to make things easier/faster/whatever. Why not have your own right-of-way and have it grade-separated (am I using those terms right?) so that travel times are competitve or supersede that of using a car or bus the same distance?

    In any event, yes, put down some rail in Columbus… I do believe it could support even a modest light-rail or metro system and the rewards would be many.

  • chaserdanger

    I took COTA to work from Merion Village to my office near campus every day on the 8. I even took the dreaded Polaris Express to Polaris once when my car was in the shop.

    I actually left Columbus because I wanted to get rid of my car entirely and wanted a better public transit system that only a bigger city like Chicago– that I live in now.

    That top picture is actually the train stop my office is near. I ride my bike and use the buses and trains.

    Columbus doesnt need an underground- the flat land would help though if it was designed. An elevated or street level light rail system should be designed and implemented, and commuter trains—- (think of a train from Upper Sandusky down to Columbus, — alleviate the traffic that bottlenecks Crosswoods/23/270 from Delaware people– they could come by train. Also vice versa to other outliers- Zanesville, Marysville, Portsmouth) that would then connect to the suburbs and then filter into the downtown core.

  • anillo

    Not really related to the discussion, but the article should say “Magnificent Mile” not “Miracle Mile.”

  • raildiamond

    As a First Timer here, but longtime reader here on
    this site, I am diving in with this passenger rail topic.
    I have know the author for a number of years. Yes
    it is very important to get local/intercity rail up and
    being used in the Columbus area.
    Everyone here has written some good ideas and
    has even shared there rail riding experiences from
    other cities. Transit Columbus is a good group to
    join and work with. But there is another organization
    that is working locally and across all of Ohio. That
    is All Aboard Ohio. We will be meeting locally on
    Saturday June14 from 10:00 am to 12:00 at
    the Grandview Public Library on W First St.
    Please contact me if you need further information.

  • ElissaS

    No doubt moving people better is a key component to Columbus being the world class competitive city it wants to be. Residents of Columbus should have and want more transit choices. That said, projects like passenger rail and light rail take tremendous resources and buy in to implement.

    I’m the chair of Transit Columbus and we are working on moving the conversation towards action. Here’s a link to join a working group on issues like light rail, improving COTA systems, bikeway issues and more. http://www.transitcolumbus.org/good-ideas-columbus/the-future/

    Join us.

  • The Magnificent Mile is in Chicago; the Miracle Mile is in Los Angeles.

  • jpm145

    To follow what chaserdanger said about commuter rail in Columbus. It seems there is already the basic infrastructure for some commuter trains to service Columbus, the suburbs and beyond.

    There is the rail line along the east-west E. Broad St corridor that could service stops in Newark, Pataskala, Waggoner Rd in Reynoldsburg, Blacklick, Whitehall/DSCC, Bexley, East Columbus and into Downtown.

    Then there is the rail line that runs along the US-33E corridor from Logan, Sugar Grove, Lancaster, Carroll, Diley Rd in Pickerington, Canal Winchester, Groveport, Obetz, South Columbus and into Downtown.

    This would require agreements with the rail owners but the basic system is there; no need to aquire new right-of-ways or rail construction. Just add some locomotives, rolling stock and basic station platforms to start (land for stations would need to be aquired). One or two trains a day with one or two cars to start. Maybe one “early” and one “late” train inbound in the morning and the same out bound in the evening.

    Seems one or the other could be set up “relatively” inexpensively as a test/exploration to see if that kind of rail transportation would be supported in Central Ohio.

    I used to drive from Lancaster to Columbus every day. What a pain! Take some of the $48 Million for the future US-33 interchange in Carroll and invest in commuter rail and try to reduce congestion instead of throwing more roads at the problem.

  • stilldreamofcolumbus

    I miss the old columbus,.Union Station..Lazarus..the Union..Lerners, Madisons,.the Joy shop .The Boston Store..Jc Penneys for a short bit..all the dime stores..the shoe stores..restaueants..peanut shop..orange bar..Now we are losing the veterans memorial..

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