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Posts about Cincinnati


Worldwide links: The most meaningful gold medal?

A US Olympic swimmer's gold medal feels like a triumph over the country's racist past, a Palo Alto planning commission member says she's leaving because it's too expensive to live there, and the guy who built Las Vegas' downtown housing should have gone up earlier in the process. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by Länsmuseet Gävleborg on Flickr.

More than just a gold medal: Last night, Simone Manuel became the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic swimming gold medal. Manuel's win is obviously impressive on its own, but it carries even more gravity given that swimming pools in the United States have long been bastions of racism and segregation. "If you know how Jim Crow metastasized in America's pools, you know how significant Simone Manuel's gold medal is," tweeted Post columnist and Maryland professor Kevin Blackistone. (Vox)

Restrictively high rents in Palo Alto: A member of the Palo Alto planning commission resigned, saying she's leaving the city because housing there is too expensive. Kate Vershov Downing, whose family was paying half the $6,200 rent for a house, says that zoning policies that ban 2-story apartments and otherwise restrict density are to blame for the city only being affordable to "Joe Millionaires." (Curbed SF)

Build housing earlier: In order to create a go-to destination away from the well-known Vegas Strip, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has pumped $350 million into downtown Las Vegas. Some businesses have come and gone, and Hsieh says that if he had it to do all over again, he'd have built housing sooner so more people would have been around to create foot traffic in the area. (CNBC)

Cincy subway, interrupted: Cincinnati built a subway in the early 1900s, but political battles scuttled the project and the trains never actually carried passengers. Today, some of the tunnels house water mains, and people are exploring other ways to use them. But Cincinnati really missed a chance to change the face of the city in the first half of the 20th century. (The Verge)

First electricity, then internet: Also in the early 1900s, people in rural areas in the United States had to form cooperatives in order to get electricity. Now, the laws and statutes that allowed those cooperatives are allowing electric companies to serve those very same areas with broadband internet that major companies deemed too expensive to provide. (New York Times)

The straddle bus on the struggle bus: Testing has been postponed for China's "straddle bus" (which is actually a train) that's supposed to straddle the road and drive over cars. The people who built it have billed it as a solution to busy streets , but the Chinese media is now wondering whether the entire thing is a scam. (Shanghaiist)

Quote of the Week

"In helmetsplaining, people who clearly do not ride bikes and do not know that there is a difference between racing down a mountain at maximum speed on a bike and going to the store for a quart of milk consider themselves experts in bicycle safety and lecture everyone else."

Lloyd Alter at Treehugger on the Olympic sport of "Helmetsplaining"


Another historic resource is threatened: parking lots

A group of preservationists in Cincinnati are very worried about a precious historic resource disappearing: surface parking lots in the center city.

As you might have guessed from the titles warning about how the 273 parking lots have tragically dwindled to 270, this is satirical, and was actually an April Fool's joke which Streetsblog recently pointed out.

Some people talk about preserving parking lots and aren't joking. Sometimes, it's because they really feel a parking lot is part of history (though it's still debatable if that's worth freezing these forever in time). At other times, this is a strategy to stop a new building, not because of history, but because people don't want the building.

In a place like Cincinnati which is not growing rapidly, preservation is not often blocking housing affordability. There, there are many old and unique buildings which simply need to be preserved. Doing so wouldn't drive people out of the city; if anything, it'll make the center city a more desirable place to live.

In DC, there are also such buildings which contribute to making the city better, but for the most part they already are preserved. The day-to-day preservation fights are not about the architectural jewels but about whether historic preservation is also a tool to simply stop neighborhoods from having more new residents.


Tennessee's BRT feud shows even modest projects face opposition

Often when a new city proposes its first rail line, opponents who don't like spending money on transit call for BRT instead. So it's tempting to think cities might have an easier time implementing new transit lines if they simply planned BRT from the start. Unfortunately, BRT often faces the exact same opposition.

Two projects that have faced major opposition, the Nashville BRT (left) and Cincinnati streetcar (right). Images from the cities of Nashville and Cincinnati.

Nashville is the latest city to face strong opposition to its first BRT project, called the Amp. The Tennessee state legislature recently passed a bill blocking the line.

