Greater Cincinnati has a lot more urban planners than it cares to employ as such.
If you’re thinking about going into the field, all you current or aspiring DAAP kids, you should know that you aren’t likely to find the job you might expect here. Of all the people I personally know in the area with degrees in urban planning, probably at least a couple dozen, I can think of four who are actually employed as planners. The rest of them are by and large doing interesting things, but not in a way that uses their degree to earn money, or if they are it’s not even remotely near Cincinnati. DAAP churns out about 40 planners a year, about one of which on average will find a planning job here after graduation.
This is more than a little frustrating for many of us locally cultivated planners, and really, really good for the region. I’d like to begin here to explore ways the situation could be better for planners, and better still for Cincinnati.
First, why planners are good for the region: I think you can think of us as a civic-minded type of bohemian. Like artists, the younger among us are poor, grossly underemployed and tend to cluster together for mutual inspiration. Like classic bohemians we’re often very interested in producing change. Unlike classic bohemians, we tend to have very concrete ideas of what that change would entail.
Urban planners are, in my opinion, by nature some of the best citizens you’ll find in the republic. We’re wonderfully knowledgeable about governmental and social structures but decidedly apolitical. Planners are reasonable, sometimes to a fault. Trained to handle potentially riotous public meetings on sometimes controversial topics, we know how to calm and deflect, to find agreement, and lead civil conversations toward tangible common goals. We understand, like architects how the subtleties of our physical environment affect people’s perceptions of the world and of each other and are often very conscious of how our own actions indirectly affect others.
Young, underemployed urban planners tend to start interesting and very civic projects. This website, Spring in Our Steps, UrbanCincy, or the People’s Department of Transportation (Columbus) provide a few interesting and fruitful examples from local planning grads that I know personally. Many other young planners are regular fixtures at public meetings of all sorts, providing in some sessions I’ve seen most of the thoughtful(as opposed to uselessly naive and self-interested) input on everything from SORTA’s route changes to the Cincinnati Master Plan.
These are generalizations to be sure, but to the extent that generalizations can be made about any group, I think they’re fairly accurate ones.
So what’s the problem? Normal planning jobs are absurdly secure for the few people who have them and the whole profession has been shrinking if not simply failing to grow. There is almost no chance of getting paid for any of this work. That means people will eventually leave the field or never get into it to begin with. As far as I can see, earning a planning degree is a big gamble; either you end up as one of the few people to get a secure municipal job for as long as you want it or you don’t get any work at all and you give up on planning to do something else. A planning degree is a 5 year, $100,000 bet against the odds.
We need to learn to hunt.
Planners seem to still be hanging around and doing interesting stuff though, right? We must be paying the rent somehow. Here are the problems with getting by with pay from another industry while doing planning projects on the side, unpaid:
- Because we’re for the most part not stably or adequately employed(we’re primarily qualified for planning, not whatever we’re doing), we can’t commit in our free time to the kind of long-term projects toward which we’re often inclined; we might need to change jobs suddenly or even move to another city making it harder to invest deeply in one place.
- Because we’re not employed as planners we’re often spending our days or nights learning bar-tending, latte-making or fashion design rather than developing our knowledge and social connections in a way that’s contributory to our primary interest.
- The field of planning itself is not as *ahem* fresh as it could be because it’s been full of the same old city employees for decades, hardly receiving so much as a drop of new blood and the new ideas that come with it.
- We lack the official authority that a paid planning position of any sort would confer, leaving us to make valuable suggestions that fall on inevitably deaf ears. People who pay for your time listen to you better. Those who don’t will see you as a nag or a nuisance when you try to comment on ‘their’ work.
An illustration: UC’s Niehoff Studio seems like it might offer a good model for bridging the gap between planners and the real, paid world, but as I’ll describe the results, the program is typical of the all-too-common corporate exploitation of unpaid creative work.
In a nutshell, the studio attempts to pair up outside organizations (like a transit agency) with a group of student planners, engineers and architects who will work (unpaid and actually, paying when you count tuition and time) for a semester on a ‘big problem’ that the organization might face (like “How might bus rapid transit be implemented?”). The problems are usually local and a low-level representative from the outside agency comes by a few times through the course of the semester to provide guidance to the students as they develop their projects. Through most of their work, a DAAP professor sets the guidelines and requirements. At the end there’s a presentation before the projects are graded and filed away.
