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The Center of Ohio

Last weekend I visited Columbus. Much like my experience with Pittsburgh, I'd never visited before, despite living relatively nearby. This trip was a little different than most of my city-tour trips. Since I was staying with a friend of the blog, I was out in the suburbs, rather than downtown, where I typically prefer to set-up base. Some of my comments on Columbus may reflect that reality.

Don't Walk
Columbus is special in the sense that many of the neighborhoods in the city-limits would be suburban municipalities in other metropolitan areas. I stayed in Hilliard, which is technically in the city of Columbus, but certainly not an urban area. There are serious walkability problems. While the subdivisions do have sidewalks, many of the arterial roads that connect them to commercial activity do not. So while you can walk around the residential subdivision, you can forget about walking to anywhere you need to go. To rub salt on the wound, the subdivision where I stayed didn't even have street lights, so you could also forget about walking anywhere after dark.

Maybe this is the norm in suburbia and I'm just not used to it. It also reminded me of a fundamental flaw with tools like Walkscore, which calculates the distance between an address and amenities. Even though this particular subdivision gets a "car-dependent" label based on its score, that score is still inflated due to the fact that Walkscore doesn't know about the sidewalk and street light problem.

Feed the Meter
Because of where I was staying, driving was pretty much the only option to get down to Columbus's central city neighborhoods. We parked at a meter in the Short North neighborhood, and frankly, I was impressed. Most of the meters had cars parked at them, but there were a few open spaces when we arrived. Would that have been true if street parking were "free"? Probably not. The meters seemed fairly priced and had a 6-hour limit. The best part was that they accepted quarters, dimes and nickels, so if you have a pocket full of change but no quarters, you'd still be OK.

(from Flickr user Ryan Stanton)

I can't stop thinking about technology when it comes to parking meters. Will there be a day when we can put our phone number into the meter and get a call or a text 15 minutes before it's about to expire? Will there be a day when we can feed meters over the internet? I hope so.

Dead Zones
One problem I've experienced in a number of Midwestern cities, including Cleveland and Pittsburgh and now Columbus, is that there are walkable neighborhoods, but there are dead zones in-between them that make it awkward and uncomfortable to transition between them on foot. The dead zones aren't necessarily dangerous or unsafe, but they're dodgy. They have blank walls, closed business, and empty sidewalks.

In Columbus, I experienced this while walking between the Short North and University district. There is a stretch of N. High Street that simply isn't pleasant to walk. At least it's unpleasant enough to make us opt for taking the bus back to the Short North.

Walkable but disconnected neighborhoods present a dilemma for urbanisits. Yes, it's great to have walkable neighborhoods, but if there are dead zones between them, good transit needs to fill in the gap. Otherwise you wind up with a disproportionate number of people driving into the neighborhood, and then driving back out and on to the next neighborhood. This leads to a disproportionately high demand for parking spaces which in the worst cases destroys the very vibrancy that makes the neighborhood great.

I don't entirely blame people who drive everywhere in Columbus. The COTA bus system isn't very user friendly. I used Google Maps on my phone to determine which bus I needed to take to get back to Short North. It said to get on the #2. When the bus pulled up it said "2D High and Mound". For someone with no idea where High intersects with Mound, this information is essentially useless and not very confidence inspiring. I got on the bus and got to where I wanted to go, but I understand why people would feel iffy doing what I did.

Opportunities on High
Before I visited Columbus, someone told me that it's a very easy city to navigate because "everything is on High Street". While obviously not meant to be taken literally, there is some truth to the point. While there are buses and some "share the road" signs thrown up along High Street, the reality is that it's a corridor still basically owned by the cars.

Columbus is a city with a bus-exclusive transit system, but when it comes to thinking about light rail or BRT, the opportunities along the High Street corridor are enough to make most urbanists visiting for the first time drool.