The debate mirrors one going on a few hundred miles north, in Cincinnati. There, opponents tried to kill that city's first streetcar line. The state government even tried to block it.

Both Nashville and Cincinnati are among America's most car-dependent and least transit-accessible large cities. Nashville's entire regional transit agency only carries about 31,000 passengers per day. Cincinnati's carries about 58,000.

For comparison, Montgomery County's Ride-On bus carries 87,000, never mind WMATA.

In places like Nashville and Cincinnati, authorities have ignored transit for so long that any attempt to take it seriously is inherently controversial, regardless of the mode.

Arguments may fixate on rails, dedicated lanes, or overhead wires, but for at least some opponents those issues seem to be simply vehicles for larger ideological opposition.

That may sometimes be true even in places with stronger transit cultures. Arlington's streetcar and Montgomery's BRT network are both controversial themselves. Both have plenty of detractors who say the plans are unaffordable or would get in the way of cars.

Ultimately there are many reasons a city hoping to improve transit might choose BRT or rail. The two modes are both useful, and smart cities use them both based on the specific needs of the location.

But either way, expect similar tropes from opposition. It's inescapable.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Europe's real streetcar lesson: Context matters

In the ongoing debate about where and when to build streetcars, the topic of whether they should run in mixed-traffic or dedicated lanes is a major point of contention. But outside the ivory tower of the blogosphere, it's not an ideological question so much as a contextual one.

Like many cities, Portland builds both. Photo by BeyondDC.

Virtually all transit advocates agree that both rail and buses run better when you give them a dedicated right of way. But since real life isn't SimCity, cities only dedicate space to transit where the geographic and political context allows.

For most cities, that means dedicated transitways sometimes, and mixed-traffic others.

But Stephen Smith, who blogs at Next City and Market Urbanism, has made it a point to categorically attack mixed-traffic streetcars:

Smith admits that Europe does build mixed-traffic streetcars, but argues theirs usually have fewer and shorter mixed-traffic segments.

While the lines Malouff mentioned do at times travel in lanes with cars, these segments are, with one exception, very short.
That's true. It's because European cities are starting from a stronger transit context than most US cities. Many of them still run their original mixed-traffic trolley networks, so they don't need to build those now. Meanwhile, with such convenient transit networks already in place, taking lanes from cars is more politically palatable.

Yet still, Stephen admits that European cities use mixed-traffic when the context is appropriate.

Of course that's what they do. That's what US cities do too. That's what everyone does.

That's why DC's east-west streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on H Street but will have a dedicated transitway downtown, why Arlington's streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on Columbia Pike but in a transitway in Potomac Yard, and why Seattle's South Lake Union streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on Westlake Avenue but in a transitway on Valley Street.

Context is why Tacoma and Houston have transitway streetcars, while Tucson and Atlanta will have the exact same vehicle models running in mixed-traffic. It's why Salt Lake City's "light rail" sometimes runs in the street, while its "streetcar" runs in an old freight corridor. And it's why Portland runs a mixed-traffic streetcar line and a dedicated-lane light rail one on perpendicular streets through the same intersection.

And it's why half the cities in Europe run a combination of mixed and dedicated trams.

That isn't an argument for or against mixed-traffic streetcars, nor for or against BRT, nor for or against anything. It's an admission that everyone builds the best thing they can based on the circumstances of where they are, who they are, and what they're trying to accomplish.

It's an admission that context matters, and we all make decisions based on real world constraints and opportunities rather than black and white dogma.

Don't use hypothetical perfects to ruin real life goods

Smith is right that every streetcar line in America that's planned to run in mixed-traffic would be better if it had a transitway. Every one. In the places where dedicated lanes aren't proposed, it's totally appropriate to ask why not, and advocate for their inclusion. Transit advocates should absolutely be doing that.

But if we don't get everything we want, we need not take our ball and go home. There are plenty of benefits to streetcars besides where they run, plenty of room for meaningful transit improvements even without a lane.

Sometimes there's a good reason for running in mixed-traffic. Probably not as often as it actually happens, but sometimes. For example on Columbia Pike, where Arlington is prohibited from taking lanes.

