Meet the movers and shakers turning Columbus into a hotbed of bold transportation ideas.
Columbus has become a breeding ground for a handful of startups geared around solving problems in transportation and weighing in on the gradual shift away from traditional individual car ownership. These visionaries are doubling down on the energy, excitement and economic opportunity provided by Smart Columbus, the local entity that was created as a result of the city's victory in the $50 million Smart City Challenge.
“We are benefactors of the environment that Smart Columbus has created here,” says Ryan McManus of transportation startup Share. “Their public-private partnership that created Smart Columbus has created an awareness of change—a desire to change. They've got organizations that wouldn't have otherwise thought about transportation for their employees saying, ‘We need to do something this year.' That's major.”
From electric bicycles to research on autonomous cars to the futuristic idea of reliance on car fleets instead of personal automobiles, changes and innovations in transportation are being built and executed just down the street, turning Columbus into a proving ground for new ideas and technologies. “There is a real [transportation] community here,” says Kelly James, the founder of Electric Ave. “We're glad to be a part of it.”
Former teachers with Teach for America, Aslyne Rodriguez and Jerry Tsai teamed up in 2017 on an idea for a startup. Initially, they focused on education, planning to revamp a school bus for students. Then a mentor suggested they think about the transportation needs of the parents of those children. Rodriguez and Tsai shifted their focus to workforce transportation, and EmpowerBus was born. The social enterprise transports workers to jobs in areas difficult to reach for some populations, such as immigrant communities.
“Because of our background—having taught in high-need, low-income communities—we saw firsthand how transportation could be doing more than just transporting people,” Tsai says. “It could be impacting the community and doing social good.”
After going through the SEA Change accelerator in May 2017, a pilot program launched that fall with a focus on transporting 42 new Americans, primarily on the Morse Road corridor, to work at the New Albany Beauty Park during three different shifts. EmpowerBus teams with organizations that want to provide more reliable transportation for workers, as well as reach pools of potential employees not typically available to them, a critical benefit in today's ultra-tight labor market.
Rodriguez says revenue from these engagements can be used to potentially provide additional services. One possibility is picking up groceries for riders while they are at work. “There's so many possibilities—transportation plays a key part in how we receive goods, how we get to work, how we live and play in a community,” Rodriguez says. “I don't think EmpowerBus has to think in one way.”
Riders also can receive supplementary education during their trips. For example, during the pilot, an instructor on the bus taught English as a second language. Eventually, tablets will be provided with crowdsourced educational content for riders.
EmpowerBus has expanded beyond that initial pilot with the New Albany Beauty Park. The company is now working with such diverse organizations as Kroger, the United Way and Huckleberry House, which supplies workers to XPO Logistics in Licking County. “We have a handful—many actually—other engagements that are about to finalize,” Tsai says.
The company also has garnered interest from other cities, including Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Louisville and Tampa. “A lot of people see us as their solution,” Rodriguez says.
The 22-year-old technology consulting company has been a long-time player in the automotive industry. It built the original vehicle crash notification software and is now hard at work creating the technology experience of a 2019 luxury vehicle, complete with driver, rider and time-of-day recognition and instant routing to avoid traffic.
Now, with Columbus at the forefront of transportation innovation thanks to its Smart City Challenge victory, Pillar is also having local impact. It received a $2.5 million contract to build a computer operation system for Smart Columbus that will serve as a citywide data management platform for mobility data. In addition, Pillar received another $2 million grant to build an autonomous vehicle research center inside its new headquarters under construction in the Short North, as well as another driverless vehicle lab along State Route 33, the connector between Dublin and Marysville that's a testing ground for autonomous and connected vehicles.
Pillar is involved in smart cities projects elsewhere, including Dubai, Tampa, Kansas City and two California cities, Santa Clara and San Jose. Based on insights it's gained from those initiatives, it has come up with a roadmap for the future of transportation.
“We won't go directly to autonomy,” says Pillar CEO Bob Myers. “We're predicting there will be a shift away from personally-owned modes of transportation towards mobility solutions that are consumed as a service. So you won't actually buy a car in the future—you'll subscribe to ... a small fleet of cars.”
Myers also talks about automated valet car retrieval—basically, the car will drive itself to an open spot somewhere in its vicinity and will drive itself back to the owner when signaled. “The car shows up in front of the restaurant, you jump in and go do your thing,” he says.
About 20 years ago, Columbus resident Kelly James had an idea for a green rideshare with bamboo bikes called Kelly's Green Avenue. Years later, while spending time in California, James noticed electric bikes all over the place. “I thought, ‘No one has done an e-bike share yet,' ” James says.
In March 2018, he and his fiancé, Laura Graf, corrected that with Electric Ave. “We took our old business model from Kelly's Green and transformed it into this,” James says.
The bikes themselves are a resurrected model from the '70s—a sturdy shape that was outfitted with motors at the time. When a rider pedals, the electric motor matches the cadence, and the bike speeds up effortlessly. Initially, Electric Ave rented skateboards and scooters as well, but revised the business when research told them scooters—such as the Lime and Bird variety crowding Columbus sidewalks—were becoming nuisances.
An early Electric Ave customer is CoverMyMeds, which has the use of six bikes to make it easier for employees to travel between its three Downtown locations. An area hotel also will be leasing some bikes to offer its guests during their stays. Twenty-five of 40 total bikes currently are available to rent by the hour ($15) or day ($25). If riders live within 15 miles of Downtown, Electric Ave will deliver a bike to them.
The e-bike company is gearing up for a big launch in spring 2019 that will bring with it 200 more bikes.
“If you live within 10-15 miles from your job, there's no better way to get to work because you don't have to deal with traffic, you don't need a driver's license to ride one, and you don't have to worry about parking or getting sweaty,” says James.
Electric Ave also has worked with the Columbus Department of Neighborhoods' initiative, Neighborhood Pride, as a mobility partner, to figure out how to make the bikes accessible to underserved communities. James says his business will provide a “metro card” to those who don't have a credit card with which to make an account on the Electric Ave app.
“Initially, we went to [Columbus Startup Week], and that's where we first introduced ourselves,” he says. “Then we've met with countless people since then from the community and City Council members, and they were receptive.”
Share is a B2B transportation service that operates a fleet of vehicles, something that some in the industry predict could be a next step toward autonomy. Co-founder and CEO Ryan McManus noticed holes that ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft cannot fill because of the exorbitant cost to the consumer—jobs, education, healthcare. Using Uber or Lyft to go to work would be around $1,000 per month, vs. $250 per month to get a ride from Share.
“Our business model is to work with organizations to introduce transportation programs that get large groups of people to ride together to where they're going, to and from, multiple days a week,” says McManus. “Share customers are taking 30-40 rides a month, versus two-three rides for Uber.”
Right now, Share is looking to expand to Cleveland and then “rapidly into the Midwest”—10 cities within the next 18 months, McManus says. The company is also experiencing 50 percent-plus growth in rider volume month over month in Columbus.
“We get to basically be Smart City-native,” says McManus, who also is serving as the entrepreneur in residence for Smart Columbus. “We're looking at how we can write a page in that Smart City playbook. … What they're building from an infrastructure perspective is going to make us better and our data platform makes them better.”
Chloe Teasley is staff writer.