Dear COTA – A train is not a bus. And this is not 2004.

Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) spokesman Marty Stutz is pessimistic about rail service between downtown and Port Columbus airport, pointing out that  direct bus service failed decade ago due to lack of demand.  Mayor Michael Coleman Wants Planes And Trains At Port Columbus (WOSU)

But as financial services advertisements say – previous performance does not guarantee future results.

Let’s keep in mind that the proposed rail service focuses on travel between the airport and downtown – in other words, visitors to Our Fair City.   Visitors – especially Americans – have a greater aversion to riding a bus than a train in unfamiliar places.  There are several reasons, many relate to the fact that rail service is transparent (you know where it goes) and regular.  Yes, bus service can be that way, but rail trumps bus for clarity and comfort.  Visitors like both.

Things have changed since 2004.  The back to the city movement is strong in many places, including Columbus.  The Short North was nothing like it is today.  And given the amount of development currently under way or shovel-ready, the center city will be be denser and more active in the future.     Across the United State people are owning fewer cars and driving less.  Simply put, there will be more people – including locals  – who will be inclined to use public transit service between downtown and Port Columbus.

When thinking about transportation in Columbus, its better to be looking forward towards 2024 and not backwards to 2004.

Waiting on a Columbus train

One of the high points for me in Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman’s recent State of the City Address is an initiative to link downtown Columbus and Port Columbus airport with a rail line – New Task Force will Explore Airport-Downtown Rail Connection.  I’m a big fan of rail transportation – one of two reasons I love Europe (the other is cafes) – so I’m glad to see this moving forward.  This is a low-hanging fruit since a rail corridor already exists between the Columbus Convention Center and Port Columbus.  (In fact, the Columbus Convention Center was the site of the old Union Station – back to the future!).  This link may also be the first step in Columbus-Chicago high speed rail.

I moved recently from Salt Lake City.  SLC built an extensive light rail system over the past 15 years, and there are some contrasts and cautions worth noting.

A contrast: Columbus is starting with an airport link while SLC ended with this link.  This was due to political reasons: the Utah state legislature forced the Utah Transit Authority to make an airport link the last to be built so that the elitist business people and tourists in SLC would not be favored – despite the fact that tourism is one of the biggest industries in Utah.  In contrast, Columbus is using tourism as the motivator – more specifically, conventions, and even more specifically, Columbus’ attempt to attract both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in 2016.

A caution: while I’m a big fan of rail, I am not a fan of rail at any cost.  I think SLC overbuilt their light rail system too quickly, forcing UTA to cover its operating expenses by: i) having the most expensive public transit fares in the US; ii) running the light rail system on a circumscribed schedule (last train at 11pm; limited service on Sundays and holidays); and, iii) cutting back on bus service (e.g., after light rail, the last bus in our SLC neighborhood was at 8pm; and we did not live that far from the city center).

Despite the lack of rail, Columbus actually has good mobility options within the city core.  Bus service along the High Street corridor between downtown and Ohio State is pretty good – they even run a “night owl” bus on the weekends until 3am (after the bars close; what a concept!), and we are getting a downtown circulator bus.  CoGo (bike share) and Car2Go (car share) systems are available, taxis are plentiful, Uber is here and walking is an option given the density of activities in the Columbus core.

While I am a fan of rail, I do not necessarily advocate overbuilding a light rail system in Columbus.  Light rail along corridors such as downtown-airport-Easton Town Centre (the Rodeo Drive of the Midwest) make sense.  A light rail line from downtown to Dublin (a suburban center that is densifying as well) also makes sense.  But light rail everywhere does not make sense.   Bus rapid transit may be a good option in some places (such as along Cleveland Avenue and perhaps east-west along Broad Street).

Given the remarkable amount of in-fill development and densification that is happening in the Columbus city center, I would like to see transit options that enhance inner city living.  To me, a good start would be a trolley system along High Street between German Village and and Clintonville (of course I am biased since I live near the Short North).  Trolleys are not the same as light rail: light rail is about moving suburbanites to/from the city center.  Trolleys are about circulation within the inner city – as Jarrett Walker points out, trolleys are pedestrian enhancers.

Overall, I am pleased with what I see in inner city Columbus – the back to the city trend here is very strong, and Mayor Coleman has been farsighted in his focus on inner city development and investment in bike infrastructure.  So, yay downtown-airport rail!  And yay high speed train to Chicago!  But let’s not put all of our eggs into the light rail basket – let’s put the appropriate mobility technologies where they belong.