Out with LRT, in with AV

Perhaps not surprisingly, there has been some push-back from my last post on the Smart Cities grant which went to Columbus. I called it the Columbus, Ohio Grant Program and -Surprise! – Columbus, Ohio won.

Not to incite “technology wars” between different transportation modes, but in a world of trade-offs, this is what is getting DOT grants in Columbus, Ohio; a stark contrast to most of Columbus’ peer cities, which get grants for light rail (LRT) or streetcar.

bus-on-street_2For the record, the grant is an incredible win. Columbus bested 6 other finalists including Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Denver, Portland, San Fran, and Austin. Not a bad city there. Furthermore, the grant will do good things like augment technologies on the Cleveland Avenue C-MAX. I admittedly didn’t realize Smart Cities had a component to that, but I also didn’t realize the original Small Starts grant didn’t actually include costs for signal prioritization, which is normally standard for even BRT-lite.

However, there is no denying that the autonomous vehicle (AV) pilot project is the calling card of Columbus’ winning application. It’s the meat and the potatoes, and everything else (the universal transit card) is the garnish.

And none of these are bad things. For one, I would never turn down $40 million in federal grants – then again, I would never want to do anything to jeopardize $200 million in Hardest Hit Funds, or turn down $400 million in FTA funding for 3C Rail. Leaving these kinds of opportunities on the table is painful for a state that desperately needs resources for everything – housing, transit, workforce development, you name it.

starter-routeSometimes, however, the decision has been made and you just have to walk away. Such is the case with rail in Columbus. It’s done, it’s over, and it will never happen. I myself am the eternal optimist to a fault, especially when it comes to cities, and I know how the well springs eternal for a strong vision around which to build a city. Columbus will continue to grow, but it probably won’t be growing around fixed-guideway transit, such as the previously proposed $100 million streetcar that city council defeated. Moving forward, I’m not actually sure what place-based opportunities there will be in Columbus, especially if this becomes ground zero for testing AV in an urbanized built environment.

Columbus Underground, another eternally optimistic news/commentary outlet, has also come to this realization. The site itself is home to many authors and bloggers who have kept alive the hope for rail transit. And then there is this choice quote in today’s CU article, from the CEO of the Columbus Partnership:

“I don’t think it’s about one mode versus another, it’s about what the options are going to look like in the future,” says Alex Fischer, Columbus Partnership President and CEO. “Some decades ago, the community at any number of levels made its decision as it relates to rail,” he added.

So there we have it.

I’m also not alone in asserting that autonomous vehicle pilots do not make transit. Shortly after my post last Friday, CU also editorialized that “Driverless Cars Could Usher in a New Era of Suburban Sprawl.” Ya think?

As did Slate.

As did Fast Company.

As did Nature.org.

As did the Wall Street Journal.

And also Bloomberg.

The suburbs are going nowhere anytime soon, driverless cars to the rescue. And it will be okay, as we will find a way to adapt. This post is just to serve as realistic notice of the impact that autonomous vehicles will soon have on our cities, which will be an urban form not unlike this:

As for the glimmer of hope that remains for light rail enthusiasts and advocated in Central Ohio, the odds just grow all the more with this AV pilot. They need to find a way to make the community want rail, which they simply do not at this point in time.

Columbus is an ideal city to try something new with transit: It’s growing, it’s already walkable, it’s very linear, and it has legitimate transportation needs. There is also a culture that is enthusiastically excited about the local culture, or as the excellent former mayor Michael Coleman would say “our swagger,” which is one reason for the exuberant fanfare given to the Smart Cities victory.

William Murdock, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) Executive Director, may be among those keeping the glimmer of hope alive for rail. At least it appears that way in the Columbus Underground article on new technology’s impact for LRT:

“Rail is a time-tested transportation mode for moving lots of people and goods in an efficient way,” says William Murdock, MORPC Executive Director. “It’s possible that the new autonomous technology when combined with shared models (i.e. Uber, Lyft, Car2Go) might replace some of the service traditional light or commuter rail might have provided…but it might also open up new opportunities to focus on a few high-capacity corridors with bus rapid transit, light rail, or something new.”

