City recommends 'signal prioritization' for transit, but what will that mean for the streetcar?

Streetcar strikes Metro bus downtown
Posted at 5:00 AM, Jul 11, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-11 15:27:31-04

CINCINNATI — The city's beleaguered streetcar system could be one step toward greater reliability and faster arrival times. At least, that's what city administrators hope.

City Manager Patrick Duhaney announced in a memo Monday afternoon that his administration is recommending the Department of Transportation and Engineering move forward with a proposal to install "traffic signal prioritization" technology at up to four busy intersections along the streetcar's 3.6-mile loop through Over-the-Rhine, Downtown and The Banks.

Duhaney suggested extending green light times by 10 seconds at key intersections, saying it would help reduce the impact of often-heavy Downtown traffic on the streetcar, which has to follow the exact same traffic laws as cars and buses.

"Without TSP, the streetcar must stop at red lights, leading to system-wide delays," he wrote. "Installing TSP at four locations along the streetcar route will help improve streetcar on-time performance ... which in turn should increase the overall customer experience."

It didn't take long after the streetcar's launch in September 2016 for a painful truth to emerge: Because the streetcar does not have its own right-of-way, it is subject to the same ebbs and flows of Downtown traffic as every other vehicle on the city's surface streets.

This prompted City Council to order the administration to prepare a Downtown traffic study, analyzing all modes of transportation and how smoothly they flow through the central business district. It was the first time the city studied its traffic signal infrastructure in more than 20 years.

"We are way behind," then-chair of the council's transportation committee Amy Murray said. The typical time frame for revisiting traffic signal patterns is closer to five or 10 years.

"We’ve been calling for this kind of thing from the beginning and we’ve seen other cities pursue this," said Derek Bauman, streetcar proponent and Southwest Ohio Regional Director of All Aboard Ohio, a statewide rail transit advocacy group. "It is long overdue, but it is refreshing to see progress being made to improve the operations."

By performing the traffic study and exploring traffic signal prioritization, Cincinnati's streetcar is not the first to consider the technology for years. Kansas City's KC Streetcar — which follows a similar route design, uses identical vehicles to Cincinnati's, and launched just five months earlier — has used some signal prioritization since its beginnings.

"The intent is to make the system more intelligent and more efficient," Ralph Davis, deputy director of Kansas City Public Works, told the Kansas City Star in 2016.

Oklahoma City opened its own streetcar late last year. By February 2019, lawmakers were taking action to install traffic signal priority measures.

The strategy has taken a national hold, as well. The National Association of City Transportation Officials recommends signal prioritization "(w)here signals are a major source of delay for transit."

In March of this year, then-DOTE transit manager John Brazina presented recommendations on improving mobility throughout Downtown, including installing traffic signal prioritization devices at four intersections along the streetcar's route:

  • Liberty and Race streets
  • Liberty and Elm streets
  • Walnut and Ninth streets
  • Walnut and Second streets

In his memo this week, Duhaney included more specifics, including how much travel time the TSPs would save streetcar riders each day. Those estimates ranged from 3-and-a-half minutes to 5-and-a-half minutes throughout the day, according to a report by Cincinnati-based architecture, engineering and planning firm Brandstetter Carroll Inc.

Bauman thinks those estimates might be low.

"Off the top of my head, that seems low because of the compounding effect. If you miss one light you miss others later down the line," he said.

The use of traffic signal priority for transit purposes has not met universal support among the city's elected officials. When first proposed as a solution to the streetcar's arrival delays, Mayor John Cranley said prioritizing signals for transit was at odds with the 90% of Downtown commuters who drive.

"I don't believe that rush-hour traffic should have to wait for the streetcar," he told City Council.

TSP is just one of several actions recommended or taken by city officials to reduce streetcar delays. Last month, City Council voted to increase the fine for blocking the streetcar tracks from $50 to $100, and DOTE officials are in the process of testing on-pavement lettering that reads "DO NOT BLOCK THE STREETCAR/PARK INSIDE LINE OR BE TOWED."

Duhaney said he estimates installation of the TSP devices would cost between $80,000 and $100,000.