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The ‘Leader in Operational Efficiency’

The UC Economics Center, a business that seems to produce only favourable ‘economic impact’ studies for its clients, recently reported1, after being paid an unknown amount by SORTA itself, that SORTA is the ‘leader in operational efficiency’ among a group of peer cities.

The actual report

Slideshow version of the report

I heard about this a while ago from several different news-sources, though only recently got around to finding it and reading the actual report2. Curiously, none of the news sources I found actually linked to the paper itself, though i did find it just now on SORTA’s website.

My nutshell take-away is this: SORTA is the ‘most efficient’ among the (only) 12 cities studied entirely because of it’s disproportionate reliance on fare revenue as a source of operating money. They actually phrased one aspect of this measure in the executive summary as “fare revenue earned per operating expense”, which is at best an awkward way to say something very simple, or at worst, distinctly misleading about the agency’s raison d’etre.

The study itself, and a couple of the articles that wrote about it did draw attention to this odd definition of ‘efficiency’, though I want to reemphasize it here and draw further notice to the conclusion the report draws based on this unusual metric. The paper says in conclusion to the executive summary:

…Metro’s demonstrated operational efficiency should position it favourably to receive and efficiently manage additional funds. …

Well, this is really like saying a starving person is well positioned to receive food, that an anorexic is being efficient with her calories and thereby deserves more. But it also raises the question: well-positioned with who?

I think it’s reasonable to presume we might first think of the federal government since this study compares major US cities, but it never mentions capital funding at all and the feds simply aren’t in the business of giving operating funds to local agencies. That leaves us with state and local sources of funding, but aren’t these the same people who’ve been starving the agency to the point where it’s the ‘most efficient’ in the region? The report indicates that PA is much more generous with its city’s transit agencies, but somehow I doubt we’ll convince them that we’re well positioned to manage funds from the state of Pennsylvania.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Dear god, this was half a year ago…I’m going to be dead before I know it!
  2. My thanks to Erika Fiola for leaving me her printed copy. My eyes would never have lasted through the PDF version.
Comments: 2
Posted in: Misconceptions
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Why do so many propose to ‘increase circulation’ with some transit project without understanding their implicit organic analogue?

Mesentery tissue

Mesentery tissue for example holds your intestines in place and carries all that yummy stuff you just ate from there to the rest of you. Should we wish to increase it’s circulation?

“Circulation” as it’s typically applied to transportation, inevitably by laypeople and politicians1, always seems to base it’s forgone prescription for more on unscientific, ‘holistic’ medicine.

Would anyone care to seriously ask their doctor whether it would be desirable to ‘increase’ or ‘improve’  circulation in some arbitrary body part? To be sure we’re dealing with very different organisms, cities and humans. To start with, I think the most basic distinction we’d need to draw is between evolution by ‘selection’ from among random variation and Lamarkian selection by willed adaptation. Or perhaps between discrete and predictable life cycles and cumulative, adaptive systems.

In any case, what to me is certain is that we need to be explicit about just what type of body we’re operating on before we engage in such reasoning by analogy. Who among the streetcar fanboys has yet done that? And why is the medical community2 so far from such urban discussions with their heavy use of organic metaphor? Is there a doctor in the house?

Show 2 footnotes

  1. I’m not going to provide citations here. Do a search for ‘Cincinnati streetcar circulation’ or something like that and you will find endless examples.
  2. Is this even a community? It’s that far away…
Comments: 4
Posted in: Misconceptions | Talking about Transit
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Rails are forever.

I made this one bite-sized.

Cincinnati Streetcar postcard design

Looks like a post card; I know some people I’d like to mail it to.

And even ignoring Cincinnati Streetcars and Cincinnati Subways, hows that Amtrak service doing? Three trips a week down from more than 100 a day? That’s some “permanent signal” of transit right there. Where’s all the vibrant, walkable TOD around Union Terminal’s active rail transit?

Or does rail have nothing at all to do with the quality of service that actually matters to people, the quality of service that connects people, building cities and economies along the way?

Operating Money > Capital Money, almost always. Tell your leaders.

Comments: 1
Posted in: Back to Basics | Investments | Misconceptions | Politics
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Is “free” parking possible?

People love free things. In my oddly skewed social circle, one of the things I hear that they love the most is ‘free parking”. Businesses want it for their customers, residents want it in front of their apartments, and many people will spend half an hour or more at a time circling the block looking for it.