Perhaps that “something new” could be an elevated transit vehicle that glides over traffic, either on tires or rails (gasp!) as depicted below:

While expensive, the above solves many of the issues that Columbus has with transit, specifically that the transit vehicles aren’t in the way of drivers and that it is undeniably cool.

I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of “cool.” Here in the first world, where we still have challenges, we can make available miraculous amounts of resources for solutions that we think are cool. We tend to ignore the problems and solutions that aren’t sexy (like infrastructure). Here in Columbus, I am friends with a great many of developers, just from hanging around planning and development functions – knowing these guys, I know they just aren’t interested in transit. They know that the young professionals occupying their cool Short North condos and lofts are just going to uber everywhere, like Madeintyo. AV is even better because it’s an uber that won’t try to make small talk.

duvallgraphTo the point about the infrastructure problems that we tend to ignore, that makes AV all the more easy to do now, and foolish to invest in for the long term. Given our infrastructure backlog, it’s hard to see the sense or the cents in investing in an AV model that will further deplete revenue in the Highway Trust Fund. The graph to the left assumes normal trends including: A) refusal to raise any taxes; B) vehicles that become more and more fuel-efficient; and C) driving habits of Americans continuing to wane. It does not take into account “AV subscriptions and/or memberships” becoming the next foreseeable transportation wave.

I used to think that autonomous vehicle technology was crazy. I still think it is (I am someone who loves observing my surroundings, which this will divorce people further from), but that is not keeping it from coming to fruition, whether we like it or not. So perhaps something like the above video isn’t crazy either, I don’t know – it probably requires a pilot city that cares about transit as much as Columbus cares about driving. Perhaps that city at that time will also be lauded as “Smart.”

An Ode to the Blank Slate

The Federal DoT created a program for cities without real transit to further-develop vehicle-based mobility alternatives with which they will then call themselves “smart” for doing so. In other words, DoT created the Columbus, Ohio grant program, and – Surprise! – Columbus, Ohio won it.

smartcitychallengefinalistsmap

I’ve written about the Smart City Challenge before, including when I came across a CityLab article that discussed this proposal along with possible mobility-oriented interventions in the Linden neighborhood (one of those interventions was my “Bus Box” proposal). I was pleasantly surprised to see Linden, a neighborhood for which I’ve done a lot of work, getting CityLab recognition. Now that the surprise is over, I am sorry to say, I am a little underwhelmed.

Columbus’ Winning Proposal

It’s complicated. To be fair, this application is about getting people moving, and not necessarily providing old-school “transit.” This grant is deliberately intended to pilot future technologies that should rightfully deviate from how transit is usually provided. That said, it’s also an awful lot of hoopla for a proposal that scrapes the bare minimum. This Wired article offers an excellent and unbiased (well, glowing) account of the full application, which will execute the following projects:

  • Autonomous vehicle pilot project to link currently non-accessible (via transit) employment centers
  • Mobility kiosks in the low-income Linden neighborhood, specifically geared toward pregnant women
  • Development of a universal transit pass that syncs with COTA (the bus authority), rideshare apps, taxis, and bikeshare

The real strength of the application was the local partnerships brought forth by Columbus’ determination to win this grant. A classmate of mine with an excellent blog detailed the following “total packages” among the 7 finalist cities, in order of leverage:

  • San Francisco: $150 million pledged by local partnerships
  • Columbus: $90 million pledged by local partnerships
  • Austin: $50 million of in-kind services pledged (which could be worthwhile coming from a tech hotbed)
  • Denver: “Total value of $84 million” (so an additional $34 million of leverage?)
  • Kansas City: $15 million pledged by local partnerships
  • Pittsburgh: Additional $11 million pledged by Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
  • Portland: None

Edge, San Francisco.

However, Columbus’ real advantage may have been the blank slate of transit offerings it currently boasts. We have a bus authority. San Francisco has BART which is underfunded but still excellent. Austin has commuter rail. Denver has one of the top LRT networks in the world. Kansas City just opened their new streetcar. Pittsburgh has the T, augmented by really cool “busways.” Portland has it all. DoT may have been attracted by the fact that a Columbus pilot offers the opportunity to implement “smart” technologies in an isolated environment, without cross-over influence of actual transit. As Gizmodo puts it: “Columbus will be able to demonstrate how a city which doesn’t have the time or capital to build out a massive rail network can use the next wave of transportation tech—autonomous vehicles, smartphones, sensors—to get residents moving in an efficient way that will get more cars off roads and lower emissions.”

