“A world-class city in every category … except one”

Everyone in Columbus seems to want a better way to get around. Republicans, Democrats, civic leaders, artists, neighborhood activists and more called out the city's car-centric transportation system, which they say hinders economic development, pollutes the environment and disproportionately hurts the poor.

The results weren't a surprise. When this magazine last asked community leaders six years ago how the city could improve, transportation also rose to the top. Which raises a question: If everyone in town wants better options, why have things remained stubbornly unchanged for so long?

“I think our priorities are like cigarettes,” says Elissa Schneider, chair of Transit Columbus. “You know you need to quit, you want to quit, you want to live a different way. But it's so convenient, and it's there, and it's what you go to. It's the way this city was built.”

Schneider speaks from experience. Over a cup of tea at Fox in the Snow Café on a late March morning, Schneider talks about the challenges she faces commuting from her Short North home to her job in Grove City. The committed public transit advocate would love to take the bus to her job. Unfortunately, it's not feasible—an hour-and-a-half ride, plus a difficult half-mile walk. “We really have one primary mode that works, and if you're not in a car, you've got a problem getting from place to place,” Schneider says. “It's not impossible, but it's not easy and open for people to really be able to move around the city, to spend money, to go to work, to pick their kids up, all these daily things we do in life to get from one place to another. “

Survey respondents suggested plenty of ideas, including more pedestrian-friendly streets, improved Uber service and connected bikeways. But better mass transit was the most common refrain. “Columbus is becoming a world-class city in every category I can think of … except one: mass transit,” wrote Peter Macrae of Macrae ARCHitecture. “Our ability to grow and prosper as a city has a finite end to it unless we unite and fulfill the goal of establishing a mass-transit system for the city and surrounding area.”

Indeed, Central Ohio is expected to grow dramatically, up to 1 million more people by 2050, according to the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. “What that tells us, along with development trends and the preferences around the type of communities that people are expecting, is that keeping up with just making our current system better may not be enough, and that we really need to look at more transportation options—new technologies, new investments—to get ahead of that growth,” says William Murdock, executive director of MORPC.

This summer, the Central Ohio Transit Authority is expected to finalize its NextGen plan, a top-to-bottom redesign of its bus system. Add to the mix an injection of Smart City funds—up to $140 million from government and private sources that aims to turn Columbus into a high-tech transportation hub—and you've got a recipe for major transportation changes in Central Ohio in the coming years.

But what might those changes look like? Many survey respondents called for rail service—commuter lines connecting the suburbs with Downtown, for instance. That remains a possibility, but with the rapid development of autonomous vehicles and other high-tech transportation options that potentially utililize the roads and highways already in place, rail might not be the right solution for Columbus, the largest city in the U.S. without any passenger train service. “We've got to be able to use the best technology that's available and apply it to public transportation,” says COTA CEO Curtis Stitt.