One might be temped to think that this arrangement could offer public agencies and non-profits an excellent chance to get valuable ideas from a pool of creative young talent from which they might later hire, and for the planners, a chance to meet and learn from people in their field while working on real-world problems; sort of an interning-lite. The ‘from which they might hire’ part I hope I’ve already adequately addressed the possibilities of, so let’s go straight for the ‘helpful new ideas’ and ‘real-world problems’. Planners are deeply interested in affecting the world positively, and the ability to contribute to building a better city is as big a goal as the paycheck for most people.
In the case of Niehoff students, the remove from the agency itself, the fact that planning students are not actually working within the agency, means that the solutions planners come up with are almost completely unmoored from reality and thus unusable. The professors encourage this, egging the students on to ‘think big’ and come up with ideal solutions. The proposals that result are pretty much entirely ignored by the agency because they’re either blatantly illegal(usually in the form of wanton property takings) or financially impossible(new multi-billion-dollar subways bored through bedrock). This problem could be remedied by having each student work in close collaboration with the people from the agency for which the work is being done. Students can’t reasonably be expected to know what the agencies expectations are andd how far they can push them if the two aren’t talking regularly…but that would get too close to being a job or an internship–something the agency would reasonably be expected to pay for. The work done in the Niehoff studio stays closer to the abstract than to reality, allowing everyone to think of the students as students rather than as consultants and devaluing their work to the point where they must pay for the privilege of doing it.
Wanting to stay in the field, how can us planners create our own jobs outside of the archetypical local government positions which there simply aren’t
enough any of? We need money and we need authority to do good work here. How do we get these things?
SORTA recently wrapped up planning for service changes that will take effect in August and December this year. The changes they’ve proposed represent a fairly substantial(though certainly not huge) change to the shape of the network. As they work to finalize their plans, they’ve asked for feedback from the public; as a member of that group I intend to give them some, even though it’s now a little later than I might have liked.
I’ll write first about the changes themselves before going on to comment on the planning process more generally.
Basically there are a four major things changing.
- There’s a new high-frequency line, the Metro Plus (m+)
- Uptown service shifts toward Corryville via Vine
- We get more beltway/crosstown lines that don’t end downtown
- A number of lines are significantly simplified
There are also a number of smaller changes, but their effect is more local so I won’t go into it. You can see the complete list here.
The thing SORTA has been touting the most is the the thing I was most wary about before I attended the public meeting on the plan last week: The ‘Metro Plus‘ service, or as I’ll call it, the m+, is to be their tentative step toward what might be called ‘bus rapid transit‘.
Sneakily snapped from a binder left open by one of the planners. The map they’ve shared with the public is a little *ahem* …quirky. The loop at the top right is less practical and more a result of apparently not being able to find a good place for a layover.
For months it was unclear what kind of service this might provide or how fast it could be expected to go, but the rough details are now out in the open and almost all of my initial hesitation about the service has been wiped away. It will run from 6am to 10pm on weekdays with no weekend service, and have the surprisingly high frequency of every 15 minutes between 6am and 6pm before dropping to every half-hour for the rest of the day. That’s roughly the same level of service as the #4, #17, or #33 but for the lack of weekend and late night service.
As I understand it, it will be pretty much like every other local-running line in the system except with fewer and better-marked stops. I assume fares will be the same and will depend on the zone you’re travelling to or from.
The line will not, at least for now, have any designated rights-of-way or signal prioritization(though that one may be coming a bit later) and relies on the simple fact that it will be stopping less for any speed improvements. At the first public meeting in November, SORTA said the m+ would be about 15% faster than a comparable route with many more stops.
10 specially branded buses have been ordered for the line. They’ll be unusable for other services.
