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.

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Posted in: Back to Basics | Investments | Misconceptions | Politics
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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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Posted in: Ads | Investments | Misconceptions | Plans | Technology Choices
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Why rail is sexy

I have a theory that I don’t think is going to be very well liked: Rail transit is as popular as it is in large part because it tends to have simplified diagrammatic maps.

People in Cincinnati tend to make extremely sharp mental distinctions between buses and railcars. The two vehicles are almost always completely intertwined parts of the same transit system, but because this distinction is so important to so many people, agencies tend to separate transit lines by type of vehicle and even put them on completely separate maps.

Here’s what maps for buses tend look like:

Baltimore Transit Map

A transit map of Baltimore

Old Cincinnati Bus Map

SORTA’s last official transit map, circa 2011

SORTA downtown transit map

This is the way SORTA sees Downtown Cincinnati

What do you get from looking at these images? Not many specifics of any value certainly. What overall impression do you get? I see complexity. These maps do a tremendously good job of conveying a sense of overwhelming and unclassified complexity. It’s like something from a scary movie about a dystopian techno-future, oddly devoid of the futurist UI designers so characteristic of that kind of flick.

Here’s what maps for rail tend to look like:

New York City Subway Map

One of at least a dozen versions of an iconic map. I’ll be surprised if anyone doesn’t immediately know what city this is.

DC Metro Map

In DC, most apartment listings mention proximity to a rail station more prominently than the address of the building.

london tube map

The classic London Tubes


What are your impressions on looking at these? We quickly start to pick the maps apart, understanding and remembering how the system is laid out. It’s simplicity conveys an image of the city as ordered, if large and complex, collapsible into simple overlaid and overlapping corridors. The stops are iconic and identified, each with a name we are likely to recognize.

Rail ‘systems’ if such we can call things divorced from the rest of their body, their buses and other vehicles, lend themselves to simpler, diagrammatic maps. The rails themselves, always less prolific than bus lines cover less ground with little or no necessary surface detail, and so are easier to map. Bus systems, always more extensive(Subways can cost upwards of a billion dollars per mile these days) with few exceptions tend to run on the surface and stop more frequently. This often means that stops, even major ones can’t be highlighted for fear of leaving off minor ones, and that the details of topography tend to dominate over the simple lines of a connected network. In rail maps, the network defines and distorts topography. In bus maps, the topography defines and distorts the network.

This is a strong message to send with the primary medium with which we convey the essential structure of the transit system. Particularly in cities with both rail based and rubber-tire based transit vehicles, the first message sent by these maps is that rail and bus are essentially different and dissociated things. The second thing conveyed is the nature of this supposed distinction. We see that rail is able to convert the city into an easily discovered and sensible network of connected points and that bus makes a thorough mess of the city, indeed that it conveys nothing so effectively as it’s own complexity and encumbrance.

This is a big part of why we’re getting a streetcar. The confusion promoted by the night-and-day difference between rail and bus maps leads people to believe on an emotional level that rail transit is essentially different from and better than bus transit.

Here’s a quick local example:

Cincinnati Streetcar map

Map of the Cincinnati Streetcar provided by the City

My own version of the streetcar route map

Map of the streetcar in the context of other high frequency transit services. This is an honest attempt from when I was starting to work on the frequency map last year of a map of downtown transit line routing. I’ve just now added the streetcar in the same color as the map above. Can you find it?

Can you spot the difference now? Which one of these maps makes the streetcar seem like a primary, easy to understand and sensible service? Which one loses it among a dozen lines of equal weight and complexity? Which type of map is the city using to pitch the Streetcar? Do you think we’d have a streetcar if they had used the second map, putting the Streetcar in the context and syntax of buses?

The distinction people here make between rail based transit and rubber tire based transit is rooted, in a really fundamental way, on the types of maps that are used to convey two functionally almost identical services. There are a few other important and misleading distinctions other major cities have promulgated that lead to this misunderstanding, but more on that in another post. Also, just to be super clear, more on how rail and bus have very little in their essential natures that makes this distinction more than an academic one.

Comments: 5
Posted in: Design | Maps | modes | Talking about Transit | Technology Choices
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Rails: what it means to invest in ‘permanent’ infrastructure

I’ve heard a lot of talk around town that the Cincinnati Streetcar signifies an investment in permanent transit infrastructure, and that this permanence is the most significant feature of the project because it will stimulate economic development. It seems to be generally supposed that this couldn’t happen with any ‘less permanent’ technology than steel rails. This bothers me.

