2012 Indicates It’s Time to Make a Turn Toward Transit

By Eric Davies, Board Chair

A look back at 2012 shows public transit’s role in transportation and community development continues to gain ground around the US, and here in central Ohio the turn in this direction is occurring as well—just a bit more slowly.

Nationally Hurricane Sandy became one of the landmark, and obviously tragic, events of the year. The storm for a time crippled all modes of transportation, and yet buses were running within a few days, most regional and intercity trains were back on schedule within a week or less, and even the subway system—partly flooded by salt water during the storm—was back on line within on most lines within one to two weeks. The existence of a multi-modal infrastructure including walkable neighborhoods, roads/highways/bridges, subways, light rail trains and intercity trains to other surrounding and coastal cities have allowed a multi-faceted and more elastic recovery. Even if one mode takes a stronger hit, having multiple modes creates resiliency. On the other hand, the force of this natural event also brought to light the cracks in our nation’s infrastructure. Even where US transit systems are the most comprehensive, a national hesitancy to adequately maintain and fund transportation infrastructure, among others, leaves the nation falling behind needs and shifting demands.

The demands for more and better transit have become evident through trends that have played out in local metropolitan regions across the nation this year. In 2012, nationally more than 70 percent of the 60 local transportation-related levies, most to fund the expansion of local transit systems along with related infrastructure, were approved by voters. Amtrak ridership nationally has grown by 3.5 percent in the past year, and 49 percent in the past 10 years while vehicle miles traveled continues to decline. Yet political officials at the state and national levels continue to shy away from, or ignore, the need to push for funding for this critical infrastructure that will both ensure the nation has the transportation systems it needs to meet public demands, and that also promises the creation of public and private jobs.

Ohio’s political leaders in particular have pushed back attempts to expand funding and infrastructure for local transit systems as well as intercity passenger trains in Ohio. In late 2012 the Columbus Dispatch reported that Governor John Kasich told the Ohio Contractor’s Association, in reference to the potential sale of the Ohio Turnpike, that change is coming and they should not fear it. “If you’re not willing to take chances, if you’re not willing to innovate, you’re going to go backwards, and I don’t want Ohio to go backwards,” the governor said.

Yet in terms of developing multi-modal transportation infrastructure, Ohio has proven itself at best stagnant and potentially moving backwards. The state already per capita pays far less for public transportation than neighboring states, including less populated ones such as Indiana and Michigan. Ohio also pushed away intercity passenger rail funds that other states, including Michigan, Illinois and Maine among others, are now capitalizing upon. It is time for Ohio officials to see that demands are changing, and the state does need to be innovative and take chances or we will fall increasingly behind our peers on the national and world stage.Locally trends have signaled a slightly better picture despite the state’s languid nature toward any mode of travel other than automobiles. The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) showed the largest percentage increase in bus ridership of any major transit system in the nation in 2011. In 2012, COTA ridership so far has leveled off, partly due to an early summer labor strike, but growth in service and ridership continues. This year also has resulted in completion of early stages of planning for more modern and faster bus service in the Cleveland Avenue corridor of northeast Columbus. Yet the Columbus area continues to lack the public transit infrastructure required for a metro area of nearly 2 million people, which continues to negatively impact a number of factors including attracting and keeping young and talented professionals.

A 2011 Columbus Chamber of Commerce survey of young professionals indicated Columbus offers many attractive assets for this population, but a lack of bicycle and public transit infrastructure were viewed as a major drawback. The chance that we will continue to lose them to places such as Charlotte, Chicago, Minneapolis, Portland, Austin and Denver among others that have and continue to expand these amenities is all too plausible.

The argument often used here is Columbus’ density in particular does not support rail and other more advanced public transit systems. Yet as shown on a recent Transit Columbus blog posting, when compared to peer cities such as Charlotte, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Austin, and St. Louis—all of which operate and are expanding light rail and some combination of bus rapid transit, streetcar and commuter rail—Columbus’ metropolitan area density is greater than all but Minneapolis’ (from analysis of 2010 census figures). In other words, this argument is hereby declared dead! One study a few years ago even showed the New York City area’s density at the time the subways were constructed equated to about the same as Columbus’ is currently. That’s not to say we want to be the next New York, but the lesson is inherent in the message: density is not a barrier here in metropolitan Columbus. Thus political will may be the only remaining hurdle.

