The Cincinnati Streetcar Is An Example Of How NOT To Build A Streetcar System

Cincinnati attempted to go forward with their version of the transportation of tomorrow when the streetcar opened in 2016. It was met with great fanfare downtown as Cincinnati took a ‘step into the future.’ It was now possible to ride the streetcar from the banks of downtown Cincinnati all the way up to the northern tip of the Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighborhood without a car.

Unfortunately, it has had many, many problems since its proposal in 2007. In 2009 and 2011, there were ballot initiatives to fund the construction of the streetcar, both were voted against. However, a pro-street car city council was elected and then the streetcar got the green light for construction, which started in 2014.

The original budget for the current streetcar line was $102 million dollars. However, the costs of the project eventually ballooned to $148 million dollars, which was the final tally. The streetcar also had many proposals to be extended to Clifton, where the University of Cincinnati is. The extension would have costed over $100 million dollars to complete, but was scrapped due to lack of funding. The lack of funding came from John Kasich’s decision to pull $52 million dollars in state funds away from the project when he took office in 2011, and the next year Congressman Steve Chabot put in an amendment that said no federal funding could be used for the streetcar in its annual transportation bill. Plans for any extension have been mostly abandoned.

In order for the Streetcar to operate, it has to be subsidized by the city of Cincinnati. They did this by selling advertisements, mainly to Cincinnati Bell, which renamed the Cincinnati Streetcar to the Cincinnati Bell Connector. They also used money from parking meters to fund the streetcar, as well as extending the hours of the parking meter and adding several new ones throughout downtown and OTR.

The Cincinnati Streetcar Route

You would think that you’d be getting a pretty long line of tracks for $148 million dollars.  I mean, we’re not talking about high speed rail, just to lay some tracks in the street with overheadwires. So it’s a pretty long route, right? Wrong – the entire loop of the Cincinnati streetcar is 3.6 miles long, meaning it’s roughly 1.6 miles to get from the Banks (south end) to Rhinegiest (north end). That means it cost $41.11 million dollars per mile just to construct it – not to maintain it. Maintenance of the streetcar is roughly $4 million every year. In short, it’s an expensive proposition, but let’s check out the route you’ll quickly this is going downhill very, very quickly.

Here’s a map of the Cincinnati streetcar route so you can understand what I’m about to say:

cincinnati bell connector route

The 3.6 mile loop has 18 stops along the way, averaging one stop every 1,056 feet apart (2 city blocks). If you wanted to go from the Banks (south end) to Rhinegeist (north end), it would be a 1.6 mile trip and take 16 minutes on a streetcar, averaging just over 6 miles per hour. The streetcar takes so long because of three reasons: number of stops, number of traffic lights,  and lack of right-of-way. The traffic lights are synced together, but not for the streetcar, only for regular automobile traffic. This means the streetcar comes to a stop at every single red light along the way, and there are  19 traffic lights along that route. The streetcar has no right-of-way in most locations (only at the Banks). The tracks are built into a lane of traffic, meaning the streetcar shares the road with cars. The streetcar has to slow down for traffic, and even worse when there’s a major event like a Bengals game, a Reds game, Oktoberfest, or Blink there’s often no place for the streetcar to travel because of gridlock. In short, when the streetcar is needed most, it just about comes to a screeching halt.

So Who Does Ride The Cincinnati Streetcar?

That’s a great question. There have been many projections made as to how many average riders per day the Cincinnati streetcar would take. The initial study back in 2007 said that in 2010 upon opening 4,600 people would ride the streetcar, and by 2015 6,400 people would use it per day. Neither of those projections came true because the streetcar didn’t start service until 2016. When it did open in September 2016, this estimate was revised to 3,200 riders per day. On opening day, it saw 18,000 riders and was immediately called a success by city officials (Tickets were free the first week after opening).

However, it only went downhill from there. The streetcar has never taken more than 2,026 riders in a single day since the opening. In fact, now ridership is down to an average  of 1,693 per day. That’s a steep drop from the highest initial figure of 6,400 people. It only seems that this number is going lower and lower, with only 870 taking it on one of the busiest nights of the year, New Years Eve 2017 (granted, only 1 streetcar was operational).

