Electric Road Trip

Is Ohio's capital the future of transportation?

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Morgan Kauffman snarls at the term "disruption."

The CEO and owner of Columbus Yellow Cab doesn't fear Uber and Lyft, car-sharing, autonomous vehicles, scooters, e-bikes or anything else that wants to compete.

"I don't believe in this disruption concept," he said yesterday during an interview in the company's garage southeast of downtown. "Disruption, to me, says you were asleep at the wheel for a while and you didn't notice all these things were happening. I do believe in evolution."

Kauffman's grandfather started the cab company in Columbus, Ohio, in 1928. The company leaned into technological change decades ago by installing radio towers to help dispatch cars. These days, he's adding new hardware to vault his business into the future — electric vehicles and fast chargers.

Kauffman added 10 Chevrolet Bolts to his 200-vehicle fleet earlier this year. Then he upped the ante with 10 white Tesla Model 3s adorned with cab company logos on the side mirrors.

The evolution of Columbus Yellow Cab is one example of a transportation metamorphosis underway in Ohio's capital city. The regionwide effort is shepherded by Smart Columbus, a public-private partnership funded through a $40 million grant from the Department of Transportation and $10 million grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

One of the many specific projects is self-driving shuttles helping to bridge a "first mile-last mile" gap in transportation access in a Columbus neighborhood. Another is an app called Pivot that lets residents plan and pay for travel across the Columbus area using different modes — city bus or scooter, bike share or car share, or a taxi.

Another goal is electrification. The partnership is working with Columbus-based utility American Electric Power Co. to get 900 EV chargers installed across the area.

Smart Columbus is also trying to encourage EV adoption by hosting ride-and-drive events across the area, including at its downtown Experience Center, which is a showcase of transportation technology. In the garage basement are a half-dozen different plug-in models that visitors can take for a spin.

A goal of the partnership is tackling climate change by slashing greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from vehicle tailpipes. But it's not the only goal.

Hardly a struggling Rust Belt city, Columbus is in the midst of a population boom. With growth comes many of the challenges that plague similar cities: traffic, sprawl, social inequality. Solving transportation challenges can address many of those issues, spokeswoman Jennifer Fening said during a tour of the group's downtown office.

Columbus is also interested in how its transportation experiment can help other metros.

"That's one of the reasons why we were so attractive to our grantors, because 80% of cities look very much like Columbus," Fening said. "There's kind of an anecdote that Columbus is America's test city. Wendy's tests hamburgers here. Victoria's Secret tests underwear here.

"We really believe if we can make it work here in Columbus and manage some of the challenges, then we can be that role model, that blueprint for other cities," she said.

Columbus Yellow Cab, which works closely with Smart Columbus, likewise aspires to be a model for other taxi companies across the nation that want to evolve and grow.

"We're evolving and learning and teaching," Kauffman said.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.
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