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Two years ago I sold my car.  I haven’t driven since and I haven’t given it a second thought.

The convenience of not having a car – and indeed it is a convenience to avoid paying for  gas, parking, insurance, maintenance, etc…. is in direct proportion to population density   and the frequency in service of public transit.  These two situations are related.

While Chicago’s population density is on average 11,864 per square mile, my neighborhood is at 33,000 per square mile.  Because of this density, transit routes are more profitable.  With three L stops, express bus service as well as local service, getting to and from is a snap with 24/7 train service and 18/7 bus service.

When the need arrises for a taxi, the rides are short and inexpensive.  Overall, transit connects both airports, and the Amtrak station.  Regional trains connects Chicago to Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan.  I can visit friends in Milwaukee or take a trip to the beaches of Michigan.

With this density comes a level of profit for the providers of goods and services.  Four full-sized grocery stores serve the area.  Two Walgreen’s and two CVS’, each no more than a half mile apart.  Scores of restaurants and bars are here as well as a new library.   Two Target stores are three miles apart, each in an adjoining neighborhood.  For the most part, everything is within walking distance and there are days when I don’t need public transit at all.

Within the city limits owning a car is discouraged through covert measures.  Due to the scarcity of available land, parking is a premium and priced as such.  Cars in the city require a permit.  Gasoline is highly taxed.  Residential buildings do not require a 1:1 ratio for parking – it would be too costly, regardless and pre-war buildings have no parking.  Toll roads act as a barrier, and now  city streets are being narrowed for the sake of moving the population more efficiently through the addition of bike lanes and BRT (bus rapid transit) lanes.

These circumstances combined create an environment where life without a car is quite convenient.   And that is precisely why I made the decision to live here, car-free and stress free.   It’s not complicated, but I did have to leave Ohio in order to live this way.

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I laughed out loud when I read the Columbus Dispatch editorial stating that COTA buses  are to blame for the 45 empty store fronts along High Street in downtown Columbus.

The editorial states that, according to a downtown strategic plan endorsed last year by the Downtown Commission and Columbus City Council, bus traffic along High Street increases congestion, blocks storefronts and prevents on-street parking.

There are numerous valid reasons why 45 High Street storefronts remain vacant and public transit is not one of them.

We could look back to 1989 when City Center removed pedestrian traffic from once vibrant streets and encapsulated it inside an urban bunker.  While Columbus wasn’t the only city to duplicate sub-urban shopping facilities in a downtown environment, it none the less did what every other one of it’s kind did – it took pedestrians off of the linear path of traditional downtown shopping.

While perhaps a magnet for the fifteen-odd-years of it’s success, City Center didn’t appear to do much for the businesses around it.  It didn’t even shore up enough business at the once acclaimed downtown Lazarus to keep it afloat.

Ten years ago there were dilapidated store fronts along High Street just as there are today.  From Broad north to Gay Street there was nothing of significance, although there was an Arby’s on the west side of the street.  From Gay north to Long one side of the street continues to garner no interest outside of a surface parking lot.

On the east side of the street Cafe Brioso started attracting a lunch crowd right around the time of City Center’s steep decline.  Cafe Brioso is perhaps the one pivotal business that brought about any positive change along downtowns portion of High Street prior to the razing of City Center.

We could also look back to Columubus’ land-use policy and determine that the City spent decades annexing unincorporated land, building out the utilities and thus creating long-term sprawl.  The City of Columbus could have spent that money investing in upgrading existing infrastructure which would have bolstered the health of center-city neighborhoods, keeping and attracting new residents.  Rather, the City let the inner city decay.

We could look at ODOT’s policy of neglecting public transit projects and instead funding the expansion of roadways and interchanges.  Combined with Columbus’ land use policies and inner city neglect its no wonder that retail development followed the population, leaving downtown behind.

But let’s look at what we have today for a moment.  Busses along High Street are only lined up along High Street during non-business hours.  The 9pm, 10pm, 11pm and 12am line-ups do line an entire block on either side of street.  For about 15 minutes.

Northbound busses line up in front of the State House and southbound busses line up on the west side of the High Street in front of COTA’s headquarters and adjacent to a small surface parking lot.  Once they depart, they spread out rather evenly.

