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Smart Columbus Promised Driverless Shuttles In Easton. What Happened?

Driverless shuttles debuted in Columbus in December 2018 as part of the Smart Columbus grant.
Adora Namigadde
Driverless shuttles debuted in Columbus in December 2018 as part of the Smart Columbus grant.

On Cleveland Avenue, the a main corridor of the Linden neighborhood, cars and emergency vehicles whiz through at all hours. But many people in Linden don’t have cars.

This fall, Smart Columbus plans to launch a driverless shuttle route that goes to Linden’s area community centers. It will link the Linden Transit Center to neighborhood hubs like the St. Stephen’s Community House.

Smart Columbus communications manager Alyssa Chenault says the plan marks a big shift from its original 2016 idea, which proposed linking Linden to Easton Towne Center.

“Our original thought was we could better connect people to jobs, resources, fun stuff in the community,” Chenault says. “When we did some research about the technical feasibility, part of the route was gonna be from the Easton Transit Center along Steltzer Road to kind of Easton proper.”

While Smart Columbus' new Linden shuttle is also intended to help residents of the lower-income neighborhood get around, it's not the same plan that helped Columbuswin a $40 million national grant. City officials say technological issues, as well as feedback from locals, helped drive the project in another direction.

Axing The Easton Shuttles

Columbus' applicationfor the Smart City project, and subsequent Smart Columbus literature, touted a fixed route of autonomous vehicles serving residential areas around Easton Town Center and John Glenn Airport.

"The Easton area is presently underserved due to the limited and fluctuating demand for service, but offers tremendous potential to improve access to jobs in the region," the application says.

After winning the nod from the Department of Transportation, though, the city turned away from shuttles at Easton. According to Chenault, the driverless vehicles Smart Columbus acquired couldn't keep up with their aspirations.

“Due to the speed limit on those roads, the self-driving technology goes at a maximum of 25 miles per hour,” Chenault says.

Columbus debuted driverless shuttles in a loop around the Scioto Mile in December 2018.
Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU
Columbus debuted driverless shuttles in a loop around the Scioto Mile in December 2018.

Ohio State University’s College of Engineering helps work on implementing the combined federal-and-private grant. Mobility director Maryn Weimer says the grant is aspirational in nature.

“The beauty of this grant is that it is a discovery and deployment grant,” Weimer says. “So it’s really meant to understand the technology, and not just understand it to see how cool it is, but understand it to solve a problem within our community.”

Weimer says shuttles exist that could have potentially met the required speed limit, but the city decided against it.

“It just wasn’t the time from a safety standpoint,” Weimer says. “It did have to cross a very busy route. Instead of deploying the technology for the first time in the city in a potentially more challenging environment, they decided to solve a different problem.”

Columbus first launched its automated shuttles late last year, running a 15 mph loop around the Scioto Mile.

SUNY Buffalo professor Chumming Qiao, who leads the school's Lab for Advanced Network Design, Evaluation and Research, reserarchs transportation systems with connected and autonomous vehicles.

"My initial gut feeling is that (the Easton plan) was too ambitious and even the new plan/route seems to be pretty ambitious too," Qiao says in an email. "As you may know, we are running Olli on our campus first and plan to expand to a downtown area later – it will take time and many studies and experiements before being able to run it in the downtown area."

Olliis an autonomous shuttle using 3D-printed parts.

Plus, Chenault says the plan was not likely to attract adopters.

“We also heard from people who work at Easton that they were less likely to take the self-driving shuttle as a means of getting from the transit stop rather than using their car,” Chenault says.

Launching In Linden

Stakeholder engagement sessions followed after the city nixed the Easton plan. According tocity data, 23.8% of Linden residents don't own a car - significantly higher than Columbus as a whole.

A team from Smart Columbus spent about 18 months asking Linden residents what they’d like to see from the transportation grant in their portion of the city.

“When they identified points in Linden they wanted to be better connected with, St. Stephen’s Community House and the Linden Transit Center were top ranked,” Chenault says.

Rosewood Community Council and Douglas Community Center were also chosen for the route.

Cleveland Avenue is considered a hot spot for sex work.
Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU
A new autonomous shuttle will connect Linden Transit Center with community centers in Linden.

St. Stephen’s nutrition specialist Alison Koenig thinks the shuttle will help link people with their services. The center has been somewhat isolated since COTA changed routes and moved the bus stop that used to be right outside.

“So that requires a walk over to Cleveland Avenue to catch the bus,” Koenig says. “A lot of times people aren’t able to take as much food as they would be if they were driving because they’re having to walk and carry it.”

The community house has 22,000 visitors a year who use a food pantry, nutrition center, WIC office, a PrimaryOne clinic, and childcare.

Linden resident Andrea Albright takes the bus every day to get to her G.E.D. classes. She says she looks forward to trying out the shuttle.

“Yeah, I think it would be something I would definitely try,” Albright says. “Just to see how it goes.”

Albright also wonders what implications the shuttle's presence will have beyond additional transit.

“Eventually, wouldn’t it have a problem with people losing jobs? Like the bus drivers?” Albright asks.

Other Linden resident have concerns, as well. Chanel Krull says he doesn't trust autonomous technology.

“A driverless bus in Columbus, Ohio, would one of the most dangerous things,” Krull says. “These sensors are not gonna work. There’s nothing that’s gonna be indestructible of this bus.”

Much like the shuttles already operating in the Scioto Mile, there will technically be a driver on buses – or what Smart Columbus calls an "operator" – ready to take the controls if necessary. Two electric and ADA-accessible shuttles will run from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.

Each shuttle can accommodate up to 15 passengers at a time, and will travel at 15 miles per hour.

Columbus City Council recently approved just over $1 million to go toward the Linden shuttle. Chenault says it will likely cost less than that.

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.