Two posts today on two separate blogs on how mass transit fits into a renewed downtown Columbus. First up is John Kazalia from About.com, comparing Columbus to Portland:
Portland has lots of transit. LOTS OF IT. Light rail from east suburbs through downtown to west suburbs. A north-south streetcar line. Busways and busses everywhere. And most of it goes 24/7. And their ridership numbers show it–Portland transit gets as many riders in two months as COTA gets in a year….
What is there in downtown Columbus to ride a streetcar past at this point? Pretty much a dead mall and state office towers.
Of course, would the streetcars be the catalyst to bring things back to downtown Columbus? I don’t have a definite answer, but having seen downtown Portland I can say that Columbus has miles to go before our downtown is like theirs. Much, much, much more than just building streetcar lines.
Jamie Fellrath of Bike Commuting in Columbus (and into the blogroll with ye) left an interesting comment:
If Columbus could emulate them we would be in so much better shape. But it’s going to take more than just a trolley or some bike lanes - it’s going to take MUCH stricter zoning laws and greater cooperation between Columbus and the suburbs than we have now.
As long as Dublin, Gahanna, Hilliard, Delaware, etc. are pulling businesses outside of city limits, all the trolleys in the world won’t make a lick of difference.
It seems as if Jamie is asking for those satellite cities to cooperate in the destruction of their own business base, which of course is never going to happen. I believe Jamie’s view is based on the old paradigm of the downtown area having all the businesses, be it jobs or destinations like stores and restaurants, and the surrounding areas having all the homes- bedroom communities, as it were. This supports the classic urban mass transit model- all tracks lead downtown. It works best in New York due to that city’s unique geography. But even there, it works best if you work in Manhattan. It’s a real bitch to travel from Brooklyn to Queens, for example. So you can see how mass transit would be easier if businesses were coerced into operating downtown. But it’s a non-starter.
The other post is from Columbusite, whose point #5 on improving downtown is:
COTA, if it is to be useful at all, needs to stop serving sprawling suburbs which were built with total disregard for mass-transit. They aren’t wanted there and they cannot serve these areas well anyway. COTA needs to focus on proving good serve in urban areas, where they improve service like shortening waiting intervals. Streetcars would still be preferred since they don’t have the stigma that buses do, it’s hard to get lost on them, and they attract economic development which buses don’t since those routes could just disappear, negating any investment related to there being mass-transit.
This is the minimalist plan: the streetcars go downtown and to surrounding urban neighborhoods, but don’t really serve the larger metro area- not directly anyway. This is actually Columbus’s current streetcar plan, whose three lines would connect downtown to the Short North, Arena District, and German Village.
Like John, I’m agnostic on whether this would help. It really is a chicken and egg problem for downtown. Can new downtown destinations survive without an extant transit system to deliver customers? Will building a light rail or streetcar system spur downtown development? Columbusite says:
A very general observation but for a city our size to start becoming a 24/7 city we need around 10% of the total urban population downtown, which would be 30,000 people. Streetcars have proven themselves in spurring such development.
If such a plan works, and downtown becomes a much bigger destination, there then might be a call for a metro-area transit plan involving heavier rail. But even so, it’s going against the urban decentralization trend of the last 50 years.