COLUMN: Top 9 myths about the streetcar, debunked

CINCINNATI -- Earlier this month, I posted a quiz, testing our readers' know-how (a number of our staffers participated, too) when it comes to Cincinnati's soon-to-launch streetcar system.

The results were, let's say... concerning.

Out of 663 test-takers, nearly 500 got 60 percent or fewer of the questions correct. Only 22 got more than 90 percent correct, and I took it twice, just to check the results.

To be fair, that's to be expected: Fewer and fewer in the Queen City each year are old enough to remember Cincinnati's first, 60-year foray into street rail transit, which officially came into the station for the last time in 1951, and -- even then -- this is a very different streetcar we're about to board.

But where there's lack of know-how, there's almost always a swirl of misinformation that comes with it, and having covered the streetcar for the better part of the last two years, I've heard and read a lot of it, from community members, city leaders and the media alike.

No more.

Here are the top 9 streetcar myths... debunked (or, should I say derailed?):

 

1. It's a tourist attraction

Let's get this one out of the way right now. It's one of the oldest myths surrounding Cincinnati's launch into the streetcar game: that it's a glorified "trolley" just meant to help out-of-towners get around while visiting the city.

Nope.

Even if looking at the 70-foot, 150+ passenger vehicle isn't enough to debunk this one for you, it's also important to know that this streetcar design is, with no exaggeration, the most modern of its kind.

That's in the world.

And if that's still not enough, the tracks were laid to light rail specifications, meaning this loop and future streetcar expansion could eventually link with a larger, regional light rail system.

2. The route is too short and centralized

This one also needs to be stopped in its tracks (don't act like you didn't know that one was coming).

That's because the 3.6-mile loop is right on par with many of the other modern streetcar starter loops launched across the U.S. over the last 15 years or so. Even the ostensible pioneer city of the modern streetcar, Portland, Oregon, only began with about a mile of track more than ours.

And, believe it or not, there are still some out there who think the route only goes as far south as Fountain Square.

Not true: The streetcar extends all the way from Rhinegeist in Over-the-Rhine's Brewery District to Great American Ball Park at The Banks:

3. You won't really have to pay to ride

This is one that only the bold will put to the test.

For those out of the know, boarding the streetcar will be different than boarding the bus, where you pay your fare as you board. Instead, a fare inspector will be on hand, riding the streetcar throughout daily service, checking for riders' fares. 

It admittedly creates a situation where one could get away with riding for free.

"They may ask (to see your fare) while you're riding, they may not," said transit authority spokeswoman, Brandy Jones.

"But if you don't have your pass," Jones cautioned, "the fine will be a lot more expensive than the fare."

Like, 100 times more expensive: Those caught evading fare will see 100 real, American dollars fly swiftly from their wallets into city coffers, and that's just for the first offense. Every subsequent offense comes with another $200 fine.

4. It ended up costing more than we thought

This one was put to rest pretty soundly last month, when City Manager Harry Black issued a memo to City Hall stating that multiple projects throughout the system's construction ended up coming in under budget

The savings, Black said, meant an additional $2.5 million placed in the streetcar project's contingency fund (think "rainy day" money). About $500,000 of that money the city will use to pay itself back for the startup costs involved in launching the $148 million project (that's on top of another $500,000 the city already paid itself back). Another $1 million will go toward upkeep as passenger service sets to launch.

Since the project broke ground in 2012, about $9 million have been allocated to completed or pending contingency projects.

5. The streetcar just adds more danger to the road

This myth really gained momentum last month when two separate collisions involving streetcars and automobiles occurred within a single week.

In the first, police concluded the auto driver made an illegal right turn on red into the path of an oncoming streetcar, moving through the intersection of Third and Main streets. In the second, no fault had been assigned as of this posting.

But, if one looks past the hype, the data paint a different picture: Crash records compiled by the Federal Transit Administration found major collisions involving streetcar vehicles -- that is, one that would involve injury or trigger an insurance claim -- to be quite rare. In 2015, the FTA recorded only 16 major streetcar collisions, nationwide.

