Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Property owners in the Ohio capital's core are rethinking the relationship between cars and jobs.
Despite a surge of redevelopment in downtown Columbus, office rents are tumbling and vacancy rates are on the up. The problem, business leaders say: Lack of parking.
A structured parking space in the Ohio capital’s space-crunched core runs nearly $25,000 a year, which typically isn’t covered by revenues. So developers feel hamstrung from building new garages, and the city is wary of subsidizing them; building to meet parking demand, after all, is an exercise in futility. Meanwhile, employers fear they’re losing ground to suburban competitors.
Now Columbus has found an out-of-the-box solution, following a vote by downtown property owners last week. Starting next summer, they’ll buy transit passes for thousands of workers.
Some 43,000 employees inside a special improvement district will be eligible for annual bus passes, free to them and paid for primarily by the 550 building owners in the area. “Capital Crossroads” property holders will pay 3 cents per square foot of space per year, which will generate about half of the $5 million subsidy. Grants and fundraising by Capital Crossroads board leaders will raise the rest. The Central Ohio Transit Authority has said it will offer the passes at a deep discount.
The decision follows a successful pilot that ran from June 2015 through January 2017, which doubled the share of bus commuters among 844 employees at four companies in the district from 6.4 percent to 12.2 percent.
If those results can be replicated across the entire downtown district, “Capital Crossroads estimates that it would free up 2,400 parking spaces—about four parking garages—and allow for 2,900 more people to work in the district,” according to the Columbus Dispatch. “Between 4,000 and 5,000 people would trade their cars for COTA on their commute, the district estimates.”
In some ways, Columbus’ solution is a textbook “transportation demand management” strategy to nudge drivers out of single-occupancy cars, and reduce congestion, pollution, and road wear. San Francisco, Boulder, Cambridge, and others have TDM ordinances requiring developers to include transit-oriented amenities in new properties. Cities all over the country require developers to pay infrastructure impact fees, which often feed transit budgets. And employers often help cover the cost of their employees’ transit passes.
But this program will be the first in the country where bus passes are directly funded by property owners, according to Cleve Ricksecker, executive director of Capital Crossroads, and many cities are keeping a watchful eye on its deployment. “The more people who think about this, the more sense it makes,” Ricksecker told the Columbus Dispatch.
There is deep and rather remarkable logic coming to the surface here. As the famed transportation scholar Donald Shoup has put it, the true costs of parking are largely hidden from drivers. Developers, property owners, employers, and cities subsidize the costs of parking infrastructure because of the seemingly un-severable connection they make between car access and economic viability. Columbus’s new program adds capacity to the number of commuters downtown can handle, and it also shows an optimism among property owners—who have everything to lose—that cars aren’t everything when it comes to a thriving downtown economy.
Transportation demand management isn’t a silver bullet; many programs that pay commuters to take transit rather than drive have not yielded enduring behavioral changes. Some critics say that courting transit commuters with free passes takes the pressure off transportation authorities to build the higher-capacity, higher-frequency service that would organically attract more riders.
Given that it relies on grants and fundraising for half of its budget, the Columbus model isn’t necessarily built to last. But Columbus—the largest U.S. city without rail transit of any kind—has been aggressively pursuing badly needed transit investments lately. Following the lead of Houston and Seattle, COTA recently flipped the switch on a completely redesigned bus network, which it believes will lift flatlining ridership.* The city also aims to leverage $1 billion in local support to supplement a $50 million “smart cities” DOT grant; the plan is to build out bus rapid transit, deploy universal fare cards and transportation kiosks, and expand car-sharing options to connect Columbusites across the economic spectrum to greater opportunity.
Impressive work for the Midwestern city that all but invented minimum parking requirements nearly 100 years ago. Planners across the country followed suit, tethering cars to job access in city code. Now Columbus is undoing that braid.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that COTA ridership was in decline.