Month: February 2009

The Mayor and the President

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Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory

WCPO reports Mayor Mallory will be meeting with President Obama this morning to discuss the stimulus package. One of the stimulus priorities for the Mayor is the Cincinnati Streetcar.

With an economic impact ratio of 14.1 to 1, the Streetcar represents exactly the type project that allows the City to get the most ‘bang for its buck’ out of the stimulus.

In the short term it will employ engineers, designers, and construction workers. In the long term it will lead to compact development in the core of the City which will help reduce our dependence on imported oil by creating walkable communities served by public transportation.

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Streetcar Debate on Video

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Watch last week’s debate online, at your own convenience, on Explore Cincinnati or UrbanCincy.  Sorry can’t embed videos on WordPress.

Portland Observations – Part 4

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My last post about Portland rail will explain the Light Rail system. First listen to the terminology: light rail. It may be lighter that a locomotive, but the light rail struck me as heavy, especially compared to the Streetcar.

Here is a train pulling up to a stop on a city street:

Instead of raising, just the area, where the stop is (as with the streetcar), for the trains, the entire sidewalk is raised to exactly meet the train floor:

In this photo, notice that the curb closest to the camera is raised with truncated domes and it sticks out a bit further than the rest of the curb. Also notice that there is no on-street parking here, and that there are only 2 drving lanes. This was probably a four lane street before conversion to Light Rail:

My experience is that the streets with the lightrail had lots of pedestrians and less car traffic. However, please note that the entire street, from building face to building face must be re-built to accomodate the LR. For the streetcar, only a strip of street is removed and only the stops are raised.

Here is a shot that I believe shows the Light Rail tracks crossing the Streetcar tracks:

LR at Pioneer Square showing the widened sidewalks:

People getting on and off at Pioneer Square:

Showing level entry and bike inside:

Inside a crowded train:

Another interior shot:

Wheelchair on LR train:

Stroller on LR train:

We took the Blue line three different places. First we took it west, out to Orenco, a newer suburb. Then we came back into town and on the way stopped at their zoo. The next day we took the train the other direction, to the airport. The train runs extremely smooth. After getting out of town, and off the streets to separated grade tracks, I was initially dissapointed, because the train didn’t seem to be going very fast. Later, I noticed that the we were keeping pace with cars on the freeway, so it must have been going at least 50mph.

This western route passes their minor league team stadium a few blocks before going into a long sloping tunnel:

Here is a development at the Beaverton Stop:

Bagel shop, parking lot and housing at another suburban stop:

Here is multi-family housing under construction near the stop:

Here is the train at the Orenco stop:

In this shot you see the suburban street and sidewalks crossing the tracks:

Train discharge at the airport:

Here is a picture of the train maintenance building. The sheds for the streetcar were much smaller:

Here is a train parked at the maintenance yards. I think the typical train is two of these backed up to each other:

The fare system is similar to the Streetcar, and all tickets are transferable to bus and rail. The trains seemed very popular, especially to the airport. I made the trip to Orenco on a Sunday so I didn’t witness much commuting. Most of the people were getting off at the Washington Park stop to go to the zoo or to hike.

Portland Observations – Part 3

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This will be my last big Portland post on the streetcar.

I will preface this by saying that I am NOT a rail nut. I am however a city nut, and transportation is key to making a city livable. Especially important are transportation alternatives to cars (and to a lesser extent buses). This is because cars tend to destroy the things that make cities attractive. They make streets less safe for pedestrians, they add pollution, they segregate populations, and they make rehab of pre-auto cities difficult. But the biggest problems with autos in the city is that they require lots of dead space for parking and they generally lead to dispersed development. The whole attractiveness of cities is based on the concentration of activities not the wide dispersal encouraged by cars. The car and the removal of old streetcars in the 1940’s destroyed cities like Cincinnati. Freeway construction and parking lot development demolished thousands of buildings. Housing and shopping was dispersed and the urban core entered a decline that it has yet to recover from.

It is a hard to ignore fact that most beautiful and successful cities have rail transport as part of their transportation solution. I would love to see a rail line in Cincinnati connecting UC, XU, downtown, Covington and beyond. And maybe we will get there someday. That day is many many years away, but a streetcar system is a near term possibility. What surprised me in Portland was that the Streetcar is not just a slower and cheaper stepchild of “real” rail transport, but that it is in many ways even better.

The evidence that it is better is the number and type of users, and the successful business districts surrounding it. Because of the ease of use, the clear route, the digitized stops, and the handicapped accessibility, it’s use is very popular. It was obvious to me that many older and disabled people have become dependent on this for daily errands.

A streetcar would never be a quick way to get from Xavier University to downtown, or to the airport. These connections should be made with a faster, separated-grade system. The strength of the Streetcar is it’s ability to tie the downtown area together and to make living, shopping and working here more competitive with the suburban alternatives. And this is something that cities all over the Midwest have been struggling to do for several decades. Many tricks have been tried, from subsidized parking lots to urban shopping malls. Still not many people live or shop in downtown Louisville, Indianapolis, Cleveland etc..