(from Flickr user phxwebguy)

In my mind, I imagine a streetcar running up and down the length of high street, from North to South Columbus, at least, connecting OSU with the Short North and Downtown and German Village and everything else in between. I imagine bike lanes along the side of the road. Columbus is a great city for biking because the terrain is so flat. It's a shame to let that asset go to waste. Maybe my thinking is too idealist, but a well-designed project could easily transform Columbus is a greater city, in my mind.

Sister Cities
Ohio is rare in that it has three major cities and at least four other well-known secondary cities. Perhaps the best way I've heard the cities describes is as follows...

Cleveland has an east-coast feel. Similar to some of the gritty industrial cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore. Columbus is the quintessential Midwestern city, with ties to Chicago. And Cincinnati is certainly the most "southern" of Ohio's cities, with cultural similarities to some of the other cities in the south. Now that I've been to all of Ohio's cities, I've got to admit that there is some truth to this claim.


John Morris said…
Obviously, the most common dead zone in American cities is the parking lot or giant parking garage. The sad thing is how much money and effort has gone into creating these areas. It's a damaging feedback loop going on in which more land and highways used by cars create unpleasant local environments which in turn force people into their cars.

Pittsburgh has many which have a huge impact that eats up the best flat land in the city.
John Morris said…
Obviously, the most common dead zone in American cities is the parking lot or giant parking garage. The sad thing is how much money and effort has gone into creating these areas. It's a damaging feedback loop going on in which more land and highways used by cars create unpleasant local environments which in turn force people into their cars.

Pittsburgh has many which have a huge impact that eats up the best flat land in the city.
Kristen said…
We are a lot like this in Greensboro, NC. We have a good urban core, lots of neighborhoods that are technically suburbs, but a decent road network that if transit was spiffed up and more sidewalks and dead zones were filled in, we'd have a great place for urbanists and those who like urban principles to set up base.
Brett Thompson said…
I've lived in Ohio since 1998, as well as Columbus for five years (hey, five years this week!), and I'm into C&RP at OSU, so I'll throw some insight / info at your good evaluation.

Sidewalks: Columbus recognized its dearth of sidewalks in the 1990's, I do believe, and mandated then that any and all new development had to include sidewalks. It's very clear to see, in that new businesses are fronted by "sidewalks to nowhere" because their older neighbors were established before the mandate. The central City and denser neighborhoods have solid sidewalk networks, however.

Parking Meters: This is actually an issue that just recently (in the past couple of weeks) got resolved! The parking meters are now tailored to their individual neighborhoods' needs, and rates are going up in the busier parts of downtown; in turn, there are available grants for partial reimbursement of parking garage construction. No more surface lots!

Dead Zones: The area that you refer to (between the Short North and Campus) seems pretty sketchy, but it really isn't. It's just somewhat abandoned still..? You certainly wouldn't get mugged there on a Saturday night. I also hope that the construction projects in the area were noticeable! Just 20 years ago, the Short North was the hot-spot for drugs and prostitution. What a turnaround.

COTA: First, I'll admit that the bus system can be tricky. It's not always clear, but short of putting up big poster-signs at every other stop, I'm not sure what would make a transportation system clear to a visitor. Portland went all-out with their signage; maybe Columbus should too?

And we've been down the path of getting streetcars twice in the past three years -- the first time, the mayor's office didn't put together a convincing proposal; the second time, we were hit with the recession. OSU has an endowment worth +$1B, and now they're offering to straight-up pay for a chunk of streetcar / light rail construction from Campus to German Village. Picture it: Crimson and grey trains... ah...

Keep it up!
John said…
A couple of additions:

1. Hilliard is an independent city, not a part of Columbus. However, there are parts of Columbus that attend Hilliard schools, so it's essentially Hilliard. My guess is that you were in the Tuttle Crossing area?

2. The dead zone on High Street between OSU and the Short North is called Weinland Park. It has been shrinking as the Short North has grown northward and the OSU gateway project created a southern anchor for Ohio State's section of High Street.

