A few weeks back, I found myself in downtown Cincinnati, keeping my eyes peeled for a glimpse of the Bell Connector, the Queen City’s new streetcar line. When it opened in September, ridership was strong, especially on weekends. Boosters of the project, who had to overcome fierce resistance from conservative state lawmakers (and the city’s new mayor) to get the rails in the street, were sounding pretty pleased. As I wrote in October, new streetcar lines in Cincinnati and Kansas City opened with healthy ridership numbers, warming the hearts of trolley fans in places like Detroit and Oklahoma City, where similar next-generation streetcar projects are in motion.
So on the blustery Saturday after Thanksgiving, fortified with a rum-spiked cup of glühwein from the delightful German Holiday Market in Fountain Square, I planted myself at a sleek and glassy streetcar stop on Walnut Street and waited. And waited.
Where was the damn streetcar? After more waiting, wandering, and wine, I finally found a car, sitting motionless a block or so up. There was a healthy crowd of Cincinnatians milling about the festive square, loading up on goetta sandwiches and checking out the volumetric massing of Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center nearby, but the Bell Connector seemed uninterested in getting in on the action.
A recent report in the Cincinnati Enquirer confirms that all is not precisely well in streetcar-land: After a strong September and October, the numbers dropped off a cliff. “The Cincinnati Bell Connector's ridership is plummeting, with barely half the projected ridership last month,” the paper said. That holiday weekend Saturday turned out to be the second-best day of the month. On average, daily November ridership was 1,664, far below the expected 3,200.
In Kansas City, ridership dipped with the arrival of colder weather too, but the drop is considerably less worrisome: That city’s new streetcar line is chugging along with more than 6,000 riders per day in November, and a feasibility study on the merits of building an extension has just been announced.
What’s gone off the rails in Cinci? The Enquirer fingers faulty ticket machines as one factor. But there’s a bigger, more complex problem: The electric streetcar, that late-19th-century conveyance, has re-imposed itself on some late-20th century traffic planning. Cincinnati’s downtown traffic flows are now maximized to swiftly shunt cars on streets running east and west, getting commuters to and from the pair of interstates girding the city. But the Bell Connector runs north to south, which means it can be frequently mired in traffic. The Enquirer writes:
Streetcar timing is off and that means nobody knows when it will arrive at a station. On weekends, that's no problem. On weekdays, when people need to get to appointments, work or even lunch, timing has been a deal-breaker.
I checked in with Derek Bauman, a Cincinnati streetcar project supporter, to see what he made of the ridership slump. “There’s no question the rollout was not what it should have been,” he told me. “There were a number of things that were avoidable, and a few that weren’t.” (Among the latter: A pair of Saturday night bomb threats that briefly halted service.) The balky ticket machines are working better now, he says, but real-time arrival information is still problematic, as are the traffic-light chokepoints: “Even at 8 at night, the streetcar is getting hung up at every light.”
Recalibrating the light timing should help, as would giving the streetcars dedicated lanes, but streetcar advocates agree that there’s a need for a new traffic study, which would cost $300,000. The planning blog Urban Cincy observes that the last study was done in the mid-1990s, when the downtown area had more workers and fewer residents.
An op-ed in the Enquirer outlined another, far more expensive remedy: Build more streetcar! The original project included an uptown line to connect with the University of Cincinnati. That got eliminated during the long and bruising political battle over the idea, but backers still hope to pursue a future extension. Unless they can iron out a few more kinks—and convince a few more people to get on board—that may be a hard, uphill slog.
Bauman, for his part, is confident that warmer weather will herald an uptick in the streetcar’s fortunes. “The system’s not going anywhere,” he says. “We’re going to push for these fixes and suffer through the cold dark days of winter. Come spring, when the Reds start playing, I think it’ll be busy.”
UPDATE: This post has been updated with additional information.