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Self-selection into ignorance

It is ours as experts in a domain of public import to make clear the nature of our study. Is it complex? We must never let it seem otherwise! Let those who don’t understand our narrow, public domain understand that they don’t, but how they could, then if they will. Let them then vote.

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Posted in: Aphorism | Politics
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A job for urban planners? Part 1: the problem

Greater Cincinnati has a lot more urban planners than it cares to employ as such.

If you’re thinking about going into the field, all you current or aspiring DAAP kids, you should know that you aren’t likely to find the job you might expect here. Of all the people I personally know in the area with degrees in urban planning, probably at least a couple dozen, I can think of four who are actually employed as planners. The rest of them are by and large doing interesting things, but not in a way that uses their degree to earn money, or if they are it’s not even remotely near Cincinnati. DAAP churns out about 40 planners a year, about one of which on average will find a planning job here after graduation.1

This is more than a little frustrating for many of us locally cultivated planners, and really, really good for the region. I’d like to begin here to explore ways the situation could be better for planners, and better still for Cincinnati.

First, why planners are good for the region: I think you can think of us as a civic-minded type of bohemian. Like artists, the younger among us are poor, grossly underemployed and tend to cluster together for mutual inspiration. Like classic bohemians we’re often very interested in producing change. Unlike classic bohemians, we tend to have very concrete ideas of what that change would entail.

Urban planners are, in my opinion, by nature some of the best citizens you’ll find in the republic2. We’re wonderfully knowledgeable about governmental and social structures but decidedly apolitical. Planners are reasonable, sometimes to a fault. Trained to handle potentially riotous public meetings on sometimes controversial topics, we know how to calm and deflect, to find agreement, and lead civil conversations toward tangible common goals. We understand, like architects how the subtleties of our physical environment affect people’s perceptions of the world and of each other and are often very conscious of how our own actions indirectly affect others.

Young, underemployed urban planners tend to start interesting and very civic projects. This website, Spring in Our Steps, UrbanCincy, or the People’s Department of Transportation (Columbus) provide a few interesting and fruitful examples from local planning grads that I know personally. Many other young planners are regular fixtures at public meetings of all sorts, providing in some sessions I’ve seen most of the thoughtful(as opposed to uselessly naive and self-interested) input on everything from SORTA’s route changes to the Cincinnati Master Plan.

These are generalizations to be sure, but to the extent that generalizations can be made about any group, I think they’re fairly accurate ones.

So what’s the problem? Normal planning jobs are absurdly secure for the few people who have them and the whole profession has been shrinking if not simply failing to grow. There is almost no chance of getting paid for any of this work. That means people will eventually leave the field or never get into it to begin with. As far as I can see, earning a planning degree is a big gamble; either you end up as one of the few people to get a secure municipal job for as long as you want it or you don’t get any work at all and you give up on planning to do something else. A planning degree is a 5 year, $100,0003 bet against the odds.4

urban planners looking for work in a tough job market

We need to learn to hunt.

Planners seem to still be hanging around and doing interesting stuff though, right? We must be paying the rent somehow. Here are the problems with getting by with pay from another industry while doing planning projects on the side, unpaid:

An illustration: UC’s Niehoff Studio6 seems like it might offer a good model for bridging the gap between planners and the real, paid world, but as I’ll describe the results, the program is typical of the all-too-common corporate exploitation of unpaid creative work.

In a nutshell, the studio attempts to pair up outside organizations (like a transit agency) with a group of student planners, engineers and architects who will work (unpaid and actually, paying when you count tuition and time) for a semester on a ‘big problem’ that the organization might face (like “How might bus rapid transit be implemented?”). The problems are usually local and a low-level representative from the outside agency comes by a few times through the course of the semester to provide guidance to the students as they develop their projects. Through most of their work, a DAAP professor sets the guidelines and requirements. At the end there’s a presentation before the projects are graded and filed away.

One might be temped to think that this arrangement could offer public agencies and non-profits an excellent chance to get valuable ideas from a pool of creative young talent from which they might later hire, and for the planners, a chance to meet and learn from people in their field while working on real-world problems; sort of an interning-lite.7 The ‘from which they might hire’ part I hope I’ve already adequately addressed the possibilities of, so let’s go straight for the ‘helpful new ideas’ and ‘real-world problems’. Planners are deeply interested in affecting the world positively, and the ability to contribute to building a better city is as big a goal as the paycheck for most people.

