Saturday, August 23, 2008

OHIO/CINNKY: Why I don't support the Cincy Streetcar... (Part 1 of a Series)

I have briefly mentioned (that's not the only time, but it's the first in a series) this in the past, but I'm going to start talking about two things in a series:

1) Why I don't support the Cincinnati Streetcar
2) Suggestions I have to improve the Cincinnati Metro System

So let's begin...

Part I: Why I don't support the Cincinnati Streetcar
Section 1: It doesn't serve enough people, and looks more like a tourist item than a functional public transportation tool

This is the current plan for the streetcar per the Cincinnati Streetcar website...

I have altered the dimensions a little bit so that it's a little more readable.

Do you see yourself on that map? Now, my guess is this: if you're a blogger, you're probably on the map or pretty close to it -- because bloggers occupy the class of citizen known as the "middle class," usually urbane, and overwhelmingly college educated. (Also, I'm fairly familiar now with the downtown and city bloggers -- this is excepting the wonderful suburban bloggers we have -- that I get the impression I know where most of you live, or close enough.)

Let me ask you this question: are those the people currently using the Cincinnati Metro?

No. The grand majority of people who use the public transit in the city are people who cannot afford private transportation, or whose financial or social position makes a car unavailable. They need to serve those communities first and best. An argument will be made "but it goes through Over-the-Rhine and Clifton." That's fine, except you're ignoring that Over-the-Rhine is gentrifying faster than it knows what to do with itself, and Clifton has always been a home for students first and everyone else second.

The streetcar is not serving other major areas that see high traffic... including Clifton Avenue, Ludlow/Hamilton Ave's, Queensgate, Price Hill, Reading Road, Bond Hill, Avondale, etc.

Rather, it's choosing those neighborhoods that are, or will soon be, "tourist friendly" because of their up-and-coming status. The very fact that the map highlights connections to restaurants and arts venues only reinforces the tourism focus.

If the streetcar is going to be an effective local tool, then it should go after those people who need the public transit the most, not those people for whom public transit merely represents a cheaper alternative. Granted, there is a great need to broaden the alternatives for everyone in the city, but why are we placing our bets on people who do not currently use the system and not on people who could really, really use a more reliable form of transit -- ie, a fixed market rather than a speculative one.

My concern is that the current populations that will be served by this route will use it once, think "well that's neat," or use it just a couple of times a year, and the poor lonely thing is going to go round and round and round and be all empty.

Some other bloggers joked with me at the Blogger's Convention that I don't like it just because it doesn't stop at my front door. That's partially true, and I'll admit I'm kind of pissed that there's no service on that system that helps me at all. But I'll expand my own frustration out a little bit: except for entertainment purposes alone, who does it serve?

Think for a minute: let's say you are going to use it for work on a park-and-ride type system, where would you park?

Part II: Possible improvements to existing infrastructure
Section 1: Improve intra-neighborhood service

This is another one of those "Oh, Barry's just pissed because it doesn't stop at his front door" moments, probably. But I just wanted to point this out, as I think it's a real problem.

Example 1: I currently live on Elberon Ave. My bus stop is uphill about 3 or 4 blocks -- fine. However, to get to Glenway Avenue or Warsaw, I have to either walk the addition 10-15 blocks to jump on the 33, or take the 10/32 up to W. 8th, walk past Kroger, and then jump on the 33. Or I could simply take the 10 (I think) all the way out where they would drop me off at Sears. Strange.

Example 2: I am moving to Warner Street in Clifton Heights, near Hughes High School. My bus stop will be 3-4 blocks uphill (dammit!) on the corner of Clifton and McMillan -- fine. In order to get down McMillan, I either have to hoof it, or get to Vine Street to take the 46. Because there's no bus that goes from Hughes High School all the way down McMillan Avenue. Doesn't that seem strange?

Example 3: I was at a party on Chase Avenue in Northside. Way down Chase. Way, way down chase. It was the middle of the day, and it was time for me to go home. I asked my friends: what's the closest busstop to here? Their response was to pick up their keys and say Come on, I'll drive you up. Eh? What? You'll drive me to the busstop... seems like it defeats the whole purpose, doesn't it?

My point is this? I know there is a smattering of intra-neighborhood busses -- I've noticed the 133 near my casa -- but these need to be dramatically improved, advertised, posted (the 231 that drops off at Christ Hospital isn't even listed on the busstop sign), and expanded so that people can use the system more than just as a get from work to home and back. Some people use the system as their exclusive form of transportation, and the need for them to get around more effectively to do their daily errands should be key to the interest of the operators.

UPDATE: And make these intra-neighborhood busses cheaper than $1.50... perhaps $1.50 for the trip out and a trip back, perhaps, so that it would be $0.75 one way trip.