Alleged bus congestion did nothing to inhibit pedestrians that joined the protests at the State House earlier in the year.  Bus traffic doesn’t appear to be a hinderance to retail vibrancy in the Short North either.

What hinders business downtown is the perceived lack of safety.  Empty blocks, blank street-level facades of Federal buildings and the deep set back such as the Nationwide campus do nothing to invite pedestrians.  Add in the crumbling plaster, dirty windows and mismatched efforts of 1970’s style “modernization” and High Street does indeed look unappealing.

In Chicago busses line the most magnificent shopping district in the mid-west – North Michigan Avenue.  Lots of busses and the extra-long flexible busses. So many busses that the bus stop signs are printed on all four sides of the post.  The same holds true on Chicago’s State Street in the Loop.

On Minneapolis’ downtown stretch of Nicolette Mall busses are the only traffic allowed.  They connect to the light-rail line.  Minneapolis’s Uptown shopping district is also lined with busses.  To claim that bus congestion is a deterrent to filling vacant [class C and below] retail space in downtown Columbus is ludicrous.

Essentially, there is nothing inhabitable left on High Street downtown.  And COTA busses are responsible for this?

If there’s a place to lay blame it can only be with the leadership of the City and the Columbus City Council.  Poor planning, lack of leadership, lack of vision, lack of investment and a misguided land use policy has left downtown Columbus in a shambles.

And somehow the folks at the Columbus Dispatch believe they have a say in what’s next?  Perhaps it should be noted that the decline in size and content of the Columbus Dispatch coincides with the decline of downtown Columbus.  So, yeah, I guess the Columbus Dispatch is influential.

 

 

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If you’d like to travel on the Ohio rails with me to Chicago, I’m buying.

When I took my first Amtrak trip in September of 2008 I would have never imagined that I’d be commuting on Amtrak just two years later.   Now, in just a little over two-years time I’ve earned enough points to get a bedroom car for my winter trip through the Rockies to Salt Lake City.

In addition to my regular commutes to and from Chicago/Toledo I’ve ventured to both Washington DC and Minneapolis via Amtrak.  Allow me to add that the route to DC through the Allegheny mountains is simply spectacular.

Over the past couple of years my friends and colleagues have heard me talk about my train trips and some of them started asking questions about how and when one books and travels on Amtrak.  Some of them have taken the time to book trips.

A colleague and his wife booked a sleeper car to Chicago for a long weekend.  Since they were traveling with their young daughter, they found sleeper car accommodations to be perfect for the three of them.  Another couple booked a long weekend in Chicago, but spent the night in Toledo first, thus contributing a little something to Toledo’s economy.  Yet another friend booked a trip from Portland to Seattle while she was on the West Coast.

All of them have eagerly told me how excited they were to be taking their first train rides and equally excited to tell me how much they enjoyed their trips once they returned.

“It’s so convenient.”
“The scenery was beautiful and it was so relaxing.”
“My wife just loved the idea.”
“My eight year old just asked about going for a train ride and I’m thinking about taking the entire family out for the day.”
“It’s so much cheaper than flying.”

This got me thinking more about just how many Ohioans ride the existing Amtrak routes that pass through Ohio.   Toledo has the most boardings of any Ohio train station, and the two other major stops in Ohio are Cleveland and Cincinnati.  However, whether I’m traveling east or west, scores of Ohioans board and disembark at various other stations which include Elyria, Sandusky, and Bryan.

Mind you, Amtrak schedules through Ohio are not that convenient.  The trains travel through the night delivering passengers to Chicago by eleven o’clock in the morning (at the latest), to DC by mid afternoon and to New York and Boston my early evening.  Still, Ohioans make a choice to travel via Amtrak.  Imagine how many more might choose Amtrak if they were to build their schedule around Ohio cities as destinations.

This led me to think that maybe one of the reasons that Ohio’s new governor Mr. John Kasich returned the $400 million in rail funds to the Federal Government is because he’s never traveled through Ohio on a train.  Maybe he thinks that no one rides regular-speed trains because he himself has never thought to try it.

