Monday, August 25, 2008

OHIO/CINNKY: Why I don't support the Cincy Streetcar (Part 2)

The last one generated a lot of interest and a lot of comments, so maybe I will keep doing this as planned.

Part I: Why I don't support the Streetcar
Section 2: It's an "economic development tool"
I'm actually going to grant this argument. It has been used very effectively in other cities as a great tool of economic development. The plan for the city, though, seems to be "tool for gentrification." As with the tearing down of the West End projects, what happens to all of the residents in these locations? They get pushed out. Great. Where do they go? Northside, Mt. Healthy, Price Hill, etc. No wonder there's no interest in sending it out west, and there's just been a discussion of Northern Kentucky and serious interest in an east side route. That's where the "target population" is, even if they don't use them.

It doesn't even yet serve the University of Cincinnati (or any of the other local universities), arguably one of the biggest benefactors from a streetcar system, nor have there been any plans, it seems, to extend it up that way. Who, exactly, is being served on McMicken if your initial argument is all about economic development?

Besides, doesn't it seem a little insulting for the city to invest so much time and energy into a small public transportation tool for the sole purpose of generating economic development, and not investing that same money in a far more comprehensive PT system, meanwhile actually planning to push people out of their own neighborhoods and not providing a more effective and thorough transportation alternative for them?

But, you're right, it will bring a lot of development. And, quick note, I'm not a big fan of "trickle down" anything.

Part 3: It's going to take too long
How long will it take to put in "Part A" of the streetcar plan? More importantly, how long will it take for the whole program to be built once the first street gets torn up??? Uh-huh. Can you imagine huge swaths of 12th Street, Walnut, McMicken, Elm, and Race for a couple of months, or maybe up to a year while we do all this. Granted, it's going to take some adjustment for everyone while it goes in and I appreciate this. However...

And, having discussed the problems already inherent in Part A's route, how long before it becomes useful to more people? How long before it spreads out and winds out into other neighborhoods?

In the meantime, there is no plan.

Part II: Suggestions to improve the current Metro plan...
Section 2: Improve the technology
This one is very simple: make it so that we know exactly where busses are at all times. Simple answer: GPS and the ability to check this via Blackberry. My sister just moved to Chicago and she says she can check the location of the bus she is waiting for just by clicking on her Blackberry. Columbus, even, as I've mentioned before, has GPS on every bus and you can check online at any given point to see where the bus you're waiting for is. COTA (Cbus), I've been reminded by a reader, even is hooked into Google so that you can simply type in where you are going and where you are and you can get the whole map of how to do it. Google may be taking over the world, but it's better than the current website...

Speaking of which, the current website is a joke. There are a couple of things that need to happen to it to make it useful:

1) Make it mobile-ready, so, at the very least, we can check schedules from our phones.
2) For some reason, if you click to far into the website -- like, I don't know, checking a route -- suddenly the whole thing freezes up and you have to back out and start over. You need a better coding system.
3) Your "starting points" don't compute. My stop is on Purcell and Bassett. I can type in "Purcell and Bassett" as my starting point and the website still keeps flashing back River Road as a possible starting point for my trip. What? Also, I live on Elberon... it is really hard to get down to River Road, there's got to be a GIS program somewhere that acknowledges that.
4) Make a feature that allows you to say "I want to be here at X time," so that you can back-plan your schedule, rather than wildly entering starting times and seeing what comes up closer.
5) Add a feature that allows readers to enter a location and find out what busses serve that specific location.
6) Do something about your mapping. That shit is crazy.

Also, is it possible to make busses wi-fi? Did I hear somewhere that TANK -- Northern Kentucky's bus system -- is wi-fi compatible??? TANK also has televisions on some of their busses. Granted, they only play one channel, but it would be nice to see the news playing as I come into work every day.


And a quick note... you're right, CityKin, public transportation is not just for poor or disadvantaged people. However, they are the ones who have supported public transit in Cincinnati for years, not because they want to but because they have to. I think we should take their needs into account. Because, unlike most people (you know, the people we're trying to attract to public transit via the streetcars), it is a need, rather than just a want. In my head, I see some geeks at City Hall sitting around and thinking, "God, wouldn't it be cool if we had a streetcar..."

