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.

Cincinnati’s Transit Ridership Lags Behind Peer Cities

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Cincinnati is the 24th largest metro area in the country. Compared to similarly sized cities, our transit ridership is much lower.  Denver, Pittsburgh, Portland, and Cleveland all have rail systems and they all have over double the transit ridership of bus-only Cincinnati.  Two things are clear, rail attracts more riders than bus systems, and cities of a similar size to Cincinnati are large enough to support rail.

Transit Ridership Chart

Note: Pittsburgh Yearly Ridership data is extrapolated from daily ridership data. Cincy USA includes both Metro and TANK.

Streetcars a Part of Cincinnati’s Heritage

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Modern StreetcarCincinnati is a city blessed with a wonderful heritage. Our traditions live on to this day in our Opening Day Parade, the world’s second largest Oktoberfest, and one of the longest running Juneteenth festivals in the county.  We honor our heritage with these events and in our communities of faith that have flourished over the generations, but too often we have neglected our history and have suffered from it.

In Over-the-Rhine we allow one of the country’s largest and most impressive historic districts to slowly crumble, at the height of anti-German hysteria, we renamed many of our streets to hide our past, and over the few decades we have failed to restore the streetcars and inclines that gave rise to our treasured neighborhoods.

Walnut Hills and Northside grew around the streetcar junctions of Peebles and Knowlton’s corners. The inclines brought development to Price Hill and Mt. Adams. When we removed the streetcars, the city no longer could function the way it was designed, as a dense, walkable city. Cincinnati has 13 neighborhood business districts, none of which have enough parking to compete with suburban malls.

Our population has declined as well.  In 1890 when the first electric streetcar was installed in Cincinnati our population numbered 296,908.  During the 60 odd years our city operated streetcars, our population exploded.  When the #15  streetcar went of duty at 5:55am on April 29th, 1951, Cincinnati’s population stood at its all time peak of 503,998.  But our population growth ended when our streetcar service did.  Over the next half century, Cincinnati’s population rapidly declined, by the year 2000 it was 331,258—virtually the same population one hundred years earlier.

Investing in streetcars linking Downtown and Uptown, the region’s two largest employment centers, will reconnect us with our heritage, grow our population, and spur over a billion dollars of economic development.

Losing our streetcars and over a third of our population was a mistake that Cincinnati has not recovered from and one we must correct.  Revitalize Cincinnati—Build the Streetcar.