And here's a simple fact to chew on, as well: The more the streetcars take to the road, the more frequently we'll hear of crashes. That's just a simple cause-and-effect reality, and is why it wasn't until the streetcar began running its full service schedule that these first two collisions occurred.

(If anything, as multiple studies have found several years running, it might be Cincinnati's drivers who are a danger to the roads.)

6. Streetcars will run red lights

This one is less a myth, and more just a misunderstanding. But it's worth including here because, like the notion that they're dangerous, the notion that streetcars will "run a red" does not consider the fact that, at certain intersections, the streetcars have their own signal to follow -- one that's integrated into the intersections' signal patterns.

At a handful of points along the loop, the streetcar will need to either make a turn or change lanes. It's here where the streetcar will have a signal, one that will only allow it to go when all other vehicles at the intersection are stopped by a red light.

These photos show the intersection of Second and Main streets, where the streetcar follows the two-light signal, which uses a horizontal line to indicate "stop," and a vertical line to indicate the streetcar can go.

Here it is in action, this time at the nearby corner of Second and Walnut streets:

 

And for good measure, here's a map of all the points along the route where such signals are installed:

7. I can walk the loop as fast as the streetcar can drive it

This one originated out of a 2011 Enquirer report, which measured the walking time of the loop at only a few minutes shorter than the estimated speed of the streetcar at the time.

The report raised a provocative if not somewhat premature question. Unfortunately, the conclusion drawn in that report -- that a "brisk walk" is almost as efficient as riding the streetcar -- dove into a tailspin when the rhetoric to follow among streetcar opponents extended that conclusion to call the streetcar, as a result, "inefficient."

Besides jumping the gun and using questionable estimates for the speed of the streetcar years before they were even built (our streetcar can reach nearly 45 mph), this claim ignores the ways riding a streetcar -- just like riding a bus -- provides an opportunity to get other tasks done while in transit, a feature that millennials identify as one of the key appeals to using public transportation.

Don't get me wrong: I identify as a pedestrian who enjoys a brisk walk as much as I do riding my bicycle or the bus, but if we're talking efficiency, my size 13 feet just don't win on their own. 

8. No one will ride the streetcar

This is a myth, in part, because there is no viable way to make this claim until the streetcar launches and we see real, hard ridership numbers.

But that didn't stop City Councilman Christopher Smitherman, an Independent, from questioning the ridership figures predicted in the streetcar's operations budget, approved earlier this spring.

"I don't trust the assumptions," Smitherman said during a budget and finance committee meeting in April. "I don't trust that 3,000 people a day are going to ride this." 

Truth is, this is a new thing to today's Cincinnati, and while it's true that we here in the Queen City can be slow to change our ways, it's also premature to assume that just because it's new, people won't use it. Cincinnati's new bike share system, Red Bike, entering its third year has seen roughly 187,000 rides since 2014, with roughly 28,000 unique riders, many of whom had never bike commuted before. That's according to Red Bike's executive director, Jason Barron, who announced the ridership numbers during a trails summit last month.

This concern also overlooks that fare revenue only makes up 16 percent of the streetcar's operating budget for the first year. As it turns out, the streetcar will rely way more -- the most, in fact -- on people driving into and parking Downtown and in Over-the-Rhine far more: More than half the operating budget will come from parking meter revenue.

9. Cincinnati wasn't built for rail

I'll grant you, it's not called "The City of Seven Hills" for nothing. But the notion that this city isn't equipped to accommodate rails forgets two facts.

First, the modern streetcar vehicles manufactured for the Cincinnati Bell Connector by CAF USA are equipped to handle a 10-degree grade, both incline and decline.

Second, remember the more than 250 miles of track that striped the Queen City for more than six decades throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries? If not, here:

Read more about Cincinnati's history with streetcars here.

Follow WCPO transportation and development reporter, Pat LaFleur, on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

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