One thing about this service is still little unclear to me, though there may be a good justification for it: Why, if we recognize that lines in our most important transit corridors(like Mongomery Road, also served by the #4, or the others where ‘pre-BRT’ is proposed) are slowed down by too many stops, don’t we just strategically remove some of the stops thereby speeding up all service on that road? It seems like we’ve recognized a problem(too many stops in places) and rather than trying to fix it for the #4, or #17 or wherever else ‘BRT’ is planned, SORTA is overlaying those corridors with a substantially different kind of service that avoids the problem altogether. As such, we’ll eventually be getting two very distinct services on our most important corridors rather than one service that could be some sort of a mean between lots of stops and slow speed and what’s being proposed for limited-stop, faster BRT. One main line per corridor would be much easier for customers to understand. Two lines isn’t necessarily a bad strategy, but it’s not one that leaps out to me as obvious either and I’d like to hear SORTA’s reasons for it. TANK is working on strategically eliminating stops on many of their lines right now. Why isn’t SORTA doing the same even though they seem to acknowledge the same problem? What accounts for the difference in approach?
On to the next item, there’s effectively a shift in uptown service toward Vine St. This is a little hard to picture right now without a new frequency map(which will eventually be made), so I’ll do my best to explain it. In a nutshell, there are three main ways transit gets up the northern hill of the basin to the dense neighborhoods around UC: West Clifton Avenue, Vine Street, and Liberty Hill/Highland/Auburn.
Current(May 2013) routing
The proposal is for the #19 to depart from West Clifton and replace the route of what’s now the #24(brick-red line above) up Liberty/Highland/Auburn before rejoining the #17 at Ludlow. The #24 and #39(brown line) would no longer go to Downtown at all, so the #19 effectively takes over for both in that neighborhood. The #51 also won’t come as far down as the Clifton Heights business district leaving Clifton Heights with just the #17 and #31. Meanwhile the m+ will be added to Vine Street with stops at the top, middle and bottom of the hill. When the m+ is combined with the #78 and #46 already going up Vine street, there will effectively be a very very high frequency of service between Corryville(East side of campus) and Downtown. Whereas now service to either side of campus is pretty evenly split, it looks like in the future it will be pretty heavily weighted to the Corryville side. This is a little inexplicable because the Clifton Heights business district at the corner of West Clifton and McMillan is currently the busiest cluster of transit stops outside of Downtown. Corryville is also a major hub for transit(fourth largest after Walnut Hills and Northside), but the cluster of activity around their business district is only about 65% of the size of Clifton Heights.
My sincere apologies for the scribbles…for all the complaining I do about bad maps! This is Just to give you a quick idea of the intensity of transit ridership by neighbprhood…white to black is a linear scale and the coloured parts jump to a log scale. That means downtown is totally off the charts compared to the rest of the city and the brown of Clifton Heights is very significant. Exact data is here.
Corryville is also less densely populated than CUF which can probably explain most of the difference in ridership, but it’s also less well connected to places that are themselves popular transit destinations like Clifton and Northside. That factor at least will change somewhat with the changes to the #19 and certainly the addition of the m+.
I think as a result we’ll see a decline in transit use in Clifton Heights that will be nearly but not quite matched by a rise in transit use in Corryville. That in and of itself might be fine, but because of the difference in population density between the neighborhoods I suspect the distribution of service after the changes will be slightly less ‘fair’ with fewer people receiving higher-frequency service.
One of the planners at the meeting suggested the 17 could see slight frequency improvements in the future(not officially part of the plan), but I worry about the effective service cut to Clifton Heights because the #17/#19 (which I ride frequently) is already often standing-room-only.
The next big change is the merging of and additions to a few east-west running lines that do not/will not stop in Downtown. We’ll take these one at a time since there are only a few:
- The #24, will lose it’s downtown leg, instead ending in Fairview where the #51 currently turns around.
- The #51 and the #39 will merge at MLK north of UC’s main campus and lose their legs into Downtown. The new line will keep the number 51.
- The #41, a long low-frequency route through the northern suburbs will gain a substantial new segment and drop all the way down to the Glenway transit center.
Th first two generally seem like a pretty good idea. If people can rely on transfers to high-frequency lines running between the ends of these lines and Downtown, then there’s no need for the lines themselves to make their own foray into Downtown. That cut service will be applied to other parts of the system where it can be more useful.
