Rails: what it means to invest in ‘permanent’ infrastructure

October 11th, 2012

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.


4 responses to “Rails: what it means to invest in ‘permanent’ infrastructure”

  1. Nathanael says:

    “But how could transit not serve Downtown? Where the hell else would it go?”

    Oh, you don’t want to know the answer. There are some really horrifyingly misdesigned / mismanaged “transit systems” (scare quotes used advisedly) out there.

  2. Luke Brockmeier says:

    This is going to sound… mean… but you’re completely wrong.

    The subway was never built, and its cancellation coincides with the city’s population decline.

    The streetcar lines were privately owned, and were purchased by auto interests. They were largely profitable when they were removed. (No link, I could be wrong on specifics)

    I see what you mean about permanence, but this is the same as saying “Democrats can’t do anything right! Just look at the stadiums (that were built by Republicans)!”

    The same people who oppose the streetcar are responsible for the subway fiasco and the end of the streetcar lines. Not “the same kind of people”, the same actual human beings.

    They were wrong then, and they’re wrong now.

    • Nate Wessel says:

      I’ll give you the subway. It just wasn’t finished. Still, the streetcars, privately owned or not, should still be there and operating if an argument that rail transit is ‘permanent’ is to hold water. I don’t think ownership should make a difference to the essential point of that argument. That’s that an investment in major infrastructure should preclude a change to it. The cost to the buyer of a streetcar system should approximate the value to it’s builder, and transfer that investment precisely to the next party. That investment wasn’t enough to prevent destruction.

      Also, ownership can switch pretty quickly as we’re seeing with the rushed parking meter privitization… :-/
      Or the sale of a municipal airport, or any number of other examples.

      What else do we have to go on? We’ve only had rails for less than two centuries. I think ultimately we have to base our understanding more now on what could be than on what has been. The world is changing too quickly for comparisons to the past in these urban/social fields.

      All is transience…..*goes off to ponder*