In the case of Niehoff students, the remove from the agency itself, the fact that planning students are not actually working within the agency, means that the solutions planners come up with are almost completely unmoored from reality and thus unusable. The professors encourage this, egging the students on to ‘think big’ and come up with ideal solutions. The proposals that result are pretty much entirely ignored by the agency because they’re either blatantly illegal(usually in the form of wanton property takings) or financially impossible(new multi-billion-dollar subways bored through bedrock). This problem could be remedied by having each student work in close collaboration with the people from the agency for which the work is being done. Students can’t reasonably be expected to know what the agencies expectations are andd how far they can push them if the two aren’t talking regularly…but that would get too close to being a job or an internship–something the agency would reasonably be expected to pay for. The work done in the Niehoff studio stays closer to the abstract than to reality, allowing everyone to think of the students as students rather than as consultants and devaluing their work to the point where they must pay for the privilege of doing it.

Wanting to stay in the field, how can us planners create our own jobs outside of the archetypical local government positions which there simply aren’t enough any of? We need money and we need authority to do good work here. How do we get these things?

Show 7 footnotes

  1. Source: my ass, which hasn’t failed me yet
  2. This is absolutely a self-selection bias, though the work reinforces the early inclination.
  3. In state tuition + moderate living expenses ( + time??).
  4. At least if you want to stay in Cincinnati, or really, any major urban area where competition is fierce.
  5. Planners don’t expect useful feedback from the public; their plans are mostly developed by the time they’re open for public comment. Getting comments at this point from (citizen )planners who have criticisms that are hard or impossible to dismiss throws a wrench in the works. The right time for comments like these is earlier in the planning process.
  6. I did indeed go through several studios in this program. This isn’t just hearsay ;-)
  7. Unpaid interning has it’s own…let’s say ‘issues’ that I need not elaborate on here!
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Posted in: Plans
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‘The Streetcar’ – 7 – Chicken or Egg: Shaping the future or following the past?

This is the seventh 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 therails of division
  7. Chicken or Egg: Shaping the future or following the past?
  8. A New and Highly Sarcastic Plan for Economic Development

The route of the streetcar  will be substantially less than efficient for the purposes of transportation. If, as it’s proponents say, it will encourage development along it’s route, then to the extent that it does so, it will stimulate development in a form that is itself structurally difficult to serve efficiently with transit. Rather than helping shape future development into an ideal form, it will reinforce unplanned patterns from the past and be less efficient in the long term than it could be. Since many people have talked about the streetcar “shaping development” and even creating “transit oriented development”, it’s important to think deeply about what transit oriented development would look like and whether the streetcar would move us toward it.

I’ll make a clear example to illustrate my point before I apply the principle to a more subtle reality. Here we have a regular gridded street pattern and some regularly placed transit stops crossing it on the diagonal.

a grid

Let’s say that right now the whole grid is developed pretty evenly with two story buildings and that denser development grows around the transit stops over the next few years. Here are some contour lines so you can visualize it:

grid with development visualized

Generated from some random numbers for each stop

This doesn’t really look so far fetched as a development pattern for a city. Places like St. Louis have a long stretched out development pattern that seems similar at first glance.

Aerial photo of St. Louis

St. Louis

But what would such a shape mean for transportation? The grid isn’t just decorative stripes crossing a flat surface. It’s a collection of rectangular barriers(buildings) lined up end to end with gaps(streets) in between them. Unless there’s a parking lot or a completely vacant parcel, you simply can’t cross a block diagonally. You have to follow the streets. If our transit line is underground, that isn’t a problem. Assuming there’s nothing else in the way, we could just take a straight line through each stop from end to end.

grid with development and transit line

1.6 miles in length

But let’s say that, like the streetcar would be, it isn’t underground and has to follow the streets. If we want to hit each stop, we’ll need to zig-zag.

grid with zig-zagging transit line

2.3 miles

Our little transit line here is starting to look a bit less reasonable. Pythagoras tells us this is actually a bit over 43% longer than the straight-line underground version. Further, there’s no way at all to make a shorter trip while we have to stick to the grid. Even if you were walking or riding a bike, there’s just no shorter trip to be made between any two stations. We can make a trip of the same distance that should be a bit faster, but it can’t be shorter. Both of the following possible routes are the exact same distance as our hypothetical transit line.

grid showing manhattan distance equality

This same feature is actually one of the reasons grids(or an approximation of them) are a truly great design for transportation. Because many paths are equivalent, traffic can be distributed very effectively if any one path gets blocked or clogged.

