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.”

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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.

1922221_189815764686554_1363053789_n

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.

CityLab shout-out for Linden

Great article on CityLab today, reporting on the potential synergies from several things Columbus is doing in the transportation space, both low-tech and high-tech… The obvious omission being any rail-based transit system whatsoever, which has long evaded Columbus.

smartcitychallengefinalistsmap_0Despite this, Columbus is moving forward with smaller-scale transportation programs, including an exciting application for US DOT’s $50 million Smart City Challenge Grant – for which Columbus is competing against Austin, SF, KCMO, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Portland – all cities with rail-based transit (although Austin is iffy). Columbus’ proposal for the Smart City Challenge is a universal transit card that would interface with COTA buses, ride/car-sharing apps, taxis, etc., with vending kiosks dispersed throughout the city.

bus box

In addition to a universal transit card pilot, Columbus is investing in a BRT-lite system to serve the Linden neighborhood on the city’s northeast side, which was also the focus of my 2015 Community Design Studio at Ohio State. Selfish plug – very excited that the CityLab article mentioned and linked to my personal studio project, and rather than focusing on the specifics (which was not the point) instead discussed the broader hope that the C-MAX BRT project could serve as a catalyst for healthy neighborhood change, concentrating riders at stations that can incubate neighborhood retail and farmer’s markets.

All of this is to show that not all hope is lost if a city can not (or does not want to) do full-blown rail-based transit. It is also great, not to mention highly-appreciated, when CityLab gets it right and uses their muse to highlight actual innovation and hard work. I also appreciated that CityLab opens the article discussing the lives that this is all intended to improve.