Even if the only reason is political, as it seems to be in Cincinnati, some places face such a monumental uphill battle to get anything transit-related done, even a single mixed-traffic streetcar can raise regional transit ridership by almost 10%. That's a huge victory in a place where holding out for something perfect would likely kill the project completely.

What transit advocates shouldn't be doing is falsely claiming that nobody except misguided Americans builds streetcars. It's not true and it's not helpful. Broad brush attacks lead others to pen bogus anti-rail screeds with misleading information.

So by all means, let's do more to fight for transitways. But in our attempts to do so, let's not tear down the places that for whatever reason are merely capable of making good investments instead of perfect ones.

For the record, the same argument is true for BRT. Sometimes it's the right answer, even though BRT creep, where costly transit features are stripped away to save money, is often a problem.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Streetcars are more flexible about capacity

Streetcars and buses have different strengths and weaknesses, and are better at accomplishing different goals. Flexibility is often touted as a major strength of buses. Although buses are legitimately more nimble in some ways, when it comes to flexibility of capacity, it's streetcars that have the edge.

Image from the American Public Transportation Association.

It's true that buses have tremendous routing flexibility. Since buses can operate on any normal traffic lane, routes can be reconfigured on a whim and individual buses are free to move around obstacles. These are real benefits, and sometimes they mean that a route is best off using buses.

At the same time, streetcars are customizable for high-capacity service in ways that aren't available for buses.

Streetcars can be longer

In simplest terms, streetcars can be longer than buses. Since streetcars run on tracks, there is no danger of jackknifing. Likewise, since streetcars are powered by overhead wire, there's not a single engine distributing power. Thus there's no physical limit to their length.

For example, streetcar manufacturer CAF offers its Urbos model in options ranging from 60 feet long up to 141 feet long. Bombardier's similar Flexity model comes in any length from 69 feet up to 148 feet.

Portland's famous streetcar is a relatively diminutive 65 feet long, but longer vehicles are beginning to show up in North America. Cincinnati is using a 77 foot long Urbos for its future line, and the first 78 foot long Siemens S70s have already been delivered to Atlanta. In Toronto, 99 foot long Flexities will soon ply the continent's largest streetcar network.

99' long Toronto streetcar. Image by Bombardier.

And that's just single streetcar vehicles. Streetcars can also be coupled into trains of multiple cars, so transit agencies that own shorter vehicles can still get the benefits of extra length without needing new railcars.

Agencies that want to run longer trains do have to provide longer stations, but since streetcar stations are typically simple, that's relatively easy to accomplish.

Ultimately the limiting factor on streetcar length is the size of city blocks. Streetcars can't typically be longer than one city block, lest they block traffic on perpendicular streets. But city blocks are usually hundreds of feet long, so streetcars can still be much longer than buses.

Streetcars can have diverse interiors

Even compared to buses of exactly the same length, streetcars can support a higher passenger capacity. Since gliding along rails is so much more smooth than rumbling along asphalt, and since there's no need for huge wheel wells, it's more practical for streetcars to have a lot of open space that maximizes standing capacity.

Interior of one of DC's streetcars. Photo by BeyondDC.

The 3 streetcars that DC has in storage use this strategy. They're 65 feet long, but they have much more capacity than a 60 foot long articulated bus because of the open floor plan. The trade off, of course, is that they have fewer seats, but only streetcars practically offer the choice.

What kind of flexibility is more important?

Faced with the choice of operational flexibility or capacity flexibility, which one rules?

It depends on the needs of the corridor and the goals of the transit line. Sometimes buses are the correct answer, and other times it's streetcars.

Sometimes it might make sense to use both on the same corridor. For example, streetcars capable of providing very high capacity might serve most passengers along a line, while buses capable of skipping around traffic might serve longer express trips on the same road.

There are 157 WMATA bus routes in the District of Columbia alone, with hundreds more WMATA and non-WMATA routes around the region. The majority of them are probably better served with buses, but some of them are undoubtedly better fits for streetcars.

The key for decision makers is to embrace the differences inherent to each mode, and decide accordingly.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Urban football stadiums in the US: The good

On Monday, several GGW contributors debated whether DC could or should accommodate a new stadium to bring the Redskins back to the District. We asked some of our colleagues in other cities if they would share thoughts on the experiences of their towns.