Smart Challenges For Wicked Problems

Who’s to say Columbus doesn’t “have the time or capital” to build out a rail network? We won’t make time. It’s been a non-starter my entire time in Columbus.

For those that live, work, and get around in Columbus – what does the “Smart City Challenge” victory actually mean? If you’re not pregnant in Linden, what does this victory actually mean? Is everybody in Linden pregnant? What does an autonomous vehicle pilot project really do for a struggling built environment that needs placed-based, not dis-placed, solutions? Having a cool car that can pick you up for your OB/GYN appointment does little for job access, education access, creating recreational opportunities, and fostering passive walkability.

Having written a study on infant mortality in South Linden, I can tell you that lack of car ownership is not an environmental cause. Lack of mobility options, yes, car ownership – not exactly. The full gamut of factors contributing to this neighborhood’s unacceptably high infant mortality rates are:

  • Poor access to affordable and fresh food
  • High obesity rates vis a vis unwalkable environment
  • High stress resulting from crime, speeding traffic noise, and economic insecurity
  • The neighborhood’s only OB/GYN is across the tracks, on a site that was available on the cheap, for lack of resources to build a true neighborhood health center
  • Housing that is often riddled with environmental contaminants
  • Poor maternal care education (prevention of tragic accidents)
  • Other

Linden even has an underfunded BRT-lite project, in need of additional funding and wraparounds to qualify as true BRT, that this grant ignores.

For myself, I deliberately forced myself to use Columbus’ transit for the entire two years that I was in grad school. My thesis was on TOD, and to develop a sense of empathy and deeper understanding, I wanted to experience what it is like to actually rely on transit – too few planners have done this, in my opinion. I can tell you that being reliant on transit in Columbus is not fun. It means waiting for buses that are irregular (my outer backpack pouch has schedules for the #7, #18, #2, #8, and #21 – which I’m pretty sure are just suggestions), unpleasant and stressful, occasionally unsafe (frequent reports of LGBT discrimination and abuse), frequently broken down (I have had three COTA buses break down on me), and so on. For half of the year, add the bitter cold. During the warm months, the buses are often re-routed or indefinitely delayed due to frequent marathons, festivals, or parades on High Street. So while I don’t mean to be a fly in the ointment, I am very passionate about Columbus developing the first-rate transit it so badly needs, and this is not that.

This reminds me of the time I asked the otherwise-excellent outgoing mayor, Michael Coleman (a true role model of civic leadership, I must say) if Columbus was interested in pursuing transit to capture more development demand in the form of sustainable TOD, and his response was “Columbus is so TOD, we now have Car2Go!”

The Case for Real Transit in Columbus

The background context is that Columbus is a community that harbors deeply anti-transit sentiments. It’s a car culture. As Columbus has re-urbanized and more or less “gentrified-in-place” (raising density while developing true mixed-income), it has found auto workarounds. The city routinely grants TIF deals to cover the costs of parking garages to facilitate neighborhood redevelopment. The frustrating thing, as a planner, is that Columbus is a really great city that has what it takes to be “the next Great American City” (sound trumpets) a la Austin or Portland. Transit is the one disconnect – the stubborn pitfall that Columbus can’t get out of.

