Time for some bad news: Ohio’s population is not growing as fast as in other states. Even worse – its population is shrinking. People are heading to other states with better economies and better weather. Still, there is hope. Ohio cities – in particular, Columbus – are booming. But can that growth be realized without some major changes in our walkability and transit system?
Columbus has seen consistent job growth. This has been driven by the trend of young new professionals preferring to live downtown versus in the suburbs. Young people move somewhere they think is cool, jobs follow them, and the population booms. Columbus is the only part of Ohio to see substantial job growth and, consequently, the only part of the state to see population growth.
The Columbus region hit the 2 million mark in 2016 — and the latest estimated data indicates that we’re already at 2.4 million. If we follow that trend, we’re talking about a nearly 50 percent population increase over the next three decades. That is 3 million residents by 2050. Cities that aren’t growing are shrinking – growth is good.
Traffic and Resources
But, imagine adding another million people to the city tomorrow. How does that affect traffic, housing, water, and wastewater resources? If you think traffic in Ohio is bad today, just think about adding that many more people onto the road. Columbus needs to keep up with key infrastructure projects to support the growing population. The young crowd needs to continue to view Columbus as a desirable place to live. If they don’t, Columbus could see itself joining the rest of Ohio in a population decline.
City officials have started to plan for population growth with projects like upground reservoirs – a series of three reservoirs to provide enough water for the future population. The first, John R. Doutt Upground Reservoir, was built in 2014 and provides enough water for 1.5 million residents. It’s a good start, but city planners need to keep up to prevent a mad scramble in the future.
Make Dense Populations Enjoyable
Most people seem to view increased density as a negative. There have already been fights in Columbus over measures that would increase the density. Jeff Speck (an expert on urban planning and walkable cities) argues that it’s not an increased number of people that causes issues in an area, but an increased number of cars. He thinks the best way to make denser populations pleasant for residents is to cut the number of cars in the neighborhood.
Columbus ranks as the 32nd most walkable large city in the U.S., classified as a car-dependent city by walkscore.com . Now, compare that to two of the most densely inhabited and popular cities in our nation: New York and San Francisco. Walk Score ranks both in the top five as the most walkable cities in the nation. Why does walkability matter? Studies are starting to show what many people flocking to these cities already knew – walkable cities are more enjoyable and socially equitable, sustainable, and more profitable. More concerning for Columbus, the Foot Traffic Ahead report notes that the “U.S. metros where the public and private sectors work together to adapt and deliver increased supply of walkable urban places will be the economic and social justice winners of the next generation.” Do we all feel that Columbus – really all of Ohio –is making the adjustment needed now to deliver on that change?
How to Make Columbus More Walkable?
A highly walkable town makes pedestrians the priority. It makes them feel safe while walking. Measures to decrease speeding, like making lanes no wider than 10 feet, or eliminating turn lanes, are key to making pedestrians feel safe.
A robust public transportation system is key to a successful walkable city plan. With a good system, fewer people will need to drive. It takes a long time to build a well-functioning public transportation system that citizens want to use. It needs funding and support immediately for this to happen in time. This is the area where Columbus most greatly falls short. Experts agree that Columbus must quickly begin to diversify its options in mobility and move away from cars. If not, our population growth will be sure to fall short, as well as our economic vitality. In fact, large companies may already be passing on expanding in Columbus because of its lack of mobility and transit options. Most notably, Amazon listed access to mass transit as one of its top priorities for its future headquarters partner city, an aspect in which Columbus greatly fell short.
Working to Attract Outside of Ohio Talent
Right now, most of Columbus’s population growth is from people moving from other parts of Ohio – not from out of state. Realistically, it needs to attract out of state people to meet growth projections. City officials need to take a hard look at the shifting demands and needs of what people want from their home cities. How can Columbus be better at servicing their needs and attracting them into the city? According to the National Association of Realtors, 62 percent of millennials want to live in a city that is highly walkable, so improving on this aspect of the city would be a big step in right direction.