One thing classical geometry doesn’t account for is real-world intersections. Passing through an intersection can take a lot of time. Whether there are stop signs or traffic lights, you’re going to spend a significant amount of time not only waiting while stopped, but slowing down to stop and speeding back up again. Anyone who’s ridden a bicycle through Newport should be acutely aware of this. More important for our consideration though, turns can’t be taken at full speed even if you have a green light, so each turn adds time to the trip. Left turns particularly will slow us down. In fact, in an effort to save time and money, UPS apparently decided that their trucks would never turn left if they could avoid it.

So anyway, our transit line can be seen making a lot of left turns, right turns, and  passing through a lot of intersections. It will also go 43% further than is strictly necessary. The alternative of course was for the transit line to run parallel to one of the streets for all or most of it’s length. A line that was fully parallel to a street would eliminate 11 turns, 5 intersections and 30% of the total length from the route while going the same effective distance. Recall that we’re assuming even density across the whole area, so a similar line simply angled in a different direction would serve just as many people and would do so with significantly less effort. Our example route is the least efficient possible choice for a gridded street pattern. A route that makes the line fully parallel to a street would be the most efficient possible.

This isn’t true just for transit, but for all transportation. The development that occurred around our line is diagonally crossing the grid. Since more trips will originate and end in the denser areas(there are more people and things there), more trips will be crossing the grid diagonally than would otherwise have done so. Bike travel, car travel, walking and transit would all be significantly less efficient in the long term because of the initial decision to build a stimulating line diagonally across the grid. On the other hand, there would be more reasonable paths to the average destination meaning that congestion could be better distributed if necessary.

Let’s express these ideas numerically so that we can compare reality more readily to our example. With the diagonal zig-zag, we go exactly as far in one direction of the grid as we do in the other. Let’s call this a ratio of 1/1. That’s the least efficient. If our line were to follow one street all the way, it would go the whole distance in one direction and none in the other. That would be 1/0, the most efficient. Where does the streetcar fall on that scale? It depends on whether you want to consider the extension to Vine street. Without it, the ratio is about 1/0.19:

Cincinnati Streetcar Map

With it, the ratio comes to about 1/0.28. Here’ I’m considering that the effective distance would be less(it doubles back) and that the route deviates back to the east again before leaving the grid.

Cincinnati Streetcar Map

That’s not awful. It’s not the worst possible route by this measure, but it’s 28% of the way to being the worst. If the streetcar simply went up and down Vine Street, as I’ve suggested it should for a number of other reasons, we’d see a ratio of 1/0, the most efficient configuration. Our measure of 1/0.28 can’t be written off as a case of reality being more messy than hypothesis. It’s a case of planners(or in this case, politicians) ignoring the euclidean realities of transportation in favour of sending some real-estate-speculation money more directly to established and popular constituents like Findlay Market.

The streetcar won’t be helping to shape the city into a form that’s easy to serve by transit. Transit and transportation generally is best able to serve people when they establish linear development patterns that follow reasonably good transportation corridors. The typical picture we see in the media of “transit oriented development” does little to consider this aspect of meta-orientation. It matters little if your cafe fronts the street if the street is out of the way of the transit line. Conversely of course, it matters little if the transit line goes right past you if you’ve got a fenced parking lot in front of your building. “Transit oriented development” needs to consider not only it’s human-scale orientation to the street, but it’s regional-scale orientation to major transportation corridors, including the orientation of gridded street patterns.

I don’t want to be misunderstood as implying that the streetcar is doing especially poorly here. There really aren’t any transit lines that take an ideal route through downtown at the moment, and they all certainly miss a lot of opportunities for redundancy and centrality that could by now have established a few major high density corridors branching off from Downtown if we’d let them. These opportunities were missed at some point and SORTA’s downtown/OTR routing is currently a giant mess.

