Columbus Puts Its Future Bus Rapid Transit Line at Center of Its Smart City Challenge Bid

Cleveland Avenue in Columbus, Ohio, will be transformed into a bus rapid transit corridor.

Cleveland Avenue in Columbus, Ohio, will be transformed into a bus rapid transit corridor. Michael Grass /


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Carless households currently face major mobility disadvantages in Ohio’s capital, but civic leaders hope to change that.

This is the fifth in a series of profiles on the seven U.S. Department of Transportation Smart City Challenge finalist cities, which will be in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, June 9 to present their final grant applications to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. Read our previous Smart City Challenge finalists profiles on Austin, DenverKansas City, Portland and San Francisco. | REGISTER for the June 9 Smart City Challenge livestream

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Cleveland Avenue is a major thoroughfare that heads northeast from downtown into the expansive suburban areas of Ohio’s capital city. It’s not necessarily as well-known as High Street, the city’s primary north-south thoroughfare that connects downtown with Ohio State University and trendy neighborhoods like the Short North and German Village, but Cleveland Avenue is an important roadway that passes through underserved neighborhoods, like South Linden, which has high levels of infant mortality and poverty.

It also has a high number of carless households. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Central Ohio Transit Authority’s Local Line 1 bus route, which runs through South Linden via the Cleveland Avenue corridor, has the second-highest ridership of any bus line in the city.

In 2010, COTA began laying the groundwork to bring bus rapid transit service, branded as CMAX, along Cleveland Avenue, covering more than 15 miles between downtown and Polaris Parkway, where the Ohio Health Medical Center is located.

“There are lots of resources in our suburbs that are hard for residents in the inner city to access,” Patrice Brady, a senior planner with the city of Columbus, told CityLab in April.

Construction on bus shelters, which will feature distinctive sign pylons, and other CMAX roadway infrastructure along Cleveland Avenue is getting underway, thanks to recently awarded Federal Transit Administration funding.

CMAX will use existing bus lanes along High Street downtown.

A CMAX BRT station (Rendering courtesy COTA)

“COTA’s CMAX BRT will introduce new transit technology to our community—making service faster, more direct and more accessible,” W. Curtis Sitt, COTA’s president and CEO, said in a recent statement when the FTA’s acting administrator, Carolyn Flowers, was recently in town to officially grant COTA $37.45 million in federal funding for the CMAX project.

This year, if Columbus wins the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, the CMAX BRT route will play a central role in the development of smart, technologically advanced corridors. Cleveland Avenue will be Columbus’ first smart corridor, equipped with a network of electronic signs, traffic signal priority for BRT vehicles to keep them on schedule along the CMAX route, and real-time bus arrival information.

Two other future smart corridors have been identified, one connecting downtown to the Rickenbacker Inland Port and downtown to Easton via Port Columbus airport.

Smart corridors proposed for Columbus (Courtesy City of Columbus)

If Columbus bests the six other Smart City Challenge finalist cities—Austin, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland, and San Francisco—it is eligible for $40 million in U.S. Department of Transportation funding to implement its demonstration project, plus $10 million in additional funding from Seattle-based Vulcan.

Corporate and institutional stakeholders have committed $90 million in financial support if Columbus wins, meaning Ohio’s capital might see $140 million in funding to make its Smart City Challenge vision a reality.

"We're doing everything we can to leave nothing on the sidelines and put it all on the field," Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer said last month at an event unveiling the city’s Smart City Challenge application, according to Columbus Business First.

Downtown Columbus (Photo by Michael Grass /

The Ohio State University, Battelle, American Electric Power, Honda, and IBM are among the corporate and institutional stakeholders who have partnered with the city of Columbus on its Smart City Challenge bid.

“I am so pleased with our team and our partners for all of their hard work over the past several months in preparing the final application,” Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther said last month.

With its Smart City Challenge plan, Columbus has five interrelated strategies, according to the city.

Access to Jobs: Columbus has several major employment centers; however, some workers do not have reasonable access to these jobs.  Columbus proposes an autonomous vehicle pilot deployment in Easton to provide last mile connectivity from the Easton Transit Center to area employers, as well as enhanced traveler information, broadband connectivity, and smart intersections along the new CMAX Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Corridor from Polaris to Downtown.

Smart Logistics: The Rickenbacker Inland Port is a high-speed international, multimodal logistics hub, has one of the world’s only cargo-dedicated airports, and boasts the 7th most active foreign trade zone in the United States.  Columbus proposes making accessible real time traffic condition and routing data in a smartphone app for trucks to the movement and delivery of freight.

Connected Visitors: Visitors to the Columbus Region spend $5.7 billion each year, provide an overall economic impact of $8.7 billion, and support over 71,000 jobs.  Columbus proposes to develop a smartphone app with Experience Columbus that can be customized to specific events to provide real-time information related to traffic, parking, and transit options.

Connected Citizens: Columbus has select neighborhoods with mobility challenges that limit citizen access to jobs, health care, and education services.  Columbus proposes to examine mobility challenges in the Linden neighborhood to further build ladders of opportunity for residents by increasing personal transit service offerings (e.g. Uber, Car2Go), and helping cash-based and/or credit-challenged citizens access these services.  

Sustainable Transportation: We will work to expand the recently completed Smart Grid project to other parts of the city, expand electric vehicle charging infrastructure, pursue continued conversion of the Columbus fleet to compressed natural gas (CNG), explore converting more of the city fleet to electric vehicles (EVs), and investigate additional ways through incentives or policy changes to encourage more EVs in the city.   

Easton Town Center (Photo by Michael Grass /

One of the mobility challenges Columbus is trying to solve can be easily seen with a visit to the Easton Transit Center, a bus hub near massive retail and entertainment complex Easton Town Center that employs thousands of workers.

But “near” is a relative term. While some COTA bus routes run through the sprawling Easton Town Center complex, the Easton Transit Center is not exactly walkable, and for those who do attempt getting there on foot, the journey requires navigating busy suburban roadways. It’s about a 25-minute walk and a classic “last mile” quandary.

The Easton Transit Center (Photo by Michael Grass /

In its Smart City Challenge bid, Columbus is proposing a demonstration project to deploy a network of circulating autonomous vehicles to shuttle people between Easton Town Center, which would make it easier for retail workers to get to and from their jobs.

A win could put Columbus on the map for transportation innovation, which might seem unusual because Ohio’s capital has never been viewed as a transit trailblazer when compared to some of the other Smart City Challenge finalist cities, including Portland, Oregon.

“Columbus has the opportunity to so dramatically move the needle by accelerating the development of intelligent transportation systems,” Ginther recently told Columbus CEO. With a Smart City Challenge win, “[w]e really become that laboratory and best practice classroom to transform other cities in the Midwest and the South.”

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty. In a previous professional life, he worked as a consultant on a post-9/11 Federal Transit Administration safety and emergency preparedness program.

NEXT STORY: Fast Growth, Economic Divides Weigh Heavy on Austin’s Smart City Bid