Posts Tagged ‘public transit’

On Wednesday the 18th I begin a day and a half journey that I’ve been waiting years to experience.  It’s said to be one of the most beautiful American journeys, particularly during the winter months.  It is the Amtrak ride through the Rockies to Salt Lake City.

The trip is scheduled for thirty-four hours each way.  By Thursday morning at 7am the train is scheduled to arrive in Denver.  After an hour in Denver the train begins its ascent into the Rockies and arrives fourteen hours later in Salt Lake City.  Only half of this portion of the trip will be during the daylight hours, and I intend to be glued to the windows, either of my room or in the observation car.  I suspect there will be plenty of competition for seating in the observation car.

I’ve reserved a sleeper car for the trip, paid for with Amtrak points I accumulated during my commutes to and from Ohio prior to the move to Chicago.  While Amtrak’s coach-class seating is ample for a journey such as this, and very reasonably priced, being able to sleep in a bed and having access to showers and complimentary meals in the dining car seemed to be a more comfortable way to go about the journey.

I’ll attempt live updates from the train, be that on the blog or via Twitter.  Data coverage will be spotty at best as this segment of Amtrak does not offer Wi-Fi service.  I look forward to sharing this trip with you.

Photo by Ann Owens

The entire trip will be completed with the use of public transportation.  From my flat in Chicago I’ll travel by bus to Union Station, board the train and once in Salt Lake City I’ll have access to the Utah Transit Authority’s buses and trains.

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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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I’m responsible for the oil leak contaminating the Gulf of Mexico.  I came to this conclusion this week while I was driving to work, slowed by scores of moving vehicles, most of which contained just one person.
Each time I make the decision to drive to work rather than take the bus, I’ve essentially told companies like BP to search for oil in risky environments.  Each time I sit in line at a drive-thru window, I’ve told our government to do whatever it takes to search for crude oil that can be refined into gasoline.

Each time I drive my car to a friends house, or to the grocery store rather than bicycling or walking, I’m sending a signal to the oil industry that what they do, and that what the government allows them to do is A-OK.

At times I’m forced into such actions.  Escaping a culture that is based upon low-cost fuel is incredibly difficult.  My local supermarket is in fact a super-huge market filled with fruits, vegetables and scores of other products grown and manufactured outside of the region.  I’ve grown to expect fresh fruit in January and February.  I bet you have too.

Each time we build a new road, widen and existing road, rebuild an overpass or zone for a new subdivision rather than repairing our inner-city neighborhoods and investing in public transit systems, we are voting for this type of risk.  Each time we build a new runway or expand an airport rather than expanding our rail system, we invite the risk associated with this type of disaster.

So when I look at the derogatory comments being aimed at BP and the derogatory comments being aimed at the Federal Government I have to stop for a moment and ask, just who is creating the demand for this type of industry.  And when I look for who is to be blamed for this calamity, I have to answer truthfully.

It is I.

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With an arriving winter storm coming on the heels of one just a week ago I’m finding it difficult to navigate large stretches of the city’s sidewalks because many residents and businesses have failed to clear their sidewalks.

This is of particular concern because I use public transit to get to and from work almost exclusively.  While I never mind a brisk winter walk, such walks become dangerous when snow-packed sidewalks turn to ice.  Even a light dusting of snow or blowing snow over ice covered sidewalks creates potential danger.  Walking in the street, although much easier, should not be advised.

This year I decided to look into why certain sidewalks remain snow packed and icy winter after winter.

My commute to work on public transit takes me to the Easton area where sidewalk clearing is apparently not addressed whatsoever.  Morse Crossing, Easton Way and Stelzer Road are the streets along which COTA’s service operates.  The majority of pedestrian traffic is along Morse Crossing to and from COTA routes 16 and 95.   (The New Albany Express #40 travels along Stelzer where the land is currently undeveloped).

I contacted Easton management to get some information since the strip malls, hotels and restaurant along Morse Crossing are demarcated by the brick pylons with the Easton “E” carved into them.

Easton management stated that each business along Morse Crossing is responsible for clearing the sidewalks adjacent to their property as stated in the City Code.  I stopped by a couple merchants to see what they knew about this.

At Pier One, which sits on the large corner lot at Morse Crossing and Gramercy Street, I was given contact information to the corporate offices in Ft. Worth.  When I called and explained the situation I was first asked if there had been an injury.  I said that there hadn’t been, but as a transit/pedestrian commuter, I was concerned about the conditions.  I was then asked to describe the sidewalks.

“They are the concrete walkways that parallel the two streets.”  The woman at corporate said she’d look into the situation but did not offer to follow up.

I also contacted the Marriott Hotels as one of their properties sits on a large corner lot at Morse Crossing and Easton Way.  Within a few hours I was contacted by the hotel manager.  The manager responded to my inquiry with these words:

“I appreciate your suggestion but would be remised if I did not note that our parking lot is not an access route to the bus stop behind the hotel.  The sidewalks on the exterior of our landscaping are city sidewalks and should be used for getting to the bus stop.  The walks on our property only lead to the building and to the back parking lot.  The only way to get to the bus stop through our lot is by trampling through our landscaping which is not acceptable.”

He seemed to miss the point all together – that being that pedestrians might be walking through this parking lot precisely because the sidewalks surrounding this Marriott are not shoveled, nor have they for the three winters that I’ve been commuting by public transit.

