‘The Streetcar’ – 2 – Errors of Geometry: split one-ways are dumb

December 22nd, 2012

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

I said in the last post in this series that the drive to hit a number of culturally and economically important ‘destinations’ with the route of the streetcar led it to be less than ideal as actual transportation. Now it’s time to back that up!

It is a little difficult to actually assess the efficacy of the streetcar as transporation because it’s not totally clear what it’s trying to do. And of course because the range of possible alternatives to it is almost infinite. The vague notion of “connectivity” or “circulation” isn’t sufficient here; we must actually understand just what exactly it’s connecting and how well it’s doing it. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that each of the two extreme stops are in generally the right location so we can simply judge the effectiveness of movement between them.

One very important principle to consider is frequency, or how often a vehicle is scheduled to come by. By knowing how often we can expect a trip to occur, we can know our maximum possible wait time and the average wait too. If a vehicle comes by every ten minutes all day, the most anyone could possibly end up waiting is ten minutes. The average wait then, assuming a steady stream of accumulating passengers, is half of that–only five minutes. If the frequency doubles, each of those numbers is halved. When multiple distinct lines such as the 4 sub-routes of the #17 and the two sub-routes of the #19 completely overlap like they do between Downtown and Northside, they can create a really high frequency transit corridor with about 10-15 minutes between vehicles. For many riders, that’s little enough of an average wait(5 to 7.5 minutes) that they won’t need to check a schedule.

This is why redundancy is absolutely critical, particularly for such a short trip as the streetcar’s. The streetcar is planned to operate at 12 to 20 minute headways1, meaning an average wait, as we’ve calculated it of between 6 and 10 minutes. Anything that can be done to reduce that wait time would increase the likeliness that transit will be a useful option.

So let’s not forget that a lot of other transit lines are and will be operating in Downtown and Over-the-Rhine and that they present opportunities for redundancy and thus increased frequency just as the #17 and #19 already compliment each other. Most lines can be safely ignored since they’re not going in the same general direction as the streetcar. Of the ones that are and are fairly frequent, we have the #6, #17, #19, #43, #46, #49, #64 and #78 as possibilities. Let’s see how they line up:

6 and cincinnati streetcar


17 and 19 and cincinnati streetcar

#17 & #19

43 and cincinnati streetcar


46 and cincinnati streetcar


49 and cincinnati streetcar


64 and cincinnati streetcar


78 and cincinnati streetcar


They don’t really line well up at all. Actually, none of these really line up with any other through Downtown/OTR except for the #17 and #19. That’s a lot less than ideal, particularly for short trips where a long waiting time will disproportionately give other modes of transportation a strong competitive advantage. If your trip is only going to take five minutes anyway, an extra five minutes spent waiting doubles your total travel time and makes walking look a whole lot better.

A better route would be one that was redundant with at least one other transit line going the same general direction with a relatively high frequency. If the streetcar lined up with the #17 & #19 for example, then instead of 12-20 minute headways and 6-10 minute average waits, we could effectively2 experience 5.53 to 8.64 minute headways and a 2.7 to 4.3 minute average wait for either line. That’s a pretty big difference! Instead, by not sharing a route, they’ll each operate with a significantly lower effective frequency for the trip between Downtown and the north end of OTR. Redundancy with the #6 and #48 would be even better5, as they all go up Vine St.  That would extend the high frequency corridor even further.

Another important principle to consider when laying out a route like this is walking distance to stops. Like frequency, the importance of this consideration is magnified by the very short length of the initial route. Obviously, at a certain distance, one may have to walk more than the length of the route itself to get to a stop, at which point the line will have likely ceased being a useful mode of transportation6. One would simply better ride a bike or drive the whole way. A short route places a low upper limit on the distance people will reasonably be willing to walk. On the contrary, people will come from all over for an airport because the trip is generally quite long.

So the placement of stops is important if we want to be within a reasonable walking distance of as many people and things as possible. Streetcar advocates have been quick to show us maps of all the stops with buffers around them covering most of OTR. This is pretty misleading though and I personally added to the confusion when I posted this picture on facebook thinking it was simply quite pretty:

misleading streetcar buffer analysis

Someone commented, “So about 75-80% of OTR will be served, along with about 50% of downtown. Excellent.

This is indicative of the erroneous thinking that leads these kinds of maps to be popular among advocates of less generally useful coverage-type transit services. As Jarrett Walker has well explained, routes that split two directions of travel onto two one way streets, look like they cover more territory while actually covering significantly less. You might be within walking distance of a stop going in one direction, but in order for the entire service to be properly within range you also need to be close enough to a stop going the other direction. Afterall, if you want to get home at the end of the day, you’re likely going to need to come back the way you came!

So let’s take a look at what that same map would look like if I took the time to complete my rather crude7 analysis before I shared it with the overexcited world:

Cincinnati Streetcar misleading buffer area

The truly walkable area(given the same buffer radius of about two Downtown blocks) is 35% smaller(59 hectares smaller) than the previous map might have led you to believe.