I also found this blog, which is no longer running but is still posted, that seems to agree with me in some senses.


Parts in this Series:
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


Chris S said...

Just an fyi, connectourdots is a pro streetcar site, a group of streetcar supporters put that site together.

I am not quite sure why you think there is no interest in bringing the streetcar out west or up to the university. In fact there is great interest in the following spurs - university, price hill, and east side. It has been discussed quite a lot in the working groups, in councel, etc. This has been a very hot area of discussion, and the real question is which one will come first (University spur will be built first, but the routing is unknown, most likely up clifton or vine).

On the gentrification note, I might buy that argument if the population in the cbd basin actually indicated anyone would be pushed out. There are not many people living there now (its more than 80% vacant). Isn't it better to provide a stimulus to actually develop that market?

On the construction note - modern streetcar rail lines, because they require minimal foundation below the roads, can be constructed a single block at a time, and require minimal down time for each block. Think less than repaving/replace curb time for a whole block. Total construction time once funding is in place will be about 2 years, start to finish. The goal is operational after 2Q 2011.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, Barry, but there have been multiple studies indicating (I'll try to track down the article) that gentrification does NOTHING to force out poor people. In practice, the people leaving over the years are middle-class folks who can get a decent price for their house.

Also the streetcar system is suffering from that Cincinnati-based disease of the mind called "sell it to 'em small". We're politically averse to grand overarching plans, calling them boondoggles, preferring to get stuck with SMALL stupid boondoggles. Hence, whenever someone in power gets a brainwave, they always sell it first as a little test system that can be expanded because otherwise it would never pass muster.

Here's the sad truth: a bus-based public metro system BLOWS in terms of efficiency by its very nature. We can sugarcoat it and make it as comfortable as possible, and I'm not saying the effort shouldn't be made, but any system using the same already-overcrowded roads as cars will never be made timely.

Streetcars, at least in their current form, also are not the answer because they're not particularly speedy. They are, however, simpler to use and more amenable to a tighter grid. The one public system that works, and the one we'll never get, is a fucking subway system.

Randy Simes said...

These are the same arguments that were brought up months ago John Cranley...and these are the same arguments that were answered, refuted, and responded to by City Manager Milton Dohoney.

If you care not to listen to well-researched reports that are defensible in their arguments, then fine. But please spare us the song/dance that is to make you out as if you know what you're talking about. These posts are preying on those who haven't paid attention thus far, and who don't know the facts about the proposal. Heck your posts even illustrate your misinformed and inaccurate logic.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,

I would like to clarify some points you have made about the Cincinnati Streetcar. The Streetcar will increase economic development, help raise support for public transportation throughout the City, and be the first step in larger transportation solution for our region.

First you claim it will not serve enough people, however Phase One of the Cincinnati Streetcar will serve a great many people. Namely the more than 8 million visitors to Downtown Cincinnati per year, around 500,000 conventioneers per year, around 450,000 non-convention hotel visitors per year, 65,000 daily workers of the Central Business District, around 15,000 people who live within a few blocks of the Streetcar, and the workers of OTR, a number I was unable to find.

You state "the grand majority of people who use public transit in the city are people who cannot afford public transportation." Although I have not seen data to support this position, it may very well be true. However, a successful system needs broad based public support. The middle class must buy into a successful public transportation system or it will never be effective.

The public transportation system of a city needs to cater to all of its demographics; otherwise it will be difficult to find funding with only a limited amount of support. Rail attracts more riders of choice than buses. People who will never ride a bus will ride a train. The director of Seattle's Department of Transportation has stated, "what we've found with streetcars, [is that] people who might not use other public transportation will ride on streetcars." This is due to both cultural reasons, and also because rail simply provides better quality of service. Rail is more reliable and frequent than bus service, it provides a smoother ride than buses, and the routes are more clearly visible to a rider unfamiliar with the system.