Photo by omarr on Flickr.

Yesterday, we heard about the problems faced in Indianapolis and St. Louis. Today we look at a few cases that show there's hope for more successful urban stadiums.

Aaron Renn is the Urbanophile, a nationally recognized expert on urban issues, who lives and works in Chicago.

Chicago's Soldier Field is a bit unique among US football stadiums. It exists in the urban center, but not as part of the urban fabric. Rather, it is located in the lakefront park, just south of Roosevelt Road where the Grant Park restriction on buildings is lifted. Because of this restriction, the area actually has several buildings, including the so-called Museum Campus of the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium.

Soldier Field has long been cut off from the city by Lake Shore Drive and the Illinois Central Railroad. In fact, the stadium at one point was in the median of the roadway, which split around it. The railroad now provides transit access to the stadium via the Metra Electric line, as do multiple nearby CTA rail and bus lines.

Soldier Field was actually opened in 1924 and while it was used for football games, the Bears actually did not start playing there until 1971. Prior to that they played at Wrigley Field. So whatever the merits or lack thereof of the stadium's location, it has little to do with pro football.

The stadium was extensively reconstructed to be a long term home for the Bears in 2003. As with most teams, they said they could not make enough money in the old stadium. After the typical local debate, it was decided to renovate Soldier Field. But perhaps the term obliterate is more appropriate. The new stadium retained the classical colonnades, but little else.

There is now a completely modern seating bowl that is quite nice. However, the exterior architecture is all modernist glass that presents a jarring contrast with the old stadium, leading some to brand it the "UFO that landed on Soldier Field." This was decried by preservationists but to no avail. Ultimately, the US government stripped Soldier Field of its status as a National Historic Landmark—the highest designation of historic site given by the feds—as a result of this project.

Photo by joseph a on Flickr.
Some might say that a stadium is inappropriate on the lakefront. The classical elegance of the old stadium fit right in gracefully, however. The same cannot be said of the new. However, the lakefront has ample open space, and there's no per se problem with using that land for a stadium. Also, the parking that normally blights stadiums in downtowns is limited to one parking garage used also by the museums, so doesn't go to waste as in so many other cities. Some urbanists might decry it, saying hulking stadiums belong in the suburbs, but Soldier Field has been an integral part of Chicago's lakefront for decades, and few would likely choose to remove it. The new modernist bowl will remain an architectural blight for years to come, however.

Randy A. Simes earned a Bachelor of Urban Planning degree from the University of Cincinnati in 2009. He is a master planner at CH2M HILL and writes about urban public policy and planning issues for the Cincinnati Business Courier and UrbanCincy.

Through its history, Cincinnati has seen a typical evolution of urban sports venues for American cities. The intersection of Findlay and Western, in Cincinnati's West End neighborhood housed the Cincinnati Reds from 1864 through 1970 in three iterations of ballparks—League Park, Palace of the Fans, and Crosley Fielduntil the team moved with the Cincinnati Bengals football team to Riverfront Stadium.

The Bengals also spent their first two years playing at Nippert Stadium on the University of Cincinnati's campus uptown. But when the two teams moved to Riverfront Stadium, they followed a national trend of cookie cutter stadiums in urban environments meant to serve as economic development generators. The problem was that the promise never came to fruition in the cities that went after the golden egg.

Most of those same cities have rebuilt their professional sports venues, many in the urban core. But the question still remains whether the return on investment is worth the valuable land for these lightly-used behemoths.

Photo from JT K on Flickr.
In Cincinnati, the Reds host more than 81 games every year drawing tens of thousands of fans to each event. Additional events are held at the ballpark, and its related attractions, throughout the year that also create a draw. Four blocks away, Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Bengals, hosts 10 games each year in addition to the smattering of high school events and concerts held there annually.

The result is a larger football stadium with far fewer events and a ballpark with more events but smaller crowds. The winner in this case is the ballpark, and the new generation of urban ballparks appears to be as successful as the original wave of urban ballparks in the late 19th century.

The problem with urban football stadiums can be both a structural issue and a programmatic issue. In the case of Paul Brown Stadium it is more about the program. The large, tailgating-bound crowds demand available parking for their pre- and post-game festivities.

