Cincinnati Declines after Abandoning Streetcars

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In 1950, after six decades of electric streetcar operations, Cincinnati had reached its peak population of 503,998. The next year, in 1951, Cincinnati discontinued streetcar service and its population went into a steep decline, especially compared to the rest of the region. This chart breaks down population changes in the region 1950-2006.

Cincy USA Population TrendsThis clearly shows the decline of the City compared to the rest of the region. When Cincinnati operated a rail based mass transit system, they had the advantage of being the center of the region. Streetcars brought customers into Downtown and the Neighborhood Business Districts that lacked enough parking spaces.

After the streetcars were removed, bus ridership declined, and suburban malls, with massive parking lots began to dominate the retail scene. Cincinnati lost its advantage of centrality and easy access. It couldn’t function properly. With cars as the only viable form of transportation, the City, which was designed for walking and transit, couldn’t compete with suburbs built for cars. The suburbs flourished and the City declined.

Now we have the opportunity to put Cincinnati back on the path to growth. A strong center city will help the entire region. When people think of Detroit, they think of a vacant downtown, not an affluent outer suburb. People’s perceptions of a region are shaped by their urban cores, as most visitors to the area spend their time in or near a city’s downtown.

Modern Streetcar_PortlandThe Cincinnati Streetcar will make the city more competitive and more appealing to visitors. By contributing to a vibrant Downtown, it will improve the image of Cincinnati in the minds of the rest of the country. It will help us attract more graduates from out of state colleges and help us retain those who graduate from our great local institutions.

The same conventional thinking has caused 50 years of decline in this City. Why would people expect the same failed strategies to suddenly be successful? A new strategy is needed, one that capitalizes on the City’s strengths centrality and walkability. The streetcar, along with the Banks and the Gateway Quarter in Over-the-Rhine is part of that new strategy. Revitalize Cincinnati—Build the Streetcar.

24 thoughts on “Cincinnati Declines after Abandoning Streetcars

    John said:
    January 14, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    I’m a big fan of the streetcar, but I think that the streetcar support community needs to be careful with this kind of reasoning. It implies a cause and effect relationship, rather than simply a correlation.

    I obviously agree with the strong core makes for a strong region argument, but we are operating in a much different climate than we were in the 50s. We now have a developed interstate system, a million cars, and a sprawling region. (in other words, people have options) Building rail transit won’t automatically make Cincinnati the strong center again. I think the argument has to be about why urban life is better for the individual and how rail transit figures into that equation.

    I personally think that rail transit will attract the urbanites or the leaning urbanites … and the critical mass might in turn attract the skeptics/suburbanites.

    I think that this is a very interesting and strong correlation … just think that we need to be careful in implying some sort of causal relationship.

    Jason said:
    January 14, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    Great Post! I couldn’t agree with you more! The Streetcars must be built!

    ian said:
    January 15, 2009 at 2:43 am

    I agree with John. While I support the streetcar I think the author would agree that there are many many many other reasons why the population of Cincinnati declined the least of which had to do with the removal of the streetcar system

    Blake Fox said:
    January 15, 2009 at 7:24 am

    It would be interesting to compare old streetcar routes to old bus routes and the differences in development. Just glancing at the old street car routes it seems that many of the best intersections of Cincinnati had a streetcar stop.

    Quimbob said:
    January 15, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    I can go along with most of your argument but I think the graph is distracting. The population shift has, probably, more to do with the city just not expanding it’s borders. Even if it did, a lot of the expansion would have happened pretty much the way it did.
    But you are right that the inner city is not designed the same as the burbs and cannot be treated the same way.

    cincystreetcar said:
    January 15, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    I certainly agree with the comments about contributing factors to the city’s decline in population. The interstate highways, loss of the streetcar system, and widespread suburbanization all contributed to the city’s population loss.

    Brandon said:
    January 15, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    The move to get streetcars in Over the Rhine is just another veiled attempt by those who hope to profit from any sort of financial windfall that would occur in OTR. And all of it at the taxpayer’s expense. What’s the saying – “buy low – sell high”????

    After you push out all of the “undesirable elements” out of OTR (and you know they have to go somewhere) – and you make your dollar, I guess the next step is to follow them out to the next slum – all the while with your hand out, begging for some more “free money” to “revitalize” the neighborhood. I guess that’s what you call “spreading the wealth”. You are nothing more than opportunists.

    Jason said:
    January 16, 2009 at 1:07 am

    To Brandon above: You can make whatever accusations you’d like, but to think that the development and progress being made to improve our downtown is simply for profit is absolutely ignorant. Based on the tone of your reply its easy to see that you don’t put much thought into anything you say.

