On Development: Capital Line planners should walk before they run

The two-mile bike circulator is a fine idea, as far as it goes. But it sounds more like a tourist attraction than needed basic transportation for residents.
Rendering of the proposed Capital Line
Rendering of the proposed Capital LineCourtesy the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation

The City of Columbus is finally investing in safe bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure downtown. 

But the route doesn’t really go anywhere. Or very far. It’s a two-mile bicycle circulator that loops around a cluster of 12 blocks and crosses the Scioto River to encircle COSI. And it has an estimated price tag of $100 million, which will need to be raised. And construction will take four years – once plans are done.

City leaders, the Columbus Downtown Development Corp. and developer Edwards Companies unveiled the concept, called the Capital Line, last week.

It’s a fine idea, as far as it goes. But it sounds more like a tourist attraction than needed basic transportation for residents. It also smacks of “The Columbus Way”: tuning out local bike and pedestrian advocates as long as possible and then announcing a big, fancy idea that focuses on downtown and won’t be finished for years.

Once it is built, will users be expected to pedal on unsafe streets to reach and enjoy the safety of the loop? Or will they load bikes onto car racks, drive downtown and find a place to park in order to ride the Capital Line? Backers say that eventually they could add connectors to nearby neighborhoods, but neighborhoods need safe streets now.

Rather than mimic Indianapolis with a smaller version of its Cultural Trail, local leaders might consider other perspectives.

In Hoboken, N.J., bike lanes have been added to nearly half of all streets in recent years, with more protected lanes on the way. The dense city of 60,000 people has focused on making intersections safer. As a result, pedestrian fatalities dropped to zero in each of the past seven years, and injuries have fallen by 41 percent. In a national study of pedestrian deaths between 2017 and 2021, Hudson County – where Hoboken is located – had 56 pedestrian deaths, eighth highest among U.S. counties. That makes Hoboken’s zero fatalities stand out even more.

Because 88 percent of its crashes in prior years occurred at intersections, Hoboken took some low-cost actions to address them. For example, parking spaces were removed within 25 feet of crosswalks citywide, which makes pedestrians more visible at corners. The city also added high-visibility crosswalks, painted curb extensions, raised intersections, and added new pedestrian signals and dedicated left-turn lanes for bicyclists. More improvements are added every year; the city’s policy is to add these features every time it repaves a street.

Jeff Speck, author of two books on safe streets, promotes “walkability plans” to get local governments to take bicycle and pedestrian safety seriously. He used to call them “walkability audits,” but realized an audit is easier to ignore than a plan. In either case, he takes citizen groups, public officials and others on community walks and shows them the dangers they usually overlook. Such audits have been around a few decades. AARP, Safe Routes to School, accessibility advocates, and others offer guidelines for local audits. There are groups and individuals in Columbus who conduct these audits.

Actually, walkability advocacy and audits have Columbus roots.

Dan Burden grew up on the Hilltop, son of a firefighter who installed the only sidewalk on their stretch of Hague Avenue in hope that neighbors would follow suit. They didn’t.

That abbreviated bit of sidewalk did not lead directly to Burden’s international reputation as a walkability expert. His stroll was a circuitous one, dominated by bicycles and cameras. Burden and his Columbus-born wife, Lys, organized national cross-country bicycle initiatives, and he led a biking expedition from Alaska through Argentina in the 1970s. In 1996, they founded Walkable Communities, Inc., a non-profit promoting bicycle and pedestrian safety. Amid all this, his freelance photos were published in National Geographic, Popular Science, Bicycling, Better Homes and Gardens, Weekly Reader and other publications. He is now director of inspiration and innovation for Blue Zones, a wellness firm.

Burden’s demeanor is as colorful as his career. A white walrus mustache stretches across his face. Wild white hair beneath his balding pate hung over the top of an ever-present green safety vest, its many pockets bulging with lenses for the camera strapped around his neck, as he led Worthington residents on a neighborhood walk a few years ago and pointed out pedestrian threats on High Street just north of the Village Green. 

Maybe the backers of the Capital Line could bring in people like Burden and Speck to put the Capital Line in context.

Real change doesn’t come from big projects. Change comes from new perspectives that, assiduously embraced and incrementally applied, become the norm. The Capital Line could be wonderful, but it puts the cart before the horse. Columbus should first become a bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly place for everybody – and only then should it reward itself with a Capital Line to celebrate its citywide success.

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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