Why Columbus is shifting mobility patterns to lower greenhouse gas emissions

Columbus, Ohio on a map with an EV charging station
Shutterstock Dmitrijs Kaminskis/petovarga

In 2016, when the city of Columbus, Ohio, won the U.S. Department of Transportation Smart City Challenge, we ranked in the bottom third of all major U.S. metros for EV adoption.  We also had a prevalent single-occupant vehicle (SOV) commuter rate: 82 percent, or roughly 705,274 of our region’s commuters drive alone to work.

Columbus is the 14th largest city in the United States and the fastest-growing in the Midwest, and our region is projected to add 1 million residents by 2050. This means if these SOV rates continue and we don’t prioritize EV adoption, we could be facing rising greenhouse gas emissions due to increased traffic congestion, which could lead to an increase in health problems for our community.

We formed Smart Columbus, a public-private partnership formed to deploy and adopt new technologies that promote a more sustainable transportation ecosystem. With significant collaboration between the public and private sector and substantial resources from Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, we have focused on shifting mobility patterns to lower greenhouse gas emissions by electrifying the transportation sector and reducing SOV commutes to large workplaces.

Smart Columbus set a goal for increasing adoption by 500 percent by 2020, which seemed very daunting in the beginning, especially given that Ohio has no statewide zero-emission vehicle incentives in place. Another goal is to decrease SOV commutes to large workplaces by 10 percent through the introduction of new mobility benefit programs and education campaigns at large workplaces.

A lot of our EV adoption efforts are rooted in educating the seven-county region about the cost savings and environmental impact of an EV purchase. In 2018, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission released a baseline study on energy use in Franklin County, which encompasses the Columbus Region. The study found that a Franklin County resident who switches to an EV, on average, will save around 8 cents per mile (with gas prices currently around $2.70 per gallon). If only 10 percent of Franklin County switched to EVs, that would translate into over $36 million in savings every year. 

Our outreach strategies at Smart Columbus continue to pave the way for us to reach and exceed our EV adoption goals. In September, October and November, we learned that EVs were 2.01 percent of all vehicles sold — up from .38 percent when the program began. With an end of program goal of 1.8 percent, we feel our programs and strategies that target employees of central Ohio’s largest employers are aligned with what the public needs to transform their car purchases.

So far, our EV adoption efforts have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by about 840 metric tons of carbon dioxide, with a goal to lower them by a total of 2,000 metric tons by 2020. Aligned with our other program goals to increase renewable energy and decarbonize our grid, we have lowered greenhouse gas emissions by more than 161,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide since 2016. 

In the two years since Smart Columbus has been established, we have deployed effective strategies for educating and incentivizing our community to change their transportation behaviors, and we’re just getting started. Here are a few strategies we’ve been used to move the needle when it comes to smarter, cleaner mobility in the Columbus Region:

Accelerating culture shift through large workplaces

We had deep commitments to partner the public and private sector to get things done. A unique way in which we are increasing the adoption of sustainable transportation options is working directly with 100 large employers in the Columbus region through our Acceleration Partners program. With executive sponsorship, these partner companies are committed to bringing the messages and programs of Smart Columbus to their employees and company practices. 

Two well-proven reasons that people change their behavior are education and financial incentives. We are aiding our partner companies to offer both. We take 12 electric vehicles to large worksites throughout the year as part of the Ride & Drive Roadshow. Since launching in 2017, we have been able to give close to 7,000 EV test drives at 69 events. We work closely with employer partners to provide them everything they need to make the events a success, including a plug-and-play communications toolkit and EV education for employees before and after their test drives. Our employer-based Ride & Drives average 123 test drives per event, and large campuses, such as JP Morgan Chase and Ohio State University, have hosted more than 250 test drives in a single day.

Last year, we launched the Ignite Action Fund, a matching fund that aims to fast track company deployment of new mobility benefits. We award no more than $15,000 in matching funding to create EV rebates and SOV reduction programs for employees. In 2018, five companies were awarded $56,000 to deploy rebates for EV leases and purchases, home charging stations and commuter e-bikes. We also awarded more than $74,000 to employers to deploy SOV reduction initiatives and incentives to their employees. 

Introducing Multi-Modal Trip Planning application

Because we know that too many of our residents struggle with lengthy commutes, multiple bus transfers and long waits, our team is creating a Multi-Modal Trip Planning application, to go live this summer. The mobile app will integrate end-to-end trip planning, booking, electronic ticketing and payment services across public and private modes of transportation.

These services will connect with mobility providers, including transit, transportation network companies, car and bike sharing companies and taxis, to create customized trip itineraries for the traveler.

The application is enabled by the Smart Columbus Operating System, a web-based platform that we are designing to collect data from a variety of inputs including public, nonprofit, education-based and private sector contributors. The operating system will serve as a unified gateway for the region, by combining the transportation services of mobility providers into a single platform accessible to travelers using the Multi-Modal Trip Planning application.

Shifting consideration to sales at the dealership

As a recent Fast Company article pointed out, many EV adoption communities have found that car dealerships are often a barrier in the EV adoption process. We have applied concerted effort to partner with local car dealerships publicly recognizing those who are prepared to close the deal with EV car buyers. Through discussions with dealers, manufacturers and consumers, we developed the Electrified Dealers program to acknowledge and credential those who have electric inventory, EV chargers on their lots, completed EV training with Smart Columbus twice a year, and actively market EVs in their showrooms and other co-branded marketing materials. In return for their efforts, we promote their offering to dealers, list them on our website and share all dealer leads generated through our Ride & Drive events.

The Electrified Dealers program launched in August, and 20 dealerships in the region were certified as of February. The first Electrified Dealers collectively carry 16 EVs and PHEVs models, ranging from sedans to SUVs to minivans, which is more models than we had when we started the overall program in 2017. Our life of project goal is to credential 25 of the 75 dealers in the Columbus region.

Converting our most active road users to electric

While consumers adopting EVs makes a difference in GHG reduction, the greatest dent can be made by electrifying fleet and ride sharing vehicles. In 2018, the city of Columbus introduced 93 electric vehicles into their fleet of 3,000 on-the-road fleet vehicles. Our goal is to deploy 300 public fleet EVs with additional purchases by the city of Columbus and commitments from other public agencies. 

To stimulate the conversion among ride-sharing drivers, we extended 40 electric vehicle rebates valuing $3,000 to taxi companies and individual drivers who accept fares through ride-hailing apps. With the conversion of just 40 of these vehicles, we expect to eliminate 135 to 269 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year throughout the service life of the vehicles. Last year, we awarded 10 incentives worth $30,000 to Columbus Yellow Cab, which used the incentives to purchase 10 Chevy Bolt EVs.

Continuing to prepare the community for change

When we complete the grant program in 2020, arguably the greatest impact we can make is in changing the culture of our community to favor sustainable transportation solutions. In October, Columbus leveraged the work of Smart Columbus to become one of the winners of the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ American Cities Climate Challenge. The $2.5 million award will prepare our workforce and policy makers for energy efficient jobs and strategies. The grant also will allow us to bring a multi-modal trip planning app to more community members and increase ridership on newly expanded high frequency transit lines.

We’ve learned that the work of becoming a smart city is constantly evolving with the advent of new technologies and changes in community needs. As we near our 2020 goals, we know our work won’t end there. But the foundation we are laying today will empower businesses, policymakers and people in the community to think smarter about how transportation decisions affect our quality of life.