    Brianne said:
    January 16, 2009 at 2:28 am

    Been to Kenwood lately? Talk about opportunists. And it’s getting so over-trafficked that it’s barely worth driving out there only to see a sea of parking lots. No thanks. Let’s keep it dense and start with permanent public transit options in the center of the city – with the goal of working out to the other parts of the city.

    Quimbob said:
    January 16, 2009 at 3:20 am

    There’s over 500 properties along the proposed route, so there should be plenty of opportunities.

    Randy Simes said:
    January 17, 2009 at 12:26 am

    There were certainly a number of reasons behind this decline, but I think the elimination of the streetcar system played some sort of role in this trend. No longer were neighborhoods built off the streetcar system as desirable as they once were. Those neighborhoods have been some of the hardest it not only in Cincinnati, but most cities around the country.

    Brandon said:
    January 17, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    Saying that bringing streetcars back to OTR will enhance its revitalization is like saying “building an Underground Railroad museum on the riverfront will add to, enhance, an revitalize the riverfront. There is flaw in your logic.

    First off, streetcars in OTR in 2009 is not a “necessity” as it was at the turn of the century (1900s). Streetcars are designed to move people around. Way back in the early 1900s, streetcars were a necessity for moving people around – why???- because they had no automobiles. Nowadays, buses and automobiles accomplish that. Streetcars lost their appeal and demand because of the automobile – regardless of what “conspiracy” one might tend to believe. Nowadays, streetcars are not looked at in the same light – even though you would like to think they are “necessary”. Anyone who longs for the “good old days” of streetcars, is looking through rose-colored glasses. They are hung up on the “art-deco” idea of bringing streetcars back into vogue. Anyone who thinks like that is merely putting “form” ahead of “function”.

    Anyone who has ridden on a bus knows that getting there in the comfort of your own automobile is a better choice – and that is why most people do it. I don’t get the notion where ‘standing around waiting for a streetcar so one can ride with a bunch of strangers’ will “revitalize” a neighborhood in the 21st century. Think about it.

    cincystreetcar said:
    January 18, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    It’s not just a personal opinion to think that streetcars will indeed spur economic development that will benefit the neighborhoods it serves. There is tons of data out there to support these claims in addition to a slew of case studies from all different kinds of cities all over the country.

    Brandon said:
    January 19, 2009 at 6:02 am

    Streetcars are not the cure-all for downtown Cincinnati’s economic woes. Cities that have experienced increased economic development have done so by recognizing market demand and making changes in its zoning. To think that streetcars is the “magic answer” to spurring economic development is narrow-minded to say the least. Streetcars should come sometime after the fact – when the need for them is apparent. Placing streetcars out on the street does not spur economic development.

    During the California goldrush of the 1800s, people didn’t wait for a rail system to be built before they traveled to the Pacific Northwest. The railroads came much later – but when they were built, it was because someone recognized that there was a market demand for faster, safer travel to the west.

    Any study put forth that shows streetcars as the “miracle cure” for a town’s economic woes has merely used smoke and mirrors to do so. It is like saying that the trolley cars at Kings Island are solely responsible for Kings Island’s success. If you really dig deep, you will see that any town that has recently experienced economic development has done so by doing several things – but mainly it was a change in zoning along with figuring out what the market demand is. The streetcars came later. You are putting the cart before the horse here.

    Blake Fox said:
    January 19, 2009 at 6:22 am

    I am tired of my tax dollars being spent on roads so people can sit in traffic. What will the costs be to widen I-75? Or the ridiculous estimates for the new Field-Ertel exit? My guess is that just one of those projects would pay for a big chunk of a rail system that would have far greater economic impact. Especially on my pocket book. When people are pinched for cash, the nostalgia they feel for cars will wear off quickly. Cincinnati better prepare now.

    John Schneider said:
    January 19, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    ^ And where is it written that cars aren’t losing their appeal?

    Driving in the United States peaked in 2004 — before gas prices spiked — and it’s apparently not coming back after the gas prices declined. It’s worldwide trend. Japanese and Western European teenagers are postponing their applications for drivers licenses, if they are getting them at all.

    And somewhere in the riddle of what ails the auto industry — not just the American auto industry because even Toyota has lots of problems — is the likelihhood that fewer and fewer consumers want to spend 20% of their take-home income on rapidly depreciating assets like cars.

    Think about it.

    Randy Simes said:
    January 20, 2009 at 1:14 am


    No one has said that streetcars would be the cure-all for Downtown Cincinnati or the entire City of Cincinnati. Streetcars will do what they do. They’ll increase public transit options, introduce fixed rail transit to Cincinnati, encourage dense economic development along the route, and make the area more walkable by shrinking the size/distances between places.

