When Columbia's lead architect and visionary Jim Rouse approached Howard County officials with his company's plan in 1964, Rouse envisioned a bus system so effective it would "virtually eliminate the need for a second car."
That public transportation system, where cars, bikes and foot traffic travel in harmony, is only just coming together as the area shifts from a "suburban mindset" to a new street grid with more choices for pedestrians, cyclists and cars, said Clive Graham, administrator of the county's Office of Transportation.
City planners originally eyed the 1980s as a target for the complete build-out of downtown Columbia. As Columbia nears its 50th anniversary, pieces of a true downtown are forming, with new office buildings going up and two competing plans for incorporating affordable housing into the city up for consideration by the Howard County Council this month.
The county and the Downtown Columbia Partnership, a nonprofit tasked with promoting downtown Columbia, along with key stakeholders are working on a plan to manage transportation in downtown.
New roads are being built as downtown redevelops into what planners hope will be a vibrant urban core. A new office building on the corner of Broken Land and Little Patuxent parkways will be serviced by a new street called Merriweather Drive, for example.
"As development goes in, new roads are being put in. We're building a pattern that is a transformation from the suburban mindset that has been the pattern for many years," Graham said.
The county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which attempts to ensure roads can accommodate traffic, exempts intersections along Little Patuxent Parkway from county tests.
As a result, development can continue even if intersections impacted by the development do not adequately meet the area's needs. The policy is due for a revision later this year.
A major piece of the public transportation puzzle is the Downtown Columbia Transit Center, designed as a focal point for funneling riders through local transit routes, and a circulator shuttle service.
Planning for the transit center is underway, Graham said. The center would serve local buses and would likely be located in the Symphony Overlook neighborhood, the area between Little Patuxent Parkway and the mall.
Plans are preliminary, but the county projects the center will be built within the next eight to 12 years, Graham said.
Columbia's development includes certain milestones master developer Howard Hughes must meet throughout the development process. Among those is that the developer must fund $1 million in initial funds for the shuttle once it completes the five-millionth square foot of development.
City planners hope to create a "park-once" mentality. Bikes and foot traffic, coursing through Columbia's existing pathways, are key to that vision. Retrofitting pathways and infrastructure for bike and foot traffic using existing and sometimes aging infrastructure is "complex and costly," Graham said.
"Today you can't easily walk from the mall to the lakefront. To fix that is complicated, but we're working to try to put pathways in," Graham said.
The downtown Columbia plan, a framework for the development of downtown that passed in 2010 and is now before the council for revisions, calls for a pedestrian and bike-friendly environment that would disperse traffic over a wider network, creating short, targeted trips from an array of office and residential buildings.
In April, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman announced a bike share program will begin by the next summer with stops from Howard County General Hospital to Blandair Park.
The bike share program, along with a multi-use pathway that will extend from the hospital to the park, points to the county's commitment to improve all modes of transportation and shift to alternate means of transport, said Phil Nichols, executive assistant to the county's chief administrator officer.
"We're creating opportunities. Students from the college can see a bike and go to the mall, Nichols said. "That kind of planning can take one car of the road."
The city's planned grid pattern complements the village centers that surround downtown Columbia, and doesn't compete with them, Graham said.