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Interview: Jeffrey Tumlin on the Future of Transportation in Columbus

Brent Warren Brent Warren Interview: Jeffrey Tumlin on the Future of Transportation in ColumbusPhoto via TEDxSacramento TEDxCity2.0 video.
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Columbus Underground readers have likely noticed the name Nelson Nygaard popping up with some regularity in recent months. The transportation planning firm recently worked on the Short North Parking Study, and is currently taking the lead on two major transportation initiatives in Columbus – the city’s multimodal thoroughfare plan (Connect Columbus), and COTA’s upcoming NextGen project.

CU recently spoke with Jeffrey Tumlin, Principal and Director of Strategy for Nelson Nygaard, in advance of his keynote speech at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission’s State of the Region luncheon. Tumlin touched on a number of subjects, including the nature of his firm’s work, the economic upside of bike lanes, and why he thinks Columbus is especially well-positioned to make big changes to its transportation network.

Q: Can you speak a little about the overall philosophy of Nelson Nygaard and how you approach these types of projects generally?

A: We are a transportation planning firm, but I think we’re different than many of our peers in that we look at transportation not as an end in itself, but as an investment strategy that helps places – cities, counties, regions – achieve their larger goals. It goes beyond just mobility, and has profound impacts on public health, real estate values, neighborhood quality of life, social equity, environmental performance metrics and more. And it’s also complicated – we try to help places clarify what their values are, what their goals are, and then look at quantifiable investment and help them make the best choices to achieve their goals.

Q: When I’ve talked to the city’s Department of Public Service recently, they’ve talked about a changing culture here, and their hope that Columbus can be more than just a car city. Assuming that is the goal, how does a city go about achieving that?

A: The place to start is not with transit but with pedestrians – all trips begin and end with a pedestrian trip. If someone’s experience with Columbus is driving in, parking in a garage, taking an elevator to their office, eating in the cafeteria and going home, then Columbus is going to fail. The place to start is with unrelenting quality of the pedestrian experience.

Transit is utterly dependent on a good pedestrian experience – if it’s unpleasant or scary walking to and from the bus stop, then people aren’t going to take the bus. And this is something that people can generally agree with…everyone has to experience walking. And there’s no reason why Columbus – which already has some great places to walk, it’s just that they are sort of gap toothed – can’t be more continuously delightful.

Q: A lot of people in Columbus are interested in the city making the jump from bus-only to other forms of transit, like light rail or streetcar. Nelson Nygaard has worked with a lot of cities that have made that transition, what are some of the lessons?

A: It’s not just about going from bus-only to multi-modal transit, it’s about shifting an attitude about why we invest in public transit. A lot of cities invest as a social service for those who have no other way to get around, which of course is a valid and important reason. Some cities that have a lot of congestion and that limits how much they can expand, so that drives their investment. And some realize their economic future is completely depended on transit…you can cram ten to a hundred more people on a bus or a train. So if you have congestion, you have no choice but to invest in transit, but seeing the economic linkage is important.

Another reason to invest in transit is the recognition that if your city wants to attract and retain new talent, it’s a necessity. Young talent wants something completely different than baby boomers do. For cities concerned about bleeding educated young people, if you don’t have good transit, forget it, you’re not in the game, say goodbye to your future economy.

That’s a real risk for a lot of metropolitan regions, whose leaders keep thinking that every one wants what they want. As a small business owner, I know that if I’m running my business assuming that all of my clients are exactly like me, I’m in trouble. Even if I run it just to please my existing clients, it will still die, it just will take longer. I need to care most about my future customers.

We need to think about who our future customers are and what they want. I know for sure, when I look at the demographics, that as a middle age white man, I’m economically irrelevant. We need to understand what millennials want, what aging baby boomers want, and especially what women and people of color want.

Q: We’ve seen plenty of debate here, even among supporters of rail transit, about which type of rail would be better. What are some tools a city can use to figure out the right type of starter system?

A: One thing I don’t understand about transit, it tends to attract technology fetishists – people who think that one technology is the solution to all problems. Every technology has advantages and disadvantages. We do a lot of analysis trying to figure out what the best mix of modes is for cities and regions. Since there are many things we’re trying to achieve with these investments, we need to look at them in terms of their specific goals.