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The essence of Columbus is neighborhoods, which is ironic for a city best-known for its iconic commercial spine. Above is the most important photo you will ever see (to-date) of Columbus. Of course I am biased, because it is my own, but this photo illustrates better than I could describe the relationship between downtown, the “neighborhoods,” Ohio State, and the High Street corridor. Despite being such a linear city (not to be fooled by the radiating hub-and-spoke of sprawl, density levels and economic activity literally follow High Street) many voting citizens in Columbus pretend to be pro-transit, but just unsure of where it could go or who would use it. This oft-repeated refrain requires the above aerial study. If any city were ripe for a transit corridor, it is Columbus. You don’t need a Nelson Nygaard study (though we have that, too) to tell you where a rail corridor should go, just go up high and say “Eureka, I have found it!”

cbus.JPG What gives Columbus so much potential is that it is a vastly underrated historic city. Overshadowed by the former fourth-largest (Cincinnati in the 1800s) and fifth-largest (Cleveland in the 30s, 40s, and 50s) cities – Columbus falls for the notion that it too is not historic. On the contrary, Columbus is one of the most historic state capital cities, and features some of the most impressive Victorian-era neighborhood fabric anywhere in the United States. These historic neighborhoods are also dense, walkable neighborhoods. However, it is also best summarized as a collection of independent fiefdoms (unique neighborhoods or “villages”) that have spurned planning and transit to stave off the threat of connectivity to their surroundings. A great example of this is Clintonville, a truly wonderful neighborhood whose infamously NIMBY residents are either known as Clintonvillains or the Independent Republic of Clintonville. I truly empathize for any developer feebly attempting to build very high-end apartments for “those people” (you know, renters, like myself).

These fiefdoms are wonderful places. They’re walkable, charming, and valuable. They could be very transit-supportive. Columbus has an almost-endless list of them, from German Village, to Beechwold, from Franklinton (an emerging fiefdom), to Olde Towne East (shout-out to those OTENA gentrifiers, Flag Wars!) and the rest of the “Villages,” be they Victorian, Italian, Merion, and so on. Their calling card is that they all occupy inner-city locations without inner-city connectivity. While I adore cobblestone and brick-paved streets for aesthetic and sense-of-place arguments, I suspect they have been preserved so well to inhibit drive-through traffic.

The divisions of Columbus bring us to realities about inequeality and the geography of opportunity. The Kirwan Institute, based at Ohio State, is an excellent think tank dedicated to the study of poverty and urban inequality, and best-known for “opportunity mapping.” Their Columbus Opportunity Map, essentially a blended metric of quality of life and economic opportunity across Columbus census tracts, is viewable on Arc online. You have to open the filter control and turn off the neighborhood layer, which is just meaningless color-blocking, and turn on the neighborhood opportunity index. You will then see the following map for all of Franklin County:

cbus.JPG

While economic opportunity follows High Street, those who enjoy that economic opportunity do not cross High Street. To the east lies a sea of neighborhoods cut off from the city’s spine, by railroads, freeways, etc. These neighborhoods’ problems are largely due to issues with access, whether it be to jobs, education, healthcare, etc. We need a transit network that connects these neighborhoods to the economic spine of Columbus. On top of that, truly linking the diverse and multifaceted (and almost entirely densely-populated) communities that line both sides of High Street would catalyze additional economic potential by bridging the gaps wherever they exist.

Toward the Right Solution

m-1_20map-0Columbus just won $150 million of funding through an incredible public-private partnership. Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City are all building their modern streetcars (trams) for less than that. However, Columbus needs much more than a downtown circulator streetcar. Columbus needs something like the M-1 Rail, which I’ve covered extensively, which serves a true need by filling the gap and forging strategic connectivity. The 3.3-mile corridor, envisioned as the first phase, connects two currently-disconnected rail systems and makes the broader Detroit Transit Authority bus grid more efficient. Ran by the suburban RTA (SMART), the M-1 Rail will also link the two disparate transit authorities serving Southeast Michigan, and it will do so through a corridor that links all of the city’s major economic, cultural, and institutional assets.

The M-1 Rail is a slam dunk because it is the perfect place-based transit project. It was also made possible by significant private- and philanthropic-sector contributions, which covered most of the cost, in addition to about $45 million in FTA grants.

Sound familiar?

Columbus needs an M-1 Rail, whether that is “smart” or not – something that provides real, meaningful transit. Columbus does not need a ride here and there for expecting mothers – it needs a transit pipeline for everyone.

Bus Rapid Promises

BRT advocacy, not unlike other aspects of equity planning, has developed this incredibly confrontational policy and advocacy brand. It is near impossible to find any good BRT articles out there that aren’t steeped with attacks on rail transit.

