My personal opinion on the streetcar

January 24th, 2013

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 :-)

4 responses to “My personal opinion on the streetcar”

  1. Ronald P says:

    Well done Nate.

  2. Excellent piece. Spot on, front to back — especially the comment on the proper role of politicians vis-a-vis specialized experts/planners.

  3. My sentiments exactly. This has long been an issue of politics rather than ideas which best serve the polis. Its like making strawberry flavored apple sauce.

  4. Matt Hayes says:

    Thank you for the level headed analysis.