Consider the state of public transportation in America. All of the cities with great public transportation have rail. I struggle to think of one 'bus only city' that has public transportation anywhere near the quality of New York, Chicago, Boston, DC, or any other city with rail—perhaps Madison, Wisconsin. However, Madison 1) has streetcars, light rail, and commuter rail proposed currently and 2) has a population of 208,903, of those around 42,000 are college students. Regardless, it is an exception at best and clearly not the rule.

You state "Clifton has always been a home for students first and everyone else second." Even if true, students are likely to not have automobiles—especially those living on campus. A reason that Clifton may be "for students first" is the high cost of parking on campus and relative lack of transportation to and from school. The Streetcar will allow greater numbers of students to live Downtown, or in other places along the line and allow Clifton to return to a more balanced neighborhood.

You state the "Streetcar is not serving major areas that see high traffic, including:

Clifton- Plans call for the Streetcar to service this area, available at

Ludlow/Hamilton Ave- Plans call for the Streetcar to service this area

Queensgate- Plans call for the Streetcar to service this area

Price Hill- Grade issues make Streetcar service difficult, but long range plans contemplate Streetcar service for the area [unable to find map]

Reading Road- Plans call for the Streetcar to service this area, or this area would be an alternative route to Uptown.

Bond Hill- No Streetcar service is being considered for Bond Hill at present

Avondale- Plans call for the Streetcar to service this area.

The majority of places you state will not have streetcar service have planned streetcar service.

You state, "the fact the map highlights connects to restaurants and arts venues only reinforces the tourism focus." This is not the case, although tourist will enjoy riding the Streetcar. The restaurants and art venues are listed to show some of the numerous destinations along the Streetcar line. Even if the Streetcar were designed to serve tourists, tourism is an industry that Cincinnati could and should grow to create more revenues to provide better services to those who live in all of Cincinnati's 52 neighborhoods.

You state, "if the Streetcar is going to be an effective local tool, then it should go after those people who need public transit the most" later on, you also state the Streetcar is a "tool of gentrification" that will "push people out of their own neighborhoods." This interpretation would mean that a Streetcar could not be built anywhere in the city. If built in a rich neighborhood, it would fail to serve those who need public transit the most, but if built in a poor neighborhood, it would displace the residents by "bring[ing] a lot of development." In a middle class neighborhood, it would fail on both counts. Based on these internally conflicting statements, the Streetcar cannot be constructed anywhere.

Also the gentrification aspect of the Streetcar is speculative at best. Part A of the Streetcar will result in $1.4 billion of economic development. This amount is greater than either the Banks or the new tallest building at Queen City Square. To throw away such a massive amount of economic development to prevent a speculative harm is no way to run a city. Even if there is such harm the $270 million dollars of net present benefit the Streetcar will bring to the city, at a $102 million price tag, can be used to mitigate any such harm.

You ask, "except for entertainment purposes alone, who does it serve?" the first paragraph of my response addresses this issue. You also ask if you are going to use it for a "park and ride type system, where would you park?" The answer depends on many factors, but the riverfront garages currently under construction will be enormous. If you work on 4th Street , that is a comfortable walk, but if you work near the three courthouses in the CBD or anywhere in OTR, it is a long walk most people would not like to repeat every day. In addition the Hamilton county garage on 12th is underused, a Streetcar connection could increase monthly passes there.

You examine the fundamental role of government to state the Streetcar is unnecessary. While this may be your idea of the role of government, not all of the citizenry of Cincinnati agree with this interpretation. However, I think we can all agree that pragmatism, not any particular ideology should influence our governmental decisions. You admit yourself that Streetcars are an "economic development tool" that have "been used very effectively in other cities as a great tool of economic development." That is a pragmatic reason to invest in the Streetcar.