Next on the list is the simplification of the routes of quite a few lines. This sort of falls into two categories. First is the elimination of what I call ‘only-sometimes’ route segments. These are portions of a route that are only used for a small minority of trips. For example the #31 currently makes 104 trips each weekday. Most of those trips are along the dark portion of the route shown in the map below,
The current #31 schedule
but 25 of them, scattered pretty randomly(though I’m sure with intention) throughout the day, are one of four variations on that route. Effectively, this means that even if you know the basic route of the #31, you still probably can’t know exactly where you’re going unless you have a schedule on you or the ability to view the online PDF map. Such deviations are usually done for some purpose such as to serve a factory that only needs service at the end of the day, but it does make things more difficult for the general public. I’ve always found this sort of route-capriciousness extremely frustrating both as a cartographer and as a transit user. It’s exactly this sort of thing that makes people so crazy for the perception of permanence that things like streetcar tracks are supposed to provide.
But anyway, the fantastic news is that most of the only-sometimes segments are getting cut from lines for one reason or another, to be either eliminated completely or replaced by another and more consistently running line. This will of course upset some people’s daily routines but it will also make the system as a whole much easier to comprehend. Losing their only-sometimes segments are the #33, #19 and #31.
Subject to more basic simplifications are the #1, #24, #46 and #38X. Most exciting are the changes to the #1 which is now so convoluted and hard to follow that I very nearly printed t-shirts implying that the line was drunk. It will still be a little tipsy perhaps, though most certainly rideable.
Map from SORTA
These changes are great. Let’s never go back to complex routing if a simpler route can do the same job. It’s much easier to walk an extra block than to understand where the #1 goes right now.
On to the more general comments!
There are a few things left out of these proposals that I think might well have been considered during a comprehensive review of the system.
- Downtown routing of pretty much everything is still a giant mess and even the new routes like the rerouted #19 or the m+ just add to the confusion rather than starting to simplify things.
- The new cross/around-town lines enable trips that use transfers between lines in a more meaningful way, but SORTA’s fare policy still discourages changing lines with a $0.50 fee. More clarity of direction on transfer policy is needed for future development of the system, particularly if we want more of a grid-like system with trips that rely on multiple lines.
I’d like to end by commenting on the method of feedback and community engagement itself. While I’m glad that SORTA is making a point of reaching out for feedback through public meetings, online surveys and by email and I know that they’re doing it in good faith, the information they’re providing and particularly the questions they’re asking (online at least) seem significantly less useful and informative than they might have been, both for interested citizens and transit users and for SORTA’s planners.
Similar to the way SORTA seems to think about their system generally, so in presenting route and schedule changes we’re not given a coherent picture of how these changes fit together as a network but rather a list of separate individual routes and the mostly unexplained changes each will have. I’m an urban planner and a huge transit nerd, and it’s taken even me hours of scrutiny and re-mapping work to really understand the effect of the proposed service changes. Without providing people with a bigger picture to make sense of the changes, I’m not sure how they could be expected to understand what’s going on here or to provide comments that would actually be valuable to SORTA’s planners.
The questions they’re asking feel to me kind of like a vote for your favourite route:
“Does this route meet your needs?” is totally the wrong question to ask, unless you can ask it of the entire population or a representative sample. Online surveys like this have an obvious self-selection bias; you can easily imagine one person asking everyone on their block to use this form to “vote against” any particular change that they don’t like. The people reviewing the feedback, if they’re smart, will recognize that type of comment for what it is and throw most of them out so they don’t skew the results. Even if someone does manage to weed through the details available and form some valuable opinion on the changes generally, the form isn’t really set up for that kind of comment. That’s why I haven’t filled out the feedback form at all, in favour of talking with people one-on-one and writing here.
I think a great opportunity for public education about how the transit system works was really missed here with both the feedback methods and the way the changes were presented individually. The Hamilton County Budget Office for example does a great job of this. Every year they put out a public survey on budget priorities, but it’s so thick with completely necessary details that you can’t read it without coming away knowing the difference between capital and operating funds. The way that survey is set up, there’s literally no way to respond with something inane like “Don’t raise my taxes!” and “No service cuts anywhere!” just as that’s no way to balance a budget.
After a lot of research and conversation with the planners, these changes make good sense for the most part. Indeed, I’m quite happy with them and think they represent a sensible and reasonable improvement to the way the transit system will work. But I think it would have been much more valuable for everyone if the reasons behind the changes had been made clear from the beginning and this process had been a bit more open to the public. Not only would that have put these changes in context but it would have started to establish some basic standards that people would be likely to follow when talking about more publicly contentious projects or changes.
Do these changes meet your needs? By and large they should, but again that’s not quite the right question to ask.