Taking the streetcar to lunch? 9 things to know

CINCINNATI -- Marian Schwarz was still pretty new to the Queen City when the streetcar opened in September.

A hydraulic engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, Schwarz moved from Texas to Mount Adams this past June, taking up office in the John Weld Peck Federal Building at the intersection of Fifth and Main streets in the heart of Downtown.

Turns out, the streetcar became somewhat of a tour guide for Schwarz, particularly during her lunch breaks.

"I wanted to go see (Findlay Market)," she said. "I heard they had a lot of fresh produce." 

That initial lunchtime visit to Findlay has turned into a recurring trip for Schwarz, one of the many who work Downtown and use the streetcar as a new means of getting to and from one of the dozens of dining options along the streetcar route.

"One of the good things is that it comes pretty often," Schwarz said. "It's easier to get out."

But like numerous reports have indicated since the streetcar's launch, Schwarz said using the streetcar, while it comes with its conveniences, also poses some challenges. 

Here's a rundown of what lunchtime streetcar commuters should know before stepping up to the station:

1. Where can the streetcar get you?

Starting with maybe the most basic question, the streetcar was built on the promise to developers and business owners along the route that it would deliver future customers to their doorsteps.

As such, the streetcar corridor connecting Rhinegeist Brewery in Over-the-Rhine at its northern tip all the way down to The Banks along the Ohio River boasts dozens of different options for lunch-goers.

Here's a map identifying where each of the streetcar's 18 stops are located. Zoom in using the +/- button in the bottom left corner, or use the arrow in the top left to see a list of the stop locations. Embedded in the map are the locations of various dining options along the way:

2. Streetcar only travels in one direction

The streetcar route is configured as a unidirectional loop that begins at its maintenance and operations facility at Henry and Race streets in Over-the-Rhine -- located next door to Rhinegeist -- and moves south on Race and Walnut streets before turning around at The Banks and heading back north on Main. 

This configuration does make selecting a lunch destination require some strategy. For instance, if the streetcar station nearest your office is located at 12th and Main streets, and you're hoping to eat at lunch at Rock Bottom Brewery at Fountain Square, the nearest stop might not be the best option. That's because hopping on board 12th Street to get to Fountain Square would mean riding through about two-thirds of the route before arriving at your destination.

In the case of this example, walking a few extra blocks over to the stop on Central Parkway between Vine and Walnut streets would get you down to Fountain Square in a fraction of the time.

John Yung, an Over-the-Rhine resident who also works at 13th and Main streets, said he uses the streetcar two or three times a week on his lunch break, but he doesn't always ride it both to and from his destination.

"If the streetcar has already passed the stop you're going to, you're probably going to have to wait 10 or 12 minutes," he said. "So you might have to be prepared to walk for that, but it's also good for the trip back.

"Sometimes, I'll walk to a place and take the streetcar back."

3. Not immune to Downtown traffic

Because the streetcar does not have its own right-of-way, it is subject to the same potential for congestion as any other vehicle moving through Downtown and Over-the-Rhine.

Schwarz said one of her trips to Findlay Market and back hit a snag: There was a car crash along the tracks that stopped service while riding back to her office.

Traffic congestion throughout the corridor -- particularly heading south on Walnut Street -- was one of the first issues to arise once streetcar service began. Some say traffic signal configurations -- which now include a handful of streetcar-specific signals at certain Downtown and Over-the-Rhine intersections -- are partially to blame for streetcar delays, prompting City Council to approve in October the city's first traffic study in more than 20 years.

The Downtown traffic signals favor east-west travel, due to the district's position nestled between Interstates 71 and 75. The majority of the streetcar's travel, however, is north-south.

4. Don't set your watch to the arrival times 

Another increasingly common complaint about the streetcar's performance has been the reliability of the arrival time displays installed at each station.

"The delays are disheartening, and it does affect the reliability of the system when you have real-time arrival data that's out of sync with the arrival right now," Yung said. "I know the city and transit authority are working to address it."