Today I stopped by Chase Bank, also on the corner of Morse Crossing and Gramercy Street.  I introduced myself to the branch manager and asked if he was making plans to have the sidewalks cleared around his facility.  I explained that as a commuter I was concerned with navigating the now ice-packed sidewalks and that with the increase in bus service and ridership, I was concerned for my fellow pedestrians.

The Chase branch manager told me that he was of the belief that their lease lines did not include the public sidewalks.  “The sidewalks,” he said, “belong to the City.”
“Yes,” I replied.  “Just like the sidewalks in front of my house, for which I have the same responsibility.”  He was gracious and understanding and said he’d contact Easton management to learn more.

It’s not just the sub-urban locations where sidewalks go un-shoveled, but it is the most prevalent location to find an unfriendly pedestrian environment   Along portions of High Street downtown one can find business which fail to properly clear their sidewalks, and this is Columbus’ central business district.

While Columbus City Code states that it is a requirement for property owners to clear the adjacent sidewalks of snow, I am not aware of how or if the City enforces this code.  Is $100 the only penalty for non-compliance?  How is that $100 collected?

If you know the answer, please let us know.

In the mean time, however, I enlisted the help of a local graphic designer to make a little something that we can all use in our neighborhoods and along our streets.  Available in both English and Spanish, this printable door hanger offers neighbors a gentle reminder that it is their responsibility to clear snow from their sidewalks.

Simply click, print, fold or cut, then cut along the noted lines so that it’ll fit over a doorknob and voila’! (It’s a full-sized .pdf of the image to the right).

As with most Columbus challenges, things here work best when we work with each other – and perhaps this door hanger will be a way to get the conversation started where you live and along the streets where you walk.

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The debate over the increase in parking meter rates in Columbus has been raging for a couple of weeks now.  I’ve listened to and read information from the opposition – those who feel that they were not informed about the rates and that the new rates will be too high.  I’ve read and listened to the folks on the defense – those hoping to gain additional revenue for the city to help fund the new convention center hotel.  Both sides of the story have specific merits.

One certainly can’t fault the city for looking for additional sources of revenue.  Columbus is not alone in it’s search.  And downtown business owners are there against all odds, coming to the table with as many creative ideas as they can to help sustain themselves.

There is, in my opinion, a debate that should come somewhere in the middle of both arguments.  It is, I believe, why there is such a chasm being created within this issue.

The middle argument is really about density (or lack there of) and transportation.  Columbus city government has been saying for years that they’re in favor of a strong and healthy urban center – an anchor for the region.  The challenge is that they have failed to deliver.

When we speak of “downtown” I believe its safe to refer to it as the land mass between Nationwide Boulevard and the 70/71 split.  The Short North and the Arena District are doing rather well, but only the revival of Gay Street can be seen as a tiny speck of hope within the landmass referred to as downtown.

While there are more people living downtown than in the past  (4,900 as of the end of 2007), there is now less retail than there was in 2007.  Commercial (office) vacancy rates are now about 13% and there are fewer and fewer reasons to spend time in downtown Columbus.  The city may be constructing parks and parkways, but until there is sufficient pedestrian activity, these amenities are not much more than landscaping.

Columbus city government has also failed to develop a comprehensive transportation system that will support the future growth of the downtown core.  While COTA’s bus system works to a certain degree for the residents of ‘in town’ neighborhoods, it simply does not address the needs of bringing in large numbers of suburban workers or visitors.

Additionally, a vast majority of the new downtown residents still must depend upon the use of an automobile to get to and from basic vendors of goods and services.  That is hardly a draw for downtown living.

It should come as no surprise to Columbus city government that downtown business owners are upset over increased costs being applied to their customers.  The battle downtown businesses currently face is that they must rely upon people in cars to survive – the City of Columbus has failed to deliver an alternative to the automobile.  Density is still too low downtown and the public transportation system is not adequate.

Had these two situations been addressed properly over the past decade, there might be enough pedestrian traffic downtown to prepare for a parking rate increase – the demand would have already been present.  But downtown Columbus is failing and increasing the cost to park is yet another obstacle for our entrepreneurs to overcome.

The debate over this issue has sparked dialogue between the two groups and city government appears eager to appease these entrepreneurs by holding more meetings and carrying out more studies.

Perhaps it’s nice to live in a city where local government is willing to react to its mistakes.  It’s certainly nice to live in a city where the local entrepreneurs have a vision for the place where they chose to set up shop.

Perhaps it would be nice to live in a city where the government takes on a leadership role in the first place by providing vision and alternatives – rather than finding themselves at odds with it’s businesses and residents.

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If you’re curious as to why you deal with congested roadways every day, watch this video.

If you’re curious as to why our public transit systems have failed, watch this video.

If you’re curious as to why governments fund freeway systems rather than public transit systems, watch this video.

It’s possible to watch the entire video here, Taken For a Ride.

A Columbus resident sent me the link to this film earlier today.  Entitled “Taken For a Ride”, produced in 1996 by New Day Films, this documentary looks at how (and why) General Motors dismantled various public transit systems and began replacing them with their own vehicles.

The saying was, “What’s good for GM is good for America”.   I find it unfortunate that the Federal money spent on bailing out General Motors wasn’t earmarked in such a way that required them to rebuild what they had destroyed.  Rebuilding cities’ public transit systems could likely keep GM facilities running for decades to come.

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