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Plan for Temporary Bus Lane on Third Street Concerns Bike Advocates

Brent Warren Brent Warren Plan for Temporary Bus Lane on Third Street Concerns Bike AdvocatesThe existing bike lane on Third Street downtown. Photo by Brent Warren
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The City of Columbus and the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) are moving forward with plans for a demonstration project involving a stretch of Third Street Downtown.

Starting on July 22 and running for two weeks, the far right hand lane of the one-way street, between Long and Mound Streets – which currently holds a striped bike lane, as well as about 24 on-street parking spaces – will be opened up for bus travel during the evening rush hour.

It is the first of several planned “tactical urbanism” projects, in which temporary, low-cost improvements to streets are made in order to try out new traffic patterns, gather feedback and collect data.

A plan to replace a car travel lane with a temporary bus lane on West Broad Street was first floated last year, and the city and COTA both pledged to look into the idea, doubling down on that pledge when the Corridor Concepts study was released.

Transit and cycling advocates were excited about that project, hopeful that it would help build support for something that has rarely occurred in car-friendly Columbus – taking a portion of the public right of way that is used by single-occupancy vehicles and giving it to buses, bikes and scooters instead.

The news that an existing bike lane – and not a car travel lane – would be used for the first of what the city is calling its “shared mobility lane” projects has been met with concern by many in the biking community.

“Yay Bikes believes that we need strong bike and bus networks,” says Executive Director Catherine Girves, “and if we’re going to create the mode shift (away from cars) that the city wants, one can’t happen at the expense of the other.”

A map showing the location of the pilot project, courtesy of the City of Columbus.

But officials from COTA and the City of Columbus believe that the changes proposed for corridor could actually prove beneficial for cyclists, by keeping parked cars out of the lane and by simplifying what can be a confusing corridor to navigate by bike, even with the bike lane.

They also emphasize the limited and temporary nature of the project – the new rules will only be in effect during the afternoon rush hour (from about 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.) and will go away at the end of the two weeks, at which time surveys will be taken and data from the experiment examined.

“This is a test…will look at the results and listen to people’s concerns and will learn from it,” says Patrick Harris, COTA’s Director of Government Affairs and Special Projects.

“We’re excited about the opportunity to model what shared use mobility lanes look like,” he adds, explaining that about 25 buses per hour travel the Third Street corridor, and that it takes many of them more than 20 minutes to exit Downtown during the evening rush. A dedicated lane would almost certainly mean faster commute times for people riding those buses.

That’s what happened in Boston, where a similar demonstration project resulted in a permanent, dedicated bus and bike lane along a 1.2-mile stretch of Washington Street. Surveys showed that bus commuters approved of the project, and that cyclists did too, with most saying that they felt safer in the new lane.

Girves, of Yay Bikes, doesn’t think that the Washington Street example is applicable to Third Street, and is worried about the safety of cyclists along the corridor. She’s also concerned about what this project could mean for other bike lanes throughout the city.

“The worry is that it is not only this corridor,” says Girves. “What is the precedent being set for potentially losing other bike infrastructure…is it possible that another bike lane could go away because the idea is to improve service for COTA?”

Charts showing how buses slow down and the time between stops increases during the evening rush along the corridor. Courtesy of the City of Columbus.

City Council President Shannon Hardin says that that is not going to happen.

“We will make sure that the gains we have made in the last ten years (in terms of bike infrastructure) are not taken away but are strengthened,” he says. “We value the biking community and the role they played in moving us to this point….we picked a corridor that has high bus traffic and high car congestion, (where) there is a clear story to tell around reusing public right of way for things other than cars.”

Josh Lapp, Board Chair of Transit Columbus, agrees that the pilot project is worth undertaking.

“I think it is a very positive opportunity and way to experiment to see what works,” he says. “I personally take the current Third Street bike lane and I think the bus/bike concept has an opportunity to greatly improve conflicts between buses, bikes, scooters and cars.”

“Adding the Third Street bike lanes were a huge step, but there are often parked cars and delivery vehicles in the lane alongside lots of places where both buses and cars weave in and out of the lanes,” he adds. “What we learn from this could help inform how we could implement both transit and bike infrastructure all over Columbus.”

Representatives of the city and COTA both stress that this is just the first of several pilot projects throughout the city, although they are not ready to say where the other ones will be implemented or whether those projects will involve bike lanes or lanes currently being used by cars.

Council President Hardin is confident that the city is taking the right approach, even if not everyone agrees with the choice of Third Street as the first demonstration project.

“We have to lead, and lean into these hard conversations,” he says, especially given the growth predicted for Columbus. “We need a transit system that is more efficient and more effective, and one of the ways you do that is by having dedicated lanes…this is just a first step, there is more to come.”

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