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Study Recommends Dense Development, Better Transit for Five Corridors

Brent Warren Brent Warren Study Recommends Dense Development, Better Transit for Five CorridorsThe West Broad Street corridor — Photo by Walker Evans.
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Nearly five years ago, the Insight 2050 initiative helped to shine a light on the challenges that Central Ohio will face as a predicted one million new people move into the region.

Today, with growth continuing at its highest rate yet — about 120 people are moving into the region every day — a new study has been released that provides a strategy for managing that growth.

If the Insight 2050 study asked the question, “can we stop the sprawl?” the just-released Corridor Concepts study provides an answer; “yes, but we have to change the way we do things, and we have to act fast.”

The Columbus region could accommodate more than half of the predicted growth by adding denser development and faster, more reliable transit options along just five of its major corridors. In order for that to actually happen, though, the many different jurisdictions in the region will need to cooperate, zoning and land use policies will need to change, and a major push will be needed to carve out space along each of the corridors for “high-capacity transit.”

The five corridors examined in the study are:

  • East Main Street: SR 256 to Downtown Columbus
  • Northeast: Polaris Parkway to Downtown Columbus
  • Northwest: US 33 at Post Rd./Frantz Rd. to Downtown Columbus
  • Southeast: Rickenbacker International Airport to Downtown Columbus
  • West Broad Street: Norton Rd. to Downtown Columbus

“These are good representative samples, out of probably ten (corridors) we could have studied,” explained Yaromir Steiner, the founder and CEO of Steiner + Associates and the co-chair of the Corridor Concepts initiative, along with City Council President Shannon Hardin. “Even just those five could absorb 50 to 60 percent of our future growth – saving woods and forests and farms – and that would (also) increase the tax revenue by three times per acre.”

The final report, which was officially unveiled today, goes into great detail about the financial, environmental, and general quality of life benefits of focusing growth along existing corridors.

Steve Schoeny, the Development Director for the City of Columbus, said that it’s important to realize that those financial benefits extend to ordinary people – when more workers can easily get to job centers without owning or relying on a car, that creates what amounts to a pay raise for thousands of people.

Transportation options, traffic congestion, and access to jobs are also big issue for companies looking to locate or expand in the region.

“Companies look at the Columbus region and they say ‘what are the long term risks for us as an employer?'” said Schoeny. “Because at the end of the day, our most important input to our process is our people… and if you never know what’s going to happen on the road network, and the road network is the only thing we have to rely on, yeah, that’s a long term risk that the companies are going to take into account.”

“So this is not just about looking to manage growth,” he added, “but also dealing with what now is a real and present danger to our economic competitiveness.”

The study does not assume that most people in the region will give up their cars and switch to riding the bus or walking everywhere. Under the “focused growth trajectory,” the projected transit use for people who live within one of the corridors is eight percent (compared to one and a half percent under the “current trajectory” model). But even that relatively small change in mode share would mean a significant reduction in vehicle miles travelled for the entire region.

Similarly, the density that is recommended for the corridors is not extreme – the corridors will not be developed with skyscrapers, but with a mix of mid-rise buildings, a variety of housing types, commercial businesses, and even industrial uses.

One big question that is not answer by the Corridor Concepts report, though, is exactly what form the recommended “high-capacity transit” should take.

That’s an issue that the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) will lead on, according to President and CEO Joanna Pinkerton.

“What’s really important at this point is that we all acknowledge a fundamental shift to high capacity,” she said, which means committing to providing physical space along each of the corridors that is dedicated to transit instead of single occupancy cars. “We cannot afford the current model, and it’s unfair to place such a significant cost burden on the individual household.”

Although the report lists several different transit options as possibilities, it does not appear that light rail will be a top priority moving forward. Included on the corridors map is an abandoned rail line running roughly parallel to Cleveland Avenue – which could be used if it proves difficult to obtain right of way along the street – but Pinkerton seems to be squarely focused on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which she said will become an even more attractive option as the technology supporting it improves.

The development of COTA’s CMAX line along Cleveland Avenue — the first BRT line implemented in Columbus — has led to an increase in ridership, she said, even without running in its own dedicated lane.

“We have already invested in Bus Rapid Transit here, and we’re seeing significant improvements… utilizing the existing road and our existing fleet, which was retrofitted to have connected vehicle technology,” Pinkerton said. “And we see communities that are investing in Bus Rapid Transit five and ten fold at the rate we are, and they’re having great success.”

“The mode (of transit) itself will have to be determined based on the cost and technology, and (by) the revenue streams and incentives that are decided by the community,” she added.

COTA has been working with the City of Columbus on a series of tactical urbanism projects, one of which is a temporary dedicated bus lane on West Broad Street. Several of those projects are now scheduled to be rolled out this summer and will serve as test cases, used both to gather data and to bring attention to transit solutions that could eventually be implemented on a larger scale.

William Murdock, Executive Director of the Mid Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC), said that starting with something like BRT – rather than rail – would allow for more corridors to be developed at the same time, and for them to be built much more quickly.

“There’s an urgency to get in front of growth, and at the same itme, there’s only so much federal resources and state resources, so… not only do we need to do it, we need to do it quickly, and that lends itself to what can we afford, what’s efficient to do right now,” he said. “If you look at something like… high capacity rail, those are expensive, really lengthy projects.”

“Some of these corridors don’t have the density to support transit right now,” added Murdock. “So if we’re getting the right of way and we’re introducing, say, Bus Rapid Transit, and (the corridors) start to densify because we can move lots of people quickly, that might lend itself to other types of transit along the corridor as we go.”

The entire Corridor Concepts report can be viewed here.

Additional Reading:

Shannon Hardin on Development, Transit & the Densification of Columbus

Interview: COTA CEO Joanna Pinkerton

Interview: Easton Developer Yaromir Steiner

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