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Commuters Have Doubled in Columbus in Past 25 Years

Walker Evans Walker Evans Commuters Have Doubled in Columbus in Past 25 YearsPhoto by Anne Evans.
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Last week, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) released their annual Urban Mobility Scorecard, which provides a detailed look at the latest traffic congestion data all across the United States. While the report didn’t show anything too unusual over last year’s report (slight uptick in congestion all across the US, Columbus still scores fairly average), the data gets a lot more interesting if you’re willing to dig back just a bit further into the past.

Specifically, the year 1989 is an interesting one to compare data with. Even though it was only 25 years ago (from 2014’s data), the Columbus region was a much different place. Back then, the regional population of 855,000 people had a total of 342,000 commuters traveling a total of 13.7 million miles per day on local highways and streets.

Fast forward to 2014, and the region is now home to 1.4 million residents (according to TTI’s regional boundaries) with 740,000 commuters traveling 27.7 million miles per day on local roads and highways. That’s double the number of drivers on the road, and double the amount of driving in the region, with the addition of around 500,000 people — an increase of just 63% in total population.

“It is not surprising that vehicle miles travelled (VMT) has grown faster than population — this is a trend almost everywhere in the world, where motorization growth rates are higher than population growth rates,” explained Harvey Miller, Professor of Geography and Reusche Chair in Geographic Information Science at The Ohio State University. “However, VMT has been leveling off, even declining slightly, in the US. We may be at peak VMT.”

While VMT may be leveling off in the United States a a whole, there’s a different story in rapidly growing cities like Columbus. Conservative estimates from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) indicate that the Columbus metro area is projected to grow by another 515,000 people in the next 35 years, according to their insight2050 study.

“Part of insight2050’s goal is to articulate our region’s growth — both past and future — in a way that the public, local governments, and businesses alike can easily grasp so we can understand growth’s different impacts depending on how the region prepares,” stated MORPC Executive Director William Murdock. “Central Ohio’s steady growth hasn’t been explosive, so it’s easy to miss the significance of its effects because they’re usually incremental. That also means it’s easy for us to be overly modest about our region’s growth. Put simply, a half million more people through 2050 in a 2 million person region could have potentially major impacts on our home. Long-term planning now can position us to turn that growth into a net positive.”

Murdock added that while highway and road expansion projects through the past quarter century have helped keep traffic congestion in Columbus manageable, that old model for growth will not be as effective when planning for the future.

“Although improved intersections and interchanges, some widening of corridors, and intelligent transportation systems will help, that all will be significantly limited by constrained or uncertain funding, higher costs of projects and real estate, and diminishing returns,” he said. “Highways are going to continue to be a major part of our transportation system, so we have to make sure they continue to improve in traffic flow and safety. But as we look at the best return on investment for both moving goods and people, more multimodal options are going to be increasingly important.”

Miller echoed a similar stance on highway expansion, explaining further why future growth will not be able to be accommodated only by additional road capacity.

“Expanding highways generates induced demand: additional demand above and beyond the demand growth it was built to accommodate,” he explained. “So, it is absolutely impossible to build our way out of congestion — expanding highway capacity only induces more travel demand and more congestion.”

The alternative that Miller proposes is to maintain existing highway infrastructure, shifting funding to public transportation and active transportation infrastructure for improved pedestrian and bike access.

We should encourage people to live and jobs to locate in central city neighborhoods or near established suburban nodes such as Downtown Dublin and Gahanna, which requires less travel,” added Miller. “This doesn’t mean that people cannot drive their cars anymore – cars are part of the transportation future. But, we need more balanced transportation systems with a wider range of mobility choices — in other words, a transportation polyculture to replace our current automobile dominated monoculture.”

Miller’s statements align with the proposed and projected outcomes of MORPC’s insight2050 study. If past growth trends continue, the Columbus region would sprawl by an additional 480 square miles (more than triple its current 220 square miles) while the vehicle miles travelled grow to match it. If smart growth patterns are adopted, and the Columbus region focuses inward on developing existing land and neighborhoods, the region could accommodate the 500,000 new residents without a large strain on the existing roadway infrastructure.

“insight2050’s findings showed that slight shifts in development patterns could mean that the vehicle miles traveled today could be about the same in 2050 if we increase focus on infill and redevelopment corridors, and providing more housing choices,” said Murdock. “These types of investments could reduce impacts on health and the environment, stem the loss of prime agricultural land, reduce fiscal strain on both local governments and businesses, and more.”

Of course, smart growth strategies are not unique to Central Ohio, and multi-modal transportation initiatives have already taken root in other growing cities around the US.

Similar regions like Salt Lake City and Charlotte are ahead of us, but we have the luxury of learning from their successes and their mistakes,” said Murdock. “I think our region can be successful with creating new transportation options, but only if we’re very shrewd and strategic about what we build. We need to prioritize investments that give our region a competitive advantage. We need to focus on getting the best return on investment and safety, on improving neighborhoods, equity, and access to employment, and on building a comprehensive system that recognizes both urban and suburban needs. We also need to ensure it accommodates the needs of those who can’t drive, who can’t afford to drive, and who want other options than driving.”

It can be tough to gauge exactly how many people in Central Ohio are looking for additional transportation options outside of opinion polls, as historic data points to low adoption rates for existing alternatives. The US Census reported that as of 2012, only 0.7% of Columbus residents bike to work, while 2.8% walk to work. The American Public Transportation Association reported that bus ridership in Columbus climbed by 3% from 2013 to 2014, but the overall bus commuter rate is still below 10% for the region. So currently, an overwhelming majority of people still make most trips in Central Ohio by car.

“The argument that our automobile monoculture is a natural market outcome resulting from peoples’ choices is not correct — our political processes and funding has created our automobile dominated city through infrastructure investments, single family home mortgage incentives, and exclusionary zoning — it is not a natural market outcome,” said Miller. “It’s like locking a person in a McDonalds and saying ‘see, she likes hamburgers!’ Many people ‘like’ driving only because they have no choice.”

Additional Reading: MORPC’s William Murdock on Planning for Growth in Central Ohio

Additional Reading: COTA’s Curtis Stitt on the Next Generation of Transit in Columbus

Additional Reading: Interview: Jeffrey Tumlin on the Future of Transportation in Columbus

Additional Reading: Light Rail in Columbus? OSU Class Gets Conversation Started Again

The full Insight2050 Scenarios Results Report is available at www.morpc.org.

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