Transportation in Cincinnati: A Matter of Civil Rights

by Clara Dorfi, July 31, 2017

Cincinnati has a robust history of transportation, and given the hilly topography of the city, public infrastructure has always been a challenge. From the late 19th century through the 1940s, streetcars were the primary mode of transportation. Several inclines were built to assist them up the steep slopes of the city. These eventually disappeared by the 1950s as road infrastructure and the automobile industry exploded. Additionally, before the automobile boom, a 16-mile subway was attempted in 1920. By 1925, the funding that was allocated for this rapid transit loop had been exhausted by the costs associated with WWI. About seven miles remain in disuse today, but are continually maintained by the city (Cole). 

Today, the most dominant form of public transportation is the metro, which provides about five million rides a year. Five percent of Cincinnati’s commuters rely on the metro to get from home to school or work, and an average ride can take around thirty to forty-five minutes. This does not take into account the time taken to walk between stops. Nakela Williams, a Cincinnati native, for example, has to walk 15 to 20 minutes to both her bus stops. “Williams' commute averages around an hour each way. That's around the same time that Harvard's study identified as the cut-off point for a commute that could hinder one's resolve to work and build a career” (LaFleur). This type of challenging commute is not a rarity for those relying on the metro. “A 2013 University of Cincinnati Economics Center study found that Cincinnati Metro buses do not stop within a quarter-mile of 75,000 jobs across the Tri-State” (LaFleur). This means the metro system is not doing enough to connect people with the types of jobs it needs to.

Although there is a demonstrable need for improvement, Ohio spends less on public transportation than 44 states. “The gap between current funding and what is needed to meet Ohio’s public transit market demand is more than $650 million” (Patton). Efforts have been made, however, to provide a more reliable transit system. For example, in 2007, a ballot was proposed to construct a surface-running streetcar that would connect the University of Cincinnati with the Over the Rhine community, Downtown and Banks. Estimated to cost around $200 million, this project was met with staunch criticism, and faced opposition in 2009, and again in 2011. Regardless, the measure passed, and it opened to the public officially by September 2016. 

Supporters of the streetcar maintain that its purpose is to serve the main economic sector of Cincinnati, and that its presence will stimulate a revitalized urban center; hence, bringing revenue, refurbished homes and new business to the area. While positive on the surface level, those in opposition claim that the handling of the streetcar was irresponsible. It created unnecessary deficit, and it did not prioritize the needs of the city. Moreover, the streetcar contributes to increased gentrification and further marginalizes communities that already lack the resources they need. Consequently, the streetcar does more harm than good. It is isolating communities that have already been ignored, its inefficiencies don’t justify its expense, and its funding was provided with private interest over public interest. For these reasons, future projects need to consider all communities affected, as well as how they will be funded so that the needs of the city are more accurately prioritized.

As it exists, the streetcar runs from Over the Rhine down to the Banks along the Ohio river. Advocates of the streetcar hope that it “…will foster a more walkable urban core and that it eventually will be part of a larger system” (Stankorb). Since the demise of Cincinnati’s last streetcar in 1950, the city has become more driving-centric, causing many to move from the city’s center and into the suburbs. The streetcar is part of an effort to bring people back, especially businesses. Long before the streetcar was a certain development; however, several projects had been undertaken to revitalize the areas along the car’s route, including the Banks and Over-the-Rhine. The executive vice president of 3CDC, Adam Gelter, stated in an interview: “The streetcar is a strong complement to efforts we’ve already been making to build up the retail in Over-the-Rhine. Being able to get more people here is ultimately what’s going to attract retailers” (Ori). Attracting business is important to any community; however, Over-the-Rhine is most infamously known for the gentrification that has occurred as a result of its revitalization.

Lee McCoy, a lifetime resident of Over-the-Rhine, has noticed the dramatic changes in his neighborhood amid the once-abandoned lots: "These same apartments you see as condos and lofts, I used to rent ‘em for $150 a month. Now they are $1,500 or $2,000. Same apartment, same building” (O’Rourke). With the advent of the streetcar, property costs are only projected to get worse. “Property values already appear to be on the rise, according to commercial real estate brokerage CBRE” (Lopez). In an area that was once known for its abandoned buildings, drugs and crimes, young professionals and tourists now fill the streets, hopping between trendy bars, shops and restaurants. The contrast between where this gentrification has occurred and has not is obvious, and the streetcar is just one more addition to this landscape of disparity. “Over-the-Rhine has now become more of a tourist attraction due to the streetcar and the overpriced bars, and many of the residents are starting to feel invisible” (Coleman). Hence, the streetcar is another factor contributing to the marginalization of this community.