3. The kind of parking meter technology you imagine exists in other cities, including Chicago.
Anonymous said…
Hello Rob,

I recently sold my house in one of Columbus' inner-city neighborhoods and have taken up temporary residency in one of the "sub-urban" sections inside the city limits.

It's my first (and final) attempt at non-ubran living here and I have similar observations. Here's the link to my article:
Rob Pitingolo said…
To clarify: Yes, I was in the Tuttle Crossing area.
Michael Lewyn said…
Re sidewalks: my sense is that it is more common for commercial streets to have sidewalks than residential- I think there are more suburbs with sidewalks on commercial streets but not residential. But as your experience shows there are exceptions.
John said…
"Columbus recognized its dearth of sidewalks in the 1990's, I do believe, and mandated then that any and all new development had to include sidewalks."

There are two problems with this. First, sidewalks alone do not make a place walkable, although they basically are a prerequisite. Second, the city has failed to enforce it's mandate in some new developments, such as Polaris Parkway.
Many of the issues you bring up are improving or being addressed, but I think they should have already been done for the most part. Places like Hilliard already shot themselves in the foot when it comes to walkability and the best thing they can do is make their old town center (Hilliard has one) a pleasant place for pedestrians.

The dead zones are an issue, but the one you mention has recently seen two mixed use apartment buildings bridging the gap on either end and throw in a brand new bar that opened in the area and there are more eyes on the street at night. Just to nitpick, Weinland Park is east of this stretch of High and not a place to wander at night while to the west is the Peach District which is much, much more pleasant (for full disclosure that's where I live) If you walked from the Short North to Downtown at night straight down High from the convention center there's a railroad bridge you have to cross with nothing on either side and you have to walk a couple blocks south on High which is just lined with office buildings, but luckily Barrio is very visible with it's outdoor patio so you'll know there's at least someplace inviting during your boring 3 block walk down an empty sidewalk. It doesn't help that Nationwide Blvd is ridiculously wide and not very welcoming for those venturing into Downtown from up north. Once you go into the other business districts the dead zones become much more prominent.

Aside from that you have to know where the urban business district islands are located throughout the city. If you want to get a better idea for what these areas look like I've photo-documented most of them in my Columbus neighborhood guide along with corresponding maps and destinations in each and they certainly vary a great deal.

COTA really isn't that bad, especially on High. The #2 goes straight up and down the street from Downtown and takes you to Clintonville (worth checking out) as does the #21 for late weekend nights.

As an urbanite and an avid vehicular cyclist I disagree with the need for a streetcar here. There are plenty of other urban areas that could use the boost for the walkability that would come with the entrepreneurs and urban infill thanks to a streetcar. With no other lane to go we'd be subjected to getting our tires stuck in streetcar tracks.

Bike lanes were not put on High because the street is too narrow and on-street parking is needed for businesses. All bike lanes do anyway is make you less visible to motorists which increases your chances of getting hit like the cyclists who have died while properly using Portland's bike lanes. If you know what you're doing High St is not a problem for cyclists and I regularly control the right-hand lane everyday without issue. As for most vehicles on the street being cars, well, that's the case in NYC too, so I don't think that's a fair criticism. I do regularly see cyclists, scooterists, and motorcyclists making their way down High and even at times skateboarders.
B. P. Beckley said…
Columbus is special in the sense that many of the neighborhoods in the city-limits would be suburban municipalities in other metropolitan areas.

Funny, I moved to Cleveland from the DC area, and I thought the incredible profusion of local governments was the wierdest thing, and I still think it has a lot of negatives, particularly in this era of regional decline. Lots of municipalities is one of those luxuries you can really only afford when times are good....

By Cuyahoga County standards, there are very few independent municipalities in the DC area, with the exception of northern Prince George's County, MD. The county governments are the big kahunas there, not the cities/towns.
Anonymous said… - you can already do this in DC!

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