This of course is partly because, not unlike anything else in planning, the BRT names are all the same. Articles often come from the “Institute for Transportation and Development Policy” which is really a BRT-only think tank (all of their research includes cleverly-crafted attacks on rail projects). That said, it’s not fair for me to construe that as an attack on BRT, because that’s the way it is – if you have a concept, you need at least one really good think tank behind it. It’s a similar line of attack as the Boston Globe’s famous editorial that most convention centers have a Populous study behind it, which has never recommended against building a convention center.

This is called inherent or institutional bias, which is everywhere, including whatever side of any debate YOU find yourself. But just to be clear, don’t go looking to the ITDP for unbiased research on all modes of transportation. You won’t find it there, just like you won’t find it in many places. Jarrett Walker, a fore-front transit activist, calls this slippery slope the “technology wars.” So many of us agree on the importance and benefits of transit. The problem is that “transit” means vastly different things not just to people but communities as well.

However here are some choice bits…

NJ TOD Institute: Pittsburgh “A City of Buses”

(For the record, I have only ridden on the “T” light rail in Pittsburgh)

“The ITDP report documents $903 million in total investment along the line since construction, or roughly $3.59 million in development per dollar of transit investment as of 2012. “

one-million-dollars-639omkSo they built the busway for $251 dollars and 53 cents? First of all, this is fuzzy math. Second of all, it kind of undercuts whatever you’re advocating for when you resort to such fuzzy math. Third of all, if you work through this… $903 million in TOD, and they’ve created a proxy coefficient where they divide the TOD by the infrastructure cost.. They either forgot to carry a zero, or they just arbitrarily add the word million after every numerical figure.

The East Busway – which connects the East Liberty neighborhood to the downtown – cuts an hour drive down to a trip of 7 to 15 minutes by bus (see map).

Wow, a transit project cuts AN HOUR DRIVE down to a 7 min trip by bus? That’s a map that I’ve gotta see. See map:

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I’m curious which part of this is the 1 hour drive vs. 7 min bus ride. So I pulled up the schedule on the Port Authority website. I don’t see a 7 min interval, but Downtown to East Liberty is scheduled to take 10 minutes typically, which is close enough. I then used Google Directions to map the trip via car, which it says would take 14 minutes.

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ITDP must not have realized they can just take Baum Blvd to Bigelow Blvd. They probably stopped at a convenience store on the wrong side of the tracks and got some crazy directions or something. Surely they wouldn’t resort to intellectual dishonesty…

Ok one more…

ITDP quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“Facing funding shortages that rule out more expensive rail development, cities are clamoring to build BRT systems, which are up to 20 times less expensive,” Mr. Hook said.

Hook, line, and sinker. You heard it there first, but I’m morbidly curious to see what kind of BRT is being built for 1 / 20th the cost of a light rail corridor. Citylab did a great expose of America’s worst bus stops, perhaps ITDP is advocating for this one:

e569926d9I love this awesome picture of an IndyGO bus stop for so many reasons. For one, it’s their standard design (makes me wanna sign an angry petition whenever communities build special, artsy bus stops) so that’s good apparently.

That said, there is so much under realized technology utilized at this stop…

  1. Way finding (sign mounted to electric pole)
  2. Comfortable seating
  3. Vending (if you’re ok sharing w/ litter bugs)
  4. Landscaping (if you can call fencing that)
  5. Protective barrier from traffic (aka “curb”)

 

 

So let’s dig into this 1 / 20th claim a little more…

Early estimate of the cost of a Downtown-to-Oakland BRT is $200 million, or about one-tenth of what a Light Rail Transit extension to Oakland would cost, said Wendy Stern, Port Authority assistant general manager for planning and development.

So that implies that a light rail extension to Oakland would cost $4 billion.

Post-Gazette article explaining the cost differences:

Light rail would cost five to 10 times as much as the proposed $200 million BRT line, depending on how much tunneling or bridge construction would be needed to connect to the existing line. 

So now it’s 5-to-10 times as much, and mentions bridges and tunnels, which is interesting for connecting two districts that are on the same side of Pittsburgh’s rivers. This almost implies that they’d want to go down Carson and connect the booming Southside along the way, which actually could be a really good idea.