Now, before we go on. Let's break down the economy just a little bit, or at least my philosophy of the economy. There are three primary groups of organizations that should be considered as "playing a role:" the government, the non-profit sector, and the for-profit sector. The for-profit sector, obv., should theoretically always run in the black. The non-profit sector, in theory, should always hover around a zero-sum game when it comes to their finances. Meanwhile, the government, and its programs, have the flexibility for it to run in the red. Why? Because their main sources of revenue are not attached to its services. The government fills a need where the private sector cannot effectively or efficiently. So don't argue that "those routes won't be profitable!!!!" DUH! They're not supposed to be. I think we're going to get a rude wake-up call when we realize the streetcar won't be profitable, either. Government services (and public transit, almost universally in the world, are government services) are supposed to provide service to the public, notprofit for the government.

I think, if we viewed our public transit plan through that lens, we will be far more successful in this endeavor.

Next Week:Part I: Why I don't support the streetcar...
8-23: Section 1: It doesn't serve enough people
8-25: Section 2: It's an "economic development tool"
8-25: Section 3: It's going to take too long
8-26: Section 4: Busses Aren't Cool
8-26: Section 5: Traffic Congestion
8-26: Section 6: Where is the plan for the suburbs?

Part II: Suggested changes to the Metro
8-23: Section 1: Improve intra-neighborhood service
8-25: Section 2: Improve the technology
8-26: Section 3: Create greater suburban access
8-26: Section 4: Integrate TANK and Metro
8-26: Section 5: Actively seek out corporate bus passes


Dan said...

All I'll say, is you are wrong and you should support it. :)

Mark Miller said...

You nailed it brother.

Every inch of the proposed "Option A" route is presently served by existing Metro buses. Ditto for most of the proposed extensions. This isn't about transportation at all.

The streetcar is simply a neighborhood convenience for people who are too snooty to take the bus. Fine and dandy if they want to pay for it themselves. But reaching into everyone else's wallets is too much to ask.

Interestingly, tax increment financing (TIF) is the perfect structure for this sort of deal. It allows large capital projects to be paid for through the higher property taxes that result from the improvement. But this deal is SO uneconomical that even the most agressive TIF projections will only cover 1/4 of the cost. Plus a lot of OTR and downtown are already TIF'ed-up from other development projects.

Most of us would love to ditch our cars if we could get anywhere we wanted by some combination of bus/streetcar/light-rail. I used to get a lot of homework done on the bus to/from school. I'd be more productive now if someone else were driving me.

If local governments are serious about adding transportation to their portfolio of public services, they need to come up with a plan that truly serves the people, and then ask them to approve it. All plans so far (including this one) have attempted to tax all city or county residents in order to pay for small pockets of service. That's inherently unfair and must properly be opposed.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you totally man! Queen City Metro already has a decently extensive bus route system, and there's far too much overlap between the buses and the streetcars... And the cost of tearing up roads and laying rail and adding the overhead wires is just NUTS! That's why they went from streecars to trolley-buses back in the '60s, then got rid of the trolleybuses all together to stop dickin-around with the overheads! Why bring all that hassle back?!?!

And I don't think anyone has thought of the fact that they'll need to fit some of the existing Gillig buses with pantograph poles to use as diesel-powered ice-scrapers for the wires during winter... That's quite a task too!

Dayton has a long-established electric trolleybus system, which is all well and good, but no one has the need for tracks anymore. Granted, is the city does go through with this, they could also beef-up the Metro bus routes with some overhead wires and buy a batch of new Skoda electric trolleybuses as well...

Barry, I'll pitch your ideas to my friends from Queen City Metro, but I won't hold my breath! haha Even the people that work for them think the management is a bunch of lunatics!

P.S. Come school time, I'll be living 11 walking-blocks total from you... lol

Dan said...

Mark Miller: This plan is not calling for a new tax. Using city dollars for public works projects (not monies that that could go to additional cops, social services, etc.) and various other funding sources including private/public partnerships. This particular project will not raise your taxes.

I believe many in the City gov't believe that a comprehensive, regional, multi-modal transportation plan will need to be looked at in the future and the street car is just one piece of that but most experts will tell you that a streetcar is more a "circulator" for people and not good for long distance commuting like light rail.

Light rail was defeated by the voters in 2002 I believe. That would have been a comprehensive plan . . but again, it was voted down.

WestEnder said...

I know you spent time putting your thoughts together so I feel kind of bad telling you this, but the streetcar is not a public transportation initiative. It never was. It's meant to be part of the overall plan for the area's economic development.

The overall plan is to get more residents, more tourists, more businesses, increase property values, spur development, etc.

A public transportation initiative in this region would have to be some sort of light rail. That's a whole 'notha can of worms.

Another idea is to use small blimps instead of cars. I am not making it up, there is actually a company working on this.

CityKin said...

The whole attitude that public transit is only for the poor needs to end. Ease of transport is a critical part of a livable city. Currently all our in-city transport is by gasoline on rubber tires.

The Streetcar is a circulator. It is not a really a transportation system, although branches (for example up Gilbert to rail ROWs in Avondale Evanston etc) could connect to true separated-grade light rail. The streetcar is meant to increase density, increase walkability and liveability of the urban core. It is a neighborhood development tool, and it does work at doing this. Ask yourself, what US cities still have shopping downtown? Real, urban, vibrant shopping districts? All of them that I have seen have some sort of rail. No other system quite does it.