The problem is that most people here drive everywhere. If they are enticed to come downtown, they want to park near their final destination, and they are not going to take public transportation. They just aren’t. What the streetcar does is lower the barriers. You could hardly come up with a simpler, easier to use and easier to understand system. And if you can get people separated from their cars, then you have begun to break the system that has destroyed cities and made them uncompetitive.

But a streetcar is not just for suburbanites when they come to the city to visit. Quite the opposite. It mostly serves those who live and work near it.

I’ll start with some photos of developments in the Pearl District, along the Streetcar line. The Pearl District has some similarities to our OTR. However they are also very different. OTR has much more to offer both in existing population and sturdy buildings and infrastructure. The Pearl offered more low-rise and vacant land for larger developments. The Pearl:

New construction apartments in Pearl district. I believe this is an “earlier” development:

Old loading docks converted to condos on the streetcar line. There is some criticism of this kind of development because there is no street front retail here:

The Gregory. New condos styled to look like an existing building. This building, as most new buildings, has commercial storefronts at the street level. I believe this is a zoning requirement:

Condo tower in Pearl. Also notice a bus stop and one of the solar-powered centralized, well-marked parking meters:

What looks like a very expensive condo building, as seen from the bakery we found:

Playground in the Pearl District:

Park with out of season spray ground, surrounded by new condos in the Pearl District:

New smooth glass condo building, just south of CBD on the streetcar line:

There is a new downtown grocery near this project, and I believe this is the project in which the developer has reduced the number of parking spaces from the typical 1.75 per unit to .75 per unit.

Condos under construction in Pearl District:

Next I would like to show a few photos of new tower condos at South Waterfront. This area is somewhat comparable to our riverfront, and some of the condos look like what is now being built in Newport.

Here is a map of the area:

New kitchen in high-rise housing at South Waterfront:

View out of the South Waterfront condo looking down onto other condos and the Willamette River:

View of river and downtown from codo:

View down onto condos and the riverfront park and trail. Compare to Cincinnati’s beautiful riverfront parks:

Next I would like to show a few photos of development around the suburban light rail stops. I think they are less successful than development around the streetcar. I think many books and articles have been written about the mixed success of such Transit Oriented Development (TODs). I you are interested in such things you can google TOD or Orenco and you will get some reading info. I think it is a decent attempt but I didn’t see much mixed use. They all seemed heavily residential.

Suburban rail stop showing bus connection, concrete chairs and multi-family development:

New housing near Quatama, a suburban stop:

The Quatama stop:

Just to show that not all is new, here is a trailer park along the tracks:

And to round out the photos, I would like to show some other sites that I found interesting around the streetcar line:

Older apartment building, on the streetcar line:

Low rise condos under construction on the streetcar line:

Low rent apartments in downtown area:

Soup Kitchen near streetcar line:

This place was packed with older people with walkers and wheelchairs and getting here by streetcar would be very easy.

Goodwill, by downtown library and on streetcar line:

A few more points:

The streetcar is successful at supporting lively node of activities. People are attracted to these nodes. People want to go where other people are. This is what urban life is about.

The streetcar is a system that treats handicapped people as equals. This is true even more so than light rail, because with the streetcar, you truly can live car-free. I saw more bicyclists and travellers with luggage on the lightrail line. If you are in a wheelchair and get off at a suburban stop, you are potentially stranded. Also compare this system to other types of lightrail such as elevated trains and subways. Both of these require elevators, whereas the streetcar is inherently ADA friendly.

One last thing. The Deters argument and the gentrification argument:
Deters got lots publicity for comparing the streetcar to Jurassic Park, implying that the residents of OTR are criminals waiting to prey on trolley riders. Conversely, others are concerned that the streetcar is just a way to further gentrify the neighborhood. For both of these camps, I would point out that OTR is already changing. District One has the lowest crime rate of the City’s five districts. Related to this, OTR already has lost thousands of residents, many of these since 2000. We had riots in 2001 and in 2003 Tom Denhart sold all his property. This neighborhood is not the old neighborhood. The question is, what direction do we want to go from here, and how successful will we be at attracting more people?

There are many people working to provide both condos (3CDC, Urban Sites, et al) and affordable housing (OTRCH, Model) in OTR. But the results will be mediocre if everyone who lives here still needs a car and dedicated parking spaces. Certainly the retail will never come back if it is auto dependent. And providing parking spaces for new apartments is expensive and a waste of space. This city must explore all alternatives to get people out of their cars. Being a pedestrian in a car-oriented city is no fun. The best way to support urban life is by supporting the pedestrian. Support pedestrians with stopsigns not stoplights, widened sidewalks, safer streets and low-barrier public transit like streetcars.