Can‘t Stop Columbus – with Jordan Davis

The Big Rethink: A Weekly Interview

Photo by Jason Mowry on Unsplash

This week’s guest, Smart Columbus director Jordan Davis, talks about her city’s platform, Can’t Stop Columbus, along with retasking her new mobility pilots for assisting the hardest-hit neighborhoods.

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Transcript

Greg Lindsay 
It’s my pleasure to introduce Jordan Davis, Director of Smart Columbus, coming out from behind the virtual zoom curtain there. Thank you for joining us Jordan. You look like you’re ready for some electric mobility there based on your own virtual green screen.

So how is Columbus been weathering the pandemic I would say have you noticed, obviously football is coming back the Big Ten is going to be back in action at the end of October, but also I mean Columbus from what I’ve seen is one of those beneficiary cities. You know, an affordable Midwest city that people have their eye on so you know I’m sure there’s of course been tragedy in the city during the pandemic but are you also see the place as a refuge or people coming in?

Jordan Davis
And I think you’re getting at one of the biggest unknown through COVID which is: Is this just a further exaggeration of the tale of two cities? So, is this a place where the white collar workforce remains employed saving money, buying houses, moving back to be closer to family–or more convenient of a lifestyle then our others being left behind that haven’t had the luxuries of some of the convenience factors and benefits of COVID. So I think that we’re still learning this. I mean we’re still figuring it out as you mentioned in New York City, the changes that are happening there. The things are changing here all the time, as levels change new things are closed. Are we going back to work, how does that impact our businesses. So our economy is very much in. We’re iterating as we go. We’ve got unemployment numbers still historically low but also a lot of jobs that are just going unfilled, and we’re trying to figure out why, what the cause for that is, and try and build things back up.

Greg Lindsay
Yeah. How is it, if I recall correctly, you have to remind me. There’s something about particularly about this the funding formulas, of Ohio in particular, that’s going to leave its cities hard hit fiscally. We’re seeing this across the United States, the federal government is withheld aid to the states and cities. And so we’re seeing the crunch and austerity budgets looming and yeah, please, refresh me and our viewers here on why Ohio in particular those formulas are skewed where I know Cleveland and Cincinnati and some of the other classic Rust Belt cities are particularly vulnerable to this.

Jordan Davis
Yeah, so, our income tax, make our tax makeup, so the income to our city municipal governments are roughly 75%, I think in Columbus 78% of the budget. And so in a remote work environment where your income tax is where you work, there are definitely some rules of uncertainty there about. We have a lot of downtown concentration, we’ve built infrastructure to support a very large workforce that comes downtown every day, but many of them live in the suburbs and so where does that money go. But furthermore, it just with the layoffs and other economic situations it puts Columbus in a different position than weathering the storm with other tax models.

Greg Lindsay
Interesting. Well, I would say. Also, what have you seen in terms of Columbus in terms of yeah you know, are there any signs have you seen moving trucks arriving on every corner I mean if you read anecdotally these reports from Manhattan and particularly San Francisco, you know, this notion that you know that every remote worker is now fleeing for you know i mean perhaps nearby and the hills and valleys, there are people who are of course being displaced by wildfires. But yeah, you know, is there a noticeable influx of people from coastal cities into Columbus are rethinking that as they get closer to family?

Jordan Davis
Well, I haven’t really been out much, so I can’t tell you if I’m seeing moving trucks. I would say, you know, the housing market is, you know, going gangbusters here so if that’s any consolation, not sure if that is directly from renters, you know, taking the leap to become a homeowner because they want their own space or more space, or if it’s new residents entirely. I think it’s probably a combination of both.

Greg Lindsay
What do you think, how is your own work with mobility going, obviously, you know, for those of you who are unfamiliar with Smart Columbus, the project comes out of a grant at the end of the Obama administration from the Department of Transportation, to rethink urban mobility, electric, autonomous, all these things. Obviously, you know one of the whole stories of this pandemic is that people are shying away from transit and other shared modes, I mean ride hailing and everything else, so this entire transit revolution has taken some interesting veers here. So, yeah, how does Columbus grapple with that as well?

