Episode 9: From a Downtown Parking Crisis to Public Transit Success

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The Movement

Episode 009: From A Downtown Parking Crisis To Public Transit Success

 

Cohen: Josh Cohen

Ricksecker: Cleve Ricksecker

 

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future.  To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities.  Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real.  Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: My guest today is Cleve Ricksecker.  Cleve is the executive director of both the Capital Crossroads and Discovery special improvement districts since they formed, and he works with a small team but a great team of other city lovers.  And Cleve has lived in Columbus his whole life, and they’re working in the public sector, capital improvements, and also marketing services for downtown. So, Cleve, welcome.

Ricksecker: Thanks.

Cohen: So I first reached out to you this summer—I guess it was probably April—because I read about the pilot program that your organization was spearheading to distribute free bus passes to over 45,000 Downtown Columbus workers.  And I think my reaction to seeing that is, “That doesn’t just happen.” I mean, you’ve got to take some spadework to actually make that happen. So I’d love to maybe hear the history of how that program came about and what led to it.

Ricksecker: So I work for two business improvement districts, a total of about 800 property owners.  And in the core of Downtown Columbus there are about 500 property owners ranging in size from Nationwide Insurance, a Fortune 100 corporation, to small residential condominium owners.  The City of Columbus is a growing metropolitan area. It’s very auto-centric, has been rapidly growing since World War II. It doesn’t have a lot of transit infrastructure in place. We have a fairly small downtown; we estimate about 85,000 employees all together, including hospitality, hospital, but primarily office employees in downtown.

And what’s very interesting is that over the past 25 or 30 years we’ve seen two things happen, and I think it’s not atypical of Midwestern cities.  One is we’ve seen commuting behavior become worse. We have seen a decrease in people taking transit to work, a decrease in people that are carpooling, and an increase in people driving alone to work.  And for many years we saw lots of building being torn down, lots of surface lots being developed, and so we managed to sort of muddle along with this bad behavior, but then in the 2000s and the teens we started seeing surface parking lots develop for housing and mixed-use developments.  And that’s also very typical of what’s happening in Midwestern cities.

And in over the last several years we’ve lost about 2,500 surface parking lots, and so we have a combination of disappearing surface parking and bad commuting behavior.  And what’s happened is that has created a parking crisis in downtown. And the parking crisis has been felt really in three different ways. One is commercial office brokers have a tough time leasing commercial office space in the core of downtown.  People might leave a building for a number of reasons, parking being a big one, but, you know, the building may be dated; there may be floor plate issues, but when the commercial brokers go to re-lease the space the sole issue becomes parking because a prospective tenant comes along and says, “So where do I park all 60 of my employees who drive by themselves downtown?” and for the last three or four years there has been no block of parking left in Downtown Columbus, and so the vacancy rate in commercial offices has been going up and up and up over the past several years.

And we’re in a crisis now.  We have four office towers on our Capitol Square, which is the civic center of the State of Ohio, that are more than 50% vacant and some other buildings that are off the square that are also at very high vacancy rates.  Rents adjusted for inflation have been falling since 1999, and you begin to see deferred maintenance in the commercial offices in downtown.

Cohen: So it’s like a vicious circle almost.  Right?

Ricksecker: Yeah.  We also heard from hotels.  And what we discovered is in the hospitality industry, as parking got tighter and parking became more expensive, it became more and more difficult for people who make less money to afford to work in downtown, and so there was a tremendous turnover in employees among the hospitality industry, restaurants, hotels, security officers, cleaning crews; and employers were having a terribly difficult time hanging onto employees.

And then the third group we heard from were corporations that owned their own property and were based in downtown, some of whom wanted to consolidate their employees in downtown and they couldn’t do it because they couldn’t figure out where to park them.  And so several years ago our business-improvement-district staff started to look at what parking options there might be in downtown, and we found none. The City of Columbus has no appetite for building any more parking garages, in part because the conventional wisdom is that we may be peaking right now in terms of demand for parking.  And so the city doesn’t necessarily want to invest money in a parking structure that might not be fully occupied in 10 or 20 years.

We had a private developer take a run at building a parking garage, which is horribly expensive, to hang onto some tenants.  He ended up giving up once he lost a major tenant. And so the long story short was we went back to the commercial office tower managers and said, “We can’t find a parking solution.”  And almost on a whim I said, “You know, our university here, Ohio State University, has a student pass program where the university buys access for all 60,000 students whether or not the students will ride the bus,” and I said, “Do you want to take a look at that?”  And to my delight and surprise the office owner said, “Yes.”