But just what exactly are they looking for? What is it they want so bad?

The Free and Open Source Software(F/OSS) community seems to have noticed something about the English word ‘free‘ that transportation people haven’t yet quite grasped: that it has some very distinct and sometimes misleading meanings. F/OSS advocates have gone to extraordinary lengths to deal with the inadequacy of the word ‘free’ to communicate what it is that they’re trying to do. ‘Free software‘ is software that grants freedoms to it’s users and developers, such as the ability to see the source code, modify it, and to redistribute the program. The general public though often hears ‘free software’ and thinks of those awful AOL CDs that were everywhere ten years ago or of cheap software that can be downloaded at no cost. F/OSS advocates are neither cheapskates nor champions of the poor; they’re more akin to software libertarians. They’re concerned with freedom rather than free-ness, ‘libre‘(or liberty) rather than ‘gratis‘(lacking a price).

There’s a third meaning of ‘free’ that isn’t relevant to software at all, but that’s critically important to parking. Let’s put it this way: “Is the restroom free yet?” Clearly, our interlocutor doesn’t seek the restroom’s liberation nor probably do they expect they might be charged for it’s use. Free here can mean ‘available‘ when we’re talking about things with potentially limited access.

I know, I know. It’s gratis parking most people say they’re looking for. Free as in “free sample”. Just as with the word ‘free’ itself though, with ‘free parking’ three or more specific meanings twine inextricably around a central concept and each has an effect on the others. Is accessibility of much value if liberty is lacking? Is liberty meaningful if it costs a fortune? And, most relevantly, is gratis parking worth anything if none of it’s available?

For the last few months, the City of Cincinnati has been talking about eliminating all minimum parking regulations from the zoning code for Over-The-Rhine and Pendelton1. Basically, with the current regulations people are required to build a certain amount of parking on the same site as a building if they’re going to legally use the building. Some small, old buildings that have been in continuous use since before the law are exempted. The city has simply proposed to remove this requirement in OTR and Pendelton.

Concurrently, several community groups, myself among them, have been advocating various sorts of permit parking plans for their neighborhoods or the city as a whole.

Some people in both communities have been opposed to the deregulation proposal because of the negative effect it could have on the availability of gratis parking. Others have generally supported the plan because of the positive effects it would have on parking liberty and potentially, availability.2 Many people have supported the concept of a permit parking plan aimed at increasing availability to some or all people, but the details of any such plan have been contentious. Normal people have been at home watching TV and not giving a damn.

The whole discussion has made clear that people who care about parking issues in Cincinnati’s central neighborhoods are operating with two very different paradigms, and two very different understandings of which aspect of freedom is most important and for whom.

Those who see value in the City’s current minimum regulations value available, gratis parking as the highest good and are looking to match the almost limitless demand for unpriced spaces with actual spaces. There’s is a supply side solution to a problem that by their definition of it can’t really respond well to market forces. They view cars and parking as almost necessarily associated with people, and assume that people don’t want to pay anything at all for parking. Therefore if there are to be people, there must be ‘enough’ free or cheap parking. For them, for a developer to not provide parking is for that person to impose an externality on others who will have to pick up his slack. It’s generally an older crowd that feels this way.

Those who are looking to deregulate parking in OTR, Pendelton and perhaps eventually elsewhere value liberty highest, including a liberty from driving and from parking itself. A city that doesn’t mandate a certain type of transportation in all places is one that allows more liberty for it’s residents to decide which method they prefer. Not full liberty of course, but more of it. Perhaps on the balance the collectively chosen method or collection of methods will include more walking, bicycles and transit. This is generally a younger crowd.

Crossing both paradigms is the insistence that where there is parking, it should be available to people. That is to say, if a street has 30 spaces then all things being equal it’s better at any given time that only 28 of them are occupied than that 30 are. Post-Adam-Smith common sense tells those belonging to the later paradigm that one very logical way for us to achieve this goal is to put a price on those spaces that accurately reflects their value, letting people decide themselves who gets to use them just like we do for cabbage, cars, political speech, and most other saleable commodities. The other group, because of their insistence on the importance of unpriced parking doesn’t see this as an acceptable solution, so seeks to mandate a surplus that gluts the market thereby freeing spaces.