In 2013, Transit Columbus will accelerate the efforts we have begun to shift Columbus, Franklin County and the entire central Ohio region toward a more transit-oriented community—not for transit’s sake, but for the sake of making this a healthier, more vibrant place to live, work, visit and play. Such a shift will help this city, county and region compete for jobs, improve access to the jobs we have, make the region more attractive for attracting and retaining bright and young future leaders, improve mobility for older adults, increase walkability and enhance public health and the list goes on. Please join and support us in our efforts.

Charlotte’s Transit Success Story

By Brent Warren, TC Blogger

Charlotte’s light rail system recently celebrated its five-year anniversary. Now serving over 14,000 passengers a day, the Lynx Blue Line has surpassed ridership expectations and won over former critics.

As Charlotte looks to add a streetcar line and gets ready to start construction on a nine-mile extension of their light rail, it’s worth taking a moment to look at how this once car-centric and sprawling city managed to transform itself into a transit-friendly city of sidewalks.

Charlotte and its suburbs grew a tremendous amount in a short period of time. A UNC Charlotte study found that from 1985 to 1996 Mecklenburg County’s total developed land area jumped from 18% to 41%. In comparison, Columbus’ growth, while significant, has been less meteoric (see chart below).

Year

Columbus MSA

Charlotte MSA

1980

1,244,000

Pct Change

855,538

Pct Change

1990

1,345,450

+8.2%

1,024,096

19.7%

2000

1,612,841

19.9%

1,330,448

29.9%

2010

1,836,536

13.9%

1,758,038

32.1%

Source: US Census Bureau (Population, Metropolitan Statistical Areas)

In Charlotte this rapid population growth and the sprawl that came with it spurred calls for action from two important stakeholders:

  • Business leaders, who heard complaints from the talented young workers they were recruiting that Charlotte did not offer the type of urban lifestyle they were looking for. These executives started asking how the city could be transformed in order to attract and retain the workers they needed to grow their companies.
  • Non-profit and citizen-based organizations, who were concerned about the loss of open space and the environmental consequences of sprawl. Campaigns focused on sustainability and smart growth helped people see the connection between the ever-increasing sprawl with the concrete land use and transportation choices that were being made.

Local government and elected officials responded by helping to facilitate important planning and visioning efforts, which led to recommendations to improve transit and encourage transit-oriented development. In 1998, voters approved a ballot initiative that provided dedicated funding to implement these recommendations. The long-term result of this vote was a doubling of bus service and the introduction of a light rail line with many walkable, mixed-use developments along its length.

In Columbus we’ve seen great improvements in COTA since the most recent levy was passed in 2006, but obviously nothing approaching the transformative changes Charlotte has seen in the past 15 years. Many of us in Columbus hope that in the next 15 years we see the type of overall system upgrade that they’ve experienced in Charlotte.  Do you think there are any lessons to be learned for Columbus in Charlotte’s story?

Transit and the Visitor Experience

by Brent Warren, TC Blogger

Great article about how a vibrant and walkable downtown can keep visitors shopping, eating and exploring while they are in town.  Transit is a key ingredient in that formula, and plays an important role in how people experience a city, whether they are there as a tourist, for a conference or just to visit friends.  How could transit in Columbus be improved to enhance the visitor experience?

For more reading: 8 Amazing Facts About Downtowns

The Density Debate

A list of the 50 densest metropolitan areas in the country was released by the Census in September. Columbus came in 46 out of 50; just ahead of Omaha but well behind similarly-sized metros like Milwaukee and Las Vegas. (The metric used is something called population-weighted density, which the Census now favors as a measure of density since it eliminates some of the distortions caused by the huge variation in county sizes, and thus metro-areas, around the country).