You state "how long before [Part A] spreads out and winds out into other neighborhoods? In the meantime there is no plan." Aside from the fact that calling the line 'Part A' implies there will be a Part B, acknowledging a plan, the current plan is to use the 'Part A' leg as a match for federal funding for the extension to Uptown. The federal funding process will push construction back several years. The choice then becomes, would we rather have Part A in 2011/Part B in 2013, or Part A and B in 2013? As the Streetcar will create economic development and as inflation will add millions to the cost of construction, there is no reason to wait.

You state, "it's going to take too long" and ask, "how long will it take to put in 'Part A' of the Streetcar plan?" The answer is about 3 weeks per block. During this time the sidewalk will stay open and only one travel lane and one parking lane will be closed. Each block will be done individually, so the disruption will be minimal. This is a comparable amount of time to replacing the sidewalks in a neighborhood business district.

You also have numerous concerns about improving Metro service as a counter argument to building the Streetcar. However, both Metro improvements and the construction of the Streetcar should be undertaken as part of a regional transportation plan that includes light and commuter rail, streetcars connecting Cincinnati's neighborhoods with Downtown and each other, and expanded bus service funded by and serving all of our communities.

Metro can and should be improved, but the funding sources of the Streetcar are not the funding sources of Metro, and building the Streetcar will not divert funds from Metro. The Streetcar will be primarily funded by TIF, capital funds, and private donations. None of these funding sources are currently used in any significant capacity by Metro. In reality, funding the Streetcar will increase Metro's funding, allowing it to provide better service.

Metro is primarily funded by the income tax of the City of Cincinnati. Although the City, with a population of around 332,000, is the only major local funding source of our bus system, Metro serves the entire county of 845,000 people. Cincinnati alone, among the 49 jurisdictions of Hamilton County, funds metro with dedicated local revenue streams. The County does provide pass through funds from federal agencies. Some argue that since people who live in the balance of the county pay much of the income tax, it is proper for the City to fund bus service throughout the County. This argument ignores the fact that Cincinnati has exclusive control over how to spend its income tax receipts, and other jurisdictions, such as Blue Ash, collect income tax revenue from all over the county but exhibit much less altruism, nor are they expected to do so.

If Metro wants to expand its service, it needs to expand its revenue sources. One way would be to expand the demographics that use public transportation, which would make the passage of tax levies to support the system more likely. The Streetcar will attract riders of choice, expanding the ridership base and introduce many people unfamiliar with public transportation to its benefits.

Another way would be to increase the funding from outside the City. This should be pursued regardless of the Streetcar.

As the primary funding source of Metro is the City's income tax, increasing economic development in Cincinnati will increase Metro's budget. You acknowledge that the Streetcar will bring "lots of economic development." This economic development will create new jobs, bring new residents to under-utilized areas (OTR's population is around 15% of its peak and contains hundreds of vacant buildings that can be rehabbed before a single resident is displaced), and increase property values.

All of this economic development will increase the funding available to Metro, while failing to build the Streetcar will not increase the funding available to Metro because the funds identified for the Streetcar are not funds Metro uses, nor is there any indication they will be made available to Metro. Failing to build the Streetcar will derail public transportation planning for years to come, and further reinforce the 'Cincinnati Complex'—that we are a city unable pull off big projects.

I think we both agree with the premise that public transportation needs to be increased in Cincinnati to create economic development, serve those who are too young, old, poor, or disabled to operate a automobile, decrease pollution and CO2 emissions, and make the city a better place to live. Metro and the Streetcar are two important tools for achieving that vision.

The Cincinnati Streetcar is way to serve the entire City of Cincinnati. It will first connect the downtown basin with the riverfront. It will then be expanded to connect Cincinnati's neighborhoods with Downtown and each other. The resulting economic development will provide greater revenue streams for Metro, turn vacant properties into tax producing ones, and due to massive economic development, increase the taxes flowing into the City's coffers, allowing increased public safety and economic development spending in Cincinnati's 52 neighborhoods.

The Cincinnati Streetcar can be constructed quickly, it will support the investments the City has made and will make, it will generate economic development in the urban core, it will stand as an example of public transportation by exposing many people who have no experience with rail to a modern streetcar system, and, to put it simply, it will make Cincinnati a better place.


Brad Thomas