I say that at the end of the day there is no free lunch. Avoiding parking fees at the point of sale(that is, when you’re actually parking) just shifts the costs(and disincentives) to other people and places, including non-parkers like myself and the ~25% of Cincinnatians who don’t own cars. Most people would like the rest of society to subsidise the things they do…Truly, people really DO like free things. But they also like just as much getting to choose what they do and don’t pay for, the later category mostly including things for other people. Since all parking must be paid for at some point, I say let us live more frugally by having somewhat less of it as a result of us also having more liberty: more opportunity to choose another way of getting around. Gratis parking is in the big picture an impossibility, and so we should pursue the other aspects of ‘free’: availability and liberty.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. …and for a while Downtown, though that seems to have been dropped now for some reason
  2. I include in the second group the City’s planning staff and seemingly most of council since they made the initial request.
Comments: 7
Posted in: Definitions | Investments | Logic | Misconceptions | Priorities
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The Streetcar – 6 – Separate and Unequal: on the rails of division

This is the sixth in an 8 part series on “The Streetcar”.

  1. Conceptual Flaws: civic boosters lead the charge
  2. Errors of Geometry: split one-ways are dumb
  3. The role of transportation in economic development
  4. Symbolic Transit
  5. On the back of branding
  6. Separate and Unequal: on the rails of division
  7. Chicken or Egg: Shaping the future or following the past?
  8. A New and Highly Sarcastic Plan for Economic Development

I’ve been hinting at the main point of this post throughout the series and it’s time now to address it head-on. The streetcar of our imaginations, the streetcar we’ve been talking about(for there is no other) seems to have, at least for many people, taken the burden of the entire transit system on itself. People have begun to talk about the proposed expansion of the streetcar as though it were the expansion of transit itself. And I feel it necessary here to elucidate a distinction: that the streetcar is not transit itself, that it’s expansion is not into new frontiers.

I’ve heard people say that the extension of the streetcar to UC would allow students to come Downtown and how great that would be. It would be great. It is great! I used to do it all the time as a UC student on the #17/#19 or the #78/#46. It’s great for UC students to be able to get to Downtown with transit. The streetcar will help that if it’s extended1. It would mean for many people that the frequency of transit between Corryville and the East side of UC and Downtown via Vine Street would jump by a few minutes and wait times would be noticeably diminished(though because of the indirect route, it may not actually decrease the amount of time needed to get Downtown on average).

But I don’t think that’s what people are talking about when they say that the streetcar  will allow UC students to make it to Downtown. What they’re talking about if you listen closely is the introduction of something wholly new. They’re talking about major change, about making a connection that didn’t exist before.

Now I need to be very clear in what I’m saying because I don’t want to unjustly mischaracterize the position of the streetcar advocates. If asked directly, I don’t think any sane person would fail to acknowledge the presence of transit on Vine or West Clifton Streets. But in the way they talk, it’s clear that the buses are just…the buses. A lot of people really do have a very negative connotation for that word. Just buses. Most readers will understand the emphasis there, perhaps even have heard the phrase before. “Does Cincinnati have good transit?” you overhear a visitor at a bar,  “Oh, just buses.” comes the native reply.

Just buses.

forever alone bus with the Cincinnati Streetcar

My thanks to Meddling with Nature for this photo, ever a reliable a source for silly photos and delightfully alive dead things.

When we talk about adding a streetcar to Vine street, what a lot of people are talking about is a perceived upgrade of sorts. Streetcars or more so, subways, are often seen as indicators of transit corridors that are of higher-priority, better used, more traveled, taken more seriously by a community and a city. We’re talking about upgrading transit on Vine street to something more serious and grown-up. It’s a cultural upgrade a dozen times more than it is a functional one2.

I’m reminded of the now dated cliché of the recent graduate, out of school and employed in a great new job, on to the next stage of life and looking to prove to the world, perhaps though mostly to himself that he’s really made it. That what he’s doing is somehow for real. He might buy himself a nice suit with his new cash, maybe even a new car. He buys a round of drinks for the bar. He’s never had this much money before! What he’s buying though isn’t success itself. What’s he’s buying are symbols of success. They’re tokens that are to indicate to the world and to himself that he’s made an important transition and that he’s now to be taken a bit more seriously.

And I think a lot of people, particularly from the lower classes, tend to get hung up on these symbols of success and mistake them for the real thing.  We associate the things that often accompany the succeeded goal with the accomplishment of the goal itself. This is why there is “bling”. Seriously. How wantonly demonstrative can you get?