Since the area inside that green caterpillar is small, flat, pleasant, and well-sidewalked, we should also compare it to such an obvious choice as walking. The average speed is expected to be about 6.7mph, roughly equivalent to a light jog. That’s actually not so bad once you’re on it, but we have to consider a few other factors here. Wait time is a big one. As I’ve said, with a 12-20 minute headway, the average wait will be between 6 and 10 minutes. Let’s settle on 8 for the moment. If we’re walking at 3.1mph, a typical speed, we’ll cover 0.41 miles8 in eight minutes. The whole route would be about a 1.7 mile walk, leaving just 1.29 miles that could be more quickly traversed by the average user starting from the very last stop and going all the way to the other end. How much more quickly? About 12 minutes. Now, most people won’t start from the very last stop though, and go all the way to the far side of the line. Most people don’t live just right above either of those last stops. People starting from or going to places not at the end of, but along the line will find it significantly less useful. You can imagine not many people will wait at any stop to go only one or two stops down. Maybe most won’t wait to go even three stops. But three stops is a pretty big portion of the whole length on a route this short. …This topic really deserves some more space though, so I’ll do a more complex and further reaching analysis some other time to see just what kind of trips anywhere would actually be faster than walking.)

The streetcar’s route also falls a bit short of expectations in what I call conceptual efficiency. One of the big reasons people don’t use transit is because it can be just plain confusing:

SORTA's government square map

That’s a hell of a lot of poorly presented information to store in your head.

A big part of what I’m trying to do with this blog is about simplifying the use of transit by cutting out all the clutter. I think people should be able to use transit without thinking too hard about it. But the streetcar, like most of SORTA’s lines through downtown, looks like it may end up being somewhat more complicated and confusing than it needs to be.

Cincinnati Streetcar map

From by the City. They’ve cut out all of the important things to remove clutter from this map.

Why, really does it need to take that little three block jog over to the northwest? And what’s with all the one-ways? And then that tiny little side-step toward Vine? If it just went straight up and down Vine Street can you imagine how much simpler it would be to give directions to tourists and other newcomers? “How do I get to UC?” “Vine Street!” rings out your bold reply, “Vine Street!” Instead, in it’s very first phase, the streetcar manages to use not less than 11 streets for it’s route. So much for simple directions.

Even without changing the direction of any one-way streets, a route that simply piggy-backed on the much simpler #78 would be a big step up not only for clarity, but for frequency too. And if it went two blocks further south it wouldn’t significantly change the area the streetcar would actually cover.

It could also potentially use both directions of Vine until it turns into a one-way and split off only through Downtown. Adding further confusion, once you start including all of the proposals for later phases, you get something which isn’t very clear at all in how it might actually work. Can you picture how the vehicles will actually flow through this?

streetcar proposal map

Is that leg to union terminal a separate route requiring a transfer to another line? Does it enter into the rest of the loop? If so, which vehicles go there? Only some, or all of them? What about the possible casino extension? Add in Walnut hills and there are more than a dozen one-way streets involved in a route that seems to be sprouting tentacles rather insensibly. How does this flow together into something coherent and comprehensible?

To the extent that something is too complicated for people to bother understanding, they won’t use it. And since this topic is rather more ethereal I hope you’ll forgive me for slipping into a looser tongue. Perception is a slippery business.

In my opinion, all of this ultimately adds up to a new and quite hyped transit line that seems to do fairly little to actually improve transportation in Downtown and OTR. It might be a 12 minute improvement for people who live at the Banks and work at Findlay Market, but there really aren’t many of them and they probably have bikes anyway. For the rest of us, the benefits are a lot less clear. Any way you slice it, the route could have taken better advantage of redundant transit lines, two-way streets, and the potential clarity provided by one of the region’s few large regular street grids.

Show 8 footnotes

  1. “Headway” is another term for what we’re talking about. It’s the temporal distance between one vehicle and the next, such that if a driver tells you “The next bus is coming in ten minutes,” you know the next bus is operating with a ten minute headway, or if that is consistent for all following buses, a frequency of about ten minutes.
  2. Not exactly, but effectively, because schedules wouldn’t ever line up such that vehicles would be perfectly spaced out. It would be fairly close though, and even random delays and accelerations would work toward an even distribution if you can discount the effect of bunching.
  3. 60/((60 minutes/10 minute headway)+(60 minutes/12 minute headway))
  4. 60 minutes/((60minutes/15 minute headway)+(60 minutes/20 minute headway))
  5. If they were even redundant with each other…what’s that about SORTA? Two lines going the exact same places(bottom of Vine St to Government Square, and they don’t take the same route?)
  6. Transportation planners generally call the area within which people will be willing to walk to something it’s “walkshed”
  7. To really do it properly, I ought to have measured the distance along streets rather than straight-line distance in a circle around the stop. But that plugin is super complicated and I’m still trying to figure it out. You’ll see more on that topic once I’ve figured it out!
  8. 3.1x(8÷60)