SORTA downtown transit map

Spaghetti with red and blue sauce.

No, I make these points not because I think the streetcar will actually make transportation substantially more difficult. I make them to point out internal consistencies in the arguments used to justify the streetcar. If as proponents said the streetcar would indeed encourage a lot of “transit oriented development”, it wouldn’t do so very well, and it wouldn’t do so in a way that’s in the best possible long-term interest of a city that wants to move toward increasing transit use. If we want that, we really need to develop linear corridors with redundant high-frequency transit lines that try not to cross grids on the diagonal.

I want to conclude by assuring you that I’m not just pulling this out of my ass. Linear developments that parallel street grids are absolutely everywhere that there are grids. If anyone can find me a truly non-parallel yet still linear business district or other denser development pattern occurring in a fully gridded context I’d like to see it. Here are some examples of my own, pulled pretty randomly from satellite photos:

Aerial photo of St. Louis

Downtown St. Louis. It does follow the grid.

aerial photo of chicago


Aerial photo of chicago

Chicago again…notice that even though dense development is crossing the grid, it effectively has an “underground” line because the diagonal street breaks the grid and allows linear access.

Aerial photo of Toronto ontario


Los Angeles business district development

Los Angeles

Go do a little Google Earth exploring yourself and think about why Cincinnati wants to build a project, ostensibly to encourage development, that would violate this almost universal transportation oriented development pattern.

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Posted in: Analysis | Back to Basics | Logic | Mobility | Simplicity | Technology Choices
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Why I do it

I was talking to an environmentalist recently, trying to understand why she wanted to go into environmental law. Why at the lowest level she wanted to do it…what her vision for the world was. I was dissatisfied with her answer, which was posed mostly in negative terms: less this, less that, none of the other. It was all very reactionary.

Then I realized this morning that even though it’s been clear in my head for a year or two now why I care about transit, I’d never actually put it to paper(or in this case into a MySQL database). Here it is, the drive of my work here:

I want to bring people into humane, fruitful relations with one another.

I want to address what I think are some seriously messed up power dynamics. Cars present a major unbalance of power. Cars are a constant reminder that the majority of normal people in this country every day strap themselves into a massively powerful mechanical extension of their bodies and roam the world like careless god-monsters. Unable to communicate, unable to be reasoned with or even looked in the eye, cars fill our public spaces with a stampede of frightened and frightening beasts. It’s only forcefully that I remind myself of the humanity of the people “driving” these things and I think it’s often only forcefully that they can be reminded of it themselves.

Public transit for the environment? No! To save money? I’d ride a bike.

I use public transit because when I’m inside of it people are just people and don’t have the ability to kill me with a twitch of their right ankle. The people aren’t just people. They’re persons. Sometimes we transcend mere respectful civility and get to something divine: communion. My acute sense of the wonder of shared humanity is why I’m an urban planner. Instead of people sheltering alone in their cars and their homes, working behind fences and walls, I want to create places(transit vehicles, cafés, street corners) where diverse people can sit next to each other, not because it appeals to some sense of justice, but because sitting together is better than sitting alone.

I want to see what humanity can do with itself if we’re all able to treat each other with true respect. I think it will be glorious.

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Posted in: Back to Basics
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My personal opinion on the streetcar

Since I started my little series trying to critically analyse the streetcar project, I’ve heard a few people casually mention that I’m ‘against’ the streetcar. Like: “Now Nate, I know you’re against the streetcar, but…”.

I want to be clear on what my position actually is because it’s a lot more nuanced than the ‘for’ or ‘against’ that this little political war has devolved into.

If you’ve been following along, you’ll have realized that I think the streetcar is a very weak plan. That’s an opinion I’ve been doing my best to justify with a thorough analysis of it’s deficiencies and qualities. That being said, I don’t personally want to see it stopped because almost everyone who’s trying to stop it has fantastically childish justifications for doing so and because it’s not going to hurt that much to just build it anyway.

First of all, using the phrase “choo-choo-train” to describe the plan is not making a case against a bad plan or for a better one, it’s an insult against transit anywhere, poorly planned or not. It’s an insult to the way many of my friends and I live or want to live as users of transit in a civic world.