Is this person truly successful? Or trying to prove something?

We’re striving for a sign that we’re taking transit seriously as a community, but somewhere along the line we’ve really gone off the tracks.

Instead of seeking symbols as confirmation-of a realized goal, we’re seeking them as if they were the thing itself. And in so doing, we’re losing track of the thing itself and slowly beginning to replace it with the symbol. We’re talking often about the streetcar not as though it were (rightly or wrongly) the highly visible indicator that the Corryville-OTR-Downtown corridor is important to us, and I’ve never actually heard anyone say that, but as if it were transit itself reaching uptown for the first time. As if it were of such a magnitude that it’s predecessor the lowly bus can be safely ignored. We’re talking about a moon landing, a game-changer. But instead of the moon, it’s Canada, and there are already more than a hundred flights, a dozen trains and three thousand moose a day crossing that border.

Some people have commented on my recent critique of the streetcar, saying that it’s not entirely fair to the project because it doesn’t account for later phases. That later phases will allow connections to Uptown and Union Terminal and the Casino and the zoo. That’s a valid point. The streetcar, as proposed as a larger system would be much more substantial than my suppositions have allowed it thus far.

But I want though to play on that word ‘system‘ that I just used. The streetcar as a ‘system’. As a transit system with it’s branches making “connections” to places that were otherwise “unconnected”. It’s not an idea that you’ll find unfamiliar if you know where to look for it. We’ve all seen maps by now of the streetcar in glorious isolation, branching out to cover an increasingly large portion of the city depending on how bold the politicians are feeling that day. Sometimes these fantasy maps, which by the way are part of a large and obsessive genre in cartography, take on even larger proportions and include the proposed ‘Oasis’ line, a newly refurbished subway and perhaps even, against all common sense, Amtrak’s thrice-weekly-at-2am Cardinal through Union Terminal. We’re shown how these things could link together, connecting the city in new ways. We might call these “Rail Transit Systems”. Below are a few examples of maps of this type. Notice how the ‘old’ means of connection are assiduously hidden from us as the relics of the old ‘bus’ days, and we’re shown an entirely new way of traversing the city. Let’s take a tour:

streetcar proposal map

If such promiscuous proposal mapping is to be allowed, I’m going to propose a space shuttle launching facility where that big warehouse is in Covington and start including it prominently in maps. Eden park will turn into the home of a proposed high-speed merry-go-round connected to the zoo by aerial gondolas drawn in bold red lines. Westchester will disappear entirely after my proposal for complete demolition to remove blight.

Metro Moves Plan Map

The Metro Moves plan segregated buses and non-buses into separate maps. The bus map had significantly less design time put into it.


rail fantasy map

A proposal for rail transit found via UrbanCincy(I can’t recall where I originally saw this) gives priority to the currently neglected areas around the beltway. Also, inexplicably, the trip between Dent(??) and Monfort Heights seems to get more traffic than between Downtown and anywhere. Good luck explaining that one.

rail fantasy map

This is really the epitome of the fantasy map genre as far as Cincinnati is concerned. This pretty and deliciously elaborate morsel from Metro Cincinnati(not the transit agency) shows a very large and complex system of streetcars and subways but not a single bus.

cincinnati rail fantasy map

Source. This ones seems to have cars in mind more than buses, and length more than usefulness. My guess? Something Freudian perhaps.

I want to call attention to the fact that these maps have pretty much nothing in common except steel wheels. Seriously. Go back and look at them all. We’ve got plans for just about every kind of train but freight trains here. Train fetish much, Cincinnati transit geeks?

It’s all fine and dandy to make a few fantasy rail maps and pretend we’re London for a day, but a lot of these plans have really captured people’s attention. As silly as these maps are under the scrutiny of a good planner or an operations manager with an eye on the budget, they’re very compelling to people who want to see Cincinnati as a major world city. These maps are the result of us literally painting the city or at least a map of it with a broad brush.

These sorts of maps have lit up the popular imagination, and we’re getting used to imagining a Cincinnati connected by an extensive rail-based transit system. I’ve been asked more times than I can remember if the transit map I made is a proposal for something. It’s not! Why on earth would I carry around a bunch of printed and folded fantasy maps?

Cincinnati transit map frequency poster

This is what a real bus map looks like.