There is a relationship between rail and real estate investment, but it’s not just “add water.” Strategic investment in rail can be a powerful catalyst of an economic strategy, it can push the market over the edge, it can attract attention, and help to get a better, more-walkable product type. But there are also disadvantages – if it’s running to a place that has a limited market, there will be limited returns – rail is merely a catalyst, not a creator of development. And the cost – do you want one mile of rail or ten miles of improved bus service? There are many questions to ask about the specifics – will the rail be running in mixed traffic flow? Trains can’t move around a UPS truck the way a bus can. So there are operating challenges…they can be mitigated, but they add cost and restrict right of way.

We try to look at in terms of what are we trying to achieve – is it ridership, increased accessibility, real estate development? So we look at which markets are ready to be pushed over the edge, where can we secure right-of-way, are there parts of the system that need reorganizing. We have, in working with different communities, made strong recommendations for  investing in every type of technology, and we have also steered communities away from those investments given their priorities and resources.

Columbus is interesting because of its geography – so much of it is fundamentally a streetcar city. It has a number of long, linear corridors, with pedestrian-oriented commercial and with multiple centers of interest. And the connection between Downtown and the university is interesting.

It all suggests a very strong structure, and I think Columbus is fortunate to have that structure. Just the fact that you have High and Broad – there aren’t that many cities that have such a strong cross pattern, along both axis, with lots of interesting things along the way. Really you can see lots of former streetcar corridors, where commercial is arrayed linearly – Main Street and Livingston Avenue, for instance, are such classic transit-oriented streets.

Q: What makes Columbus unique in that respect, didn’t lots of cities develop with streetcars?

A: I suspect that Columbus has benefited from the fact that its economic base hasn’t led to the boom and bust economic cycle that other cities have experienced. You didn’t have an excess of money when it was bad to have an excess of money, and all the good stuff was never town down at any one point. It’s all been good generally, steady and solid, so despite your over-investment in freeways – which is very damaging – Columbus has less of what I call the “donut of devastation,” that horrible gap between Downtown and maybe a first ring of nice neighborhoods and the next ring of nice neighborhoods.

I’d guess that because your economy has never gone through extreme cycles, you never experienced that radical disinvestment. That makes it a much easier place to pick up from – compared to places like Kansas City, St Louis, Cleveland – they’ve all spent more money damaging future opportunities than Columbus has, and are going to need to spend a lot more to fix it

Even the fact that you have access to your rivers – there are not even railroad tracks along them – it’s pretty rare to have access to that amenity. And the fact that many of your urban freeways are below grade also helps a lot – there is less devastation than in cities with elevated freeways.

Q: Columbus is about to put in a protected bike lane, and there seems to be a trend of lots of American cities putting them in now – is this just a trend or are they a worthy investment?

A: You need to be strategic about them. The whole toolkit of adding in high-quality bike facilities is arguably the most cost-effective strategy to attract and retain young talent. Every place that has done this has gotten really interesting results. Looking at the traffic volumes in Columbus you can see that the city’s street grid was designed for a city of much higher population and with more jobs than it has, and for everyone to travel everywhere by car. So really all the streets are over-scaled.

Congestion occurs in predictable places – Columbus could put in protected bike lanes all throughout the city without a big impact. It’s really striking compared to some of the cities we work in, places like Seattle for instance…do you have any idea what we go through to get these facilities in? It’s really difficult in a lot of places to get them in, and it wouldn’t be in Columbus.

Just look at Broad Street, it has eight lanes, with an average daily traffic of less than 20,000. When we look at bike projects, if the average daily traffic is less than 10,000 per day per lane, we don’t even bother with analysis, you can just go ahead and repurpose a lane. On pretty much all of your streets, you could eliminate a traffic lane, and nobody is even going to notice. The level of service will still be high –  you might have four cars in front of you at the light instead of one, but there will not really be more congestion. That’s a luxury that not many economically-strong cities have.

In terms of real estate value and quality of life, there are few more cost-effective ways than investing in bike facilities. Columbus has an amazing interconnected grid extending for miles outside of Downtown – you’d have an opportunity to do Vancouver-style neighborhood bikeways, so that all neighborhood streets feel safe for walking and biking, to the extent that any parent would feel safe having their children ride on them. There’s no excuse, no reason not to have that.

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