And that was a shock because the real estate community in Columbus has not paid attention to transit.  Transit has not been on their radar, and so the fact that they were interested in pursuing a transit solution was the first of its kind in Columbus.  And so we did a little pilot program paid for by our MPO, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. We picked four white-collar employers, and they had a total of 884 employees.  We did orientations, told everyone how to get their bus passes. June 1st, 2015 anyone who wanted to commute for free at those four places of employment could.  We stepped out of the picture, and within three months we doubled the ridership. Now, our base was pretty low to begin with, but nevertheless doubling the ridership in three months was pretty significant.  And what was interesting is that that was changing commuting behavior that was habitual with people, and these are tough habits to change.

Cohen: Sure.

Ricksecker: If someone has been driving to work for five, 10 years, getting them to change is not an easy thing, and a financial incentive is pretty powerful if you’re going to save $150, $180 a month on parking fees.  But the second thing we learned was that new employees coming into downtown adopted transit at a much higher rate than existing employees, and so over time the shift was more pronounced. And we had one employer in the pilot program that went from the base of five percent of their workforce taking transit to 19.5% in a year and a half during this pilot program.

And so based on the results the property owners in downtown said, “Okay, let’s circulate a petition among the owners who qualify for the program.”  We didn’t include residential properties or parking facilities, but hotels, retail, office space were included in this package. And owners representing 65% of that property petitioned the city to levy an assessment to help pay for transit.

Cohen: Wow.

Ricksecker: It was three cents a square foot, and they were desperate enough to want to try transit but just skeptical enough that they weren’t willing to pay for the full-cost of the thing.  So luckily our MPO, Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, which has been just so supportive, got some federal grant funding to help pay for this initial two-and-a-half-year program that runs from June of 2018 through the end of 2020, and so we started the program in June.

We have very little data at this point, but we’re going to be getting—our transit authority works with a company called Genfare, and our transit authority is the first of Genfare’s clients that are using mobile app, storing ridership data in the cloud, and that sort of thing.  So we’re not getting data yet and won’t get data from Genfare for a while, so we have very little information; we’ve got some but very little information. We surveyed 1,800 employees at 30 places of employment. It was a commuter survey, whether or not they were using the pass program.  We wanted to survey everybody. We haven’t gotten the final information yet, but our preliminary information is that we’ve engineered an eight percent shift from single occupancy vehicles to transit in the first roughly three, four months of this program. And so it looks like the program is a success.

Now, the key will be—because the owners have to decide whether they want to continue an assessment after 2020, and we’ll need to petition and talk with them the fourth quarter of 2019.  The trick will be for them to see that there is a financial benefit. In other words leasing interest, maybe some leasing activity, and that takes a lot of lead time, and so we’re going to meet with commercial office brokers in late January and sort of get them all on the same page.  And we may incentivize, do some incentives to the brokers to show space, and we’re hoping there will be at least some activity between now and the fall of 2019, because if the owners don’t see a financial benefit to paying an assessment it’s going to be unreasonable to think they’ll reauthorize.  The initial results are encouraging.

Cohen: Yeah, that’s interesting though because I assume that the employees prior to this program when they’re paying for parking they’re not paying for the full cost of parking.  Right? I’m sure the employer has to subsidize that or the building has to subsidize that to some degree; correct?

Ricksecker: Most Midwestern cities pay 100% of parking for employees.  I’m going to guess 25% to 30% pay 100% of their employee parking.  We won’t see a shift among those employees, maybe a one percent shift.  There are a few that subsidize, but the employee still pays a portion, maybe $55 to $75 a month.  People like to save even that amount of money, so I think we’ll see some shift. But then most employees pay full freight.  A surface parking lot in downtown now, a few blocks away from a place of employment, runs about $140, $150 a month; covered parking close by our Capitol Square is over $200 a month now, so that’s where we’re going to see the biggest shift.

Cohen: It’s wild to see that disconnect, because it seems like people want to be downtown and yet the occupancy hasn’t caught up yet, and maybe it’s just that lag-time from some of these challenges that you isolated before, but it is kind of fascinating to see there’s all this kind of growth in downtown both in Columbus and nationally, and yet you have a little bit of that disconnect there.

Ricksecker: Yeah.  Well, like a lot of Midwestern cities, their downtown is not the only major office market in the region.  We have a lifestyle center called Easton, which is walkable. We have a new sort of neo-downtown being developed in Dublin, which is a fairly far-out suburb on the northwest side.  It’s developing a walkable office district as well. And we’re hearing reports that some employers who would otherwise locate downtown are choosing these suburban properties because they have the walkable amenities, but they also have free parking.

Cohen: Yeah, it’s interesting.  Have your cake and eat it too.  Right?