My friends who have chosen to travel on the train absolutely love it, and maybe if John were to jump aboard, he’d like it too.  Maybe he’d like it enough to find another way to fund the expansion of rail through Ohio and create jobs by doing so.  And if that’s the case, I’d like to personally offer to buy John Kasich a round-trip Amtrak ticket to Chicago.

Since I travel out of Toledo often, he’s certainly welcome to ride up to the station with me.  He doesn’t even have to go in half’sies with me on the gas.  The trip is on me.

I’ve thought about the political implications of paying for Ohio’s governor’s train ticket.  Since I didn’t vote for him I don’t think there would be any ramifications for either of us.  And since I won’t be voting for him in the future, it’s not like I’m asking for any type of political favor in return.   But hey, just because I don’t necessarily want to hang out with John Kasich all the time, it doesn’t mean that we can’t be casual friends.  Hell, I’ve paid for other friends to travel with me, so why not John Kasich.

So John, if you’re reading this the invitation is on the table.  If you’d like to travel on the Ohio rails with me to Chicago, I’m buying.  I’ll even pay for breakfast in the dining car.  Have your people get in touch with my people and we’ll coordinate calendars.

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During the summer of 1983 I lived in a small town in rural Finland.  It was just a summer but there I met friends that I’d know for a lifetime.  I also encountered a rich simplicity that made me want to stay.  Practicality.  Modesty.  Balance.  But most of all, simplicity.  Little was wasted, there was little want and people were happy.

Fourteen years later, in 1997, I found myself working in Finland.  The world had changed and so had Finland.   Despite the changes that had taken place in politics and economics I returned to find the Finland that I had remembered.  A place of practicality, modesty, balance and simplicity.

December 6th was Finland’s 93rd year of independence.  In 1917 Finland declared it’s independence from Russian control.  It had been ruled by Russia as a Grand Duchy beginning in 1809.  Prior to Russian rule, Finland had been controlled by the Swedes.  Swedish occupation lasted for roughly 560 years.  Throughout both occupations the Finns held tight to their native traditions, beliefs and values – essentially, their cultural mythology.

As a visitor I had always felt that the Finns were similar enough to Americans.  I didn’t see any glaring cultural differences but my friends said that I would never truly understand the differences until I lived there.  And then that happened, essentially, as my weekly life transitioned to living and working in Helsinki.

What I always enjoyed about Finland was it’s predictability.  Things just worked.  For example, buying a train ticket required certain steps and these steps were always the same.  Speaking to a clerk in a shop or market followed certain expected (yet bare bones) pleasantries.

What later drove me absolutely crazy about Finland was it’s predictability.  Every store clerk asks the same question and responds with a similar response.  Buying a train ticket can now be done on line, but one can still go into the central station, take a number and wait for the little “bing-bong” sound that signals that it’s now your time to be served at a specific window.  This same series of events takes place in banks.

In my twenty-five years of dealing with life in Finland I’ve seen the country go from near poverty – when in the 1980’s the government spent wildly on facilities and infrastructure to the 1990’s when the nation was repaying it’s own debt, to the roaring millennium years as part of the European Union when cash was pouring into the country and every spare centimeter of land was being built upon.  And now again, to a period of reduced spending and conservation.

Despite relative recent events of poverty and wealth, and over centuries of foreign rule, Finland now commands one of the best standards of living in the Western world.  Nearly free, life-long educational opportunities, one of the best public school systems in the world as well as the world’s highest rate of Internet connectivity.  Finland’s population is one of the best educated and most competitive in the world.

And this is what I have learned from Finland – While outside influences may change, a value system of practicality, modesty, balance and simplicity brings about long-term prosperity and keeps one’s cultural identity in tact.

Over the past decade I’ve led a life focused on these values.  I chose to live in a house that was practical.  Leaving consumerism behind I shopped very modestly at thrift stores forgoing “fashion” for warmth and costly for inexpensive.  When I left a long-standing career I made the decision to choose balance in my life over income. Later, that balance created even greater income.  Whether it was growing my own food, collecting rain water or living without air conditioning and foregoing the use of an automobile, my choice was always simplicity over complex.  Practical rather than expected.

