After one year of service, did any streetcar myths prove true?

Posted at 6:00 AM, Sep 11, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-11 21:38:29-04

CINCINNATI -- Just before Cincinnati's streetcar launched a year ago, WCPO looked at the public's conceptions -- and misconceptions -- about the city's newest transit option. We examined concerns and debunked some myths that surrounded the streetcar as it set to start service.

But how many of those initial concerns actually proved to be true?

A number of the "myths" we looked at were simply pervasive misconceptions or just plain false information, such as streetcars running red lights (they have their own independent signals for changing lanes) or that building it cost more than what was budgeted (it didn't).

But some were time-will-tell cases. Now a year in, WCPO dug through 12 months of records and data to see what proved true, and which concerns turned out to be hollow.

'No one will ride it'

This was one of the biggest arguments rallied against the streetcar in the three years it took to build and launch.

As of Sept. 5, the streetcar has seen 729,510 rides, which is sizeable but not all the way there. Original projections called for closer to a million.

Among those who didn't have faith in the initial ridership projections, City Council member Chris Smitherman said to the city administration, "I don't trust the assumptions. I don't trust that 3,000 people a day are going to ride this." 

Turns out, Smitherman wasn't wrong to question the 3,000 figure. According to data collected by the city, the average ridership was closer to 2,000 rides taken per day. Saturday -- the streetcar's busiest day of the week by a sizeable margin -- nearly doubled the daily average, at 3,950 rides.

'It's just a tourist attraction'

One of the earliest worries to surface about the streetcar project was, some felt, the city was spending $150 million on what would prove to be a Downtown and Over-the-Rhine novelty, and not much more.

The ridership data show there was some basis to this.  

"Our busiest day by far has been Saturday, followed by Friday and Sunday," said City Council member and transportation committee chair Amy Murray. "So it's more of a weekend, people coming Downtown and riding the streetcar, as a tourist attraction."

Paul Grether, director of rail services for the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority -- which oversees streetcar operations -- didn't use the phrase tourist attraction, but did note that the weekends and special events boost the streetcar.

"The biggest thing we've learned in the first year of the streetcar is the popularity of ridership on the weekends," Grether told WCPO. "In that sense, it's kind of the opposite of the other service that Metro operates, which is much more commuter-, journey-to-work-based."

Derek Bauman, city council candidate and vocal rail transit supporter, said the low weekday ridership was not a result of low demand, but of low reliability.

"The high weekend numbers show that people like it," he said. Instead, he blames the low ridership on poor management, pointing out early glitches in ticketing machines, arrival displays, blocked tracks and late arrivals, among other issues.

"The fact of the matter is, with some of these operational issues, if wait times were shorter and the city had taken the proper steps with signal timing, more people would ride during the week.

"If you're out on lunch, you just don't have time," he said.

As late arrivals continued into the streetcar's second and third months, City Council directed the administration to conduct a traffic signal study throughout Downtown for the first time in more than 20 years.

'You won't have to pay to ride'

For the first several weeks of streetcar service, SORTA made the conscious decision not to check if passengers had paid their fare. This was for a couple of reasons: Not only did SORTA want to let riders unfamiliar with ticketing machines have a grace period to get used to them, but the ticket vending machines were frequently malfunctioning, as well.

It is industry standard for fare inspectors to check roughly 25 percent of all riders, and Grether said that is the operating procedure for his team. Fare inspectors wear brightly colored vests and ride along on the streetcar.

With a 75 percent chance that you won't be checked, it's no surprise that this concern surfaced.

"I know you're checking fares, but we continue to get blow back saying, 'No one's checking the fares on this, and people are riding for free,'" Council member Kevin Flynn said back in April.

The numbers seem to paint a different picture. As of June 30 -- the most recent data available -- the streetcar had generated nearly $468,000. Grether also reported that his fare inspectors were seeing a 99 percent compliance rate among the riders checked.

'You can walk faster than the streetcar'

This originated from a 2011 news report that measured the walking time of the loop at only a few minutes shorter than the estimated speed of the streetcar at the time.

What a year has shown us is that it really depends on where you're going and when. If you're trying to get anywhere along the route during rush hour, this statement could be accurate.

The biggest problem is Downtown traffic congestion, especially on Walnut Street, which Murray identified earlier this year as one of the worst problem spots in the city. The streetcar does not have a dedicated lane, so it's part of mixed traffic and experiences all the same obstacles as automobiles -- perhaps even more since it doesn't have the option to change lanes.

Contributing to the problem are vehicles that stop along the tracks, blocking the streetcar. According to city data, the streetcar has been blocked hundreds of times throughout the year, by everything from delivery trucks to Uber or Lyft drivers to emergency vehicles.

There's no way around it: This slows the system down.