It's a known but persistent issue that the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority -- which oversees streetcar operations -- has on its radar.

SORTA Director of Rail Services Paul Grether told City Council's transportation committee Tuesday that the issue is a result of a software problem inhibiting some streetcar vehicles' ability to log their locations while moving along the route. This, Grether said, is leading to inaccurate arrival times being displayed at stops ahead.

Grether said SORTA is putting pressure on the vendor, real-time location data provider Trapeze Group, to resolve those issues, including exploring -- at committee chair Amy Murray's request -- the possibility of recouping damages from Trapeze.

For now, streetcar riders should be warned not to rely on the arrival times displayed at the stations.

5. Ticket purchasing has gotten simpler

SORTA CEO Dwight Ferrell, photographed here in late September, poses with a "Validate" sign to address initial confusion over the final step of purchasing a streetcar ticket. That step has since been removed. (Pat LaFleur | WCPO)

Another issue, one that 30-year transit veteran and SORTA CEO and General Manager Dwight Ferrell has said is probably the most common for a system to experience upon launch, was with complications surrounding the ticket-vending machines at each station

In the weeks following the streetcar's opening, multiple city leaders reported receiving emails from streetcar riders, frustrated with the ticket-purchasing process. The issues ran the gamut, from faulty credit card chip readers to confusing instructions and options to an additional "validation" that often went overlooked.

"There are always people who don't know how to use the ticket machine," Schwarz said.

Late last month, the transit authority announced a slew of upgrades to the ticket-vending machines, including doing away with the final validation step.

6. Overcrowding a dwindling issue

As the city celebrated its honeymoon period with its new streetcar, some riders met frustration in another way: There just wasn't enough room on the vehicle to ride.

It took less than a month for city administrators to request SORTA compel Transdev, the firm hired to operate the streetcar, to run additional vehicles, due to high demand.

SORTA ridership data from September and October showed the lunch rush to be one of the streetcar's busiest times, on some days even busier than rush hour, specifically between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

A WCPO analysis of that hourly data, though, found an average of about 77 passengers onboard a streetcar vehicle between the hours 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., peak lunchtime, which hardly stretches the boundaries of the vehicles' 150-passenger capacity.

Schwarz said she's only found the streetcar to be too crowded one time, but it was not during lunch.

"The lunch crowd is fine," she said, "plenty of seats and standing room."

7. The weather factor

In the case of inclement weather, lunch-goers considering the streetcar should take into account the weather forecast. 

SORTA spokeswoman Sallie Hilvers said ridership, especially during the streetcar's infancy, is difficult to predict, and that the upcoming cold weather could yield lower ridership overall, but could have a surprising effect during lunch.

"In the winter you sometimes see people slack off from riding," she told WCPO last week. "But then again, you might have people taking the streetcar because it's too cold to walk."

8. It will introduce you to places you've never been

Supporters of the streetcar boast one of the transit system's virtues -- due to its fixed-rail alignment -- as effectively forcing passengers to take a route they might have otherwise not have taken to get to their destination.

This not only introduces those paying attention to the dozens of dining options and other businesses along the route -- new and old -- but, Yung said, it's enhanced his love for places he visited and enjoyed but did so only intermittently. 

"It's really helped expand the reach of lunch options for me," he said. "(Findlay Market) has become one of my favorite spots. I go much more often than I used to before."

9. A reduction in daytime service could be ahead

As the transit authority continues to monitor ridership trends, officials will get a better understanding of when people are riding, and will most likely look for times of day when they can operate fewer vehicles as a cost-saving measure. The operations contract calls for a review of the service schedule after six months of service.

During last week's transportation committee meeting, Murray alluded to isolating lower ridership periods, which during the first two months sat in mid-morning, mid-afternoon and after the evening rush, as times when the number of vehicles in service could be reduced. 

In a sort of "If you build it, they will come," scenario, if lunchtime ridership begins to fall, it could mean fewer vehicles running through the lunch hour.

Committee members seemed to agree, though, that it's too early to draw any definitive conclusions from the ridership data currently available.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and development for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

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