The main motive behind building the streetcar was to raise property values and generate revenue for the city. “For supporters, it’s a sign that the city is truly moving forward with its recent economic and development momentum” (Lopez). Although the project benefits the city in theory, “it holds a community hostage” (Coleman). Public infrastructure should benefit the public, especially those already at an economic disadvantage. Although it is still early, and there is a possibility of expansion, the streetcar does not effectively serve the greater needs of the public. 

Cristina Burcica, an independent candidate running for Cincinnati Council, offers some insight in regards to the streetcar’s implementation: “There are 52 neighborhoods in Cincinnati, and the streetcar is only serving 2. Of the neglected neighborhoods, many lack sufficient access to groceries” (Burcica). She continued to explain that where she is originally from in Eastern Europe, streetcars brought her everywhere: “Growing up, streetcars took me to many places where I was exposed to culture and knowledge. A streetcar gives the opportunity for people to leave their community and have access to the rest of the city” (Burcica). The streetcar connects many cultural sites within Cincinnati’s urban core, including the historic Cincinnati Music Hall and National Underground Freedom Center; however, it does not extend far enough to reach those who are most restricted to such attractions. Its 3.6-mile loop connects neighborhoods that are already well-connected by the metro system. All bus routes, except for a select few, serve Cincinnati’s downtown, for example (City of Cincinnati).

 In a city lacking sufficient public transit infrastructure, the spending on the streetcar was irresponsible, especially since it has already proven to be an inefficient system. The streetcar itself is designed nicely, however, and accessibility has been taken into consideration. For example, when the car comes to a stop to pick up passengers, it is flush with the platform so that strollers and wheelchairs can easily roll on. In addition, “...the cars usually have more space for passengers and streetcar systems are typically capable of carrying, loading and unloading more passengers more quickly than buses” (Lopez). Despite this being true, the streetcar has not proved efficient enough in its first year of release to justify how much has been invested in it. It moves slower than a bus, and it is still dependent on traffic. “Because traffic lights are timed for an east–west flow and the streetcar travels north and south, the streetcar also often becomes bogged down in traffic” (Lopez). 

In order to have some return on investment, the streetcar needs to reach a certain ridership quota. The first winter of its opening was slow, and its ridership picked up significantly in the summer. Nevertheless, not enough people are riding the streetcar. “Since April, streetcar ridership has increased and reached up to 50,000 users. However, the needed/desired amount of ridership is 82,325 riders per month” (Winburn). Without reaching this desired quota, the funding for the streetcar’s future expansion will not be likely. Due to a lack of funds provided on the state level, the maintenance of the streetcar is reliant on money generated from fares and from advertisements. In the original streetcar proposal, the route was expected to expand farther north and connect The University of Cincinnati’s campus. Both sides of the streetcar controversy acknowledge the missed opportunity of failing to reach campus. City Manager, Milton Dohoney, a top streetcar supporter, expressed regret in regards to this: “If the intent of the streetcar would only be to go from The Banks to just north of Findlay Market, then I never would have said it’s a project worth doing. The intention has always been to connect the two major employment centers of the city and go beyond that” (Lopez).

The costs associated with the streetcar’s construction is a point of heightened debate. For 3.6 miles of track, the streetcar is about a $133 million project. “Critics say that the line poses unreasonable financial risks and that it will direct scarce resources to a project that will benefit only one part of an ailing city” (Stankorb). Due to this controversy, the project was halted twice, and independent auditors were contracted to assess the cost of cancellation of the project. Their audit found that canceling the project would cost nearly as much as completing it; therefore, its construction continued. The first time the project was almost canceled; however, it was saved by “...about 15 private backers” that would “pay up to $9 million in operating costs, if needed, over the line’s first decade” (Stankorb). These private backers included local businesses interested in the potential economic gains of having a streetcar by their business. Their hopes are not unfounded. The president and cofounder of Rhinegeist Brewery, Bob Bonder, “says that revenue from visits to the brewery is up more than 30 percent in 2016 from last year” (Lopez). This is a result of the streetcar unloading hordes of passengers right in front of his business.

