On Development: Vision Zero is foggy in Columbus

There does not seem to be much connection in Columbus between pedestrian deaths and business-as-usual road projects.
The intersection of Cassady and East Fifth avenues
The intersection of Cassady and East Fifth avenuesBrian Williams

Two persistent challenges have nagged Columbus in recent years: affordable housing and the epidemic of pedestrian and bicycle deaths.

But at the corner of Cassady and East Fifth avenues, the city has a single plan to worsen both of them. How? By demolishing two six-unit apartment buildings and a commercial building to make way for a bigger intersection that will allow cars and trucks to pass through more quickly and make wider, more-sweeping turns.

In the past four years, three serious hit-and-run pedestrian crashes – two of them fatal – occurred on Fifth Avenue within a few blocks east of Cassady.

Nobody called for $11 million in new infrastructure to stop the slaughter on the streets.

Eight months after the first of the three victims died, in August 2020, the City of Columbus and the Ohio Department of Transportation held the first of several public meetings to show the options they had designed to increase efficiency for the cars and trucks that pass through the neighborhood.

There’s no connection between these two events because there does not seem to be much connection in Columbus between pedestrian deaths and business-as-usual road projects.

A group called Friends and Families for Safe Streets Columbus is trying to rally support for halting or significantly changing the Fifth and Cassady project. Ginger Tornes, Sharon Montgomery and others have put together a detailed overview of the project and have emphasized that Columbus officials should more closely follow guidelines from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), among those of other urban transportation organizations.

The NACTO Urban Street Design Guide reads, “A large corner radius should not be used to facilitate a truck turning from the right lane into the right lane.” 

In 2018, Columbus joined NACTO and, according to the city’s Complete Streets web page, committed to “implement best practices in street design, such as those recommended by the NACTO Urban Street Design Guide.” It then added this broad and vague disclaimer: “While complete street design principles will remain constant, every context is different and designs should reflect the unique needs of each location.” 

Even with that, however, it’s hard to see how the Fifth and Cassady plans comply. The Safe Streets group’s overview notes that street widenings will increase crosswalk lengths from roughly 50 feet now on Fifth Avenue to at least 75 feet. On Cassady, the crosswalks will increase from around 35 feet to as much as 75 feet. This is clearly less safe for pedestrians – in an area already deadly to people on foot. In addition, the curb radii at the four corners will increase from about 22 feet to a range from 55 to 68 feet. The High Injury Network – the city’s most dangerous stretches of road on the Vision Zero website – includes the corner of Cassady and Fifth.

My tirade is probably too late to change anything at that corner. The 12 apartments in two six-unit buildings a block away from the intersection have already been vacated and boarded up. And one of the buildings already is in the city’s possession (the title was transferred to the city on Nov. 16 and the price was listed as $0). Construction is expected to begin this summer.

But the tirade is not really about Fifth and Cassady anyway. It’s about the frustration of living in a city that considers itself to be progressive and hip and friendly to transportation alternatives, but never seems to put its money where its mouth is.

Vision Zero is a global road-safety initiative with a sweeping goal of eliminating traffic fatalities. But having a Vision Zero coordinator does not mean anything unless the coordinator has the tools to make change – and the authority to challenge the plans of road engineers to apply 20th century solutions to 21st century Columbus. It means nothing if the city calls itself a supporter of NACTO and then designs intersections that violate NACTO guidelines.

Intersection redesigns should not focus on traffic. They should focus on the neighborhood, people on foot, bikes, scooters and wheelchairs, as well as cars. They should be about housing and the economic development potential of the buildings along the street.

Justin Goodwin, the city’s transportation planning manager, and Katherine Swidarski, Vision Zero coordinator, are both bicyclists. But they don’t make the policies. Mayor Andrew Ginther spoke briefly in November 2022 at a public “microtransportation” meeting at Studio 35 theater – with dozens of bicycles parked outside. After a roomful of bike and pedestrian advocates raised tough questions, the mayor ducked out and told them to direct their questions to Goodwin.

The experts, it appears, are expected to manage damage control – not planning.

Brian Williams is a consultant and freelance writer. A former Columbus Dispatch reporter, he is retired from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and likes to walk and pedal.

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