DecarbonizationWhy Columbus is shifting mobility patterns to lower greenhouse gas emissions
November 3rd, 2021
In October 2018, Bloomberg Philanthropies awarded 25 cities a total of $70 million as winners of the American Cities Climate Challenge (ACCC). The two-year acceleration program provides winning cities access to resources and technical support for efforts to lower carbon emissions. As the recipient of $2 million, the City of Columbus has committed to several bold strategies to reduce its impact on the environment.
The challenge was open to the 100 largest cities in the United States, so Columbus faced fierce competition for resources to drive new decarbonization efforts. But winning the Smart City Challenge in 2016 gave Columbus an advantage, says Mandy Bishop, Smart Columbus program manager for the City of Columbus.
“Being in the Midwest means there’s a lot of opportunity for improvement. They saw Columbus as a place with a head start but room to grow,” Bishop says.
Size was another advantage in the competition. Being 14th largest city in the U.S. made Columbus an attractive candidate, according to Bishop. Columbus is also growing. The Insight2050 report from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission said the city and surrounding area will grow from two million to three million residents by 2050.
Winning the challenge also gave Columbus the opportunity to “move forward with a deeper and more accelerated approach to fighting climate change and bringing about a more sustainable future for the community,” says Matthew Stephens-Rich, an electric vehicle specialist with both the Bloomberg-partnered Electrification Coalition and Smart Columbus.
The City of Columbus’s ACCC pledge included ambitious goals to reduce municipal carbon emissions by 30 percent and community-wide emissions by 20 percent by December 2020. These goals and the city’s strong record of implementation success provided for a good position for the first phase of the ACCC application.
The first phase of the ACCC application asked cities to report on their foundational, ambitious and moonshot climate actions in the building and transportation sectors. The program considers foundational those that reduce emissions from government operations, over which a city has the direct control. Ambitious actions are community-wide actions to reduce emissions that require buy-in from partners outside of the local government. Moonshot actions are truly transformative actions that will dramatically reduce emissions but may not be fully completed by December 2020.
During the application process, Columbus had to choose the best strategies for meeting reducing emissions. Buildings and vehicles are the largest contributors to energy use and carbon emissions in the city. Significant work was already being completed through the Smart Columbus initiative to transform the transportation sector, so Columbus chose actions that would galvanize the building sector and propel the city’s transportation work to the next level.
Columbus, like many cities, initially applied to the Climate Challenge in July 2018 by describing dozens of actions that it is taking to reduce carbon emissions in the building and transportation sector. Narrowing down those actions to eight prioritized actions for Climate Challenge support was the focus of the ACCC site visit on September 12, 2018.
“They were trying to understand on a deeper level what’s going on here, how they could be of assistance and how the program could really move the needle,” says Alex Slaymaker, Smart Columbus smart mobility adoption manager for the Columbus Partnership.
During the site visit, Bloomberg members met with Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther to get a better understanding of the unique collaborations between utility companies, private sector businesses and environmental groups happening in our city, says Alana Shockey, assistant director of sustainability for the City of Columbus.
“We are all rowing in the same direction and we want to work together on this. I think the Climate Challenge members got really excited about the potential that Columbus has to do big things at scale,” Shockey says.
Collaboration was a central tenet of the work for Columbus, even when trying to finalize the actions that should go into the application.
“Every department director that was going to be touched by this looked at it and made sure that it was consistent with their vision for their department. Buy-in is critical, it is impossible do any of this work if you don’t have buy-in from the people that actually have to do it,” says Shockey.
Stakeholders from The Ohio State University, Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, American Municipal Power, Go Sustainable Energy, Sierra Club, Ohio Environmental Council, The Nature Conservancy, Columbia Gas, and AEP Ohio provided input to the moonshot actions proposed in our application.
In its final application submitted September 28, 2018, the city selected four prioritized actions from the building sector and four prioritized actions from the transportation sector for which it requested Climate Challenge support:
Action 1: Design and implement a workforce development program for Community Energy Advocates.
Action 2: Accelerate clean energy financing through the Regional e-SID.
Action 3: Pass a benchmarking ordinance for commercial, industrial and multi-family buildings.
Action 4: Complete 30,000 home energy audits for buildings in the residential building sector.
Action 5: Encourage new mobility options (e.g. bikeshare, electric bikeshare).
Action 6: Provide incentives/behavioral nudging for use of low-carbon mobility modes.
Action 7: Adopt and implement a strategic parking plan providing for parking management and pricing.
Action 8: Define and expand the high-frequency public transit network to achieve significant ridership increases.
Up for the Challenge
Columbus was thrilled to be named a Leadership City by the American Cities Climate Challenge and immediately went to work formulating its delivery plan. Program leaders report progress under the plan on a bi-weekly basis to Alana Shockey who oversees the Sustainable Columbus program. The Sustainable Columbus team then identifies obstacles and areas where intervention or support is needed and communicates those needs to the Climate Challenge coach and strategist with whom she meets on a weekly basis.