Ricksecker: Right, yeah.

Cohen: Very, very interesting.  So earlier in your career you had a background as a transit advocate.  I mean, you’re a rider of transit; you did that with your volunteer work with the Capital City Transit Coalition.  What are some of the things that you’ve learned from your experience both riding transit and being a transit advocate?

Ricksecker: A very interesting question.  I have owned a car only eight years of my life when I got divorced and had kids going to three different schools, and I don’t have a car now, and so just living carless in Columbus gave me a perspective that was helpful in understanding transit and understanding how the system works.  And it’s very easy to live in Columbus, by the way, without a car. Well, I was on our transit authority board for quite a while, and I was the only rider on the board, and so it was interesting because I think that’s typical of transit authorities, their boards tend not to know the product.

Cohen: Which is odd.  Right?

Ricksecker: It is odd.  And I think we’re not unique in Columbus, but it was helpful that I understood the product when I was on the transit authority board because I could bring a perspective that other trustees didn’t have.  But being an advocate over the years, here is what I have learned; the public in Columbus has for over 25 years been way ahead of the business community here. Back in the early ’90s the transit authority and our chamber of commerce did a survey of thousands of people in Central Ohio asking questions like, “Is there a mobility problem?  And if there is a mobility problem how would you solve it?” and rank different solutions, you know, “Invest in highways, invest in transit,” and that sort of thing.

Transit investment always ranked very high.  Highway investments always ranked very low, and when asked a specific question such as, “Would you spend a quarter cent additional sales tax to build light rail?” an overwhelming number of people said yes.  And so the public in Central Ohio has been way ahead of the business community for at least 25 years. I think if we had maybe a business community that understood the role of transit better we would have made those investments a couple of decades ago.

Columbus is one of those cities like Portland, and Portland is one that comes to mind that was perfectly situated for light rail in the late ’80s and early ’90s.  It had a large downtown employment base; it had lots of major activities lining up on a single corridor; and the region is growing, and it’s still growing. We’re going to add a million people in Central Ohio between now and 2050, a million people, and so there is a huge opportunity here to shape the region in ways that a place like Portland has shaped its region.  And I think finally the business community and the political community here are beginning to realize that they have that opportunity to shape the region because over the years the only people that understood the relationship between transportation and development were developers. And the developers all wanted highway interchanges, and so they sort of steered those major investments for their lifestyle or their shopping center or residential developments, but it was always low-density, sprawl development.

And finally there are enough urban developers here and enough savvy politicians here that are beginning to understand the role of transit and development patters.  You and I both know that the connection between development patterns and transportation is like intercourse and pregnancy, but for people in Columbus, they haven’t really understood the connection between dense development, walkable development, and transit as a community until fairly recently.  And it’s really refreshing to see that happen.

Cohen: Yeah.  Well, it’s interesting.  I mean, I think the Amazon HQ2 and some of the things that they talked about, how they wanted to be in an environment that had transit as a key component, I think, is highlighting that.  Do you do any direct work with economic development beyond kind of helping people to get downtown, or trying to attract companies from out of town, is that part of your work as well?

Ricksecker: No, we don’t do recruitment.  We do respond if there is a prospective tenant looking at an office building.  We’ll meet with the tenant and talk about downtown, and we are hearing that our downtown CPass transit pass program is being raised by prospective tenants and employees more and more.  But, no, we don’t do any sort of recruitment for businesses in downtown. We’re really a management entity, so the owners pay assessments, we do cleaning, we do safety, landscaping, some capital improvements, and then of course recently now the downtown CPass program, which interestingly enough we’re the first BID, business improvement district, to get involved with purchasing transit access in bulk for employees, but we’re getting inquiries from other cities and, I think, in part because our situation is not unique.

Cohen: Yeah, totally.  And it seems like these cities need to try something.  Right? I mean, it feels like they’ve been trying everything else, widening highways, you know, even trying to do some other stuff with transit, but I think this concept of trying to increase access for more people, I think, is a really critical tool that can be used that not many are using.

Ricksecker: Right.  Well, and it’s inexpensive.  I mean, we’re not spending a billion-and-a-half dollars to build a light rail line, which I would love to have.  Don’t get me wrong. But for a very modest investment, I think we’re seeing a significant shift in commuting behavior, which may lead to wonderful things in the future.  But it’s a very modest investment; any city can make it; it’s using existing bus technology and will get immediate results. And so I think that’s what is so appealing about this and that’s why it appealed to the business community and the political leadership here, is that it wasn’t a huge investment.  And it’s getting people’s attention now because they are perceiving that it’s generating some real shift in commuting behavior.

