Central Ohio Transportation – Old is New

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WOSU Commentary 3 by Ed Lentz – Airdate Tuesday 071707 Getting Around

Every place has a personality. And Columbus and central Ohio are no exception. We often define a place by its people – saying that the people of Columbus are younger than the average, smarter than the average, or just less average than the average. We often define people by the place – saying that if you don’t like the abnormally hot weather we are having this summer – just wait until winter.

People visiting Columbus sometimes say there is little to see here – no mountains, no seashore, no vast prairies. And all of that is true. Of course we also do not have hurricanes, avalanches and grass fires that consume whole counties. We do have an occasional tornado and an even less occasional blizzard. But all in all the weather here is pretty temperate – sort of like the people.

We tend to define ourselves then by who we are as a people, or by the places we call our own, or even by the rain that falls – or doesn’t fall – on our heads. But I would like to suggest another way to look at ourselves as well – and that is by the roads we travel and the way we travel them.

If we want understand the Columbus of today, we have to look back a bit at what Columbus has been. And to understand that city, we need to look a little more closely at how people moved around.

For most of its early history, Columbus was a “walking city.” The original town – established in 1812 – only ran from Livingston Avenue to Nationwide Boulevard and from the river to Grant Avenue. By 1861, when the Civil War began there were about 18,000 people living in that area and most of them walked just about everywhere. Rich or poor, young or old, people walked to work, walked to school, walked to church, walked to market, or just walked around to see who else was walking around. Yes there were horses in Columbus – and wagons and coaches and even an occasional canal boat. But most people walked – until 1863.

In 1863, a horse drawn streetcar appeared on High Street and the walking city began to become a “streetcar city.” If you look at a map of Columbus in the 1870′s or 1880′s you will see that the city is much bigger than it once was. People are living as far north as The Ohio State University, as far east as Franklin Park, as far south as the mills of Steelton and as far west as the Hilltop. They are living there – because they can. Because of the streetcar, people can live one-two or even three miles out from downtown and still make an inexpensive thirty to forty minute journey to work. We can still see those close-knit neighborhoods today in any direction from downtown with their houses quite close to one another.

Then in the early twentieth century, the age of the automobile began. Our neighborhoods moved even further out from downtown. And houses were placed on larger lots to accommodate driveways and garages. With the coming of interstate highways, the thirty minute journey to work could now be made from suburbs 10 -15 – and even 20 miles away. In a real sense, the roads we made and the way we traveled them made us who we are.

There are always new ideas coming forth in transportation. As just one example among many – rail traffic. In recent years, regional light rail, passenger rail traffic between cities and bringing streetcars back to Columbus have all been discussed.

There is one lesson we can learn from all of this. Each generation thinks it has found the fastest, cheapest and most efficient way to move people around. And then the next generation comes along and does it even better.

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