For many people I guess it looks too much like all of the above to have been a map of something that actually exists. There’s that famous Cinicism. But where was I going? I’ve gotten derailed. Ah yes. Here’s the meat of it:

We’re starting, as a city, to talk about expanding transit in a way that doesn’t include buses.

Many people increasingly don’t see the future of Cincinnati’s transit in buses at all. But that’s a pretty big disconnect because all of the transit we currently have uses buses for everything. Really. All of it. I mean except for Amrak maybe or the airport shuttle. That means that people are talking about transit as though the city were a blank slate. It simply isn’t; this isn’t SimCity. We’ve been building stuff here for a couple hundred years already and there are a lot of travel patterns that people have got used to. That doesn’t mean things can’t change, just that very serious consideration would need to be given to intermediate stages in the transition  process before a sweeping multi-billion dollar rail system could ever even conceivably replace the transit system we have now.

Some people do include buses when they talk about the future of transit. Roxanne Qualls for example has been a big proponent of “Bus Rapid Transit“, but in a way, even this, with it’s strong emphasis on different-looking vehicles and stops is a sort of “non-bus” idea in spirit. Generally, I’m beginning to feel like transit advocates are becoming divided between “transit pragmatists” and “transit visionaries”. The pragmatists actually ride the bus a lot and just want increased frequencies, later hours, faster trips and usually some more east-west connections. The visionaries don’t typically ride the bus, but they have enjoyed using transit in other cities. The visionaries don’t seem to actually care so much where the transit goes, just so long as it gets there on steel tracks. They know they would use that kind of transit. They want that kind of lifestyle.

There have been so many proposals, the streetcar being the most visible example, that take this visionary approach–technology first, route second– that I’m beginning to wonder if we can reconcile this way of thinking with an existing system at all. The streetcar pretty obviously ignores the rest of the transit system. Brad Thomas of the CincyStreetcar Blog sent me this image after I said in an earlier post that I couldn’t find a single map of the streetcar that had another real transit line in it:

There are a few other lines in there, but do notice the difference between the smooth, finished, labelled lines of the streetcar and the rough, irregular, anonymous and distractingly colored lines of the other arbitrarily selected lines. They were literally added later. Still, it’s a lot better than most maps I’ve seen which ignore other transit entirely.

I’m starting to feel like we’re talking in effect about developing two transit systems in parallel. The one we have now, plus a rail-based transit system on top of it, perhaps eventually replacing buses. And that makes me extremely uncomfortable because there’s no reason such things should be in competition with one another even implicitly. Our toolbox is full of screwdrivers, and we might be able to use a hammer or two, but we’re starting to look even at screws like a problem that could be solved better with a hammer if only we had one. We really really want that hammer!!

We need a middle ground here. The pragmatists could probably benefit from aiming a bit higher, and the visionaries definitely need some grounding. Buses certainly aren’t the entire destiny of a well developed regional transit system in Cincinnati(you can’t make a house with a screwdriver alone), but rail doesn’t really seem to make much sense yet and certainly not in most of the places it’s been proposed(you don’t simply add a hammer to the project, you need to use it only on the nails).

Most importantly, an approach that takes the technology of the vehicle as the central question is really missing the mark completely. The first question is “where do most of us want to go?” and only later “how do we best get there?” We need to get behind plans that really improve transit regardless of the vehicle they use, not ones that mostly just have a big-city feel.

In my next post, I’ll be analysing SORTA’s newly released ridership data which should give us a good clue where potentially higher-capacity vehicles like trains(running in their own right-of-way!!) could potentially be a good response to existing strong demand for transit. Eventually, I’ll even get around to comparing some of these rail plans against actual population density and existing high-capacity corridors.

Alright… I feel like I’ve been rambling, so here’s a discussion question: What role did the political failure of MetroMoves play in encouraging the “pragmatists” to be pragmatic and egging on the “visionaries”?

Show 2 footnotes

  1. …If, further, it’s built.
  2. If you want really solid proof of this, look at the fact that the streetcar didn’t know what street it was going to take up the hill until the (short-lived)money came in to extend it. If a transit corridor needed the expansion of capacity a streetcar could potentially provide, we wouldn’t have had any debate about whether it should take Vine or W Clifton up the hill, and the City wouldn’t have spent months of study to figure out which route had more developable land.
Comments: 2
Posted in: Analysis | Misconceptions | Mobility | Talking about Transit
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The Streetcar – 5 – On the back of branding

This is the fifth in an 8 part series on “The Streetcar”.

