On Development: Cautious city needs to be bold

Columbus’ greatest asset may be how comfortable it can be to live here. But comfort can be a gateway to complacency – and complacency may be the greatest threat to the city.
A protected bike lane (left) running along Long Street
A protected bike lane (left) running along Long Street Andy Downing

In the summer of 1990, soon after Columbus gave the state a $100,000 down payment to buy the old Ohio Penitentiary, Mayor Dana “Buck” Rinehart was at the controls of a wrecking crane, set to begin demolishing part of the building. He was ordered to cease because the state still owned the Pen.

In the summer of 2023, Columbus finally built its second stretch of protected bikeway (a half mile or so on Long Street near Columbus State Community College) – eight years after the 1.5-mile Summit Street bikeway section opened, and in the final year of Mayor Andrew Ginther’s second term.

There must be a mayoral management style somewhere between hair-trigger and tortoise.

Obviously, a mayor can’t simply decree what will be done and when. There are policy decisions to be agreed upon, budgets that must be passed, expenditures authorized and plans to be made. But once those things happen, a mayor has authority over city divisions and departments; he or she can determine when the approved plans are taken off the shelf, and how quickly and thoroughly they are carried out.

Chicago’s longtime mayor, Richard M. Daley, was very good at this – though he also shared a bit of Buck’s flair for demolition histrionics. Daley was lauded for beautification, transportation alternatives and attention to detail. Chicago had more bike-lane miles when he left office more than a dozen years ago than Columbus has now. He monitored construction of flower gardens in the medians of major thoroughfares all over the city – calming traffic and enhancing aesthetics at the same time.

In Columbus, Mayor Michael Coleman was beating the drum for safer bicycling 20 years ago – but that was back in the day when sharrows were considered cutting-edge. And Coleman was better at being photographed in biking attire than he was in following through on grand plans.

But at least he could ride the ride. When the U.S. Conference of Mayors met in Columbus last month, the mayor of Emeryville, Cal., John Bauters, led other mayors on a nine-mile bicycle ride through neighborhoods near downtown, Ginther did not join in (though other city officials reportedly did).

Still, it’s a welcome step for Ginther’s administration to set new goals for protected bike lanes, pedestrian safety and general traffic safety through the Vision Zero plan. Columbus announced plans in June to build 25 additional miles of protected bike lanes over the next five years. Hooray!

But at about the same time, Milwaukee’s mayor announced plans to build 50 miles in the next year and a half. A mayor’s speech in June 2023, of course, does not guarantee that 50 miles of protected lanes will be finished in December 2024. But it sets a bold goal and subjects the mayor to political fallout if he fails.

How refreshing for a mayor to put himself on the hot seat with ambitious goals!

It’s not so much about the plans, but about what our leaders do with them. In Columbus, we know much of what needs to be done on traffic safety, beautification, climate, zoning and other issues. We know we need many more miles of protected bike lanes.

We know that speed-limit signs do little, if anything, to slow traffic. We need to de-sign the streets and design them to be safer – narrower lanes, medians, two-way traffic. Our current policies and practices make it easier to drive and harder to walk. Witness the Make Summit & 4th Street “Go Both Ways” Facebook page, which shows the carnage of cars crashed on sidewalks, front yards and houses. Let’s get rid of the one-way “fleeways” that Columbus and so many other cities embraced in the early 1950s to make it easier for downtown workers to flee the city at 5 p.m.

But we also need to hold ourselves accountable – as residents, citizens and voters. This city’s greatest asset may be how comfortable it can be to live here. But comfort can be a gateway to complacency – and complacency may be the greatest threat to the city. We like to tell ourselves we’re in a great place, but we seem willing to settle for pretty good.

Yet another late, great Columbus mayor (remembered for “inspecting the city” in the wee hours after closing time), Tom Moody bragged that Columbus was a “B-grade” city: “Though we may not be first class in anything, we’re not third-class in anything either.”

That’s not good enough. Columbus is growing fast. The growth will continue. A burgeoning and young population doesn’t want our 1950s zoning code and our 1950s traffic patterns and transportation modes. We don’t need a wrecking ball to make these changes, but we can’t afford to dawdle.

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