Jordan Davis
Um, I mean, it’s real. So every single project has been impacted in participation, extremely, right just because such less movement is occurring. It’s been reinforcing of the role of public transportation and really being that essential transportation mode for so many residents and essential workers, and that’s definitely been reinforced through this. But, it’s forced our entire system to innovate more. Our transportation authority, COTA, has gone to free fares. They’re doing back boarding onto the buses, they’re even looking at going into contactless payments very rapidly. So, there are such advancements they’re expanding, their on demand micro transit services, which are moving less people but obviously closer from point to point. And so, I think there’s a little bit that‘s actually advanced the bigger agenda of reimagining transportation. Has participation rates in that reinvention been what we would have hoped at this point in time? No, but I think we’re getting further toward a system, kind of reimagining of the network and how it works, faster.

Greg Lindsay
Well, one thing I mean, wouldn’t you remember one thing that was going to come out of this is that, you know, you are going to commit to basically deploying these technologies and services in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Columbus instead of waiting for them to trickle down there’s gonna be a dedicated effort to this and I remember a secretary Anthony Foxx talking about you know infant mortality and doctor’s appointments there. How have you pivoted to that during the pandemic in terms of being able to deliver supplies, meals. Have you been able to use the technology to that as well?

Jordan Davis
Yeah, absolutely. So we actually deployed an autonomous shuttle in the Linden neighborhood, which is one of the lowest income neighborhoods in our community. And it was servicing the first mile last mile solution from the transit stop to stopping at a community center, a housing development, and a kind of food bank or community center St Stephen’s community house. And through that we stopped passenger service. Obviously and extended the pause of the pilot but have positioned it now to deliver food. So instead of moving people, it’s delivering food to the community on a route. And I think that that’s a good shift in use case, of keeping the technology running but making it serve a really practical and needed use case within this current condition. We also expanded micro mobility service into the neighborhood as part of our Smart Mobility Hubs, and I think what’s really interesting about that is, we’ve seen ridership of micro mobility increase pretty comprehensively across the community and to bring that access closer into the neighborhoods, I think is a win win as well.

Greg Lindsay
Yeah, it’s been interesting. I would say is Columbus engaged in sort of a slow streets program as well? Has it been thinking about how it reimagines public space or, I say, are their images like the ones we saw in New York of all the outside dining?

Jordan Davis
We were a little late, to be fair, to the game. We‘ve just allowed outdoor dining and this expansion, so like kind of an annexed patio space and parking lots, or parking spaces as of this month. And so we’ll be seeing more of that. I think there’s a bigger vision and the Vision Zero work obviously that will, we’ll get to that. We have some other communities that are doing that around our region though that are seeing really great results.

Greg Lindsay
You alluded to this earlier, but I was curious, you know. Obviously, coming again for those of you unfamiliar with Columbus Columbus, it is not a Rust Belt city, it is a white collar, knowledge-working town, majority wise. Which in this case is sort of perverse because, again, going back to the tax formulas, these are the kinds of areas, these are the kinds of jobs affected by remote work so I know that some of the work you’re going to do is going to have charging stations and employers, originally was thinking about shuttles to employers. That’s all now scrambled because there is no longer necessarily a need for commuting. So how are you thinking of in light of that? And what have local employers announced to that? We’re seeing the announcements of banks in Manhattan and whatnot, but how are they committing to their offices in Columbus?

Jordan Davis
Yeah, I mean, it’s an evolving thing as well. There’s phased approaches, some of the best approaches are, you know, getting the participation rates. In general, we’re not seeing companies really commit to bringing their workers back until the first of the year, And that is on a reevaluation basis, so depending on numbers, and obviously we have a very large university here with Ohio State University which impacts numbers. So I think it is very much a monitoring game, but when these companies decide to come back they want to do it with the intention to not have to return, you know back home again. But I do think in talking, I have done a lot of calls with about 30 large companies here. There is definitely a cultural shift happening with how they see the work environment and the need to be in the office. Probably never returning to 100% all their employees working back in the office as was pre-COVID condition. And, probably more of a flexible work policy surrounding it. I mean, the benefit of this is obviously our emissions are at historic lows. Our traffic and congestion is is very very minimal. Safety on the roads, all that so there is a benefit to this, but I think there is a greater economic, you know, community aspect to this that is definitely being sacrificed and if we can find some type of a balance that would be great. We have been working with our companies to try and keep them involved in the community so you know it’s one thing when you leave your home and you can see what’s going on every day. But when you’re at home we can start to get in these bubbles where as the truth is just within our world, and as our worlds shrink, where we see biased media that can be a huge filter to really understanding the severity of the issues and building empathy for the different situations we are experiencing. So, we‘ve built a sort of, skilled volunteering effort, thats totally virtual through COVID, to bring about innovative solutions. We‘ve been able to engage a lot of our companies in that, so they can help nonprofits respond to the increasing demand for services, and demand for more virtual and digital ways.