Cincinnati’s streetcar relies heavily on private funds and property tax capital. The areas along the streetcar's route are among the city’s most prosperous. "In other cities, the only way that streetcars have worked is when businesses, institutions and property owners along the route pay for it" (Williams). Therefore, it makes sense that the most economically prosperous neighborhoods of the city can support such a monumental project. Meanwhile, residents of the city’s 51 other neighborhoods lack sufficient access to the city’s most dominant mode of transportation, the metro. Christopher Smitherman, a member of the city council, voiced frustration early on when the streetcar was proposed: “The frustration is that the other 51 neighborhoods in the city are suffering, and these guys are talking about how they want a choo-choo train running through downtown” (Stankorb). This frustration is warranted, especially when “downtown is crammed with Fortune 500 companies, including the national headquarters for the supermarket chain Kroger, Macy’s and Procter & Gamble” (Stankorb). 

Of the roughly $150 million allocated towards the streetcar, only about 45 million came from federal grants. The rest of the funding was provided by the city and private contributions. The majority of the city’s funding, moreover, comes from property tax capital (City of Cincinnati). This suggests that the city’s residents are taking the bulk of the streetcar costs. Mayor Cranley was especially concerned about the financial risks. "It would be irresponsible to spend money on something that we don’t know yet how it’s going to work out. We don’t have the money” (Williams). With funding from private sources, economic profits are prioritized over connecting real people to the jobs and resources they need. Therefore, due to the way it has been funded, the streetcar is only serving those that can support it.

The overwhelming deficit created by the streetcar’s construction has cast doubt about the future of its expansion. In its current condition, the line does not travel far enough. If it were to connect The University of Cincinnati with downtown, it has the potential to reach more riders that need its service. Unfortunately, funding was cut before this could be fully realized. In order to expand, Mayor Cranley urged The University of Cincinnati and other uptown businesses to pay for the extension. In response, former UC President, Santa Ono, stated “'s not part of a university's mission to pay for transportation infrastructure” (Williams). The expectation that the responsibility of public infrastructure should fall on local businesses and institutions points to an obvious failure in how city and state funds are handled.

The Cincinnati streetcar has been a point of debate for the past ten years, and it continues to be a controversial topic. Supporters claim that the streetcar project is an important step in Cincinnati’s future as a hub of technology and business. Although the revenue generated by the streetcar will stimulate the economy of the city’s major economic hubs, the rest of the city remains ignored. In communities where renovations have already caused extreme gentrification, the streetcar only serves as a complement to these efforts. It is an insult to the community members who have been and soon will be displaced by the raising property values in the area. Furthermore, Cincinnati’s main source of public transportation, the metro, is in need of dramatic improvements. Its service needs to expand so that residents are no longer faced with hour long commutes, and so that the 75,000 jobs it currently isn’t reaching are met. Regardless, an exuberant amount was allocated to the streetcar, effectively creating a debt trap that the city is now trying to justify. 

Although it is a multifaceted issue, the streetcar is not beneficial to the greater community of Cincinnati. It only serves a small portion of the city, which is already prosperous and well-connected by the metro. It will also contribute to the displacement of more people from their homes in areas where property values have consistently been on the rise. Additionally, it has failed to deliver on its promise of efficiency, and it was built in the interest of private financial gains over the general needs of the public. Consequently, the city of Cincinnati needs to consider projects more responsibly in the future. When proposing new plans for public infrastructure, they must ensure that its implementation serves the public and prioritizes the needs of all communities within the city. As proven, there are not enough funds to waste; therefore, efficient and strategic plans must be put in place to serve those who need it the most.

Works Cited

“Burcica on the Streetcar.” Personal interview. 20 July 2017.

"Cincinnati Bell Connector Funding." City of Cincinnati. City of Cincinnati, 2017.

Cole, David. "What to Do with Union Terminal." Metro. 24 May 2009.

Coleman, Kellie. "Opinion: New OTR Development a Reminder of Negatives of Gentrification." The News Record. 15 Feb. 2017.

LaFleur, Pat. "Cincinnati Metro: Is Low Bus Access Keeping Some from Rising above Poverty?" WCPO. 21 May 2017.

Lopez, German. "Top 10 Misrepresentations of the Cincinnati Streetcar Project.” CityBeat Cincinnati. CityBeat, 13 July 2013.

Ori, Ryan. "Cincinnati's Streetcar and a Downtown Revival." Urban Land Magazine. 21 Feb. 2017.

O'Rourke, Tanya. "Over-the-Rhine: A Tale of Two Neighborhoods." WCPO. 27 July 2013. 

Patton, Wendy, and Victoria Jackson. "How Ohio Funds Public Transit." Policy Matters Ohio. 26 May 2017.

Stankorb, Sarah. "Cincinnati Streetcar Plan Pits Desire for Growth Against Fiscal Restraint." 

The New York Times. The New York Times, 22 Dec. 2013.

“Winburn on the Streetcar.” Personal interview. 26 July 2017.