“Many are familiar with the saying, ‘give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.’ The Climate Challenge at its heart embodies this ethic. The Climate Challenge coach and strategist are teaching City staff and community partners how to fish,” Shockey says.
The Climate Challenge provides leadership and knowledge development for city staff, cohort training, staff augmentation and deploys deliverology to the city’s existing climate action plans to break goals down into strategies and actions, track these actions and hold internal and external partners accountable for progress. Through the Climate Challenge, the city is connected with technical partners to help deliver on each prioritized action. The strategy is simple: focus on top priorities, meet regularly and predictably, include the people who are accountable, identify problems transparently and honestly and deploy a problem-solving approach to move climate actions forward.
The Climate Challenge has connected the city with several partners including:
- VisionFlourish for branding and marketing strategy support
- ideas42 for buildings and transportation behavioral insights
- Institute for Market Transportation (IMT) for benchmarking ordinance development
Some projects deployed may be more visible to the community than others, Bishop says.
“Air quality is generally not something that people pay attention to unless they have a condition that is affected by it,” Bishop says. “I think the things residents will benefit from are very subtle. They likely won’t know that air quality is getting better as we improve commercial building efficiency and when we start to have impacts on people driving or riding more on transit.”
For Mayor Ginther, combatting climate change is also a social justice issue. The negative impacts of climate change are disproportionately felt in our opportunity neighborhoods. With a focus on equity, the city and its utility partners have focused on workforce development for Community Energy Advocates in Columbus’ six Opportunity Neighborhoods where the Community Energy Savers program is being deployed: Linden, Franklinton, Hilltop, Near East, Italian Village/University District and Milo-Grogan.
Private sector employers are another collaborator in lowering carbon emissions. The work in this area expanded out of Acceleration Partner employer incentive projects already happening through Smart Columbus, says Slaymaker.
“We work with Columbus Partnership members to provide incentives to decrease single occupancy vehicle trips by employees by 10 percent by the end of 2020 and to increase EV adoption by almost 500 percent by March of 2020 two very ambitious goals,” Slaymaker said. “We worked on getting workplace EV charging installed, we worked on getting their fleets electrified and we also worked on benefits and education.”
Reducing single occupancy vehicle trips proved to be both a challenge and a learning opportunity, partly due to the size and density of Columbus.
“Most people are used to driving their own car to work. Most people are used to free parking everywhere they go,” Slaymaker said. “Free parking is the hardest thing that we are up against, and it is a symptom of how we designed our region.”
Columbus is also contributing to the American Cities Climate Challenge by sharing its learnings with other cities.
“We’re unique because as the winners of the Smart City Challenge, we’ve been in the biz for large grant funding for climate change and decarbonization longer than others,” Stephens-Rich said, adding that this allowed Columbus to be a leader among the many cities working together. So far, ACCC committee members have met with other cohorts from New York, Washington D.C., Denver, Pittsburgh, Austin and Minneapolis.
In June 2019, winning cities shared advice and lessons learned at a national conference in Portland.
“There were conversations where cities shared what they were up to,” Slaymaker said. “One outcome was the creation of a Ride and Drive practitioner’s guide that we are going to circulate with all of the Bloomberg cities. We saw so much interest in the program and have completed almost 9,000 electric vehicle test drives so we felt it was an opportunity to share our experience.”
As encouraging new mobility options is one of Columbus’s action items, engaging other cities on multimodal policies is helpful. Managing scooters and e-bikes have been a recent challenge to many cities, Bishop says. “It’s about the data, which we learned a lot about from Los Angeles. They were the first to put together the mobility data standards.”
Mobility options, including scooters presented cities with challenges, but also opportunities. “Scooters ridden in the right environment can help solve first-mile last-mile problems and actually encourage people to use public transit,” Bishop said. “Other cities just need to look at how mobility devices might solve a challenge in their community.”
One area where Columbus can have a large effect on its carbon emissions and also learn best practices from other cities is benchmarking.
“Benchmarking helps create more aggressive metrics and provide greater direction on how buildings can reduce their energy usage,” Stephens-Rich said. “It’s going to be giving extremely important data that we just don’t have yet about how our buildings are using energy and where their might be efficiency gains.” Columbus is looking to learn from other cities like Pittsburgh, which already has benchmarking ordinances, according to Bishop.
The American Cities Climate Challenge began as a competition, but now presents a great opportunity for collaboration in fighting climate change and promoting sustainability. “There’s more we could be sharing out, but at the same time it never hurts to ask others,” Stephens-Rich said. “No one city gets to the leader in this, all 25 are on the same level.”
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