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The State of Alternative Transportation in Columbus

Brent Warren Brent Warren The State of Alternative Transportation in ColumbusPhoto by Walker Evans.
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Over the course of the last five years, there has been a lot of transportation news in Columbus. CoGo bike share arrived in 2013 and was the first of what would be several new mobility options, including Zagster bike share at OSU, Lyft (which came, left, and then came back), Uber, Lime dockless bikes, and, recently, rentable electric scooters from Lime and Bird.

The Smart Columbus initiative and the Hyperloop proposal have both served to drive a whole new conversation about technology and how it may change the future of transportation.

A lot has happened with the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) too; including the passage of a levy, a complete redesign of the bus network, the rolling out of new services like real-time bus tracking, the CMAX line on Cleveland Avenue, the CBUS circulator, the AirConnect line to the airport, and the C-Pass for downtown workers.

And that’s not even getting into changes to bike infrastructure, the multiple planning initiatives that have taken place, or major road projects like the 70/71 split.

After all of those changes, though, is it easier or harder to get around Columbus without a car than it was five years ago? That was the first question asked of a group of urban planners, transit advocates, bus-riders and cyclists at a Big Table conversation hosted by Columbus Underground last month.

Most agreed that it was easier – even with the departure of Car2Go from the market – due to all of the options available now that didn’t exist then.

Meg Gandy, who bikes daily for transportation and started a Facebook group called Columbus Moms Biking, pushed back against that consensus, arguing that all of the new services haven’t kept up with Columbus’ population growth.

Census statistics tend to support this view, at least as measured by the total number of people driving to work alone in Columbus – there were more of them in 2016 than in 2007, even though the proportion of solo commuters dropped by half a percentage point in that time (to 81.2 percent).

Marc Conte, who works for the downtown special improvement districts and is also a Transit Columbus board member, pointed out that despite the new business models and app-centric processes, Lyft and Uber are still car-based services that contribute to congestion and air pollution.

“Is it easier to get around without your own car? Yes,” he said. “Is it easier to get around by not using a car? No.”

“You’re not carpooling, it’s not car sharing, it’s a ride service,” Conte added. “For all the talk about (autonomous vehicles), it’ll be a big shame if we just have all these cars with one person in them all over again.”

The second question posed to the group looked to the future: from the perspective of alternative transportation, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the next ten years in Columbus?

Elissa Schneider, a former board chair of Transit Columbus, is finding it hard to maintain her optimism after so many years of having the same types of conversations in Columbus.

“It doesn’t matter how many options and technologies we keep throwing into this thing, if we’re not willing to change our culture here, not willing to decide that streets are for people and not (just) to move cars quickly…progress will only go so far,” she said.

Schneider and others agreed that there is a simple way to measure the priorities of the city – look at the total amount of public road space in a city and see how much of it is devoted to cars and how much to moving people in different ways – and by that measure, Columbus doesn’t stack up all that well.

Despite this, most people sitting around the table still described themselves as “cautiously optimistic” about the future.

Jennifer Fening, who manages the marketing and communication side of Smart Columbus for the Columbus Partnership, was less cautious in her optimism than the others.

“There are so many reasons for optimism,” she said. “I’m working with a team that is working to implement real projects in the coming two and three years that will make it easier to access transit in a variety of ways…I see a committment to using data to get people places and solve problems in new and better ways, I see a committment from the public sector to make sure that transportation is closing gaps rather than creating them.”

Fening also expressed concern, though, about growth; “Columbus is on pace to grow by a million people by 2050, and today 82 percent of us get to work alone in a car, so if we continue that pattern of behavior, we won’t be able to build our way out of this…a commute from Dublin is going to go from 30-40 minutes to an hour or more.”

The need for new “high-capacity transit” options was another common refrain. Andrew Dodson of local planning firm MKSK said that he is hopeful that the Regional Corridor Analysis project being led by the Mid Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) will lead to some action on that front.

“I think we need to just get over…whatever people’s excuses are, and just realize that we need rail-based transportation,” added Conte. “BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) is great, we need more of that, but we can’t ignore rail for a multi-county region and statewide…one of the big keys to changing the culture is to have the service for people to actually use so they can change the culture.”

Others cited improvements to the Central Ohio Greenways trail network and the recent progress at COTA as reasons for optimism.

As for the latest transportation phenomenon to hit Columbus – rentable electric scooters – most in the group agreed that their popularity can only help, maybe even adding some new voices to the “alternative” side of the discussion.

“I think ultimately it’s really helping us as commuter cyclists,” said Emily Monnig, a Yay Bikes board member and the owner of Paradise Garage. “Because cars are seeing different types of vehicles, and they’re having to predict what’s around them more and they’re being trained to look for other types of transportation…so I see it as a win.”

“All these alternative modes have got to work together,” said of Doug Arsenault COTA, explaining that what “alternative” means is basically any way of getting around that isn’t in a single-occupancy vehicle. “It’s the only way we’re going to get anywhere with anything…if we’re beating each other up, it’s not gonna work.”

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