Mobility is evolving in Columbus—what do those changes mean for business?

It's hard to underestimate the importance of reliable transportation. It expands our horizons, enables economic growth and connects us to each other. It's an essential human need.

It's also been something of an afterthought in Columbus. For a long time, we were a car city. We drove to work. We drove to play. We drove everywhere, usually by ourselves, and we lived with the consequences—more highways, more parking lots, more congestion, more suburban sprawl—with little discussion about what it all meant.

Well, those days are changing. Transportation has moved to the top of the city's economic agenda, elevated by Columbus's 2016 victory in the $50 million Smart City Challenge, a catalyst for a transportation revolution in the city. Today, how we get around the city is the hottest talking point in town. “People actually care,” says Joanna Pinkerton, the CEO of the Central Ohio Transit Authority. “I think for three or four generations, people have just taken for granted that the road was there.”

Now, those roads are beginning to look different. COTA's ridership numbers are up, as it benefits from a redesigned bus system and its C-pass program, which provides Downtown Columbus workers with unlimited bus passes. Both local and national startups are providing new forms of transportation, including electric scooters, electric bicycles, ride-sharing services and microtransit commuting. An autonomous shuttle—a joint project of the public-private partnership Smart Columbus and state mobility center DriveOhio—is expected to start operating along the Scioto Mile in December, while planners are studying the feasibility of Hyperloop One's proposed Midwest Connect, which would link Columbus to Chicago and Pittsburgh via a magnetically elevated tube train that could hit speeds up to 670 miles per hour.

“People's expectations around transportation and development are changing,” says William Murdock, executive director for the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. “At the same time, the type of technology we're experiencing is rapidly evolving. If you look back three to four years, none of us were talking about Smart Columbus or hyperloops or scooters, for that matter. Now, all of those are parts of the fabric of the way we're looking at how to get ready for the growth and get ready for the future. It's an exciting time.”

Columbus businesses are seizing that opportunity, recognizing the importance of transportation. Columbus Mayor Andy Ginther has said he wants the city to become the “Silicon Valley of smart transportation,” and others have locked onto that goal, too, turning Columbus into a proving ground for bold ideas and technologies. You can see it on Morse Road, where local startup EmpowerBus  has ferried new immigrants to jobs that would be out of their reach without the microtransit service. You can see it at JPMorgan Chase's McCoy Center, the epitome of the car-centric corporate campus that is now embracing alternative forms of commuting. And you can see it at John Glenn International Airport, where efforts are focused on increasing the number of direct flights, a major benefit to Columbus businesses.

Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer says the region must stay focused on transportation as it grows in the coming decades. “It's [part] of the core genesis of why we were and have been so excited about smart cities—helping us to think about what cities of the future are going to look like and how our region can keep up with this very changing dynamic of urban planning, infrastructure and transportation.”

Dave Ghose is the editor.