Cincinnati folly-trolly

This appeared on the COAST website a couple posts below a little tirade against any school levy ever.

This level of political discussion should embarrass intelligent people. The same quality of discourse has come from the other side too, and I hope I’ve already discounted some of it in other posts as silly or illogical. For the most part, it seems to me like no one who would say they are on either ‘side’ has any idea what they’re talking about.

Our words have become so heated because people who are against the streetcar aren’t (generally) against this particular bad plan, they’re against transit, or government spending or even just living in dense cities generally. This has become a cultural fight. It’s a fight over very basic values with the Streetcar sort of holding the center of attention as a metaphor for bigger things. I wrote somewhat mockingly about the importance of this symbology but personally, I come down strongly on “pro-streetcar” side of that idealogical debate. I have faith in government1, I generally want higher taxes to balance budgets, and I want more and better transit funded by government to serve the dense urban areas where I’ll spend the rest of my life living happily without a car.2

I’d hate to see the City and it’s politicians endorse a message that was anti-transit, anti-government, or anti-density by letting the opposing (unreasoned) argument win the day by sheer force.

I also think it’s not a big enough issue to warrant stopping, and it would make a lot of streetcar advocates happy, so why not just finish it? I don’t see disastrous things coming if/when this project happens. It’s just not going to make that big an impact. Indeed, one of my biggest criticisms of the sreetcar is that it’ll be insignificant in comparison with the intense convergence of transit lines already operating on similar courses through Downtown and Over-The-Rhine. The streetcar could at best complement those lines and add to their service frequency(thus, that it largely fails to is a big disappointment). It’s simply not a big transformative project at all. It’s success or failure will make very little positive or negative impact on transportation generally.

It’s also a pretty cheap project. Let me just duck for a second here so that some stones can pass over my head….phew. OK, I’m back. In the big scheme of transportation infrastructure funding, $100 or $120 million or whatever it’s supposed to cost now just isn’t much at all when you compare it to other infrastructure projects. It’s big for a transit project, but that’s just because transit projects are generally tiny compared to highway and road projects. I don’t personally think they should be, but they are.

It seems like everyone who’s using the streetcar project to strand up to “big government” has completely failed to notice that a 1.3 mile stretch of highway not far away is costing ‘taxpayers’ $90.8 million. That’s more than $13,000.00 per foot. Or that there are dozens of other equally or more expensive things going on that more warrant their angry attention.

So CityBeat filled me with dread this morning when I saw the cover story.

CityBeat streetcar coverstory

I hope not!

As I said in my first post on the topic, I think the truly essential problem with the whole process of imagining and planning for the streetcar is that it started in a political world as a specific mandate from politicians that administration should work out the little details of. Politicians had already made all of the important decisions before the idea was handed over to anyone who has the professional expertise to critically think about either transit or economic development in a serious and thorough way. These decisions were:

In my opinion, it’s the role of politicians to make decisions like:

It’s their job to build coalitions around such broad goals and then to hand those goals over to a competent administration which is hopefully expert in crafting plans to make them happen. It’s also their job to ensure that the administration is indeed competent. I actually have quite a bit of faith that when City and other administrators can operate in a healthy de-politicised environment they tend to come up with some pretty solid plans. SORTA’s proposed short term plan for example really makes a whole lot of sense. It’s important to note that the planning process around those decisions was very apolitical. Indeed, the plans have been barely mentioned in the media, perhaps because they make pretty modest changes and do so in a way that’s not open to easy public scrutiny. I’m a professional planner and I had to spend hours poring over the documents they released before I had a complete picture of what they were proposing. To be clear, I’m not saying the planning process should be obfuscated but that in this case some degree of unintentional obfuscation allowed for an apolitical environment which allowed for a healthy planning process.

Good, defensible planning doesn’t happen when ideas like “maybe it shouldn’t be a streetcar” or “maybe it shouldn’t be in OTR” are already off the table before the process begins.

So I guess my most essential opinion of the streetcar is that:

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Indeed, I’ve only ever really worked for government,(twice for townships, and once for federal) or in the case of UC where I was a bike mechanic, for a state funded university.
  2. I also have what I think are good reasons for those positions and I’m happy to debate them :-)
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Posted in: Politics
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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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