How the Downtown Action Plan will Change Columbus: Part 2
The interview below is part two in a series where we discuss the transit and land use projects outlined in the Downtown Action Plan with Randy Bowman, the Division of Mobility Options Administrator at the Columbus Department of Public Service. CLICK HERE to jump back to Part One.
Walker Evans: So once North Front Street and Marconi Boulevard are converted to two-way in 2013, we should see work begin on narrowing Broad Street next?
Randy Bowman: The conversion of Broad Street is a priority, particularly the section adjacent to the LeVeque Tower. Then, after Broad Street, we need to coordinate with ODOT. They are starting to look at the design of the bridges that carry Third, Fourth, Front and High Streets over the south highway trench and they are asking us how wide those bridges need to be. Just like when they were designing the Spring and Long Street bridges. We asked ourselves if the bridges going to be wide enough to convert Spring and Long to two-way if we can do that in the future. We want to preserve that ability. So we’re looking at the same thing here with Third and Fourth — can we, should we, could we, convert Third and Fourth to two-way? And then, how wide do they need to be? Once those bridges are designed, it’s really hard to go back. We’re trying to plan forward with ODOT as they’re trying to schedule out the rest of that work.
Walker Evans: That’s interesting that you mention both Spring & Long and Third & Fourth as they’re often mentioned by Columbus Underground readers conversion suggestions.
RB: That’s one thing that we’re doing with the Downtown Action Plan. How would Third and Fourth look if we could convert them to two-way? Could we convert Spring and Long to two-way? We’ve said that we need to see how traffic reacts once Spring and Long are reopened over the freeway. We’ll let traffic settle down, but we’re already updating our traffic model to account for the changes in the land use expectations from the Downtown Action Plan and getting our ducks in a row so we can calibrate our traffic predictions to how drivers are truly reacting to our changes.
What we’re doing right now is looking at every existing current Downtown one-way street and asking ourselves how it looks now and how it looks both for the interim and as well as long term for two-way convertibility. And while we’re converting to two way, what about maintaining on-street parking for businesses and introducing bike lanes or bike accommodations? Can we accomplish all of these things, or do we need to have to make some choices? We’re also looking at traffic calming because so many people complain about how fast people drive through Downtown.
We really want people to drive the speed limit, or even less. We need to introduce some on-street parking, introduce bike lanes, narrow lanes down from 12 feet to 11 feet or maybe even a little less. We know those things tend to slow down drivers. Or at least most reasonable drivers. There’s always going to be the outliers that don’t care.
WE: I think Gay Street is a perfect example of slowing traffic by adding other elements to the road such as narrower lanes, on-street parking and median dividers. You can’t drive more than 15 miles an hour on Gay Street without feeling like you’re being reckless. Just because of the built environment, and not the posted speed limit.
RB: But still, you and I both walk, drive it, bike it, and we still see those outlier drivers that don’t care.
WE: Sure. But on a street like Front Street or Third and Fourth, every car is going 45 miles an hour.
RB: It does feel very fast.
WE: And you see the safety ramifications with that, especially on Third and Main where Zettler is currently closed because their building was crashed into, and Third and Long where the Flaxella Cafe was crashed into by a taxi, which is still also closed. Those are both wide and speedy intersections of one-way streets.
RB: I think drivers are also more impatient, and they certainly seem to be more distracted. That doesn’t help the situation.
WE: You mentioned working with ODOT to make sure the connectivity over the street-level bridges over the highways are in place. What is the role of the Downtown Action Plan in interfacing with the near-Downtown neighborhoods?
RB: I think the plan sets a clear expectation that we want the bridges to be welcoming and not barriers to connectivity. I’ve been working for the city of Columbus for over eleven years. From Day One, as soon as ODOT said they’re going to start this highway project, the city said that we need to heal the visual impacts of the freeway that make it feel like a moat around Downtown. It separates Downtown from the abutting neighborhoods. We’ve got to a better job with these new bridges that are going to be built so that people feel like they can walk and bike across safely and feel that they’re not an afterthought.
For so many decades post-Eisenhower, the car was number one. That was the American Dream. The American Dream is changing. Mayor Coleman is calling it a “Transportation Transformation”. Other people have used different monikers, but it’s all about getting people out of their cars. Walking, biking, being healthier and being more active. Taking life a little slower and being less distracted. Realizing you have neighbors. Realizing that there’s a business right there that you could shop at and get a couple of things rather than hopping in the car and going to a super-retail destination. Buying local, using less gas… all those things that make up an effective transportation system, that allows people to experience their neighborhoods, meet their neighbors, and meet their neighboring businesses.
Since the I-670 cap was installed on High Street, I alone have talked with numerous government officials, city engineers and service directors from around the world and so many of them were so interested in the cap. You have to realize that the highway trench there is narrower than before I-670 was rebuilt, but it was hazardous and uninviting. Now we have these buildings where you don’t even know you’re dining or entertaining with friends over a freeway. It’s amazing. Of course, not every bridge can be capped, or should be capped. I think we saw some turnover with the retail tenants on the 670 cap and there was evolution of the types of businesses that could really be sustained in that location. I don’t know what all of the influences are, maybe it’s parking, maybe it’s some other things, but some of the early retail came and went. I think right now it seems to be pretty stable with the land uses that are there.
So land use, again, is directly impacted by what transportation choices are made. And vice-versa too. We do want to look at every one-way street and ask ourselves if it can support two-way traffic safely without creating gridlock. I mean, we currently don’t see much gridlock in Columbus. We’re very blessed with a transportation system that has excess capacity in many locations. I think that’s a fear that we find when we meet with the public about our planning for transportation. Are we trying to preserve the level of service that we have today — meaning that you can get around freely and easy — or are we trying to plan for what we see in the future, as more buildings come online, and as more people work and live Downtown? We have excess capacity at many locations and we’re not planning to preserve that kind of capacity for the future. We’re ratcheting down the expectations for how free flowing traffic is. Mind you, we’re not going to extreme where we plan to have gridlock everywhere, but we’re not planning to be able to drive down the street with tumbleweeds blowing.
WE: I think there’s an interesting infrastructure comparison to make between Downtown Columbus and Easton Town Center. Easton has these large artery roads surrounding it, but all of the roads leading through it are very narrow. I’m sure they probably handle a pretty decent amount of traffic and it can even be a bit of a cluster during the holidays, but people still go there to shop, dine and be entertained. Easton visitors will put up with the inconvenience of needing to circle around the parking garage to get a spot because there are destinations there worth the work. Do you think the same thing could be applied to Downtown if we utilize more smaller streets but still handle larger levels of traffic?
RB: I think that’s the direction we’re heading. I’m not going to say that every street in Downtown is going to look like a narrow Easton street, because the land uses are different. Retail produces different traffic patterns than office buildings do. Understanding that the land uses are different and the densities are different, the question you’re asking is still relevant. Do we need all of this pavement Downtown? Do we need all of these very wide roadways? We’ve been asking as far back as 2002 and the question remains, can we squeeze down our streets while not introducing New York City gridlock?
We have more retail coming in Downtown and we want to woo more. And we want to woo more residential development. Both have needs for on-street parking. So we’re not unlike many other cities that are either ahead of us in implementing more livable streets, or just in the same boat as many cities that are at the same pace as us. We have to look at balancing those needs between bikes, cars, parking and retail. We’ve heard loud and clear from retailers that to be Downtown, it’s very important to them that they have to have parking on their street. I’ve heard time and time again that they need that and they want that.