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How the Downtown Action Plan will Change Columbus: Part 3

Walker Evans Walker Evans How the Downtown Action Plan will Change Columbus: Part 3
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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 or CLICK HERE to jump back to Part Two.

WE: I’ve heard some people ask sarcastically that if we add new parking meters to High Street do we expect new retailer to just magically show up? Though if you consider the opposite scenario where we removed all of the parking meters from High Street in the Short North, would the retailers there magically disappear? It probably would, as many of those business depend upon those meters.

RB: Of course they do. I think the question about having peak hour restrictions is also a good one. Over 100,000 employees that work Downtown, many of whom live elsewhere. We’d like them to live Downtown, but the fact is that many of them commute to work. That’s typically between 7-9am and 4-6pm. We do need the ability to get them in and out of Downtown while maintaining acceptable levels of service to buses. The buses are vehicles and they have to negotiate in and amongst the other vehicles. If the buses can’t maintain their schedule, COTA is suffering and their riders are suffering. Particularly the riders that have to make those transfers happen. It’s like missing a plane at an airport. We all know what that feels like. We don’t want folks missing bus transfers. We don’t want them late to work or late to home either.

WE: You mentioned earlier looking at cities that are ahead of us or behind us doing these types of transportation initiatives. I think it’s really easy to get caught up looking at the cities that are ahead of us — cities such as Portland — and asking why can’t we be more like them. We don’t examine enough the other cities that are either in the same boat or behind us, which there are many, just to know that we’re not alone. These situations don’t seem to be uniquely Columbus.

In a post titled ‘Streets with no cars’ on StrongTowns.org blog, one of the founders was walking and exploring Kansas City during a conference visit. He found a lot of wide streets, a lot of one-way streets, but zero traffic outside of rush hour. He went out around lunch time, they went out again in the evening. He took a photo of himself “dangerously” standing out in the middle of the road. As I originally read this article I thought that you could almost replace Kansas City with Columbus. So I snapped a quick photo of Broad Street on a Monday at 9am, toward the end of rush hour:

It’s not that bad. I don’t think we’re going to create gridlock by reducing a lane or two.

RB: We’re heading in the direction — of being comfortable removing lanes. We’re going to be able to use these outside lanes. How we use them though is a choice that the city needs to make – is it for on-street parking, is it for bike lanes, is it for a combination? I think those are components of the question that was asked by that 2010 Strategic Plan — which says we want to accommodate the walkers, the bikers, and more parking too because we know parking helps calm the streets too. So it’s not just a question of volume, it’s also a factor of speed like we talked before.

WE: So essentially, the Downtown Action Plan is primarily about transportation.

RB: There are also land use suggestions…

WE: Ha! Well, I feel like all we’ve talked about is transportation!

RB: Well, that’s what we do every day. I think the Downtown Action Plan provides an exciting vision for further transformation of Downtown. If you look at Downtown from space, it’s big. We have one of the biggest Downtowns geographically, and we have a very spread out Downtown. While we have some great pockets such as the Gay Street corridor, Franklin Avenue over by I-71, and we’re creating more pockets with projects like the RiverSouth District and by adding the residential and retail at Columbus Commons. We’re looking to transform the land uses that abut these streets, so the streets need to be changed as well.

High Street is first up. We’re going to see meters on High Street Downtown before Christmas. That is a major signal -pun intended- of change for the city. Next year we’re going to see changes to Front and Marconi and later Broad Street. After that, it’s a little less clear on terms of timing, but we know that after this winter we’re going to have better ideas about the rest of the streets the rest of the one-way pairs Downtown.

As traffic engineers, if we could convert Spring and Long to two-way and Third and Fourth to two-way, where do they stop? You have to interface somewhere a one-way to two-way conversion. Think about how Spring and Long west of Front Street would look because converting those to two-way would be very difficult because of the way things are aligned. We’d have to change things dramatically and that might involve railroad bridges and other things like that. I think a lot of constituents don’t understand that railroads have rights that some even supercede the rights of municipalities if the railroads were there first.

A view of Long Street looking East from Downtown, currently configured as one-way.

Also, there’s ODOT to consider of course. If we had a two-way Third and Fourth Streets that went two-way over I-670, those highway ramp interchanges would have to change dramatically from what they are today. How much does that cost, how can it be budgeted, how does it look, and what impacts would it have on say, Italian Village?

A lot of folks want Fourth and Summit to go two-way, but where would the two-way stop, at least temporarily until interchanges are rebuilt? If we could phase things in, what impact is that going to have on Italian Village residents? At some point, if a one-way has to meet a two-way, like where Main Street does at Grant Avenue, then the traffic gets distributed differently. How acceptable is that temporary situation going to be to folks that are going to live on that street that are going to see a dramatic increase in that cross traffic between the new two-way streets?

We’re looking at those questions right now in Franklinton with the two-way conversion of Rich and Town. It doesn’t look possible in the short term that we will be able to have a two-way Rich and Town underneath 315. There just doesn’t seem to be enough space for us to get two-way traffic underneath there with the way the bridges are today. That’s a weird interchange there. ODOT of course has a big say in what happens at freeway interchanges because they’re federal routes. Whenever the feds are involved, they dictate to the state and to the cities what is acceptable and what’s not acceptable.

A view of West Town Street through Franklinton, currently configured as one-way.

One thing that I’ve learned in my years of working in transportation is that if we make an improvement on a city street that causes backups onto a freeway, that’s a red flag for the state and certainly for the Federal Highway Administration. Most drivers don’t expect backups onto freeways most of the time. Especially in Columbus where we have it pretty good for our levels of service for traffic. So those backups increase hazards to motorists.

In fact, ODOT is looking right now at these pinch points on local streets that are right off of freeways to see how they can improve the freeway safety and prevent rear-end accidents. Case in point is Sawmill Road. There are pinch points north-bound on Sawmill north of I-270. So ODOT is looking to see how they can work with the city to relieve those pinch points.

So there’s not only land use and transportation intricately working together, but it’s agencies working together. In this region you have ODOT, the City of Columbus, and Franklin County who maintains a lot of bridges. You also have the suburbs and we have COTA. So there’s a lot of coordination that goes on. And that’s just the professionals coordination. There’s also the need to coordinate with communities and interface with the public. We want to make sure that the decision makers are making decisions in an informed fashion. Public involvement is very important to our planning and to our project design. We’re out there meeting with the public regularly. Talking with you I think is part of that. You have folks that read Columbus Underground and they contribute ideas. We could all be more informed by sharing information because we don’t have all of the answers. We have to be fact based and fact driven, but we also have to deal with perceptions — that’s just human nature. If there are perceptions out there that are not fact based, I think it’s our job as professionals to make sure that the correct information is provided. So we appreciate the opportunity to meet with you, so we can give you information and also get information feedback too.

WE: Randy, thanks again for taking the time today to discuss the Downtown Action Plan.

RB: My pleasure!

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