The list isn’t necessarily surprising-Columbus does not feel especially dense compared to most of the older and/or coastal cities, so being #46 in density compared to #32 in population seems about right. What is surprising, though, was some of the cities that didn’t make the top 50. Where was St. Louis? How about Charlotte?

Density (or lack-there-of) is often an argument used against investing in public transportation. Columbus, the skeptics say, is a spread-out, car-based city with plenty of parking and not much traffic-light rail or streetcars just wouldn’t be successful in a place like this.

Taking a closer look at the Census data, there’s a lot of cities below Columbus on the density list that have successfully integrated rail transit into their transportation systems.

Here’s a list of cities that are less dense or about the same as Columbus that currently have or are in the process of building light rail, streetcar or commuter rail.

Metropolitan Statistical Area

2010 Population
Weighted Density¹

Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 3,383.4
Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL 3,323.0
Tucson, AZ 3,213.0
Columbus, OH 3,186.0
Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, TX 3,131.5
Pittsburgh, PA 2,990.8
Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL 2,774.6
St. Louis, MO-IL 2,742.5
Cincinnati-Middletown, OH-KY-IN 2,563.6
Memphis, TN-MS-AR 2,372.3
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA 2,173.0
Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill, NC-SC 1,881.3
Nashville-Davidson–Murfreesboro–Franklin, TN 1,695.3
¹Overall population density expressed as average number of people per square mile. Population-weighted density is an average density of all census tracts in each area.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 Census. Internet Release Date: September, 2012.

There’s a great variety of systems on this list. Nashville, for instance, has only limited commuter rail service, while Pittsburgh has had a modern light rail system for decades. Charlotte provides a nice case study for Columbus. It’s similar in size (right behind Columbus in MSA population) and is also a newer city that has experienced much of its growth in recent decades. Its light rail system, started in 2007, has exceeded ridership estimates and won over critics. The fact that Charlotte is significantly less dense than Columbus helps to poke a large hole in the theory of density as a predictor of success or failure for light rail. Look for more on Charlotte’s system in a future post.

Celebrate Car Free Day With TransitColumbus

TransitColumbus joins the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) and other groups to celebrate Central Ohio Car Free Day on Friday, September 21, 2012. Central Ohio Car Free Day is inspired by World Car Free Day, an annual international event that encourages people to give alternative transportation a try.

To represent the shift away from cars for the day, TransitColumbus and other area organizations, businesses and community groups will be transforming everyday parking spaces into Car Free Spots, between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., to showcase what our community could look like with fewer cars on the road.  Visit the TransitColumbus spot on East Gay Street, between High and Third streets, where information on transit, and free coffee provided by Café Brioso, will be available. View a map of all the Car Free Spots here.

Other activities will include a group bicycle ride, led by MORPC and Consider Biking, to view a few of the Car Free Spots. The ride begins at the northeast corner of Goodale Park at 11:45 a.m. The first 20 riders will receive coupons for free triple scoops of Jeni’s Ice Cream as the ride will culminate at Jeni’s Short North location.

To participate in Car-Free Day, participating organizations encourage commuters to catch a ride to work on one of the many Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) buses, and/or to bike or walk to work or to a favorite local restaurant.  Other available options include finding a carpool buddy using RideSolutions, a free service of MORPC that helps commuters find a neighbor to share the ride to and from work. Find resources on how to go car-free this Friday at www.carfreedaycolumbus.org.

A Toast to Transit: You’re Invited

Join TransitColumbus supporters for “A Toast to Transit”. This evening mixer is the first public event of TransitColumbus and a chance to meet the board of the organization and mingle with other transit supporters.

A TOAST TO TRANSIT

Thursday, June 28, 2012
5 pm to 7 pm

Cup O’ Joe/MoJoe Lounge in Downtown
149 S. High St. in the Lazarus Building across from Columbus Commons

To RSVP, drop an e-mail to info@transitcolumbus.org

Come to meet others who want to see public transportation improve and GROW in Columbus & Central Ohio. We’ll also toast COTA’s success as the transit system with the largest increase in bus ridership nationally in 2011.