  1. Conceptual Flaws: civic boosters lead the charge
  2. Errors of Geometry: split one-ways are dumb
  3. The role of transportation in economic development
  4. Symbolic Transit
  5. On the back of branding
  6. Separate and Unequal: on the rails of division
  7. Chicken or Egg: Shaping the future or following the past?
  8. A New and Highly Sarcastic Plan for Economic Development

The streetcar will be one of four lines in the region that are heavily reliant on branding and advertising to stand out from the crowd and attract riders. The other three are the Southbank Shuttle, SORTA’s #1, and the 2X. I’ve touched on this idea before as it relates to the first two, so I do recommend you check out those links. Let’s try and unpack some of those thoughts here though and see how relevant they are to the streetcar. First, we’ll need to establish a baseline: what sort of advertising/branding treatment do most transit lines get? And then we can move on to what sort of treatment they might warrant.

Both agencies do some advertising for their services generally, but little to none for specific lines except for the three just mentioned.

Bus shelter ad

Part of a larger campaign aimed at weakening ‘bus stigma’ by introducing relatable characters

SORTA places billboard ads, bus shelter ads, has booths at fairs and festivals, and buys various print advertising to promote several campaigns aimed mostly at getting people comfortable with the idea of using transit. They also have pens and keychains and stuff like that to hand out at events.


TANK doesn’t seem to do quite as much advertising, which would reflect their smaller overall size1.

little girl holding a balloon

Anyone who can find me a TANK balloon will get a cookie. SORTA: You need balloons too. Get with the program.

They do evidently have balloons which is pretty cool and they sponsored my transit map, getting their logo on the back. Also, because I really want an excuse to share this photo from their facebook page, I’ll tell you that they also seem to do some public events for charity.


TANK-Man: protecting Northern Kentucky every single day from over-whelming the burdens of car ownership.

So generally speaking, both agencies do things to keep their organization in the minds of their customers and supporters(pens and balloons and TANK-Man), things to gently reach out to people who are transit-curious(SORTA’s billboard ads)and obviously, things to give specific information to people who are looking for it(maps, schedules and websites).

There are exceptions…

Bus shelter advert for the #38X

Bus shelter advertisement for the #38X

…but they seem rare. This advertisement for the #38X is the only one I can think of so I guess it’s the exception that proves the rule. Only three lines really get a special treatment. Here’s a sampling of it:

2x advertisement

The 2X becomes the ‘Airporter’

TANK southbank shuttle

The Southbank Shuttle. I really like TANK’s photographer, whoever (s)he is.

1 4 fun

And the #1 for fun (Not for serious use)

We have a few things going with these lines:

And really, it’s only these three. Other lines get ads all over their interchangeable vehicles, have no distinguishing marks except for the changeable electric signs, and are known only by numbers and sometimes an extension name like “17 Mt Airy”.

scientology ad on a bus

This is NOT SORTA’s Scientology line. it’s just the #11 wearing a costume.

The #4 doesn’t have a big permanent sign on it proclaiming it the ‘Norwooder’ (Hehe… Norwooder), it’s just the #4. That makes sense, too. Often it’s useful to switch a bus from one line to another, such that it might be the #4 coming into Downtown, but when that same bus leaves, it’s running as the #28 with a simple change to the sign. The number is an indication of a path that any given vehicle could follow. Marking up vehicles with special branding just means you can’t use them for other lines and ties your hands a bit when you’re planning schedules or even doing maintenance. Say you need 3 buses to cover a given route at the busiest part of the day. You have to assume that any one of those three could break down unexpectedly or need significant scheduled maintenance so you need to have four or more buses in the garage so you can always be sure of having three ready to go. If all your vehicles are interchangeable, you spread out the risk of a breakdown on any particular line and can have fewer extra vehicles sitting around just in case.

Anyway, back on topic! These three lines do get special treatment. I used the phrase “stand out from the crowd” earlier. That’s essentially what they’re trying to do and the advertising, often aimed mainly at tourists, can be pretty heavy handed. Here for example the rest of the system is completely ignored:

Downtown Cincinnati guidebook map

This map, from the Cincinnati Chamber’s free guidebooks to Downtown, while hard to read, shows only the #1 and the Southbank Shuttle. The guidebooks are all over the place, but are particularly present at places like hotels and the convention center. They’re designed for people unfamiliar with the City. In a word, tourists.

