September 10, 2017

Innovative Transit Program Connects Workers to Downtown Jobs

Brian Williams

This post is originally from the Insight2050 website

What does a “free” bus pass for downtown commuters have to do with the cost of new housing in Columbus?

How do parking-space requirements in zoning codes affect the cost of transit and commercial rents?

What do downtown office vacancy rates have to do with rainy rush-hour delays on local freeways?

The answers may not be clear or simple, but it is increasingly evident that there are links among municipal parking requirements, land-use patterns, transit, transportation, and the cost of housing and office space, among other things.

The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) is one of the links. A new program offering COTA bus passes free to 43,000 downtown workers will eliminate the need for 2,400 parking spaces, according to Cleve Ricksecker, executive director of Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District, which initiated the effort. Those parking spaces would remain, of course – which could make way for an additional 2,900 downtown workers in an area with a 19 percent office vacancy rate.

The Downtown Transit Pass Program – which nearly doubled transit use among downtown workers in a six-month pilot project in 2015 – will become permanent next June. Owners of 550 downtown buildings within the Capital Crossroads area will pay half the estimated $5 million annual cost of the passes through a 3-cents per square foot annual assessment. The remainder will come from private foundations and corporate donations. In addition, COTA is offering the annual passes at a steep discount.

“The property owners in the core of downtown developed a cost-effective way of addressing shortage of parking during the workweek Downtown by incentivizing the issue of transit and causing a shift from driving alone to taking bus to work,” Ricksecker said.

He is quick to make clear that these are not “free” passes. Donors and property owners pay for the bus passes – just as consumers pay for “free” parking at strip malls, big-box stores, and supermarkets in the form of higher prices for goods. Though the prices may not be noticeably higher, those businesses need to budget for the parking spaces they provide as required by zoning codes.

And national experts, such as Donald Shoup of UCLA, have written and spoken extensively about “the high cost of free parking.” National estimates put the cost per space for a surface parking lot is $5,000 to $10,000. The cost for structured parking ranges from $25,000 to $50,000 per space, with underground parking in the higher range and aboveground ramps or decks in the lower range.

Going into the 2015 pilot project, 6.4 percent of downtown commuters rode the bus. That share rose to 12.2 percent within the first three months of the pilot. Ricksecker said the growth was even more striking among employees at the Huntington Center: from 5 percent bus ridership to 19.5 percent.

Tyler Steele, property manager at Huntington Center, has a different take on the advantages of the bus-pass program – and on the future opportunities and challenges for Central Ohio transit.

“I don’t think the problem downtown is necessarily parking – it’s transit,” Steele said. “The availability of parking is there. The challenge downtown is that the single-occupant car is the only option (for many people). The problem is more getting in and out of downtown than the parking itself. And that’s a transit issue.”

That’s also the challenge of turning around the office-vacancy rate downtown. He said he’s talked to employers who have moved their offices from downtown to suburbs primarily because of the commute times for employees – who can be delayed for hours getting home on a rainy Friday rush hour.

Steele said a more-extensive transit system, with multiple modes, could make the downtown office market more competitive with suburban office parks.

“COTA is an option – but we’d like to see it get better,” he said. “We don’t need to have the system built today,” he said. “But we need to have the conversation about where are we going as a city. We need to be looking 30 years down road and talk about what we need.”

Some cities have inter-city Amtrak service but no local commuter rail. Others have streetcars, but no Amtrak. Columbus is the largest American city without either kind of rail service.

Columbus has seen different proposals for heavy commuter rail, light rail, streetcars, and other forms of high-capacity transit in recent decades. insight2050 will explore the differences among different transit options in future articles, and look at what the future holds through the lens of COTA’s NextGen and Smart Columbus.