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Downtown Columbus, Ohio: A case study in the mobility revolution

February 25, 2019

By Phil Schaeffing

From scooters to self-driving shuttles, an urban planner returns to his hometown and sees the future of mobility

It’s an exciting time for those of us dealing with the inner workings of downtowns and addressing questions such as how people move around, how technology can improve our urban cores, and how cities can adapt to a rapidly changing mobility landscape. One city working hard on those questions is Columbus, Ohio, thanks to its selection from among 78 cities as the winner of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. That distinction brought $40 million in funding for testing ways to blend data and technology to “help people and goods move more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently.”

Columbus also happens to be my hometown. Its downtown has changed substantially over the past 20 years, adding housing and new retail, dining, and open space options that have attracted many new people. On a recent visit, I tried two emerging forms of mobility that recently debuted downtown and got a hint of what they might mean for Columbus—and downtowns generally.

Instead of driving from Short North to downtown, the author and his wife took their first rides on e-scooters to get a feel for this still-novel option. 

The scooters are coming! The scooters are coming!

E-scooters were a hot topic in 2018. After companies like Lime and Bird unleashed scores of them unexpectedly in various downtowns, it seemed that people either loved them or hated them—which often happens with any technology disrupting the norm. Self-driving cars had already been making a splash, and predictions about them—when they’ll enter mass production and how they’ll impact cities—are rampant. Together with ride sharing (Uber and Lyft), bike sharing, and car sharing (Zipcar), emerging technologies have the potential to transform how people get around growing downtowns like Columbus.

My visit started in the Short North, a hip neighborhood of galleries, local shops, bars, restaurants, and active construction sites. After exploring a bit, my wife and I started walking toward downtown when we saw two Lime scooters sitting on the sidewalk. We downloaded the app and within minutes hopped on for our first ride. We quickly got the hang of them and zipped downtown toward Columbus Commons.

For scooter riders to feel comfortable and be safe, Columbus (and all cities) will need to add more infrastructure like bicycle lanes—and soon.

The scooters effectively extended our walking range. Without them, we’d have faced either a long walk in the cold or going back to our car, driving 1.5 miles, and finding another parking spot. Using the scooters reduced our greenhouse gas emissions, encouraged us to explore, and kept us more active.

But cities can’t reap those benefits without paying attention to regulation and rider etiquette. People complain about users riding on sidewalks or leaving scooters where they block pedestrians. Scooter riders have been seriously injured and even killed in the past year.

What’s a city to do?

Transportation for America, an alliance of elected business and civic leaders from communities across the country, recently released the Shared Micromobility Playbook to explore a comprehensive policy for local governments. One key component is street design. While it makes sense to separate pedestrians from faster scooter riders, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to put scooters in the road where even faster (and much bigger) cars endanger them. For scooter riders to feel comfortable and be safe, Columbus (and all cities) will need to add more infrastructure like bicycle lanes—and soon.

Next, we scootered over to the Scioto Mile, a beautiful new public space reclaiming land along the Scioto River. We parked near a bike rack and waited a few minutes to hop on May Mobility’s Smart Circuit, a new self-driving shuttle that connects multiple destinations around the river. Our ride smoothly navigated traffic while the operator explained the technology refinement and testing under way. The four-seat vehicle was low-speed and mostly self-driving, although the operator took control at a couple of intersections to ensure safety.

An automated shuttle travels to multiple sites on both sides of the downtown Scioto Mile riverside park (although a human takes the wheel when crossing intersections).

If I worked or lived in downtown Columbus, this route wouldn’t seem very useful. Though, for us as visitors, it offered an exciting chance to experience the future of mobility while visiting destinations like the Center of Science and Industry, the newly rebuilt National Veteran’s Memorial and Museum, and the Smart Columbus Experience Center, where an interactive showroom highlights progress under the Smart City Challenge grant. To fully demonstrate this technology’s real-world potential, future routes will need to be more functional and meet demonstrated daily need for residents and workers.

Even so, this shuttle illustrates the technology’s potential for urban areas. Shared self-driving shuttle routes can reduce or eliminate trips in individual private cars; provide more independence for the young, the old, and those physically unable to drive; and increase safety for pedestrians and bicyclists. As the technology evolves, proper regulation and planning will be essential to ensuring that self-driving cars benefit and strengthen urban environments (under a shared model, where everyone owns a membership to use a shared vehicle), rather than enabling sprawl and encouraging more vehicle miles traveled (under a private model, where everyone owns a personal self-driving car).

The future of mobility in downtowns

Returning to my hometown, I could see the benefit of e-scooters for urban areas, especially to connect parts of downtown just beyond a comfortable walking distance or separated from walkable areas by barriers like highways or large parking lots. Scooter trips can encourage people to walk more (with health benefits), explore more, and visit new places or businesses without hopping in a car or Uber. Self-driving shuttles will likely roll out more slowly than the scooters did in 2018 (for one thing, the technology is far more complicated) and will represent another sea change in mobility. In both cases, cities will need to set policies to make sure the technology benefits urban areas rather than detracting from their vitality.

Predicting the future is never easy. Urbanists, policymakers, and industry leaders will want to keep a close eye on Columbus. It is one of the few places piloting both these technologies in real time. Testing in Columbus will hold implications for other cities and how they control, encourage, and integrate new forms of mobility—including ones we haven’t even dreamed of yet.

  • Phil Schaeffing

    Phil is a planner and urban designer that integrates his architecture background with market economics, transportation, and public policy to create progressive plans crafted to the needs of each community he works in.

    Contact Phil
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