And here special signs make the Shuttle’s stops stand out quite a bit more than normal:

Southbank Shuttle stop sign

A crude measurement involving my computer monitor and a ruler reveals that the Shuttle literally gets more than 100 times more space on this sign than any other line. By the way, at this stop I’m pretty sure all of the other lines are going to Cincinnati and Covington too, but the sign totally fails to mention it.

The streetcar will likely stand out like this too. Every map of the route that I’ve seen has completely failed to acknowledge the rest of the transit system.

streetcar development map

From the Cincinnati Streetcar Blog

People have held design competitions for the stops, each of which will be a large, expensive and highly visible change to a significant piece of the sidewalk rather than just another number on a post.


The stops that are already preemptively(and presumptuously) marked actually already have larger signs than most other stops. The streetcar doesn’t even exist yet and it’s more visible!

Cincinnati streetcar sign

And then of course there’s the vehicle itself which stands out dramatically from the rest of the fleet and won’t likely carry any general advertising for Scientology or cars or other nonsense.

There is a problem with “standing out from the crowd”, and that’s the direct implication that the rest of the transit system is a “crowd”. To increase emphasis on one line so dramatically is to decrease emphasis on every other line.

For many people, the numbered lines(~97% of the system2) drop into a second category of “other routes” and the only lines they know are the ones that have distinct vehicles and maps that are highly simplified. The “other routes” all look alike, don’t tell you where they’re going, and are literally harder to spot. When we create such a distinct hierarchy, every visual cue tells people that the “other routes” aren’t as important, rather that the Southbank shuttle is very important and so is the streetcar. The shuttle may actually be important, but every other line is important too. Every parent thinks their kid is the center of the universe, but everyone who’s not a sociopath realizes that asserting just that to the kindergarten teacher would be way over the line. That is to say that their kid is not the center of the universe. They may feel that way, but they realize it isn’t actually true and that other children are equally important to themselves and their own parents.

Just so, this lopsided emphasis of some lines over and above others wouldn’t make sense if we assumed that all lines are equal. All lines aren’t equal, but not in a way that favours the streetcar. Some lines, like the #33, #17, #4, and #43 are significantly more important than the rest. They go more places, more frequently and as a consequence have many more riders. The corridors they form are critical for thousands of people every day. This just simply cannot be said of the #1 or the Shuttle, or yes, the streetcar.

So I think we’ve gone pretty far out of balance here. We have some lines that we’re effectively advertising to people as the only thing they need to know about, but none of those lines(I’m excepting the 2X from this now) is actually very useful at all in the big scheme of things. They’re really pretty minor routes and are so by design. I suspect that that actually may be why they get so much advertising to begin with. When we design a route with only a small subset of people in mind(say, tourists or yuppies), we make a line that is destined to have relatively low ridership. We most often see these lines designed to fulfil a political end3. I think perhaps that when people see the (structurally) low ridership of a less useful line they try to correct it in a way that’s familiar to the people who helped instigate it, that is, the people who applied the original political pressure. What do they think of first? Advertising. Branding. Distinction from that mess of “other routes” that they don’t actually understand very well. This is ‘their’ line in question, intending to serve people they know well, and they actually do know what reaches those people. So they make simple maps and big signs that ignore the rest of the system while explaining just one tiny part of it that they think is important to a particular group.

What’s perverse is that if they did understand the mess of “other routes”, in almost any case, they wouldn’t have proposed a narrow solution for a small constituency in the first place and it wouldn’t have needed the expense and sillyness of a distinct brand because it would have just been plainly useful from the start.

If most lines don’t need special advertising and branding, I think we need to ask ourselves collectively why only a few lines should get it and which those should be. I think we might also usefully ask why only some lines get a distinct brand when just about any line might benefit from it(Norwooder! :-P). It seems like the very strong brand and high level of visual distinction being created for the streetcar is probably in part a preemptive defense against the political embarrassment that would result from the naturally low ridership on a poorly chosen route.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Also, I don’t live in KY, so I could just be missing some of it.
  2. Source: My ass. But still, it should be close.
  3. Definitely true for the Shuttle(Chamber/tourism people in NKY I’m pretty sure) and the #1(Arts orgs and I think it even get’s money from the casino if I remember right. Don’t quote me on that).
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