    Some of these things are done by design, others are spin-off benefits. Maybe there will be more spin-off benefits that I didn’t mention, but that’s just icing on the cake at that point.

    Brandon said:
    January 23, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    You’ve got it all wrong.
    First you have to get the people downtown – then, when the need arises, you add streetcars. Streetcars are not a “people magnet”.

    Your statements:
    “increasing public transit options”, “introduce fixed rail to Cincinnati”, “encourage dense economic development” and “make the area more walkable”

    you state that these are things streetcars will do. You are wrong.
    “Increasing transportation options” does not spur economic development – show me the hard facts for proof of this statement.

    “Encourage dense economic development” – what?!?! you’re kidding right? Building high-rise encourages dense economic development – not streetcars.

    “make the area more walkable” – ?!?!?! I didn’t realize the streets were crowded in OTR. You want to clear off the streets by placing pedestrians in streetcars??? give me a break.

    All of what you say is ideological bullcr*p
    It’s the same old rhetoric you hear all the time. I guess just thinking about streetcars in OTR gives some people the “warm fuzzies”
    . Basic fact – you add streetcars to the equation when the people who live or visit downtown Cincinnati NEED streetcars. Don’t just place streetcars down there and hope that people will use them. That’s what they did with the museum center – no feasability studies were done on that before it was shoved down our throats.

    You are taking the streetcar and then trying to create a demand for it – when there is none –
    first you have to get the people downtown – then you add the streetcars.

    Streetcars purpose is to MOVE PEOPLE AROUND – not to spur ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT.
    You have lost sight of what a streetcar is for.

      cincystreetcar said:
      January 23, 2009 at 1:36 pm

      you state that these are things streetcars will do. You are wrong.
      “Increasing transportation options” does not spur economic development – show me the hard facts for proof of this statement.

      Here is the Economic Analysis of the Streetcar

      Click to access city_pdf17763.pdf

      Here is the University of Cincinnati’s Economics Department evaluation of the above study

      Click to access city_pdf34212.pdf

    John Schneider said:
    January 23, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    “Streetcars purpose is to MOVE PEOPLE AROUND – not to spur ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT.”

    If you look at the cities that have built streetcars throughout the country, it is unmistakably evident that streetcars both spur economic development and act as a pedestrian circulator.

    You also stated that we should wait until there is a huge demand for the streetcar until building it. Should we have waited until there was massive suburbanization in Mason until we built I-71? Or if you argue that the interstate highways are primarily to connect cities, should we have built I-71 and then not added any on or off ramps until the suburbanization occured? Of course not.

    Development follows transportation improvements. Reading Road connected Cincinnati and Mason for decades, but until the transportation infrastructure of 71 was built the development didn’t follow.

    Remember, it takes time to build a streetcar, 18 to 24 months. So if we wait until everything is in place before we decide to build the Cincinnati Streetcar, we are already two years behind. Think about it.

    Jake H said:
    March 4, 2009 at 11:17 am

    The ridership will not be huge overnight. nobody is saying that but you. OTR was built before the age of cars and even if the dense urban projects you say need to be built, and actually are being built already, are built without good transportation infrastruture the neigborhood cant sustain it, period. So to say that we need people down there before we build it is impossible, it cant sustain it without it. Re zoning has already happened, developments are already being built, many are waiting for the streetcar to begin their projects, and it is time for streetcars to provide that catalyst for further development. This is not some hastily thrown together plan. Have a little faith and remember that trust is a two way street.

    Jake H said:
    March 4, 2009 at 11:19 am

    Brandon, People ARE economic development. YOU have lost sight of what it is for.

    Sheldon S said:
    April 28, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    Cincinnati needs a streetcar. it’s that simple. obviously the city isn’t run like the 50’s and that is because we have the interstates, which were built to hold half as many cars as they now carry.

    to anyone being it cincinnati for more than 5 minutes it’s obvious we have a problem. downtown is a ghost town after everyone leaves work. all our money is spent in bars, or newport. with the banks project, the casino, and all the revitalization project being built in Downtown we need a better form of transportation to get to them.

    Cincinnati’s downtown was smashed when the interstates came in, they cut right through the heart of our city and it has never recovered. the streetcar will connect all the communities of our city and one day a light rail will connect it to places like mason and hamilton.

    i am a current UC student and in order to have a “good time” i have two choices, go to a party or hope on the interstate and by-pass downtown to go see a movie at Newport.

    the banks project and casino and reconstruction of vine are exactly what this city needs and the only thing missing is a way to get to them

    Brent said:
    February 28, 2011 at 9:56 am

    Cincinnati needs to make her neighborhoods safer. Promote the neighborhoods, show people the advantages of buying a house in the city. Council needs to work together and put politics aside. Think about the city and not their personal goals.

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