Columbia, MO. Photo by Chris Yunker via Flickr.
When Columbia, MO Councilmember Ian Thomas, a member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council, first moved to the United States from his native London in the 1990s, the impact of the built environment on quality of life became abundantly clear. First settling in a suburb of Nashville, TN, Thomas found its car-oriented design limiting to an active, healthy lifestyle and lacking in access for residents to fresh food, safe places for recreation, and accessibility to necessary services.
Thomas and his family later moved to Columbia, where, in 2000, he helped co-found the PedNet Coalition, a grassroots nonprofit dedicated to healthy, sustainable modes of transportation. As PedNet’s Executive Director Thomas developed and launched one of the largest Walking School Bus programs in the country. During the same time, Columbia passed a Complete Streets policy, the first in the state of Missouri, to include pedestrian, bicycle, and wheelchair access in local street design.
Now, in his first term of elected office, Councilmember Thomas continues to promote alternative transportation modes locally as well as at the national level as a Board member of America Walks. Thomas has also taken on the task of tackling community challenges with innovative solutions, building a vision for the City of Columbia built on health, sustainability, and social equity.
Located halfway between St. Louis and Kansas City, Columbia is home to the University of Missouri and a vibrant downtown business district has done increasingly well over the years exactly because of its location next to the University campus. The city is working now to expand the downtown residential population, encourage a variety of housing types, and preserve historic buildings. “Promoting growth in our downtown will not only strengthen our tax base, but will preserve our beautiful green space and rare ecosystems for parks and recreational opportunities,” says Thomas.
The city’s investment in biking and walking trails has meant that downtown Columbia is now connected to the largest Rails-to-Trails project in the country. The 225-mile Katy Trail, stretching across the entire state of Missouri, serves as an important recreation attraction to the city.
Despite its many strengths, Columbia, like any city, has challenges on the road ahead. Land annexation and development at the edge of the city has meant soaring infrastructure costs at the expense of taxpayers without the adequate means to recover some of those costs from the development community. Councilmember Thomas has championed a proactive approach to analyzing the long-term costs of different types of growth and encourages the use of denser development strategies and transportation options to reduce infrastructure expenditures.
Unfortunately, Columbia’s current transportation budget doesn’t support a robust transit system, resulting in reduced operating hours and long wait times. “Those who currently ride the bus are those with absolutely no other choice,” says Thomas. “We have to improve our bus system to make it a system that everybody will use.”
Indeed, improving and expanding Columbia’s bus system may very well be Councilmember Thomas’ biggest ambition in elected office. And he’s not alone. A recent community planning process identified expanding the public transit system as the #1 policy priority to benefit underserved neighborhoods.
“People in Columbia want to see commercial and residential growth at the center of our downtown, not extend services out of the city,” says Thomas. “We need to increase residential density and increasing bus trips while reducing automobile trips is an important part of that.”