Bear in mind that the North Shore Connector cost nearly $550 million and extended the system just over a mile. The line to Oakland would need to be at least three times as long through a heavily built up and populated area.

And the argument shifts to bringing past projects into focus, which actually, is probably the best harbinger for projecting costs in any given city. I fully endorse this because it cuts through X-factors that separate different cities. For instance, Cleveland’s RTA refuses to allow single-track systems, because they don’t trust their rail operators to obey signals, which effectively doubles the cost of anything. Portland has used a lot of single track on extensions, where their goal is to make streetcar work as effectively as possible.

Here’s the obvious problem with using the North Shore Connector as a harbinger for what should be a land corridor:

north_shore_tunnelmap720

In learning about this, I also learned that there are two primary methods of tunneling: 1, “cut and cover,” which is not cheap but pales in comparison to “bored tunnels.” Bored tunnels are far from boring, but instead refers to the process of tunnel-boring which is not unlike digging your way out of Alcatraz.

Given the assets on the North Shore and the invaluable tunnel infrastructure Pittsburgh got out of the deal, $550 million isn’t bad. This should NOT be construed in any way as “$550 million just to go 1 mile.” They actually appear to be using $550 million per mile as a rail-transit cost figure. In this instance, transit activists (particularly those engaging in technology wars) should walk a mile through another transit technology’s route before rushing to judgment…or something like that. Here are some more appropriate cost proxies:

Charlotte LYNX light rail: $48.125 million / mile

OKC Streetcar: $25 million / mile

DC Streetcar: $90 million / mile

Portland Streetcar Phase 1 & 2: $12 million / mile

Portland RiverPlace Extension: $13 million / mile

Portland Gibbs Extension: $13 million / mile

Portland Lowell Extension: $12 million / mile

Portland OMSI Extension: $22.1 million / mile

Tucson Streetcar: $28.2 million / mile

KC Streetcar: $25 million / mile

Cincinnati Streetcar: $36 million / mile

Cleveland Healthline BRT: $27.7 million / mile

LA Orange Line BRT: $21 million / mile

Boston Silver Line BRT: $12.5 million / mile

KC Star article: Source for Cincy, KC, Tucson costs

Portland MAX: Source for Portland costs

National BRT Institute: Source for BRT costs

* PS, the NBRTI report also included several factual issues, including the claim that the Cleveland Healthline operates 5 minute frequencies, which is insulting to everyone who has waited 30 minutes in the middle of the day for a bus that’s stuck at red lights.

Some cities have this mentality of striving to make their rail investments as efficient as possible, and others have this mentality of striving to make their rail investments as inefficient as possible. Cincinnati’s RTA (SORTA) has even threatened to not operate their new streetcar. Most cities purposely operate abysmal transit frequencies as an effort to sabotage their own success. Time after time, when people outside the system force the city to build and operate rail transit infrastructure, you’re lucky to get them to grudgingly oblige. The two biggest X-factors I have come across is that some people lie, and others actually don’t want to succeed.

In the end, there are lies, damned lies, and then transit lies.

Linking Linden via Design

There are two types of cities that I have worked in, though I’m sure others abound. My experience however has been either economically-driven cities (Dallas, OKC) or equitably-driven cities (Cleveland, Columbus to some extent). For the economically-driven city, the bottom line is the bottom line. They will listen to city planners and urban designers who can offer economic development. For the equitably-driven city, it’s about quality of life for the disenfranchised.

