‘The Streetcar’ – 1 – Conceptual Flaws: civic boosters lead the charge

December 15th, 2012

This is the first post in a rather deep series on The Streetcar. I’ll be critically analysing the City of Cincinnati’s proposed streetcar, known as “The Cincinnati Streetcar” in the local vernacular. I think it’s a poorly developed plan, but not one that deserves the abuse the local right has heaped on it, nor even half the praise the urban liberals have been lofting skyward. Like most things, it’s hideously complicated, and like some things, I’ll try to make it’s twists and turns illustrative of broader concepts. So roll your bicycle onto this level-boarding train of thought and get comfy! Here’s quick lay of the series:

  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 plan for the streetcar is conceptually flawed. From the beginning, it’s been advanced as an economic development device first, and only later as a tool for transportation. This has lead to errors in basic design that will prevent it from being truly successful as either. Let’s verify that initial intent a little bit though in case you don’t believe me. As seen in materials and quotes provided by the City and other advocates of the project, the streetcar is generally about improving the neighborhoods and the city by making them more attractive, and bringing commerce to the areas around it:

slide from a city of cincinnati presentation on the streetcar

From a presentation provided by the City which actually mentions pretty little about basic transportation principles.

“…Streetcars will bring economic development, population growth, and mobility. Buses will bring mobility, but the increased noise and emissions, along with their impermanence, will cut down on their potential to create growth and development.

-from the second to original post on the Cincinnati Streetcar Blog

“‘This is not just a streetcar,’ LaHood said shortly before he joined Mallory and others in a ceremonial groundbreaking outside Memorial Hall on Elm Street. ‘It’s going to be an economic corridor. It’s going to create jobs all along the corridor. It’s going to connect your communities. … When people say, ‘what’s the vision thing?’ This is it.’”

-USDOT Secretary Ray Lahood quoted by the enquirer

“We must move forward in order to attract jobs and residents to our region.”

-Mayor Mark Mallory Quoted by CityBeat

This really is a very quick skimming of the surface of a deep pool of public discourse. If you’ve been around the last few years for all the ongoing debate/arguing, you probably already know what kind of language and reasoning streetcar advocates will use to support it. If you haven’t, use the links above as a jumping off point and do a little digging yourself. It’s at least 85% about economic development and “quality of life”. It’s about creating jobs, attracting people to the neighborhood/city, and somehow creating a generally more pleasant downtown environment. These reasons were the impetus for the streetcar and they continue to be the driving force behind it. I’m betting a lot of my readers will not argue that point. For most people, the streetcar just is about economic development, and lifestyle preferences.

But here’s a pretty basic fact that I think is hard to deny: streetcars don’t cause economic development by themselves. You can imagine this pretty easily: let’s say we dug a big hole and buried a streetcar under the ground in an empty Alaskan field. Would businesses with good-paying high-tech jobs spring from the thawing earth? They wouldn’t because there’s no magic in streetcars themselves that creates economic development. As Aristotle said, “If the art of shipbuilding were in the wood, we would have ships by nature.” So if economic development doesn’t spring forth from the essence of streetcars, where does it come from? What are we getting at here? One of the fundamental starting points of a complex economy is transportation. Without transportation, in it’s most basic form, there could be no economy at all. We would be like lichen stuck immobile to a stone, unable to engage in even the most basic exchange.

Improvements to transportation bring long-term economic development, and transportation may or may not be related to the presence of a streetcar as we’ve seen. A permanently static vehicle (vehicle though it is) is obviously not a device of transportation. So some capacity of the streetcar for transportation as such is essential to almost all economic development effects.

In our public reasoning, we’ve gone in the opposite direction though. We’ve gone from a desire for economic development and reasoned toward something that is supposed to provide transportation. Something was lost in translation though, and the streetcar plan doesn’t seem like it will really do the transportation part all too well. We made some decisions while we were still thinking primarily of economic development what shaped the discussion. An area had been settled on. Long-standing landmarks that the city is rightly proud to show off (The banks, Findlay Market, the Zoo, Union Terminal, Fountain Square) were considered integral to any economic development plan, and were thus naturally included as the means of economic development settled on a streetcar type of lifestyle, and finally on transportation by streetcar as the means of creating it.

streetcar proposal map

People made maps showing the major tourist destinations that could be hit by the streetcar. Two major exceptions are Newport and Walnut hills unless I’m missing something. Most of the rest are places you might take your mom when she visits. Notice, there are NO non-rail based modes of transit mentioned here.

Starting from the goal of economic development, planners and advocates settled on a streetcar as a sort of desired-life-style indicator. Places they wanted the city to be like(including a Cincinnati of the past) have or had streetcars present. They thought there was a connection between the presence of streetcars and the development of the place into something desirable(to be fair, the correlation is quite strong). There’s undeniably an idea in many people’s minds that rail-based transit is deeply important to the kind of lifestyle they want to live. So planners set out to make a streetcar in order to cause economic development by creating a sort of transportation lifestyle in every place the streetcar passed. They looked at routes that would take the streetcar to all of the places that are important to the region’s self-image(mentioned above). To have the biggest impact, they wanted to spread the streetcar far and wide. They even made maps showing how widely it could travel, with buffers showing clearly what a large, important and potentially valuable area would be within a short walk of it.

streetcar development map

From the Cincinnati Streetcar Blog

And so, the streetcar is planned to hit all of the visibly important public places, right off the bat, in it’s first few phases. This is less than ideal for a new transit route that operates within a large existing transit network, and indeed within a very large and complicated system of transportation that includes not only transit but walking, cars, bicycles, etc. I’ll get to explaining why in another post, but for now, let it suffice to establish that the motives of the origin of the streetcar led it almost inevitably to include certain destinations in it’s route.

And it’s important finally to note, that to the extent that the streetcar will fail(or not) to be a substantial improvement to transportation as such, it will either fail to develop the broader economy in the long term or it will rely on the perception of transportation or of an implied or actual lifestyle for any realized local economic impacts.

6 responses to “‘The Streetcar’ – 1 – Conceptual Flaws: civic boosters lead the charge”

  1. Kenneth Schoon says:

    Yes. And to the extent that it’s the perception of transit that the city is banking on with the streetcar, could the city also expend effort to improve the perception of our existing transit infrastructure? Can we improve the perception of riding the bus? Then, can we improve the reality?

    What would an implied transit lifestyle look like that included bus transportation?

    • Nate says:

      I think that lifestyle would look(perhaps ‘feel’ is a more accurate word) exactly the same, just with differently shaped furniture.

      It’s like starting with “high-heels are sexy and glamorous” and continuing from there to describe a desired “high-heel” kind of life without realizing that a million other things could be just as sexy and glamorous and–wait for it–*far more practical for walking*.

  2. Concerned Taxpayer says:

    The trolley folly boondoggle gets more and more boondogglier everyday. Finally, Nate has decided to come over to the good side and oppose this Boondoggle.