Cohen: Yeah, that’s really neat.  You touched on the elected officials there.  And one the themes that I’m trying to really get at here is some of the kind of hard and courageous decisions that elected and appointed officials need to make as it relates to mobility.  And sometimes, again, it’s not necessarily the kind of sexy things. You know, like what you’re doing here is not particularly sexy; you’re just kind of investing in some tried-and-true things, you know, with providing this alternative for folks.  So I guess my question for you would be, based on your experience working in Columbus and being a transit advocate for so many years, what have you noticed about elected and appointed officials, transit agency leaders, so forth, making those courageous decisions that are necessary to kind of move us forward towards this green, equitable, accessible future that we all want?

Ricksecker: Yeah.  Columbus is a very private sector oriented city.  You know, we’re not a strong government center. We’re not New York City.  It’s a very private sector driven community when it comes to public policy.  The mayor is not the one person who takes the lead on a major transportation investment decision.  And when you look at our major developments—so for example Easton is a lifestyle center, a big one outside of Columbus developed by a person who owns The Limited by the name of Les Wexner—the mayor didn’t go to Les Wexner and say, “Hey, Les.  Do you want an interchange?” Wexner made it his personal mission to get that interchange built so he could do this development out there, and that’s been true for all the outer-ring, suburban developments in Columbus. They were private sector driven.

And I think the downtown community now is just beginning to realize that they need to get their act together; they need to start beginning to decide what they need, what they’re willing to put their money toward, and I think we may see some change in some leadership downtown among the business community as they understand that they’re the ones that have to get this done.  They need to take the lead and the public sector will follow. But, you know, it’s funny. Ohio has a history of being able to generate lots of support from the federal government.

Under the Obama administration Ohio was given $400-million for a rail line from Cincinnati to Columbus and Cleveland.  We turned it down. The City of Columbus, our region has twice managed to get state and federal funding for light rail, and we couldn’t get the local support.  And so we’re just beginning to reach the point now where the private sector is understanding that they need to take a leadership role and make sure that local support is there.  Now, what’s so great about the CPass program is that everyone is saying, “Wow. The business community is taking a lead on transit,” and wonderful things are following from that in terms of people’s perception of the transit system, and, I think, ultimately funding for our transit authority.

Cohen: Yeah.  Well, it seems like that’ll maybe be the end result hopefully, is that if we can get more people taking transit you might get more buy-in for kind of more sustained revenue for the transit authority so that they kind of get on a virtuous circle from there.

Ricksecker: Yeah.  And, you know, that’s a good point.  And what’s interesting is the contrast between Columbus and Nashville.  I’ve been to Nashville several times, and I always ride the transit systems when I go various places.  And Nashville’s system is a small system. I didn’t see many white people on the bus when I was riding around, so I thought—that’s always a sign of, for me, people’s attitudes about transit.  And I’m not saying Columbus is great, but what I saw in Nashville was like, “Wow. This is a very racist place,” because I didn’t see a lot of white people taking the bus down there.

So they have a small ridership and a small system, and they’ve tried to get the public to support this huge investment in transit, and it didn’t take much for the Koch brothers to come in and kill it because they hadn’t built the constituency for transit they’d need to have in order to get the bigger investment.  And what’s happening in Columbus now is that with the CPass program we’re seeing executives who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year now taking the bus to work, and we’re seeing an economic integration at least during rush hour of our bus system, and we’re building a constituency which in the future will be very helpful when a major investment comes along.  And I think Columbus, if it builds that base of support and constituency for transit, will be able to resist those national, cultural efforts by people like the Koch brother to kill any sort of initiative.

Cohen: Wow.  I love that, that theme of economic integration and how that may end up being the legacy of this.  That, I think, might be even the most impactful beyond saving the building of several parking decks and better sustainability and so forth.

Ricksecker: Right.

Cohen: That’s really interesting.

Ricksecker: Don’t get me wrong; 20% of the people that work in downtown Columbus make less than $25,000 a year.  They are benefitting tremendously from this program. I delivered a replacement DESFire sticker to a security guard who got very emotional and said, “This means a lot to me.  This is a pay raise for me,” and so it works across the board. From a social justice standpoint it’s providing free commuting for people that can use that, but at the same time and equally important it is interesting to see our bus system now is looking more and more like the Long Island Rail Road, lots of briefcases.

Cohen: Well, this has been a really interesting conversation.  I’m so happy to hear about the growth since we chatted in April, to see the launch officially, and now to start to get some of the early data back; and I look forward to seeing more of the data as it comes across, and I really appreciate you taking the time to chat today, Cleve.

Ricksecker: Thank you.

F: Thanks for listening.  If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast.  You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.

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