As events like Oktoberfest Zinzinnati and BLINK grow, can Downtown still handle the traffic?

Posted at 3:57 PM, Sep 19, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-19 20:41:21-04

CINCINNATI -- In its more than 40-year history, Oktoberfest Zinzinnati has seen hundreds of thousands of visitors flood the urban core, growing more and more popular each year. But as big festivals like Oktoberfest, Taste of Cincinnati and BLINK grow bigger and bigger, Downtown and Over-the-Rhine streets aren't getting any wider.

It's a challenge that Lori Salzarulo, with the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce, said is on her mind each year. Salzarulo is the chamber's Senior Event Coordinator, and this weekend will mark her 17th Oktoberfest Zinzinnati.

"It's been very steady in growth," she told WCPO. "When we were up on Fifth Street, it was interesting because you could feel the growth because you're finite in Fifth Street just from beginning to end."

The chamber anticipates an Oktoberfest attendance of roughly 675,000 this year -- about what the festival saw last year, according to chamber spokesman Rich Walburg. During the first-ever BLINK art and lights festival in Cincinnati last fall, Downtown, OTR and The Banks saw an estimated 1 million people -- a record for a single event in the city's urban core.

As WCPO has previously reported, the event exposed some lingering struggles the neighborhoods face when it comes to accommodating big crowds.

COLUMN: What BLINK taught us about getting around Downtown, OTR

Crowds swell, streets shrink

On one hand, Downtown is notorious throughout the city for its persistent congestion -- so much so that the city has nearly concluded an extended traffic signal timing study. It's the first time engineers have examined the signal patterns in more than 20 years.

With BLINK, some 10-minute trips could take more than half an hour. Shortly after the light festival, Metro bus rider Cam Hardy told WCPO, "It took me 37 minutes to get from right here at Fifth and Main to Main and Liberty." That's little more than 15 blocks through Downtown and the southern half of OTR.

A city spokesman told WCPO in an email, in part:

"BLINK was a new event that brought a unique set of challenges... The initial assumption was that most individuals taking part in BLINK would walk, ride a bike or utilize the Cincinnati Bell Connector (streetcar) to get around the urban core; many people did that. However, due to the size of the event area, a considerable number of people ended up driving around to look at the light displays/artworks spread between The Banks, the Central Business District and Over-the-Rhine. This led to more and lengthier traffic backups than initially anticipated."

In 2016, leaders with the city and the chamber decided to relocate Oktoberfest from its original site centered around Fountain Square on Fifth Street to Second and Third streets near The Banks. For Salzarulo, this meant more space.

"Once we moved down to the new site, it was a lot easier for us to accommodate more people again with more infrastructure," she said. "So, it's actually worked well. We learn things every year, but we've just been able to make it a little better each time."

With the move came new strategies for street closures and parking options, Salzarulo said. "We work with police and (the department of) traffic and engineering. They tell us what the best patterns would be. They tell us where those closures need to be."

She mentioned Elm and Vine streets specifically as two normally one-way streets that go at least partially two-way during the festival so Downtown residents can access their homes.

Salzarulo added that the chamber also partners with navigation apps like Waze -- which also feeds information to Google Maps -- to push out street closures and parking options to visitors who aren't as familiar with the street grid.

"We do weekly communication with all the businesses and parking garages in this area to say, 'What else can we do? Is there any other communication we should look at?' If you have the Waze app, you're coming around our street closures to get into these garages."

A safe place to walk around

The closures don't really pose too much of a challenge for people living Downtown, according to Sue Byrom. Byrom heads the Downtown Residents Council, and she said the closures aren't so much a hassle, but parking can be for residents.

"You know, they can't go around towing when you've got people trying to park all the time," she said. "If you go down Riverside, you'll find some cars are parked in front of hydrants and things like that, which you get worried about if a fire does happen and they can't get to it."

READ MORE: Oktoberfest 2018 street closures

For the most part, though, Byrom said Downtown neighbors make due with the situation.

"You know where you can’t drive, and some roads will be more blocked off than others," she said. "But I think we all just adapt, and it doesn’t happen that often so overwhelmingly that we can’t get around."

Byrom said for her neighbors, Oktoberfest and other big festivals are instances when the Central Business District really gets to stretch its legs as a "walkable" neighborhood.

"It's definitely an urban core, but the word that comes up over and over again is 'walkable,'" she told WCPO. "That's really, really important for it."

For Byrom, the streetcar has made a "big difference," at least with connecting Over-the-Rhine parking options to The Banks.

"You can't imagine the numbers of people who are waiting to get on the car and get off it. I mean, it's jammed," she said. "For people who don’t have a car or don’t want to try to deal with the parking, it’s perfect. I mean, hop on, hop off: It’s great."

Mostly for Byrom, though, big Downtown events are less about clogged traffic and stuffed parking garages and more about showing off the business district as a residential area that is friendly to families.

"People that I know who live Downtown absolutely love the crowds," she said. "It was so great to have so many families out, you know, because there's still this hangover from (the 2001 riots) that says, 'Oh, I don't know how you can live down there. It's so scary.' Well, we live down here. We walk around at night. It's not scary."

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