The city of Columbus, Ohio is good at a lot of things. It’s gaining on nearby neighbor Cincinnati, with a current population of nearly 880,000 and a metropolitan population of over 2,078,000—enough to make it the 14th largest city in the U.S. It also routinely ranks favorably on best places to live, work and retire lists, and it has a growing reputation for fostering small businesses and tech.
When it comes to public transportation, however, Columbus is an anomaly. It’s the only U.S. city of its size to offer no passenger train service, and establishing an inter- or intra-city service has been a point of intense debate since the 1979 closure of Amtrak’s National Limited line. When contrasted with Denver and Salt Lake City, two cities with smaller populations and viable rail systems, the continued lack is an understandable concern.
That said, rail service is not the only mode that makes a public transportation system work. In Columbus’ case, an innovative approach to another public transport format, combined with serious potential to re-adopt rail transport in the most dramatic fashion possible, make the city a very exciting case study.
The Columbus Approach to Transport
How has Columbus gone so long without public rail? Quite simply, it’s depended on buses.
On its face, a major city investing a not-insignificant chunk of its transport future in buses is incongruous with national trends. According to The Washington Post, nearly 90% of major U.S. markets saw ridership decline in 2017, reflecting similar declines in bus (5%) and overall transport usage (the lowest since 2005) nationwide. Digital-era changes to the ways we live and work play a serious role in this decreased ridership: the rising prevalence of remote work has impacted transit numbers, as has the increasing likelihood that a customer looking for a ride will turn to rideshare services.
But for Columbus, a route redesign and a focus on bus rapid transit has been the answer so far. In response to a job market that pulled people from the downtown area into the suburbs, the city spent four years and $9.4 million gathering feedback and adjusting routes that had been in place for a long time—in some cases, since 1974. In 2016, the city was awarded a $40 million grant from the US Department of Transportation as part of the Smart City Initiative, and has since grown that number to $500 million thanks to pledges from local businesses, private partners, universities and the state. It’s this kind of investment in the future that will allow Columbus’ transit to flourish long term. In the short term, a bus rapid transit initiative will alleviate pressure on high-density city roadways, a multi-modal trip planning platform is in the works and testing of a self-driving shuttle recently kicked off.
So, yes, Columbus may have been behind on its transit offerings. But through revamping its existing systems and planning strategically for the future, the city is poised to make real inroads on the problems facing today’s major transit markets.
Will Hyperloop Come to Columbus?
With its eye on the transit prize, Columbus has also thrown its hat in the ring for hyperloop service, the high-speed magnetic levitation train solution in development by Virgin Hyperloop One, among others. A potential route of Pittsburgh-Columbus-Chicago was selected by Virgin Hyperloop One as one of 10 winners of its Hyperloop One Global Challenge, and the route was considered in an environmental impact study in the summer of 2018, putting its likelihood of development ahead of similar projects. With trips planned at 1080 kilometers per hour, the hyperloop is an appealing opportunity to bring the three cities closer together; it would shorten the trip between Pittsburgh and Chicago from over seven hours to less than 45 minutes. Whether or not the technology gets off the ground is yet to be seen, but the benefit to Columbus to be able to move people that quickly can only be guessed at.
With hyperloop in its back pocket and ongoing bus modernization efforts underway, Columbus is demonstrating how a transit system mired in the past can adapt to the times. Smaller-sized cities should take note; Columbus may have fallen behind by some measures, but it isn’t likely to stay there very long.
Image Credits: f11photo / Shutterstock