412box7fsnpl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Cleveland after all is the birthplace of “equity planning,” which is a school of thought founded by Norm Krumholz that honed in on planning for the poor to the exclusion of others. Krumholz’s philosophy, which soon caught on in most major cities, was a response to the times, following race riots from which most major cities have yet to recover. Cleveland for certain was rocked by the Hough Riots of 1966 and the Glenville Riots of 1968. The groundbreaking literature on this matter was Krumholz’s 1975 Planning Policy Report, admirably discussed in this article by his fellow FAICP predecessor Bob Brown.

citywidemap20transparentRegardless of in which category a city may fall, no city is practicing planning for fun. Nobody in a major city, strapped for time and resources, has time on their hands to engage in academic exercises. Columbus is also an oddball hybrid community that is probably equally motivated by both the economy and equity. Just when you think economic development matters always win, the city’s disenfranchised communities get a big win. As far as putting our money where our mouth is: Nearly all place-based resources (CDBG, LIHTC, Urban Infrastructure Recovery Fund, grants, discretionary spending) are targeted to low-income neighborhoods, and nearly all TIF resources are targeted outside of the I-270 beltway, representing a strategy schism.

Cleveland Avenue in Columbus is the context for my most significant personal foray into equity planning – specifically the South Linden community located along Cleveland Avenue, between Hudson and 11th Avenue. This community was the focus of Ohio State’s Fall 2015 Community Design Studio with Dr. Jesus Lara, for which our client was the City of Columbus’ Celebrate One Initiative. Celebrate One is an initiative responding to Columbus’ worst-in-the-nation infant mortality statistics. After studying this matter in great detail, the city, county, Columbus Foundation, and other non-profit partners have concluded that infant mortality is spatially concentrated in areas that suffer from pollution, low walkability, high crime, economic distress, and substandard (unhealthy) housing stock.

There is a must-read study on this matter from Wash U in St. Louis. The takeaway: “Your ZIP code is a better determinant of your health than your genetic code.” When it comes to neighborhoods such as this, not only is equity planning a good approach, but it pays dividends to start making partnerships and inroads with public health officials. In equity-driven cities, the public health officials are going to hold a lot of sway, have more resources, and probably be sympathetic to planning goals. 

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In addition to astonishingly high infant mortality, the neighborhood also suffers from substandard and often lead-paint-covered housing, low walkability, high traffic noise, proximity to brownfields, poor air quality, and high crime. The high crime is in part due to broken street lights and un-maintained rear alleys that make the perfect spot for a shady drug deal gone bad. The rest are primarily due to poor transit access, adjacency to high-traffic I-71, and the speedway that is Cleveland Avenue (especially heavy commuter traffic that barrels through the neighborhood to bypass congested freeways).

By the way, Walk Score deduces that South Linden is the 42nd “most walkable” neighborhood in Columbus. This was determined not by visiting and documenting existing conditions, but rather through a computer algorithm that relies on “amenities” it picks up on Google Maps. Many of these “amenities” look nicer on Google Maps than they are in reality – many are no longer open at all – so the reality is actually much worse than Walk Score’s imputed result of “Somewhat Walkable,” but it is a good empirical starting point nonetheless.

Should one actually visit to document the existing conditions, I recommend just taking the #8 or #1 bus and just hopping on and off, talking to lots of neighborhood residents in between. Here are some photos from such an excursion:

The above photo with a bus is actually just the “typical bus stop,” which not unlike elsewhere in Columbus, is basically a pole with a sign. Despite its relatively low walkability, the community has some of the highest rates of transit ridership in the area (4,800 daily riders on the #1 Bus), due in part to the transit-dependent population (no car). Transit in this case is seen as a last resort, and due to its undesirability, is not only relegated out of the way of the area’s motorists, but it’s also ditched by transit riders themselves as soon as they can afford a car.

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To ameliorate this problem the city is giving the Cleveland Avenue corridor our first BRT system, albeit a BRT-lite. The Cleveland Avenue C-MAX is a $47.7-million project BRT with enhanced stations and rolling stock, but without a lane or signal priority. The C-MAX is one of the most significant recent investments in the northeast side of Columbus.

The C-MAX project is my base line for improving the South Linden community, to the extent that our Community Design Studio was tasked with creating design interventions that enhanced quality of life for this neighborhood’s residents. It’s an urban neighborhood, and it’s a transit-propensity neighborhood, so it should also be a walking neighborhood. Reaching people while they’re waiting for the bus is the most-targeted way to touch lives. It’s also a way for these design interventions to really help the people who live here, and not the people who don’t.

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As the member of our studio that focused on transit placemaking, I proposed two design interventions: Bus Box and the “Heart of Linden.”

