The Streetcar – 8 – A New and Highly Sarcastic Plan for Economic Development

March 4th, 2013

This is the final 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

When I started this series I thought it would go a lot quicker than it has. I thought it would be a lot easier and a bit more fun. Instead, while writing it has definitely been both of those things at times, at others I’ve managed to stir up some defensive feelings in people, stir up my own frustration with the City’s lack of leadership, and become frustrated with my inability to more effectively address the conceptual problems that beset our thinking about transportation. I dug deeper into the issues than I ever originally planned to, and found more detritus hiding in the cracks than I expected.

I also managed to accumulate, like barnacles on a whale,  a couple commendatory comments from COAST who apparently will agree with anyone who criticises any public project for any reason even if I label their whole group as “laughably malinformed ‘choo-choo train’ straw-people”. Yikes! I realized then that a lot of people probably wouldn’t take my arguments as they’re intended unless they’re already open to having a reasoned discussion. I’ve had some great conversations with urban planners and their friends about the issues I’ve raised, but I haven’t had a lot of great conversation with people who started out with strong positions either for or against the streetcar. They’ve remained unmoved, probably either seeing what I wrote as a niggling screed against progress, or a well-deserved repudiation of the City’s incessant bungling.

I intended this post to be a joke with a big map of a zig-zagging streetcar proposal designed for maximum “impact” but absolutely impossible for transportation.

Go home route 1, you're drunk

I wanted to make a joke about there being more developable land near the airport(or on the moon) than on Vine street, and propose that the whole thing be removed to a rural location.

But my small experience thinking and writing about this project has shown me just how many people are very serious about this whole thing. And I think I might now include myself in that group even if my position is quite different from most people’s. I think now that it’s perhaps too soon for a big joke. Maybe in a few years when all the hard feelings are forgotten and the streetcar is decidedly either built or not.

Instead I’ll offer a suggestions for what to do next. If you’re reading this and if you’ve been following the series I hope you’ll have a fairly nuanced view of the project and I dare hope of transit generally. I’ve noticed that a lot of my readers already do, as much as I might hope for a slightly more general audience.

I think the best hope for the future of transit in Cincinnati lies not in the administration of SORTA, or the minds of city council-people but in a deeply informed citizenry leading a healthy public dialogue. Every time an editorial in the enquirer or some new factoid or controversy about money emerges, people seem to get all heated up and entrenched in their pro/con positions. Whatever the quality of their original position, their apparent justification for it seems to slide slowly downhill for lack of ongoing critical analysis. Whatever you think of the specifics of my long critique of the streetcar project, I hope that if you either agree or disagree with them, you’re able to do so articulately and for good reasons. What I’m getting at is that the heat around the streetcar issue seems to have flung a good many people off into the dogma of either side and bogged down the collective conversation about transit with more baggage than it needs to carry.

Dogma is antithetical to progress. We need a transit enlightenment(Though, IMO with less emphasis on empiricism perhaps than the one in western thinking. If I see one more Machiavellian “case study”…!)! We need to really understand what we’re trying to do and more importantly why we’re trying to do it. We need to apply that knowledge to topographical reality to generate plans that are in line with what is possible and desireable rather than applying it to political reality to get plans in line with political expediency. The starting point must be the ideal rather than the pragmatic. This job falls to you and I, knowledgeable reader. I’ve discovered that conversations about the streetcar pop up in every-day conversation quite a bit, especially if, like me, you hang out in OTR all the time. These are opportunities to win converts to the side of reason. Make use of them! Spread the idea that the streetcar project is deeply complicated, self-contradictory, and highly uncertain for very specific reasons that have nothing to do with financing or neighborhood politics. It is. Most things like this are, if not simply most things. Wear this t-shirt in spirit if not actuality:

Cincinnati Streetcar T-shirt

Add nuance and complexity to the discussion next time someone asks you at the bar what you think of this whole streetcar thing. Surprise them with a reasonable answer. Perhaps they’ll either think more deeply about the issue or realize that their opinion isn’t as justified as they had supposed.

3 responses to “The Streetcar – 8 – A New and Highly Sarcastic Plan for Economic Development”

  1. Thanks for the blog. You have single-handedly inspired at least one person to think more critically about the project. I’m still enthusiastic for what the streetcar could do to the city, but I acknowledge your critiques. Keep posting!

  2. Neil says:

    Thank you for this post and this series! While I do fully support the streetcar, I understand clearly the pitfalls of the current design and oftentimes am extremely frustrated at governments of all levels lacking a strong critical eye to deliver projects/services in the most effective and efficient manner.

    I agree 100% regarding the quality of discourse needing to be raised, its a good part of the reason why I like Cincinnati’s blogosphere so much – it sometimes fills in for the quality analysis that is lacking in the mainstream media. While I think these concerns should have been brought up earlier in process, I’m happy that there are valid critiques out there and not troley foley lolly nonsense.

    To add to this, I was chatting with folks who were streetcar supporters at one point, and one of them said outright, there are no valid critiques of the street car. To which I responded, what about your blog? The guy responded well I think this and this is wrong about what he’s writing about. At the very least it wasn’t a vitriolic “he’s completely wrong” that would be inspired by people such as the trolley folly loonies.

    Issues are not black and white, thank you for injecting a bit of grey into the mix to improve the quality of discourse, and hopefully in the future the quality of life for people in the Cincinnati region and better educating those outside about transit in general. Keep up the good work.

  3. Nate Wessel says:

    Thanks guys :-)

    I really appreciate the feedback, and I’m glad you’re out there having constructive conversations with people!