Despite cultural norms or political expectations I simply lived my life by practical and modest methods.  While others complained about the high cost of driving, I transitioned to public transit.  While a political battle ensues over the acceptance of train travel in Ohio, I’ve been traveling by train (as an Ohioan) and also avoiding the cultural debate taking place at airports.  As our country battles with job loss, I’ve been buying American made products.

When I decided in 2006 to postpone moving until 2010 so as to increase the equity in my house, I knew I was embarking upon a plan that would work.  I knew it would work despite what everyone said was possible because, and solely because I had made modest and simple choice in previous years.

And because I held true to my beliefs, dreams and goals, I have been able to create a new standard of living for myself that goes against the current cultural, political and financial expectations.  When everyone said that it couldn’t be done, I believed that it could.

I can’t help but think that my time in Finland helped create this personal paradigm.  The cultural stability and long-term success of the Finns despite outside influence is likely due to the maintenance of practical, modest, balanced and simple ideals, values and beliefs.  Live a simple life and you will be rewarded.

Thank you Finland.

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Nothing says “Thanks for visiting Columbus” better than Smackies Original Pit BBQ on the corner of Broad and James. The airlines seldom serve food on flights and some good ole BBQ might just make your trip more pleasant.

If you happen to transfer en-route to Port Columbus at the intersection of Main and James you might have enough time to run into BP and grab a soda and a bag of sunflower seeds.

Transferring at Livingston and James will offer no amenities for your flight.

But don’t despair, because if you happen to transfer at Fifth Avenue and James you’ll be able to get in your “greens” with something close to a fresh picked salad of sorts.

I bring these images to your attention because I still find it outrageous that getting to Port Columbus via public transportation from anywhere in town requires a transfer on James Road.

COTA route 92 is the only dedicated route serving Port Columbus, and while it runs from just before six o’clock in the morning until just before ten o’clock in the evening, it is perhaps the last place a visitor would be inclined to venture if they were leaving the city.

COTA routes 1, 2, 6 and 10 connect from downtown to James Road, which gives one plenty of options to get to James Road, but once there one finds themselves in a virtual “no man’s land”. James Road has no “branding” as a gateway to Port Columbus. Additionally, the 92 runs at about 30 minute headways, so if a traveler were to misconnect, they’re stuck there for a period of time that makes waiting a bit uncomfortable.

COTA’s route 52 offers service from OSU to Port Columbus on certain dates in January, March, June, August, September, November and December – likely coinciding with the university’s noteworthy dates (move in, spring break, etc..) but this service isn’t really dependable for the general population.

Port Columbus just opened up the Green parking lot on the corner of Stelzer and 17th touting $4 per day parking. It might have been a better investment had Port Columbus partnered with COTA to create reasonable and convenient bus service in and out of the airport. Another parking lot only encourages automobile use and thus, more congestion.

Considering downtown Columbus is less than ten miles from Port Columbus (Experience Columbus calls it “10 minutes from downtown”), there should be a more convenient public transit option. The current options of transferring at James Road require at least one hour – and take the rider to an environment that will make them think twice before ever using COTA to get to and from Port Columbus.

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Today’s Chicago Tribune announced that United and Continental airlines have agreed to keep the Cleveland hub open for at least five additional years.

Earlier this month USA Today stated that Delta airlines will reduce it’s regional jet flying by 50% at it’s Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky hub.  Currently Delta’s departures from CVG are down to about 170 flights per day from it’s 2005 high point of 600 daily departures.

Understand that I am not an airline analyst nor an economist, but with a former airline background, I have some insight into this industry.  What happens at these two hubs, Cleveland and Cincinnati, is going to have a long-term impact on the Ohio economy.

The combined United/Continental will have major hubs at the time of the merger in the following cities:  New York, Cleveland, Houston, San Francisco, Los Angles, Denver, Chicago and Washington DC.  Merge the maps and route structures and it’s easy to see that Cleveland becomes rather redundant – sandwiched between New York and Chicago.

Considering Cleveland’s declining population and lack of industry, it’s not difficult to see the fate of that operation, regardless of what the merged company states.  Should the merged company close it’s Cleveland operation it would face a $20 million fine.  That’s not a very large amount and it’s conceivable that a $20 million fine is far less than keeping an operation running that isn’t profitable, if in fact that becomes the case.