I rarely take the bus anymore, but I did today with 3 kids and a stroller. Now, I'm a healthy dude and could manage, but the bus, besides being oil dependent is totally unfriendly to the elderly, the handicapped and people with strollers and carts.

The modern streetcar has access at grade. The system is very easy to understand and should help bring new users to public transit. If you are walking down the street, you can just stop and walk on, and you can roll you bike or stroller on with you.

Granted our bus system needs lots of improvement (schedule access via blackberry would have been nice today) (digital readers at stops would be cool too), but the quality of the ride, the steps and the hard to decifer schedules mean it will rarely entice people who have cars available. Buses need to be part of the total system so that the network can be far-reaching, but we need more variety and choices, and this is a start in that direction...

I disagree that it is meant for tourists. And as for the criticisms of this specific route, I think something like this is critical for greater success of Findlay Market and the northern reaches of OTR.

Mark Miller said...

Now that we all agree that the streetcar is about neighborhood development and not transportation, perhaps we can discuss dollars and sense.

I realize Dan that there aren't any special taxes associated with it yet, and that's part of the problem. We all pay taxes and the city provides services to us in return.

Trash collection is one such service. We all split the cost, and each get the benefit. Some days we generate more trash than others, but overall the benefit is pretty evenly delivered.

Street lighting is another. We all split the cost, and each get the benefit. Except in Hyde Park, where I live, we're too snooty to have electric street lights. Antique gas lights have a special charm, and we enjoy increased property values as a result. But everybody on a gas-lit street gets a special property tax assessment to pay for the extra cost of fueling and maintaining them. It would simply be wrong to expect everyone else to foot the bill for our luxuries.

Likewise for the streetcar. The principal beneficiaries will be landowners within 1/4 to 1/2 mile of the route. Their property values stand to skyrocket. The benefits to taxpayers in Sayler Park, Westwood, Madisonville, etc. will be distant to non-existent. And yet all will share equally in the costs.

What sense of social justice rationalizes enriching those few at the expense of the many? Until the benefits are broadly delivered, or the costs are assessed to the beneficiaries, this thing must rightly be opposed.

Quimbob said...

Part 1
The idea is that people would move into the area and use the streetcar in a car free lifestyle.
A lot of OTR (especially the northern part) is vacant and blighted. This, in turn blights the surrounding areas. Investment in the core will benefit a much larger area and bringing more and wealthier people into the city will enable the city to continue to provide services and maintain infrastructure.
The streetcar will also be a great boon to getting tourists out and about to our museums, restaurants and performing arts venues.
More $$ flowing into the local economy is good.
Part 2 Example 2
One of the proposed secondary streetcar routes is along McMillan from Clifton to Gilbert. I have heard about how vibrant the area around Peeble's corner used to be in the 60s. It would be really cool to see that area revitalized.
Example 3
Metro signage sucks. If I could read their damn signs, I'd have a friggin' driver's license !
I wouldn't expect lower fares anytime. The head of SORTA was on the Dan Hurley show on 8/24/08 and said that $1.50 bus ride costs about $4.50 and gas prices are going up a lot in 09.
The vid will be here sometime.

I think a streetcar makes sense in certain areas. The evangelists are already acting like a streetcar in every backyard is the answer to all the world's ills. The yuppies are all over the idea but I see it as being particularly well suited for old people.

Anyway, sorry about the long post.

Randy Simes said...

A small streetcar system alone is not a comprehensive transit system. Nor is a spoke/hub bus system, but streetcar lines in combination with the bus routes that exist is the start of something new. Something tangible in the sense of a comprehensive transit system - something that currently doesn't exist in Cincinnati.

Light rail also plays into this, as does high speed rail. We tried light rail in 2002 and couldn't garner the support of suburban communities, so where do we go to continue towards a comprehensive transit system? You go to the center city and build out, instead of working from the suburbs in.

The proposed streetcar system isn't the cure-all for our transit woes, or even the investment juggernaut that it will end up being. It is a stepping stone towards a comprehensive transit system in Cincinnati...and a step in a new direction for a new generation of leaders in Cincinnati. Who knows, maybe that will one day lead the streetcar to your front door step. But if we don't take this first step, how will we ever know?

steve-o said...

Does it have to be an either/or?

I remember reading a few months ago that the price of one new interchange on north 75 in West Chester would cost more than the entire streetcar project.

I do understand your Metro frustrations fully, though.

Anonymous said...

Mark Miller-

"Likewise for the streetcar. The principal beneficiaries will be landowners within 1/4 to 1/2 mile of the route. Their property values stand to skyrocket. The benefits to taxpayers in Sayler Park, Westwood, Madisonville, etc. will be distant to non-existent. And yet all will share equally in the costs.

What sense of social justice rationalizes enriching those few at the expense of the many? Until the benefits are broadly delivered, or the costs are assessed to the beneficiaries, this thing must rightly be opposed."

YOU nailed it with that response. Bravo!