What will Columbus become?

Within the realm of population forecasting – an essential plan technique conducted for transportation, land use, and other activities that require knowing how many people to plan for – there are a number of models: exponential, modified exponential, double exponential, logistic, and linear. Each model is designed to fit specific circumstances that a region may be facing.

Linear is a common one, which assumes that a region will keep growing by X each year. Modified exponential and logistic are common ones, which assume an eventual “carrying capacity,” shown below. Whereas true exponential assumes that a region, say Dallas-Ft. Worth, can keep growing without limiting factors. This FHWA study shows tangible examples of how population forecasting informs real planning activities.


Columbus has essentially shifted from one model, to another, outpacing previous population forecasts by a wide margin. This is a function of Columbus positioning itself as a more attractive destination to move to, and to remain (for Ohio State grads) – continuing this drive to reinvent Columbus, investing in infrastructure and amenities, will continue this near-exponential trajectory in which Columbus finds itself today.

2050coverphoto-235x300Columbus 2050 is a joint partnership between the Urban Land Institute local chapter and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, which offers a blueprint for how the region will grow. That blueprint originally assumed making room for an additional 500,000 residents, which also projected an additional 270 sq.mi. of land mass added to the Columbus metro. Locals have recognized for some time that the region seems to be growing faster than this, and it was announced today that indeed the region is instead projected to absorb another million new residents by 2050. This means that Columbus’s metro will hit 3 million residents at that time.

Columbus is already the nation’s largest city without passenger rail. It’s also a city that, thanks to Ohio State and an incredibly strong innovation sector, can legitimately keep growing without putting in that much effort. That Columbus has put in some noticeable effort in recent years has also put its recent growth above that baseline. This is the flipside of Cleveland and Cincinnati, which must be as innovative as possible just in order to stabilize their population, which by and large both cities have. Cincinnati may gain a thousand or two this decade, where Cleveland may lose a thousand or two, but it’s a wash for cities of 300,000 and 390,000 respectively. For legacy cities that have already inherited incredible civic assets, this is enough to maintain a competitive, high quality of life.

However, Columbus is in a unique and historic position. It’s future is ahead of it. As a city that lacks the legacy assets such as Cleveland’s art museum, private universities, orchestra, or the rapid transit – it may be more of a question of which assets it will develop, as to when. It may be a case where Cleveland and Cincinnati will possess civic assets unique to their heyday, such as the world-class orchestra, and Columbus will possess more contemporary civic assets. This underscores the incredibly strategic position that Ohio finds itself in, and the importance of maintaining a healthy diversity of places – something for everyone.

While Cleveland has great transit vis-a-vis 50’s era rapid trains, and newer BRT on the Euclid Corridor, Columbus may be in better position to develop the transit system of the future. Similarly, my “motto” has always been that a city’s greatest challenge is it’s greatest opportunity – and that is certainly true of transit in Columbus, which is both our greatest challenge and opportunity.


So as Columbus is growing faster than expected, this challenge rises to the forefront in its urgency. In order to accommodate 3 million residents, Columbus will need to diversify its transit offerings. This doesn’t mean light rail instead of BRT, or smart cars instead of uber, or autonomous cars instead of transit, or anything instead of anything; this means all of the above, as soon as possible.

It also means that Columbus can be anything. Long gone are the days where it was an up-and-coming state capital; in terms of its emergence as a major U.S. city, it’s there. Going forward, it has proven its attractiveness as a hub for banking, music, beer, logistics, tech, and even fashion. Columbus has also profited from stable leadership under Michael Coleman, best characterized as a visionary and an implementer, and a stable transition to new leadership in the wake of Coleman’s retirement.

Columbus also has long-standing challenges in addition to new challenges. Transit has always been the main thing holding Columbus back. However, housing affordability is also a rising issue. I think not unlike every city in our nation, equity is also becoming an issue; every city, but especially Columbus, is seeing the good times confined to a few neighborhoods, while others devolve. Richard Florida’s latest seminal Segregated City report placed both Cleveland and Columbus in the top 5 for urban inequity, suggesting a statewide theme to this issue. I have personally worked primarily in the challenged neighborhoods and know that these communities have a lot to offer in the grand scheme of things.

However, at the end of the day, as long as Columbus grounds its current success in a strong vision for the future – it will make the most of this growth. I am concerned, largely based on the popular local website Columbus Underground, that this city is unusually self-placated compared to other cities that are striving toward reinvention and transformation. This is a city that needs to accommodate 3 million residents once that time comes, which it apparently is. It can also use this unprecedented growth as an opportunity to develop assets and amenities that better serve the 2 million residents that are here now. The goal isn’t 3 million residents, but rather how that future footprint manifests itself over the existing landscape. Toward this goal, it’s all about priorities and opportunities.


One thought on “What will Columbus become?

  1. Pingback: How Boston Will Cut Transit Construction Costs Without Diluting Transit | Streetsblog.net

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