Delta’s merger with Northwest created another integrated hub system that includes Los Angles, Salt Lake, Seattle, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Detroit,  Atlanta, Memphis and New York,  This merged map puts Cincinnati right in the middle of two of it’s largest hubs, Detroit and Atlanta.  Detroit’s economic conditions would seem to make it a logical choice for reduction, but it’s sheer size may give it a certain momentum.  The Cincinnati, hub, however has already been reduced by nearly 60% which will further diminish it’s competitive ability.

Airline hubs bring in lots of money to their associated cities.  Flight attendant, pilot, mechanic and ground crews are based and scheduled from these hubs.  Associated jobs in services sprout up around these airports to support the stop-over traffic.  Hotels, restaurants and car rentals to name a few.  There is also facilities maintenance from outside vendors.  Airline hubs also bring in a Federal funds for runway and taxi way improvements, not to mention construction jobs for terminals, hangers and interchanges.

Airlines operate on economies of scale. Obviously.  Hedging fuel costs offers greater savings when bidding on larger quantities.  Bargaining power with aircraft manufactures is also greater.  And then there are the labor costs to consider and precisely crew scheduling.

Layovers are expensive.  Hotel contracts, down-time, legal rest periods and per-diem accounts for the crews.  An airline’s scheduling department also has to arrange for sick-calls, leave of absences, vacations and missed connections due to late arriving equipment.  The costs associated with crew scheduling can be mitigated when there is a larger pool of crew members to schedule in any one place.

It’s not uncommon for an airline to “deadhead” a crew (fly them as passengers) from one base to another simply for the sake of covering a flight that cannot be properly staffed because of local crew shortages.  Deadheading costs money and time, reducing the crew’s productivity even further.

There were many times when I would deadhead to Atlanta to cover a trip originating 1800 miles away from my home base.  There were also times when I would deadhead from Helsinki to New York because the airline had an obligation to get me home in time to fly my next trip – or be at a further loss again.

So again, economies of scale.  Combining personnel from multiple hubs into one hub creates better staffing options by reducing costs and time.  It makes financial sense for an airline to streamline its operations and the most efficient way to do that is to combine multi-hub resources into one location.

Now, with two mega-carriers (Delta and United) covering the US, Cleveland and Cincinnati become redundant when managing economies of scale.  They’re too close to larger hubs and essentially create little, if any versatility for their associated airlines.

The airline business is playing itself out as it must to survive and it’s outcome will likely impact Ohio economics.  In the mean time the Federal government is offering the State of Ohio funding to create a passenger rail system that some Ohio politicians want to stop.

If Ohio’s Cleveland and Cincinnati airline hubs shut down or are reduced to near-nothing capacity and the State of Ohio does not create a passenger rail system, a tremendous amount of national traffic will simply bypass Ohio completely.

Understand that one new passenger rail line will not outweigh the job losses at two airport hubs.  However, one passenger rail line, a line that starts a larger system, can have an impact on both airports as it connects both Cleveland and Cincinnati.  It is far more economical for an airline to rely upon another method of transportation to get passengers from nearby cities into their hubs than it is to fly them there themselves.

When I was commuting to Cincinnati while working for Delta, I had a choice of about seven or eight daily flights.  Imagine the scheduling requirements of flying an aircraft for less than an hour and less than 200 miles.  It’s also fuel-intensive because the majority of the flight time is spent ascending.

Imagine the savings in labor costs if those same passengers arrived by rail.  Delta would have no costs associated.  Amtrak would, of course, but Amtrak is looking for customers and Amtrak can transport them more efficiently with diesel fuel than an airline can with jet fuel.  Additionally, bringing passengers into a hub city by train reduces air traffic congestion – adding further efficiencies for the airline.

Failure to invest in an Ohio passenger rail system is going to have long-term negative effects for every single resident of Ohio.  Our manufacturing base has been reduced dramatically and it could very well be that our service industry falls next should the airlines begin the true consolidation that is needed to make them profitable.

The airlines have no allegiance to the State of Ohio.  One would expect, however, that it’s politicians would.

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