Columbus is at risk of being strangled by its transit system. The city is forecasted to grow by over 726,000 people in the next 25 years, driven in large part by business entering the region. Near New Albany, Ohio, Intel has invested 20 billion to build semiconductor plants. The plants are projected to employ around 3,000 people once they’re finished, and New Albany has already expanded certain roads to meet demand.
The problem that remains is what comes next.
Among Midwestern cities, Columbus is a sterling example of what Dr. Steven Conn, a historian and Miami University, calls the third wave of urban development. Conn said the state government, Ohio State University and the ‘FIRE’ (finance, insurance and real estate) sector drive the city’s economy. The coined “Columbus Way” emphasizes public-private partnerships and relentless growth — a philosophy the city has stood by as an article of faith.
“In that sense, what Columbus is attached to — and I don’t think it’s alone in this — is a kind of economic boosterism: ‘All development is good development. And therefore we’ — the powers that be — ‘simply wanna make that as easy as possible,’” Conn said.
Given that the city’s rapid modern population growth didn’t begin in earnest until the 1990s, Columbus’ more conspicuous infrastructure problems could hide for a while. But now, they’re coming home to roost as new investment puts higher demands on the region’s transportation capacity.
The long arc of transportation in Columbus is a familiar story, and the city often leans on the idea that Columbus’ journey mirrors much of the country’s. The city built a functional mass-transit system in the nineteenth century, then dismantled much of it in the 1940s in favor of highway and interstate expansion. While this narrative isn’t exactly an outlier, it sheds light on some of the more specific problems the city faces today — and whether current transportation plans are sufficient to mitigate them.
By the 1890s, the city had a well-developed streetcar system; my own neighborhood of Grandview grew because people could take a short five cent–ride to downtown. Columbus’ nickname “Arch City” originated from the arches originally designed to power the streetcar system.
The system reached its heyday in the 1920s before beginning to decline: the city had already tripled in population and limited electrical infrastructure meant that expanding the streetcar and necessary overhead connections was deemed too expensive. So, the city began removing streetcar rails and building up buses, which could function on existing road infrastructure. The last streetcar ran in 1948, and the last trolley coach (which only requires an electric connection and no tracks) ran in 1965.
Simultaneously, city planners began developing highways alongside interstate construction in the 1950s. The highways tore through predominantly African American neighborhoods like Hanford Village and Bronzeville, leaving residents encumbered by air pollution and heavy traffic and displacing many others.
Interstate construction sped up the growth of suburban areas wholly dependent on cars. Columbus’ city government has atypically retained control over water rights, which has allowed the direct annexation of surrounding communities to preserve the city’s tax base. Thus the city grew at the cost of urban sprawl; in 2014, Columbus was three times the size of Cleveland and had a lower population density despite having more than double the population.
Conn said in his book Americans Against the City that freeways in Columbus “created a circular chasm of dead space in the heart of the city, a vehicular moat which turned downtown into something like an office-tower island.”.
Experts say that one of the problems with freeway expansion is that supply induces more demand without ever meeting it. Transit planners have also argued for years that building highways only results in greater congestion and carbon emissions. Columbus is striving for carbon neutrality by 2050, but meeting that goal will take a dramatic amount of time, work and investment.
Operating parallel to Columbus’ major problem with intracity transit is the conundrum of intercity transit. Columbus is the second-largest city in the country without passenger rail and has been without rail for more than forty years.
“If you wanna leave Columbus to go anywhere in the state of Ohio and you don’t have access to a car, you are trapped,” Stu Nicholson, executive director of All Aboard Ohio, said.
Columbus has been unable to rebuild a more comprehensive transit system, despite periodic attempts. In 1999, the Central Ohio Transportation Authority (COTA) proposed a 0.5% sales tax increase that would have doubled the city’s bus system and allowed the construction of some light rail links. It attracted support from Paul Weyrichthe, founder of the Heritage Institute, but still faced defeat by more than 10% of the vote. Then in 2006, Mayor Michael Coleman proposed the construction of a streetcar system modeled on Portland’s. Initial enthusiasm floundered once the recession hit in 2007.
The latest approach reflects a doubling down on the “Columbus Way,” this time through high-tech development. In 2016, Columbus won a $50 million grant from the Smart City Challenge to revolutionize the city’s transportation grid. This involved getting private companies to collaborate with the city and propose projects such as autonomous vehicle development and wirelessly linking freight trucks.
What ultimately came of the Smart City grant? The program ended quietly in 2021 — some of its pilot programs had the misfortune of launching right at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even so, it’s difficult to determine if the program yielded transformation. After a $1.25 million investment in an application for planning rideshares and bus routes called Pivot, only 1,100 people downloaded it. A $2.3 million autonomous shuttle program in the Linden neighborhood ended after only two weeks when a passenger was thrown from their seat.
Without federal funding, the city is pulling the plug on all of its Smart City initiatives, despite meaningful progress with EV charging stations. Unfortunately, electric cars alone won’t solve climate change or congestion.
Now COTA must plan for the city’s rapid growth, and has bypassed light-rail and streetcars to focus on bus rapid transit (BRT). Funding has been hard to pull together, though, as COTA dropped a proposed 0.5% sales tax increase last year due to concerns about burdening taxpayers. So, the agency is seeking federal grant money instead. Transit activists like the group Transit Columbus support with COTA’s plan, but are cautious amid remaining service cuts from the height of the pandemic.
“People refer to BRT as ‘light rail lite.’ [COTA’s plan] is kind of like BRT-lite. To me BRT — if you really want to look at a good example of BRT — is you go up and look at the health line up in Cleveland, where you have a dedicated right of way,” Nicholson said. “They have signal priority on the line so that buses can keep moving.”
Nicholson said he would like to see the city of Columbus pick up light rail expansion again. Columbus has a number of unused rail corridors that could be repurposed, which could shift the city’s development towards greater density. According to Nicholson, there isn’t evidence of BRT creating density in the way rail does.
Conn also said that automobile-driven development reinforces a host of problems. For example, negative externalities like poor sewage health emerge when highways bring people to undeveloped areas.
While state and federal dollars might be uncertain at the moment, Conn said an untapped relationship with Ohio State could lead to bold decision-making by the city government. The city also has a big advantage: cash. “Unlike virtually every other Midwestern city contemplating its future, Columbus has a ton of money,” Conn said. “I think in that sense, you have to kind of figure out the way to align big ideas with the money that’s available.”
Amanda Woodrum of Emerging Appalachia said the city and state must make long-term changes to transportation, especially in light of the recent Intel development.
“We need to stop locating things where people can’t get to by public transportation. There are so many brown fields and vacant spaces — we should be developing those sites before we even think about developing green fields,” Woodrum said. “Second, connect the dots. The incentives going to Intel should come with strings attached to make sure that those sites are transit-accessible.”