Monday, April 3, 2017

Why Cincinnati has a streetcar and Baltimore doesn't

For years there have been attempts   to give Baltimore a rebirth of the streetcar. The Charles Street corridor was seriously investigated, now there is talk about a streetcar on North Avenue. But the only streetcar running in Baltimore is a vintage trolley loop at the streetcar museum.
Cincinnati streetcar at Findlay Market (photo: Cincinnati Enquirer)

Not so in Cincinnati. Last September the 3.6 mile loop connecting downtown to the ballpark and Ohio Riverfront to the south and the rebounding neighborhood of Over the Rhine with historic Findlay Market to the north. A Spanish model modern low floor train single vehicle double articulated train sneaks along the streets of downtown and appears to be quite popular.

Now one could say Baltimore with its 26 mile light rail would isn't better off than Cincinnati with its mini system, not to mention the Baltimore Metro. Indeed, Cincy's public transportation is quite anemic because it has been hobbled by anti transit movements forever. It even has a two mile abandoned underground subway tunnel under Central Parkway. Less than half the size of Baltimore, it has only between a third and a quarter of daily riders. Yet, in 2016 it along, with Kansas City and DC joined a still growing list of streetcar cities in the US with its downtown streetcar and Baltimore doesn't even have plan for one.

The reason why Baltimore doesn't have a streetcar is pretty simple: After introducing a popular network of free downtown bus shuttles, the need for the much more expensive streetcar was much diminished and the last Mayor clearly saw no remaining transportation need that would justify it. But there are other reasons as well as we will see further on.
the 18 station 3.4 mile system

The reason why Cincinnati has a streetcar is more complicated and borders on a miracle. the realization of the project required extraordinary tenacity.  Strong forces were against it from day one, including a Mayor and a Governor. The project got on the ballot and voters overrode an anti rail initiative not only once but twice, first in 2009 and then again in 2013. Baltimore never has shown the same kind of tenacity for its transit projects in the light of adversity.

The new Cincinnati streetcar is no unmitigated success, though:
  • Two sections of badly constructed concrete slabs under the tracks have been found crumbling and need to be replaced under warranty, threatening to shut the system down for several days or even a week.
  • One of the five streetcars has been out of service since December due to faulty parts and others haven't had heat this winter. City officials are angry and are withholding payments to manufacturer CAF USA
  • Since opening five months ago ridership has dropped each month, with 35,334 riders in January. That's just over a quarter of what it was in September when 133,322 riders hopped on board. January ridership was down 63 percent from October, the first full month of operation when 95,286 people rode the streetcar. 
Ridership estimates had been 3,200 riders a day or about 90,000 a month. By comparison, Baltimore's light rail carries about 27,000 riders a day (it once even reached the originally projected 30,000). The Kansas City streetcar which also operates a single line (2.2 miles) has had 6,800 riders a day on average.
Funding and cost (excluding utility relocation). Source (CityBeat)

Tickets are $1 for 2 hours or $2 for an all day pass. Metro pass-holders and older adults and people with disabilities pay ½ fare with their Fare Deal ID card. There are ticket vending machines at all at 18 stations. There is a Cincy EZRide app and some stations have real time arrival displays. Fines
for riding without a ticket are steep: $100 initially, $200 if delinquent and $275 if the fine is sent for collections. The system runs 18 hours per day from 6:30am to midnight on weekdays, until 1am Fridays and Saturdays and 11pm on Sundays. Headways are 12 minutes during main hours and 15 off peak. Bikes can be brought onboard. There also bikeshare stations near transit stops. The system cost a total of $148 million including a $45 million federal grant. The trains are operated by Transdev for the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA).
Cincy EZRide app

The trains have a capacity of 207 riders and are produced by CAF USA, a Spanish company with a US based plant in Elmira NY which also manufactured the trains for new Kansas City line. CAF Urbo trains are also suggested by the Purple Line design-build consortium. 

Five vehicles are in operation in Cincinnati's system. Tracks are embedded in roadways with stops usually placed along "bump outs" projecting out from the sidewalks were normally the parking lane is located. The stopping area for the nearly 70' long trains is slightly elevated from the sidewalks to be level with the low floor of the vehicles, no need for high blocks as on the Baltimore LRT system. Unlike Baltimore's LRT the streetcar uses single line trolley wires that have more frequent poles but are otherwise less obtrusive than catenary wire in which the electric wire is suspended from a support wire system.

The streetcar was originally conceived as an economic development tool and first appeared in the 2002 Cincinnati transit plan Metro Moves which was rejected in a public vote.
MetroMoves plan of 2002: A transit plan for the region
As in Portland's Pearl District, the success of the revitalizing districts it serves will likely be attributed to the streetcar by supporters of streetcars while the detractors will say that the redevelopment would have happened also without streetcars. As my article about the redevelopment of the once ailing neighborhood of Over the Rhine explains in more detail, the success of Over the Rhine was and is still not guranteed. Supporting measures such as reliable and robust transportation are essential and the Connector trains are providing it, especially in a city with pretty miser bus transit. 
streetcar stops are designed on curb bump-outs allowing
extra space for shelters and amenities (Photo: Philipsen)

The opponents brought together strange bedfellows, namely the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) who stoked fear of poor balck people on the trains and the local chapter of the NAACP who derided the system as a "toy" and thought money should be spent on more important matters. 

In 2009 the ballot measure to prevent the tram failed by a wide margin. (56% to 44%). The same coalition brought a similar referendum up in 2011 were it failed again, although with a smaller margin of only 3.6%. The referenda did cause damage, though, including Governor Kasich pulling $52 million State funding which former Gov. Ted Strickland had allocated to the streetcarThis forced the proposed system to be shortened so it could not connect up the hill to the university and hospital employment center as originally envisioned. In 2013 an anti streetcar mayor threatened to pull the plug on the system even though construction had already begun. A council majority voted for a "pause" until an audit of the project showed that stopping the project would cost considerable money and a foundation provided $9 million and Bell paid $10 million for naming rights. When Baltimore's Red Line hung in the balance, no corporate rescue came to its aid and no "audit" was performed. 

The Cincinnati system may not be the most impressive streetcar line in North America, but appears to be on pretty solid footing from a land use perspective, especially if one would eventually allow a northward "uptown" extension. It connects affluent, emerging and established areas of the city with those which have been stuck in poverty. It certainly connects tourist attractions, employment centers and redevelopment areas with almost unlimited prospects and opportunities which gives it the chance to grow into its potential. The protracted ideological argument regarding its utility, though, is likely to continue.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

See also on this blog the article about neighborhood revitalization in Cincinnati
What Baltimore and Cincinnati have in common

Photo Gallery:

stops are slightly higher than sidewalks to meet the train floor (Photo: Philipsen)

the bump out allows the platform area to be raised and have sloping access (Photo: Philipsen)

the train goes down Race Street along parked cars. Note the single overhead trolley wire
(Photo: Philipsen)

The train interior is modern and easy to clean with a straight view from front to back

Stations have ticket vending machines and real time arrival displays (Photo: Philipsen)

The downtown bus transit center is located across the street from the streetcar stop at Government Plaza
(Photo: Philipsen)