In Cincinnati, developers are currently constructing The Banks, a mixed-use urban entertainment node wedged between Great American Ball Park and Paul Brown Stadium and will eventually house thousands of new residents. Before each phase of development begins, it must first have two-floors of underground parking built before it even begins to satisfy the parking demands for the new residents and workers to be housed above.

Photo by the.urbanophile on Flickr.
Once complete, The Banks may set the stage for a truly unique urban sports and entertainment area, one that would have no surface parking and force tens of thousands of sports fans, visiting the area, out onto the streets for live music, food, drink, and festivities. This may end up being Paul Brown Stadium's saving grace.
The beautiful thing about professional sports venues is that they can turn what is otherwise worthless land into something economically productive and thus improve land values in nearby areas. But most often franchise owners often want their venues to be located in prime real estate so that they can maximize their visibility. In Cincinnati that meant handing over prime waterfront property to two large concrete masses that only stay active a fraction of the year.

When other cities examine plans for an urban sports venue of their own, they should keep more in mind than the wishes of the franchise ownership and the promise of skyline shots on national television once or twice a year. Less is more. You want the venue to blend in so that it does not detract from its surroundings when it is inevitably non-active. You want the venue to be versatile so that it can serve other functions beyond that of playing baseball or football. And most importantly, get rid of the parking so that venue's support facilities do not kill what you want the venue to create—economic development.

Martin H. Duke is the Editor-in-Chief of Seattle Transit Blog. An Electrical Engineer who grew up in the DC area, Martin has lived in Seattle since 1997.

Seattle, a city of 600,000, is somewhat unique in having not one but two big-time football stadiums within its city limits. One is seldom used, but not in an urban neighborhood; the other is on the edge of downtown but is combined into a bustling event district.

Husky Stadium, home of the University of Washington Huskies, is used for only seven major events a year. However, it is bordered by a lake, the University campus, medical center, and the rest of the athletic complex. Opening in 1920, nothing around it could be remotely described as an urban neighborhood.

However, Husky Stadium also sits on a transportation chokepoint. At one end of only two bridges that provide connectivity with the prosperous eastern suburbs, in the peak dozens of buses pass by each hour on their way to campus, and one of Seattle's few light rail stations will open in its parking lot in 2016. There is a strong case that the land should be used more intensively and the Huskies should share a home with the Seahawks. Regardless, many people treasure an emotional and historical connection with Husky stadium, and the Athletic department has zero interest in such a move. They are privately raising $300 million to renovate the stadium after being rebuffed by a broke state legislature.

Photo by Erwyn van der Meer on Flickr.
Qwest Field was only opened in 2002, but lies on the site of the old Kingdome, built in 1977 upon Seattle's entry into the NFL. The densest part of the downtown core is only blocks away; in between lies the historic Pioneer Square district, dense but low-rise. Beyond Qwest is the Mariners' Safeco Field and industrial-zoned land. Qwest also lies amidst the greatest transportation hub in the Pacific Northwest: light rail, Amtrak, commuter rail, ferries, hundreds of local bus routes, and three freeways all converge there.

Because the Mariners also provide 81 home dates, and the MLS Sounders have had freakishly high attendance at Qwest (36,000 a game!), it's difficult to separate the impact of the NFL from everything else going on. Pioneer Square is a particularly active nightlife district, which meshes pretty well with the sports bar scene. There is a pretty large chunk of social services there, which tends to attract transients and drive off the more squeamish among us.

Photo by camknows on Flickr.
One promising trend is the disappearance of surface parking. When one stadium turned into two, several surface lots were replaced with two stadium garages. The last remaining major surface lot is slated to become 950 condos and apartments, doubling the number of residents in Pioneer Square to join the jobs, shops, and recreational options already there.

It would be difficult to say that Pioneer Square is thriving, but equally difficult to say that having adjacent regional attractions is hurting it. I think the key lesson is that taking away the moat of parking allows the stadium to be properly integrated into the neighborhood.


Streetcars reduce congestion

1920s streetcar ad, Cincinnati:

Urban Cincy via The Overhead Wire.

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