Reactionary Incrementalism

I spend a lot of time thinking about transit in Cincinnati as you might imagine, and it’s of interest to me to have an idea what, generally, it is that I’m trying to do as regards transit. What are my goals?

I think I’ve got it down to a simple statement now,  my understanding of the transit problem of Cincinnati, my essential ‘position’, but I’ve been slow to write it because what I keep coming back to … almost doesn’t need to be written; it seems too obvious to bother with, a reaction to a strawman. I’m bored with it before I’ve even spoken: incremental changes are better than radical replannings that ignore what’s already there. We need big changes to come incrementally. I think Jane Jacobs’ ghost might give me a high-five tired smile at this point and we could carry on our atemporal conversation about what a misguided jerk Robert Moses was. City Beautiful? Ha! But this critique of master-planning is stale by 60 years. Of course radical social change rarely works as expected. We know this. We planners are taught it in school. We’ve all seen the wreckage of Pruitt Igo, and with the benefit of hindsight mused at what St. Louis might have been, or Cincinnati with an intact West Side, the States with a moderated federal highway program.

Let’s say it again and clearly: The historically, empirically established understanding of the planning community, at least at it’s leading edges, on most issues, is now, in defiant opposition to the master-planners of the early 20th, that clear-cutting plans, plans of total envisioning fail like communism did; we simply can’t fully imagine a new world order; we’d better, with recognition of our fallibility, stick close to what we have, testing our changes, not failing to have big ideas, but refusing to try them all at once, with other people’s lives.

“Something isn’t working in the city? Let’s trash the whole thing and build a new system!”

People keep pulling me to write my moderating scold with what increasingly seem to me like comical plans for a transit system they rarely acknowledge. I finally got a chance to look at that section in the Enquirer that brought me to reflect on these issues again.

Cincinnati Enquirer March 4th

The piece was framed in a way that begged big plans, and everyone seems to have unquestioningly obliged. They responded with maps that give no indication that something might already exist in this city, each of them boldly filling blank spaces like architects with their confident assertion of hip, coloured silhouettes, a sketch in place of, on top of a trembling grey reality. (Speaking of grey reality by the way, do you notice anything each of these maps has in common?)

I don’t want you to read this plainly as a criticism of the Enquirer, or perhaps even of the contributors, but rather as a distinction between our perspectives. I think they’ve correctly tapped the volksgeist, their readers, the interests of those with time to be interested, and their goals are purposefully more populist than mine. Perhaps better: mine are purposefully less populist than most. ‘People’ seem to be starved for radical change in this city’s transit. People don’t understand how we got to the point we’re at. People only know who they know and most of those people don’t know ‘the bus’, the system as it actually is because so few people use it any more. To their minds, to their experiences, we’re really starting from scratch here. ‘What we need is a real transit system!‘ the people and their friends shout over the transit system’s head. And this is a deeply compelling message to many. So many with bigger goals than mine, bigger goals so painfully constricted, are willing to deliver.

But should we, like every generation, react so hard against our inheritance? Might we better take the time to understand the position we’re in, or trust to those who do already, and approach our big goal slowly, without taking our eyes off it, first considering our trajectory and then altering course?

The way I’ve framed this, mine probably sounds like a perfectly reasonable approach, so who would be opposed to it and why am I reacting against them? These can’t be simple demagogues. Their position is more considered, if subjective and contingent.

We’re dealing here with, failing to deal as a city with, the divide between social service and ‘choice‘ conceptions of transit’s main purpose. TANK runs their system almost entirely on the social service model and is comfortable with this, but SORTA is torn because Cincinnati is torn. Still, SORTA is mostly on the social service model, enough that the more extreme alienated choicers don’t see any place for their own goals there.

Proposed now by the choicers is a system built newly to their ends, defined by relation to a handful of major US cities to whose status they aspire, whose rails they see plain as day, whose buses they mostly miss, and whose historical contingencies they don’t fully understand.

In another world, certainly not in the same conversation, the servers advocate for incremental change, generally accepting as given a steady or shrinking pot of resources. They seek to draw these out into finer and finer strands, weaving a web through which few will fall completely1. This is TANK’s political constituency and it’s most of SORTA’s. Rather than working for change in the constituency, the choicers2 seem to be splitting off altogether. This happened very clearly with the streetcar project, conceived by the city, funded through a separate mechanism, and clearly operating under a different set of rules. And there are calls to expand it, to build more onto it, to add more to these blank-map city plans. It’s clear in many conversations that transit advocates are not talking about the same system any more. The sane Union.

Where is our Lincoln?

TANK is not engaging as a leader3, and SORTA is only leading as much as they’re blowing in the wind.

SORTA’s BRT plans seem to me like an emancipation proclamation: a bold idea to stir support, an idea which they currently have no power to enforce, and one that explicitly broadens their platform in an attempt to diffuse potential attacks. It’s a ‘bold vision’ laid falsely on bare ground for the choicers, a reasonable redoubling on established corridors for the incrementalist planners concerned with serving more than the politically momentous, and for the servers: it does nothing to shake their web.

Why should I be unhappy with such a compromise? Because it splits the baby4 and fails to unite us, to challenge the claims of the politicians that a ‘new system’ is needed or to moderate the claims of the servers. SORTA’s plan then fails to challenge either group, leaving both of their ideas quite alone, which is, again, not in SORTA’s power to do. 5

If there is to be one united transit system, as I believe there should be, these conflicting ideas need both to be questioned and we need as a region to move from our false argument between choice and social-service toward a moderate position that appreciates both goals and plans for them, that estimates both demands and puts them in their places. “X amount of funding for coverage services, Y amount targeted to high-ridership ‘choice’ services, overlap in Z areas, and here’s how we’re measuring outcomes”.

The failure on SORTA’s part to reframe the discussion is, I think, why we keep seeing these radical plans bubble up from the ground, why I keep feeling the need to react to them.

Who will be our Lincoln? I haven’t the authority.

Show 5 footnotes

  1. And in which some will get stuck.
  2. Who I ought to point out are increasingly politically powerful.
  3. Politically, TANK is in a much more stable organization with clearly defined goals. They have county-level funding that seems to be steadily growing. Transit is primarily a social service and few people in Kentucky are demanding or proposing that they seriously pursue ridership goals. The smaller size of their budget, and the fact that their funding comes from a larger area also tends to insist that their services remain more scattered rather than concentrated as a ridership focus would demand.
  4. Two scheduled services running in the same corridor, one faster than the other will have structurally uncoordinated schedules. They can’t therefore build on each other to increase frequency in the corridor. For many purposes, the same service will be run twice with little additive effect, or at least much less than is possible. Also, the overall system becomes less legible with the addition of lines and distinctions between stops.
  5. I mean literally that they don’t have any reasonable expectation of seeing the operating funding needed for such a project in the near future. Rather, they MUST moderate conflicting demands because of their limited resources.
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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.
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Posted in: Analysis | Misconceptions | Mobility | Talking about Transit
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