11 responses to “‘The Streetcar’ – 2 – Errors of Geometry: split one-ways are dumb”

  1. Matthew Hall says:

    You’ve given this WAY too much thought. This is intended to signal the city’s committment to OTR and cement a progressive political coalition in Cincinnati. Given the war on Cincinnati by those outside its borders, this alone is worth the cost. Much of the development happening in OTR now wouldn’t be happening without the streetcars plan. New Yorkers may make such careful calculations of their public transit use, but Cincinnatians don’t and won’t. This is about economic development, not transportation. Your analysis is interesting but beside the point in Cincinnati. The transportation value of streetcars will emerge years in the future after it has been extended and connected to bus routes more systematically. Cincinnati has to learn to walk before it can run with respect to streetcars. If Americans had made the same analysis of interstates, many would have never been built.

    • Jonathan Warren says:

      That’s a pretty expensive “signal”.
      How good of a signal is it going to be if no one rides it because it can’t just go in a straight line up and down Vine St like the original streetcars and cable-cars? Saying a streetcar “is about economic development, not transportation” is idiotic. This thing isn’t just symbolic by its very existence- it has to actually function.

      Cincinnati doesn’t need to “learn to walk before it can run with respect to streetcars.” It can run just fine. The rails are still under the damn pavement.

    • Nate Wessel says:

      Your comment is almost exactly true but, I think, quite misguided. It IS all about economic development and making a show of the City’s support for OTR and urban living generally. That’s hard to deny. Indeed, my first post on the topic pretty much said just that. Much of the development in OTR might indeed not be happening without the hype the streetcar has caused.

      But that’s all it is: hype. Real long term economic development(of the kind I hope we’re after) is based on actual improvements to transportation, not perceptions of a fleeting progressive vibe. That’ll just poach people from other neighborhoods if anything. And for $100,000,000.00 I bet we could do a better job of that. I’m going to tackle that issue in the next post though, so do please stick around :)

      And it’s true that it will be more useful later, once(if) it gets more built out, but any extension will still have to connect to the circuitous Downtown loop that we think we’re in too much of a political hurry to get right the first time. Better isn’t saying much if it’s starting from not-very-good. Sound planning would help this project not only be what it wants to be politically, but also be the best transportation it can be. It really doesn’t need to be one or the other if done right.

    • Nathanael says:

      If Cincy ever really gets going with streetcars, I suppose it could double-track each of the six streets the streetcar runs on and turn this into six streetcar routes.

      Yeah, not going to happen in my lifetime.

  2. Fountains and archways, that is what we use for symbolic structures. And just speaking from an artist’s perspective, if the city would like to discontinue the streetcar project in favor of civic beautification, I would be happy to facilitate a nice OTR Triumphal arch!

    I a not a city planner or transit pro, so my thoughts might be a bit pedestrian here. I have to believe in the simple principal of say what you mean and mean what you say. It seems like most of the arguments I hear around town are about the “economic development” issue, but it does seem to me that this is analogous to the “spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down.” However, I am not so sure what the medicine is, and what particular symptoms indicate its usage. As a member of the uninitiated I can only say that I don’t really hear much about the usefulness of the streetcar in the media and in conversation, but rather the base level financial and political issues… but then again, I guess that’s the news for you. Love the blog and the unique perspective on this whole thing, looking for to 345678!

    • Nate Wessel says:

      I loooove the thought of a triumphal arch!! Where shall we put it? How about vine and mcmicken? That intersection is gorgious AND sees more transit than anywhere beside government square. Could be a truly spectacular way for the city to publicly glorify both transit and OTR in one go. Plus those buildings nearby could really use some investment ;-)

  3. Luke Brockmeier says:

    The original premise of the streetcar was to connect the region’s two largest employment centers (UC and downtown) via highly visible fixed-rail transit that runs through an empty residential district (OTR). I say “empty” because OTR in the 90s had something like 75% vacancy; that’s a lot of unrealized property value.

    The goal was to coax people who work downtown or at UC to live in OTR. Hey, it’s already succeeded!

    In order to beat the people who have opposed all transit in Cincinnati for 75 years (namely, the Enquirer editorial board) the streetcar was sold as a transformative device which would turn all of 45202 into the Gateway Quarter. It won’t (and it probably shouldn’t), but it doesn’t have to; if it brings the vacancy rate down at all, it will make up the costs 10 times over.

    That said, as transportation it leaves a lot to be desired without the Uptown connector. So, let’s elect a Dem governor.

  4. Concerned Taxpayer says:

    This socialist boondoggle will be stopped once Cranley is elected mayor and an all streetcar opposition council is elected. Chris Smitherman will put the final stake through the heart of this waste of tax payer money monstrosity

    • Nathanael says:

      Children shouldn’t use words which they don’t know the meanings of. (“Socialist”, “Boondoggle”).