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Bus Box is a bus shelter made by cutting, combing, and painting shipping containers. Not only is it cheap and trendy, bringing an avante garde style to the neighborhood, but additional “boxes” can be used for community info kiosks, a farmer’s stand at the bus stop, or a “bodega box” that just sells essentials.

It’s tailor-fit to this neighborhood’s needs, which is a food desert for its lack of retail and specifically fresh food options; despite efforts to build suitable retail space, area residents still can’t afford the rent. A lot of the neighborhoods carry-outs get themselves in trouble by selling mostly booze, cigarettes, and junk food in order to pay their rent. Rent won’t be a problem at a Bus Box, and successfully incubated retailers will then be in better position to afford rent in the bricks and mortar behind it.

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Heart of Linden is basically just taking the worst block in this neighborhood (albeit beautifully fenced-off), also located at the heart of it, and re-activating it. “Heart of Linden” has two main components, a scaled-up Bus Box that can basically become an edgy low-cost retail incubator, and a “Food Hub” not unlike the one proposed previously for Weinland Park. There is currently an effort underway for a similar Food Hub in South Linden, and it makes sense that this needed project (and a potential neighborhood improvement catalyst) locate on a prime site. All of the other uses are just programming expansions and connections to surrounding assets, like potential bike trails or the new library.

Bus Box is certainly more practical. It is built off of ideas I have seen in other cities, such as LAND Studio’s Bike Box project in Cleveland (where they built 8-10 of these). Heart of Linden, certainly a tougher project to take on, seeks to solve a number of challenges through forging the right connections. A lot of Linden’s problems stem from disconnectedness. It just isn’t a pleasant neighborhood in which to walk, so nobody is going to belabor themselves worrying about the pedestrians of South Linden.

But they should.

Beyond offering needed amenities in a well-connected site and layout, Heart of Linden is an intriguing idea as a “BRT-OD.” I’ve obviously written a lot about transit-oriented-development or TOD, and it goes without saying that I’m a believer in the power of rails toward the goal of generating this coveted prize. That said, I concede that BRT can move the needle a little bit. It won’t be the sole driver behind billions of dollars in TOD, but it can contribute, and it doesn’t hurt. So just as BRT is a practical innovation, what if the TOD model could similarly be innovated to fit that practicality? As such, a “BRT-OD” could be more of a temporary re-activation of a site, not unlike a pop-up city, and could rely on technological innovations to give it a lighter footprint and lower up-front building cost.

What if “BRT-OD” is a way forward in terms of integrating these BRT systems with surrounding low-income neighborhoods? I leave you with that thought.

Indy innovates BRT?

For all I know, my reputation for questioning most BRT projects probably precedes me. Not unlike most grant-funded initiatives that get off message in order to focus instead on a grantor/funder’s interests – the message that BRT is economic development is all wrong. BRT is one of many transit modes that a city may explore through the Alternatives Analysis phase of a fixed-guideway transit study. Other modes such as streetcar, light rail, or commuter rail will undoubtedly perform better on economic development.

BRT is a negotiated compromise between the ideal and the real; between what is aspirational and what is feasible. With lower up-front construction costs, yet higher long-term O+M costs, BRT is an easier proposition in a public finance system with no money for infrastructure. That BRT can also stimulate economic development is a good thing, but shouldn’t be confused as a unique advantage.

At the end of the day, it is still a bus. A bus is a bus is a bus. It’s still jerky, operates in traffic, like traffic – and for some reason, BRT signal prioritization hasn’t worked out as well as streetcar signal prioritization. A bus is a bus is a bus.

Or is it?

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Indianapolis, with its new Indy Connect BRT project, is pioneering the U.S.’ first all-electric rolling stock. These “buses,” if you can even call them that, feature rubber tires, an electric power source (allowing for smooth acceleration and deceleration), and feature a bullet-shaped nose and longer articulation. I’m just going throw out a qualitative observation that Indy Connect is the first of these BRT’s that actually fulfills its promise to be light rail-like. Though, I still cringe to read “light rail on tires.”

I’ll be interested to see what happens in this space, now that the project is funded, and seems to be on the fast track to implementation.