The Columbus, Ohio Subway System

There’s a story in this morning’s Columbus Dispatch about how the addition of a “smart lane” on Interstate 670 eastbound out of downtown has cut what was once a pretty annoying commute in half for most drivers.

​It’s a clever enough system: cameras monitor traffic flow and, when things start to get a bit slow in the middle of the afternoon, what was once the left shoulder turns into an additional lane, speeding everything up.  A lot of cities have this sort of thing but it’s pretty neat for Columbus.But at the end of the story a caveat appears:

Removing the traffic congestion on I-670 might have pushed problems farther north, though, according to some drivers. Rackley said traffic backs up on I-270 near the exits for Route 161 and Easton now.

​Before construction ended, northbound I-270 traffic cleared up after the interchange for Route 62, said Joe Wilson, who drives from Hamilton Road to Dublin on his afternoon commute. Now, it remains clogged up to Route 3,

For now the much-improved I-670 portion of things will make everyone feel better about the commute between downtown and the northeast suburbs, with the “everyone” including developers, no doubt, who will now have a somewhat easier time convincing people to build, buy or rent in that part of town. Eventually, though, the congestion that is getting kicked further up the road will get worse and, like vehicular acid reflux, traffic will gurgle back west on 670 and we’ll be right back where we started.This is a prime example of “induced demand.”

“Induced demand” describes the phenomenon in which increasing roadway capacity encourages more people to drive — and, in turn, for more development to occur along and at the terminus of the route — thus failing to improve congestion. It’s a phenomenon which has been studied extensively for the past 50 years or so, but one which most federal, state, and local departments of transportation fail or refuse to take into account as a part of their long-term planning. All that seems to be seen is the perceived need for more roads and more lanes with little thought to how they’ll all work together to fix, or more often, to exacerbate, traffic problems.

Not that it’ll ever become a Los Angeles or Atlanta-level nightmare or anything. Columbus traffic is not all that terrible for a city its size. And it’s not like this affects me all that greatly, as I work from home and can easily plan trips downtown or around town around rush hours.

But I think about Columbus traffic and, specifically, think about I-670 for two reasons: (1) back when I did work downtown, 670 was my commute; and (2) I-670’s very existence is a monument to all the mistakes Columbus — and almost every other city in the country — made as it grew.

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That was Columbus’ Union Station. You’re looking at the main entrance of it, as it sat on the east side of High Street, until it was demolished in 1979. When it was built, High Street in front of the station was elevated like an overpass. When you entered Union Station you walked downstairs from street level to the platforms.​After the demolition of the station, this portion of High Street looked like any other highway overpass. It just happened to be on overpass that was built before the highway. But that would come soon enough:

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That’s I-670, running along the path the tracks used to go. It was, for the most part, completed in the 1990s. That structure over the top of it wasn’t done until 2003, however. Compare this next photo with the old photo of Union Station above. They were taken from roughly the same spot:

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Yep, they built this restaurant/retail cap over the former tracks/current freeway in an effort to recall the railway station. It makes walking along High Street from the bustling Short North into downtown much more pleasant — you pass by shops and cafes on a nice sidewalk instead of walking next to concrete and a chain link fence over a freeway — but it’s not exactly grand like Union Station was.

When Union Station was torn down a great building was lost (though the main arch still exists, and has been relocated), but so too was even a shred of commitment Columbus had to a means of transportation that was not the automobile. Columbus has had no passenger railway service for 40 years and now stands, after Phoenix, as the second-largest city in the country that can make that dubious claim. Even the near-ghost town of Thurmond, West Virginia — population 5 — has regular passenger railways service. It’s rather messed up.

Columbus has a decent bus system, but like most urban bus systems, it is limited in reach, is under-utilized outside of a few major corridors, and is almost wholly ignored by suburban business commuters or those affected by the broader shift occasioned by the increasing suburbanization of poverty.

As is the case with intercity passenger rail service, Columbus has made no commitment to commuter rail, subway, light rail or streetcar service in any way.  It’s a city that grew later than most cities — well after the automobile age had kicked into high gear — and was built on a very large, automobile-friendly footprint. There was never a thought to NOT do everything at car, as opposed to human scale, the notion of building mass transit of any kind was at a historical nadir, and we continue to pay the price to this day.

One way we pay the price comes in the form of all of those traffic jams and the need for smart lanes. Another way is aesthetically. Columbus has made some decent efforts at re-urbanization in recent years, with as of yet, still relatively minimal gentrification issues compared to other cities of its size. But it’s still a sprawling city which is much more friendly for malls and big box development than it is for pedestrians. Suburban development shows no signs of abating and even the most meticulously-planned suburbs — including the one I live in — continue to expand out into once rural areas.

There’s also an economic cost. Right next to that story about I-670 in today’s paper is a story about how Columbus’ downtown — about a decade in to dramatically attempting to increase its residential population after years and years of it becoming abandoned at 5pm each day and deader than vaudeville on the weekends — cannot attract ground floor retail and restaurants. Sure, they’ve built apartments and condos like crazy, but the very, very wide blocks and three-and-four-lane one-way streets discourage pedestrian traffic and thus there simply isn’t enough walkup business. As business owners wait for more residents, perspective residents wait for more shops and restaurants, all of which delays the development of downtown.

​I don’t know that anything can be done about any of this, really. The street grid is the street grid and the massive footprint of this city — a city that continues to grow rapidly — is not going to shrink. The notion that the city could build some rail-based mass transit — The Columbus Subway — is almost nonsensical, even if there was the will and the funds to do so. But I’ve dreamt about it often in the 28 years since I first moved here.

A few years ago a graphic designer and Columbus native named Michael Tyznik, who apparently shared my dreams, created an imaginary transit map for the city — combining rail and rapid bus service — that’s so beautiful and thought-provoking that it almost makes me wanna cry. A glimpse:

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You can see the whole thing — as well as several earlier iterations from the past decade — here. If you’re at all familiar with Columbus you’ll likely stare at it for hours, imagining what your life would be like if this thing actually existed.

I know this is an impossibility. I know that the ship sailed on Columbus having good transit eons ago when they decided that a gigantic footprint for a medium-sized city was a good idea. But driving on I-670 always makes me wonder what it would’ve been like if it was the main NE/SW artery of a commuter rail system. And seeing maps like this makes me wonder what things would’ve been like if the people who built this city had one-tenth of the vision and imagination of a guy like Michael Tyznik.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.