There are currently 5 streetcars in the fleet that could operate at one time. With an average of 1,693 riders per day, that’s 338.6 riders per streetcar per day. Each individual streetcar can hold up to 154 riders. It doesn’t take much math to figure out that during most of the day, the streetcars are either completely empty or mostly empty.

The Problems For The Cincinnati Streetcar Just Keep Adding Up

In short, Cincinnati built a $148 million dollar 3.6 mile loop around 3 neighborhoods (The Banks, Downtown, and Over-The-Rhine) that now has a daily ridership of 1,693 riders per day. That’s 11,851 per week and 50,790 for the month (That’s 617,945 for the year if you were wondering). The current population of the city of Cincinnati sits just below 300,000. The ridership equates to 0.005643% of the city’s population per day using the streetcar. And the city pays $4 million dollars a year just to operate and maintain it every year too.

Many more populated areas of the city have no access to the streetcar, but they are on the hook as a taxpayer to help pay for the system and operating costs. Before Governor Kasich and Congressman Chabot pulled state and federal funding in 2011 and 2012 respectively, all Ohio and US taxpayers were on the hook funding the streetcar. So if you’re paying taxes as a US citizen, you helped build this project.

Fare enforcement is a major problem for the streetcar. Many riders are just able to board the streetcar without paying for it first because quite often no one checks tickets. Granted tickets are $1 for two hours or $2 all day, that’s not a lot of lost money considering low ridership, but still, if they want to try and recoup the maintenance costs you have to enforce paying for tickets.

The Cincinnati streetcar has been filled with many, many problems. In May of 2017, 2 streetcars collided with each other just outside the maintenance depot, leaving both streetcars out of service for several months, while repair costs added up quickly. Over the course of its relatively short lifespan, the Streetcar has been filled with several mechanical failures and issues, and politics have gotten rough over who should pay for the repairs. Currently the city of Cincinnati is withholding $4 million dollars of payments to the manufacturer CAF until the streetcars are repaired. This article from the Cincinnati Business Courier states that there’s been 17 separate issues with either limited or no streetcar service in the first 78 days in 2017.

On-time arrivals are another big issue. Check out this guy’s story on how frustrating it was waiting for the streetcar (though I’ll strongly disagree with him saying these are “growing pains). A lot of service issues are from streetcars out of service and cold weather that shuts down the entire system.

Lessons To Learn From The Cincinnati Streetcar

The Cincinnati Streetcar is no doubt a huge failure and a colossal waste of money. The money that was spent to build it was $148 million dollars, and barely anyone uses it. The way it is setup to operate, most importantly how the tracks were laid, were designed poorly and the route it covers barely reaches any of Cincinnati’s residents. For $148 million, it should either have been a much longer connected track, or not even built at all, which I side with in this case.

Does that mean streetcars are the wrong way to go? Absolutely not. There are several cities in North America and in Europe that operate very successful streetcars. Streetcar systems don’t necessarily have to be profitable in order to be successful (but that certainly helps a lot). If a streetcar system can prove that a large number of citizens use it, then it should be partially subsidized by tax dollars.

Cincinnati’s problem is that almost all of it is subsidized by tax dollars and hardly anyone uses it. Take Toronto for instance, they have a streetcar ridership of about 95 million every year. Their system is built out and it’s effective, connecting large numbers of people where they want to go. Now granted Toronto is a significantly larger city than Cincinnati is, but the principle remains the same. If the system doesn’t connect riders where they want to go, then it will remain largely unused.

I don’t necessarily have a problem spending $148 million dollars for a streetcar project if it can prove it will have a high ridership and be effective transporting people. But the way Cincinnati did it is the way no other city should do it. Omaha, Nebraska appears to be seeing that and they’re looking at a streetcar system not designed like Cincinnati. Take a look at that article, it outlines a lot of what I’ve been saying all along about streetcar and other mass transit systems. But in the end, the Cincinnati Streetcar will go down as another high-cost failure for the city, right along with the Subway tunnels and the Riverfront Transit Center.

Brian Cole

I'm Brian and I'm the founder of TransportationOfTomorrow.com. I have a strong passion for fixing America's transportation infrastructure problem and traffic flow issues. I ultimately want to see the American economy grow as far as it will go, create massive amounts of jobs, and in that way help the quality of how people live.

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