Cincinnati may have 300 feet of rail already laid in the ground for our streetcar project, yet some continue to question, “Why not build light rail or add more buses instead?”
Shelley Poticha and Gloria Ohland of Reconnecting America researched this inquiry, offering evidence contrasting streetcars from other forms of transportation:
WHY STREETCARS, WHY NOW?
Streetcar systems are uniquely suited to serve all the high density development underway in downtowns across the United States. They’re much cheaper than light rail, are hugely successful in promoting development and street life, and fit easily into built environments with little disruption to existing business, residents, and traffic.
They can provide high-quality transit service to support compact, walkable, higher-density development in small and mid-size cities that cannot afford bigger rail systems, offering the potential to significantly increase the constituency for transit in the United States.
Demographics are changing. American households are older and smaller. Singles, not families, are becoming the new majority. Combined with the problem of traffic, these changes are having a dramatic impact on the housing market, as evidenced by the renewed popularity of loft and condo projects in urban neighborhoods, many of them early streetcar suburbs such as the Central West End in St. Louis or Midtown Sacramento.
Almost every American city once had an extensive streetcar system which extended the pedestrian environment out into neighborhoods, served as collector for intercity rail systems, and stopped at every street corner to stimulate a density and intensity of uses that made for exemplary and engaging downtowns. If the high cost of providing parking drives development today, streetcars make it possible for developers to provide less parking and put their money into high quality design, building materials, and community benefits such as affordable housing and parks. Streetcars also enable more residents to give up a car, freeing up a substantial amount of money for other household expenses.
BUT…WHY NOT A BUS?
Fixed guideway transit, such as streetcars, attract more riders and serves as a greater catalyst to development than buses. Developers need the permanence of the rail investment to help reduce risk.
Fixed rail is easier to understand because potential riders see the rails in the street and know a streetcar will come by, whereas bus riders need a schedule and route map, and routes are often changed.
Streetcars and the higher quality service they provide appeal to a wider demographic range of riders, which translates into greater support and ridership.
Streetcars signify the local government’s interest in a long-term commitment to a neighborhood, which helps stimulate and enhance development and redevelopment.
- Car owners spend $9,000 a year on gas, insurance, and car maintenance.
- Streetcars are not like buses. they are easier to enter and exit from, don’t lurch in and out of traffic because they run on fixed guideways, they are quieter, less threatening to pedestrians, and don’t smell of exhaust.
- Streetcars are one-third the per-mile less cost to build than light rail; $12 million per mile compared to $30 million per mile for light rail.
- The permanence of the fixed rails, developers and investors say, helps reduce the risk and the higher density and lower parking ratios typically permitted in downtowns make projects more profitable.
- Streetcars will increase property values and stimulate business because more customers will be walking down the street. The streetcar operations will be funded by revenue raised through business-improvement districts.
- Streetcars have been proven to increase tax revenue sand sales revenues.
Over 75 people turned out for a 3.6-mile bike ride along the Cincinnati Streetcar route held last week. Margy and Mel Ride Bikes, a community group of leisure bicyclers, organized the ridealong tour which started at Findlay Market. Social media and word-of-mouth attracted the large number of participants, who ranged from streetcar supporters to those who knew little about the route and were curious to see where it would go.
Led by Sarah Perrino, City of Cincinnati Transportation Designer, and Chris Eilerman, Streetcar Project Manager, the tour showcased an up-close look at the construction progress and discussed the milestones for completion. Cyclists rang their bells at each of the stops to indicate where the streetcar will pick up future passengers. Queen City Bike was also on hand to provide safety demonstrations on how to ride carefully during construction, and how to ride a bike on a street with rails in the ground. Traveling the entire loop took around 90 minutes.
Cincinnati’s streetcars will have room to hold six bicycles per vehicle, which can easily be wheeled on board with curb-level boarding. In contrast, a METRO bus only holds two bicycles per vehicle, which must be hoisted and secured on the exterior rack without any assistance from the bus driver. Children’s bikes are too small to fit in the rack, and bikes are not permitted inside the bus. If the rack is full, you must wait for another bus.
Departing from Findlay Market, bicyclers traveled north along Elm Street, passing the Maintenance and Operations Facility construction on Henry Street, then rode south on Race Street through Over-the-Rhine. Crossing Central Parkway, the route continues south into the Central Business District on Walnut Street, looping around at The Banks and back north on Main Street. Returning to Over-the-Rhine, the tour rode along 12th Street to Elm Street, then back to Findlay Market. Afterwards, the cyclists convened at Rhinegeist, a brewery that opened on the route this summer inside the historic Christian Moerlein Brewery.
A frequently asked question about the Cincinnati streetcar is, “When is it coming to my neighborhood?”
Currently, the City of Cincinnati is focused on building the current 3.6 mile loop around the Central Business District and Over-The-Rhine, where the most employers and revenue-generating entertainment is located. The next phase of the streetcar is expected to travel north on Vine Street to Uptown, Corryville, and Clifton.
But then where will it go?
It’s hard to say, as the City of Cincinnati is only 30% into its research on planning the Uptown phase. In the meantime, a University of Cincinnati student earning his Masters of Architecture outlined a longer streetcar route for an academic project. The design for this theoretical streetcar route is based on the current streetcar route, the 2002 Metro Moves light rail initiative developed by the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, and the 2030 Regional Transportation Plan unanimously adopted in 2008 by the OKI Regional Council of Governments.
The light green route represents the streetcar line, and its possibility to expand outward to such neighborhoods as Westwood, Price Hill, and Camp Washington on the west side, northward to Avondale and Northside, and encompass Walnut Hills, Oakley, and Columbia-Tusculum on the east side. The academic project, entitled Metro|Cincinnati, also includes route projections for commuter rail, heavy rail (such as a subway), and extensions into Northern Kentucky.
While it will be up to the city to chart the course of the streetcar to its next neighborhood, it’s likely that it will be one or more of the communities highlighted on the Metro|Cincinnati map.
Presentations included updates on expanding Ohio Amtrak service, and a program by John Schneider entitled “How Cincinnati Got Its Streetcars Back.” Schneider outlined the history and process of developing Cincinnati’s modern streetcars including overcoming two voter referendums and other hurdles that impeded construction. He also focused on the streetcar’s current progress, economic development, and the real estate boom of converting vacant office buildings Downtown into several hundred units of apartment and condominium housing.
With the recent laying of the first rails and last Friday’s first pour of concrete, conference attendees took a walking tour of the construction site. Led by Paul Grether, Manager Rail Services for METRO, the group learned about technical details of the build, as well as improvements to public utilities that are funded by the streetcar construction contract.
All Aboard Ohio, which is based in Cleveland, selected Cincinnati for a first-hand look at the streetcar and the development that occurred in Over-the-Rhine and in the Central Business District because of it. The organization believes the pro-rail movement in Cincinnati is essential for keeping young people, jobs, and hope in Ohio.