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Transit Columbus to City: Don’t Skip Rail in Pursuit of Driverless Cars

Brent Warren Brent Warren Transit Columbus to City: Don’t Skip Rail in Pursuit of Driverless CarsConceptual composite image by Walker Evans.
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As recently as a year ago, it appeared that the stars were finally aligning (albeit slowly) for those hoping to see some sort of rail transit in Columbus. COTA’s NextGen initiative was laying out “premium transit corridors,” the city’s Connect Columbus plan was floating the idea of an underground light rail line through the Short North, and a proposal to connect Columbus to Chicago via high-speed rail continued to attract attention.

Then, the release of the recommendations from the NextGen and Connect Columbus plans was delayed, and the city appeared to be shifting its resources to the pursuit of the US Department of Transportation’s Smart City Grant, with its focus on new technology like driverless vehicles.

The business community rallied around the Smart City grant in a way that it never had for more traditional transit initiatives, leading many to wonder if the push for rail in Columbus was losing steam.

Columbus was named the Smart City winner in June, and the recently-released final application for the grant lays out a vision for the future of transit in the city that explicitly excludes rail:

The City of Columbus plans to leap-frog fixed rail through enhanced connections to transit and First Mile/Last Mile services. The City and its partners consider their bus-based mass transit system to be an opportunity to demonstrate emerging mobility solutions at a lower cost and with greater flexibility than a fixed-rail infrastructure.

Advocacy group Transit Columbus has now pushed back, starting a petition that implores the city and COTA to keep light rail, bus rapid transit (BRT), and streetcars on the table.

In an email to Columbus Underground, Transit Columbus board members laid out their argument:

Being a smart city means more than embracing driverless cars, it means investing in making Columbus a city focused on moving people. Being a smart city means building a city that is walkable and embracing a future that is people focused, not one that embraces a new era of sprawl and congestion.

The board members were quick to clarify that they support efforts to plan for new technologies, and hope that the awarding of the Smart City grant is the beginning of a broader conversation about transportation in Columbus.

The people of Columbus want transportation options, and we will need public options that will create and honor the dense, walkable future Columbus residents want. Columbus has an opportunity to leapfrog its peers by investing in a holistic transportation system that is driven by data, not by abandoning high capacity transit. We know that no one transportation solution will help us accommodate the coming growth in population, it must be an ‘all in’ solution. The future of our city is riding on the choices we make now. Will we succumb to a new era of non-sustainable sprawl or will we pick a new direction, one of people friendly, walkable development that is anchored by a multimodal transportation system that embraces the best technologies of every mode?

The group’s petition, which was posted Friday night, has cleared its goal of 1,000 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.

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  • MysteryMeat

    We need to get the rest of the city involved in rail. Everytime I hear anything about rail the short north is mentioned.We really need to focus on connecting THE REST of the city with each other and not just shipping transplants up and down high street.

  • snowabode

    Short distance rail is permanent and not often conducive to the long term flexibility needed by developing urban areas. If a route needs to change based upon demand, it can’t. The track requires neighborhood displacement, is noisy and dangerous. Also, rail’s been made prohibitively expensive compared almost every other form and the financial process is ripe for abuse.
    Rail from the East Coast through Columbus and from Cleveland through Columbus makes more sense to me.
    We need only look at how many other cities have experienced the pain and expense, indeed the train wreck, of events that favor rail over creative thinking and planning.

    • LutherZBlissett

      The balance is always one of flexibility versus commitment. If you don’t commit on the ground in long-term ways, then you don’t get the kind of development that reinforces transit because people and businesses can’t trust that the transit options will be there in a year, or two years, or five years.
      Neighborhood displacement’s a genuine issue: we have so many examples of urban interstates that dispersed and destroyed long-established and coherent communities, usually ones of color. But “flexibility” is too often an excuse to nickel-and-dime plans — BRT without dedicated lanes or priority or station-like stops quickly ends up just “buses”. You have to commit on the ground.

    • Keep in mind that rail done right can serve as a development tool for dense development. Routes don’t need to change, because they spur new development around stops, rather than drive it away in the long term:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transit-oriented_development

    • Mike Beaumont

      Rail is not dangerous. It is far safer than driving. It is one of the safest forms of transportation that exists.

  • Capon

    If the residents of Columbus and its surrounding communities favor rail services, then it should be done right. Limiting runs from the short north to and from the heart of downtown is so short sighted. Runs linking populated areas inluding the airport needs to be considered as well. Ask the residents, show a few suggested routes, reach out for their input and I’ll bet getting approval and funding won’t be as difficult as previously anticipated.

  • RepubAnon

    Ignoring proven technologies while investing in new, unproven, “bleeding edge” technologies isn’t what I’d call “smart.” Imagine if, in the 1960s, we’d spent lots of money planning for flying cars, jet packs, and monorails?

    It’s always a good idea to prepare for possible future technologies – so long as one remembers that those technologies are only “possible.” What if self-driving cars turn out not to be practical? What if they can’t move people any faster than regular cars, and all they do is let commuters read the paper while stuck in traffic?

    • CB_downtowner

      Well, I think it’s different because in this case we get investment we wouldn’t otherwise get. It’s not like we chose this over rail. We chose it over nothing. But it’s intriguing to consider smart cars not as a substitute to rail, but as a complement. I wouldn’t want smart cars competing with cars and uber on the highway, and I haven’t gotten the sense that’s being proposed. But what if it helps improve access to mass transit? What if it helps build the case for a cheaper, more efficient rail where smart cars can improve connectivity?

  • PMurch

    I don’t think light rail is a good idea. It’s expensive to install, inefficient, and not sustainable. There will be constant accidents between trains and cars. Traffic will also be impeded if road lanes are removed. There is a reason rail went out of style 60 years ago.

    This might sound a bit off the wall but a much better option is monorail. It’s cheaper to build and doesn’t have grade crossings or take road lanes away. It’s an entirely separate system thats cheaper to operate, more efficient, and quieter. You need to get people from where they are to where they want to be quick and cheap.

    Downtown to OSU is some of the most densely populated land in Ohio. You need density for mass transportation to work. Thats why people talk about that run as the first one that should be built. DT to the airport should be second, then up Cleveland Ave the third.

    Take the money that would be spent on those bus routes and use it as funding for construction then operation of the trains.

    Taxes are already high enough in this town, it’s doubtful you will get more funding from residents.

  • halfkidding

    You just as well give up the fight against smart driver-less cars. This is a fight that cannot be won because everyone who is anyone, the smart, the connected, the successful people are in total agreement that they are the future.

    Here is a simple test. Are you highly skeptical of driver less cars and willing to say so publicly. If so then your not a ‘success’ and never will be. If you hope to be a success then get behind driver-less cars. Heck, you could make some money at it too.

    I mean trains? Trains and mass transit are for losers. Get with it folks.

  • ED

    No one I have ever talked to has mentioned that they want a driveless car, and this is in a metro (Cincinnati) where there’s a Tesla dealership and a few on the road.

    There’s no great public demand for wholesale adoption of driverless cars, it’s just the auto and tech industries repackaging an existing product to make money in a new way, with the Feds and union democrats subsidizing auto research for support as they always have.

  • John Schneider

    The value of any transportation system is its permanence, not its flexibility. Think about it.

  • Eugene_C

    Anyone who got caught up in that major cluster last week the day the State Fair opened, realizes that more autonomous cars aren’t going to solve the traffic issues.

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