Greg Lindsay
Interesting. So, one of the things I‘m tracking, and I‘m wondering if you‘ve seen it as well, is the rise of all these mutual aid networks, of community and neighborhood efforts that all spring up simultaneously. This is something in the literature, that if you look at history, there‘s efforts that go back to the black panthers and then of course there‘s hurricane Sandy and Katrina that have created efforts like this. But now, we‘ve had this huge simultaneous disaster, and all these groups, and they‘ve had to be digital first because of the contagion. Are you seeing that in Columbus, and are you supporting it, and how can you support it?

Jordan Davis
Yeah, I mean that‘s essential exactly what we‘ve built. So it‘s called Can‘t Stop Columbus, and essentially it was an idea I put out on Twitter, and a bunch of people kind of rallied around it. And in about two weeks, we’ve had 1700 people become a part of it, and so we’re six months in now, and about 56 project ideas have been mobilized around informed teams, and you know, 20 some have launched apps like data visualization and maps for Columbus city schools, helping working parents with kids at home with our science museum. So, a bunch of really different, like a totally different spectrum of support. But it’s been, I think, one it’s completely virtual, most people are total strangers and they’re just coming together cause they want to help. I think it’s been interesting in this moment. You know I can think back to when I was a student in college or in growing up in high schools. There was a lot of mass shootings. And so, in that area, we came together through crisis or by physically being together, and doing vigils and memorials and building a sense of community by sharing physical space. I think what’s really interesting about this virtual world is trying to build a sense of community without ever being together. So, I think it’s pushing the lines of communication, coordination, empathy building, all of that, and it’s a prolonged engagement, which is not, you know, a moment of response from one crisis event. It’s an ongoing effort, so it’s been interesting to watch it become normalized in the psyche of the community. You know where it went from, you know, this was a huge, you know, burst of momentum burst of interest, deep engagement, you know, then people kind of got fried out, summer happened, they wanted to go enjoy their time with the family, and the nice weather, and now things are starting to get real again, preparing for hibernation and winter. And so, we’re seeing some people try and reprioritize what’s important to them, and it’s been really interesting kind of watching while the crisis is actually, you know, mounting, all the time. It’s almost become, you know, less of a burning platform, because people have started to normalize it. So that‘s a very fascinating psychology to watch unfold in this instance.

Greg Lindsay
Yeah, well I guess the last question then, because we’re almost out of time. Once the pandemic is over, how do you hope to capture that energy and keep those relationships together, because that’s one of the things I’m exploring too. Normally, I mean if you look at past disasters, like efforts like Occupy Sandy, there were combinations of volunteers physically organizing food and doing things, and digitally, but they also faded away, I mean for various reasons there. So, persistence is a key to this. I’m curious how you hope to achieve persistence of these efforts, give the psychological burnout you just aptly described.

Jordan Davis
I mean I think that’s one of our greatest challenges and if you can bottle it up. That could be the biggest opportunity for the community. If you can add capacity to solving problems differently, inevitably you’re going to be in a better position. So how do you do this? And so, I think one of our considerations is really on this Smart City journey, how critical is this crowdsourced community to fulfilling that? And can this be something that we help preserve that persistence, right, as part of the mission because I think, you know, volunteers are going to be pulled in all different directions. So how can we empower the volunteers to give what they can to the degree that they can. And I think that’s, that’s the key to all of this is the support structure, that allows people to have a place to plug in meaningfully, and then I think the second is, how do we make people exposed to the realities of problems. I think the ‘Why‘ is constantly urgent. But we just can’t handle all of that urgency, like we don’t have the mental bandwidth or the capacity. So, how do we convey that to people that compels them to donate their skills and talents to where the community needs the most and so I think that’s another kind of storytelling and empathy building activity we need to do as a community..

Greg Lindsay
Great, Well thank you so much for joining us, Jordan, it’s been a pleasure catching up.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai