The streetcar's here! Are we ready?

CINCINNATI -- Whether you like it or not, it's here. But are we ready for the streetcar?

Cincinnati's newest public transit option, the 3.6-mile Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar loop, opens for passenger service at noon Friday, Sept. 9. It will connect Over-the-Rhine, Downtown and The Banks via five on-street rail cars running at 12- to 15-minute intervals with 18 stops along the way.

As far as public works projects go, the Queen City was ready to take it on (despite some political friction along the way): Laying the rails and preparing the vehicles came in on time and slightly under budget.

But, as WCPO recently discovered through an unofficial quiz of our readers, the city might still have a lot to learn about the streetcar. Out of roughly 660 respondents, almost 500 scored below 60 percent.

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To be fair, anything new -- especially something at the scale of a whole new transit system -- will bring with it a certain learning curve.

But, according to Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority spokeswoman Brandy Jones, learning to ride the streetcar is as simple as, well, riding it.

"We think learning to ride the Cincinnati Bell Connector will be a snap," Jones told WCPO. "After customers take their first trip and see how easy it is to navigate, ride and purchase their fare, the second trip will be a breeze."

Jones said she and her outreach team have been hitting the streets for the last year to host educational events and other awareness programs -- primarily along the route, so far -- to make sure people who live, work and play in the area have the knowledge necessary to both use the streetcar and to be safe around it while it's running.

"Any and everywhere around the route, we went."

Jones and her team hosted or attended roughly 100 events in the 12 months leading up to Friday's launch, she said, at schools, businesses, community council meetings, the public library and various disability centers along the route, as well. At those presentations, SORTA handed out educational materials on topics ranging from how to purchase fare to how to board if one is using a wheelchair or other mobility device -- bicycles can also be brought on board -- to how to cross the tracks safely.

This also included monthly meetings open to the public, held at the Aronoff Center, as well as attendance at the Reds' Opening Day celebration throughout Downtown and The Banks.

"We tried to think about all kinds of riders," she said.

Earlier this summer, SORTA, in conjunction with the city of Cincinnati, produced and released a series of safety videos, as well, specifically focused on bicycle and pedestrian safety around the streetcar:

Queen City Bike and Red Bike also partnered with the transit authority to provide lessons on how to ride around and across the streetcar tracks. SORTA also hosted a disability awareness safety day.

"People who live and work down here are getting more and more use to seeing it out on the road," Jones said, pointing to the nearly nine months of on-street testing SORTA has undertaken since the beginning of the year. Each vehicle is required to log 500 kilometers (that's nearly 100 times around the loop) on the tracks before being cleared for passenger service. Last month, the streetcar began running its full service schedule. 

"People are starting to notice it and listen for it," she said.

But what about visitors from the region's more outlying areas? Will they know everything they need to know?

And what about those who just aren't familiar with how public transit works in general -- who, Jones said, will likely make up a significant portion of streetcar riders?

It's for these folks that SORTA will leverage the city's Downtown Ambassador program, a team of more than 30 who -- beyond being trained in providing public safety and customer service seven days a week throughout Cincinnati's urban core -- now also have training in instructing streetcar riders on how the system works.

"They've had training to be ambassadors to any visitors who may come," Jones said. "We're relying on them."

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In addition to the ambassadors, each streetcar vehicle, while in service, will have a fare inspector onboard who will double as a customer service associate of sorts, answering riders' questions.

For big events, such as Oktoberfest Zinzinnati, scheduled for just the streetcar's second weekend of operation: "We'll have a presence, helping people learn how to ride for the first time," she said.

Danny Korman, who owns Park + Vine on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine just a couple hundred feet from a streetcar stop, has had his ear to the ground since the streetcar project's conception. For him, the question of "streetcar readiness" will probably remain a result of one's attitude, at least to start.

"There's clearly enthusiasm for the streetcar, and then there are people who continue to call it a 'choo-choo train' or a 'trolley,' which it's not," Korman said. "Hopefully people will experience it for themselves firsthand, rather than relying on what they read online in comments sections of news stories."

Beyond how to use it, though, the streetcar has already meant changes to traffic laws and configurations, which went into effect last month when the streetcar began running its full service schedule. 

It didn't take long for a couple crashes to occur. The second week of August saw two collisions with other cars, one of which was ruled the other driver's fault, with the other, at last check, having no fault assigned.

There have been no major traffic incidents reported in the weeks to follow, and no reports of pedestrians or cyclists struck either.

Also last month, the city installed additional signage, bollards and street striping to help inform drivers about new lane configurations.

It's a similar story to what's coming out of Kansas City, which launched a very similar streetcar system back in May. Not only have their ridership numbers more than doubled transit officials' expectations, but Kansas City police also told WCPO they've had no major incidents since two that occurred not long after opening.

"We're just happy about the streetcar all the way around," Kansas City Police Sgt. Tony Sanders told WCPO by phone. "It seems like, it's one of those things where people, when they get on the streetcar and see how clean it is, how efficient it is, there's security on there -- it's one of those happy things."

According to Kansas City Streetcar Authority spokeswoman Donna Mandelbaum, the city has had zero tickets and zero tows along its streetcar route since June.

"People are getting it," Mandelbaum said. "We've seen the learning curve decrease."

With Friday's grand opening, Cincinnati is now poised to find out if we can "get it," too.

For all things streetcar, follow WCPO transportation and development reporter, Pat LaFleur, on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

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