Permanence is indeed an important factor in deciding where to locate a home or business. We don’t live on clouds or ships after all, and to the extent that transit is important to someone’s regular functioning, locating near regular transit is important. If transit goes away one day, someone will be put off and some of their plans *ahem* derailed.

But while this talk about permanence is *cough* right on track, the connection between streetcar tracks and permanence is quite tenuous. Streetcar tracks aren’t the only way to signify a permanent commitment to a transit corridor and they most certainly are not the most efficient. A large new infrastructure investment isn’t necessary in many places for an equally significant private investment to occur, and streetcar tracks aren’t even all that permanent!

What do we mean when we talk about permanent infrastructure? Here in Cincy, it seems we’re trying to indicate that the city, or whatever relevant authority has put a foot down and said: “Here! Here we will have transit. Here on X street. Build your life here. We’ve spent $100,000,000 on rails and would be enormously peeved if we had to move them.” It’s a search for a symbolic commitment from authority rather than an assurance of necessity.

Does spending money on rail mean that transit service will continue to run on these rails no matter what? No it doesn’t. Cincinnati used to have an enormous amount of rail built into every major street. Every time construction workers tear up the pavement to do utility work you can see rail stuck beneath 4 inches of asphalt down there with the cobblestones and petrified horse manure. Permanent? Of course not! We have an extensive counterexample beneath our feet. There is nothing intrinsic in rail that makes transit service on them permanent. If there was, we would necessarily still have streetcars and a subway.

Cincinnati Subway

Where’s your subway now, Cincinnati?

But let us suppose for a second that rail does indicate that some level of service will perpetually exist. Does this mean that service would be frequent enough or late enough or fast enough to be of any value? Transit isn’t absolute. Just ‘having’ transit service doesn’t mean that you have good transit. King’s Island ‘has’ transit. It runs about twice a day and only in one direction at a time. Would you build your hipster art gallery out there? Or would you rather build it somewhere where there is service in both directions every 15 minutes throughout the day? The level of service is determined not by built infrastructure but by operating funds, something seemingly more fickle and prone to shrinking than my budget for shoes. Rail neither necessitates the presence of transit, nor a useful level of speed and frequency.

A lot of the discussion I’ve heard about all this seems to hinge on the idea that bus lines can change while rails lines cannot. This is misleading. First of all, this city has quite a few choke points created by the way it’s laid out as clusters of density among hills. We’re no Chicago or DC where any parallel street replaces another. The convening of transit lines at the intersection of Vine and McMicken in OTR is a great example. Could any transit line go up the northern hill of the basin without passing through the Vine-McMicken squeeze? There are no parallel streets, and so Vine-McMicken is for buses the most heavily travelled intersection in the region, seeing hundreds of buses each day. Cincinnati also has a great network of business districts surrounded by dense housing that have been established for more than a hundred years. Could any transit line reasonably pass through Clifton without going down Ludlow? The thought is absurd. Does Ludlow need rails for it’s people to invest in businesses serving transit users? Transit, as long as transit exists, will always serve the places like Ludlow where it works well. It will do so not only because it makes sense, but because it would be more difficult to do otherwise.

Transit routes don’t change on a whim, and there are certain places that are so situated that as long as there is transit, they will be served by it. The area to be served by the ‘permanence’ of the Streetcar is the perfect example. We seem to be spending tens of millions of dollars to make a symbolic commitment to transit serving Downtown. But how could transit not serve Downtown? Where the hell else would it go? Do people suppose that SORTA might move government square to Mason? People aren’t stupid and shouldn’t need a rail reminder to know that if they want to start a business that serves people who use transit, Downtown and OTR are good places to start looking. Do we need to ‘see rails in the ground’ to know fountain square is full of potential transit users, that there will ‘always’ be transit there? I think not.

More on this in another post, but rail isn’t the only way to visibly identify and symbolically invest in a very particular route. Buses on the west coast for example are more likely to run on permanent overhead electric wires and other cities have experimented with painting bright paths on the streets or giving buses a designated lane or separated right of way.

Mission Street Bus

Buses on Mission Street in San Fransisco are attached to overhead electric wires, and come by every few minutes throughout the day.


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