Are Streetcars Back in Fashion? The Success of the Cincinnati Bell Connector

Streetcars might seem like little more than a symbol of the “good ole days.” The modernized version in Cincinnati, however, has seen consistently high ridership since its construction seven years ago. Is nostalgia the guiding force of its popularity, or perhaps convenience? Or could it be a model for other vehicle-dependent urban hubs? Cover graphic by Taylor Vanek for Midstory.

In 2023, while cities across the U.S. continue to struggle with the future of intracity public transit, the Cincinnati Bell Connector reached some of its highest ridership since the 7-year-old streetcar system was introduced. 

This is consistent with the trends seen in the past two years, according to the Department of Transportation and Engineering (DOTE). But the general public wasn’t always enthusiastic about the streetcar. In fact, Cincinnati’s transit history has followed a winding path.

The Queen City brought its first horse-drawn streetcar to the right-of-way in 1859, followed by its electrification in 1889. For the majority of its early life, the city’s streetcar flourished.

In 1920, the Census Bureau declared Cincinnati the 16th largest city in the United States; the increase in population density sparked motivation for improved public transit. After a failed attempt at a subway system, people flocked to the streetcars, which ran on 200 miles of tracks.

A streetcar on 4th Street in downtown Cincinnati in the 1940s. Image courtesy of Metro Bus via Wikimedia Commons.

But the streetcar struggled to compete with the onslaught of technological advancements during the first half of the twentieth century. As the auto industry boomed, so did personal vehicles, suburbanization and interstate highways. Combined with the city’s introduction of buses, the streetcar’s heyday was brought to a steady halt by 1951, leaving a murky future for Cincinnati streetcars.

Almost half a century later, independent streetcar supporters saw a light at the end of the tunnel. Streetcars were brought back into conversation when Cincinnati’s regional planning agency shared research that pointed to the likely benefit of a light-rail system in the area.

After years of additional research, efforts from residents, route and budget negotiations, as well as a slew of controversy among the Cincinnati City Council and Hamilton County commissioners, the issue finally got onto the ballot and was pushed forward by the City Council. 

The process involved numerous variations of the project, including a rubber-tired trolley system. But in the end, research showed that fixed-rail streetcars could “re-engage the neighborhood and help it grow,” according to John Brazina, Director of DOTE.

Fast forward to  2016 onward, and streetcars are traversing Cincinnati once again in the form of its modern iteration, The Connector. A 3.6 mile loop, the route extends from Over-the-Rhine to the Banks neighborhood, crossing through the Business District. 

Since then, this is what its ridership has looked like:

Brazina and Deputy Director of Streetcar Services, Lori Burchett, are looking beyond the numbers to understand what they really mean for the communities of Cincinnati. 

Due to the Connector having only been conceptualized in 2002, DOTE has yet to collect any longitudinal performance data.

Nonetheless, zooming in on the data month-to-month, or even day-to-day shows some trends. For instance, ridership consistently spikes in mid-October when Cincinnati’s immersive public art experience, Blink, occurs. Other events like Bengals and Reds games also draw riders downtown, bringing the Connector some of its highest numbers, according to Burchett.

Burchett, who has a background as an urban planner, says that the process of taking public transportation can often be intimidating, especially to new riders. Succinct routes in a figure eight loop and free rides are two of DOTE’s hypotheses as to why ridership is at an all-time high. 

According to Burchett, accessibility is another factor attributing to the Connector’s success. While the small-scale route is a characteristic inherent to fixed-rail electric streetcars, it also allows the system to serve the community in ways larger infrastructure wouldn’t. Along with level boarding, the inelaborate route map allows for a stress-free riding experience.

“It’s on a fixed route,” Burchett said, “which makes it comfortable for people to be able to hop off, and is much less intimidating knowing if you just stay for 32 minutes you can get back to where you started and not have to look at a whole system and how to make transfers.”

Moreover, financial barriers for riders were removed when the Cincinnati City Council voted to permanently eliminate fares in 2020, a decision catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Upon being asked whether the city has taken a hit from no longer receiving rider fees, Brazina explained that ridership fare data does not represent the true picture of revenue gained by the Connector. 

“It’s just not adding up,” Burchett said. “A lot more transit agencies are going fare-free …  as more of a community asset rather than a revenue generator.”

The Bell Connector in 2016 during its first weekend of public operation. Image courtesy of RickDikeman, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

While certainly a proxy for a transit mode doing well, ridership numbers reflect only a portion of the city’s big-picture goals for the streetcar.

According to Brazina, reducing driving vehicle dependency was an important factor in the streetcar’s revival. Cities may aspire to this for various reasons, ranging from interest in lowering fossil fuel emissions to attempting to reduce automobile-related deaths

Moreover, Ursula Miller, Communications Manager of DOTE, cited the feasibility study for the integral role economic development played in the rationale behind the Connector’s construction. The study claimed a potential $1.4 billion in “long-term benefits.” DOTE believes that this increase in the city’s economic productivity will mean more money available to channel into housing and public infrastructure.

Miller provided some examples of transit-oriented developments that Cincinnati has seen by virtue of the streetcar bringing more activity and pedestrian traffic to downtown. One notable landmark is the Kroger store in Over-the-Rhine, built in 2019 right on the streetcar line. Additionally, the Connector has fostered partnerships with local businesses and organizations in the area.

Burchett added that downtown, as it meets the eye, is quite different from just a decade ago. Newer developments are spurring popularity for the revitalization of the extant historic urbanscape, such as Finlay Market in Over-the-Rhine. 

Despite the promised benefits, it took some time for the public opinion to fully come around to the Connector’s presence. Some Cincinnatians saw the project as gratuitous given other issues pressing their hometown. After an initially bumpy ride — almost two decades of research and development, budget battles and the burden falling on voters to keep the idea from fizzling — DOTE is hopeful that the city is finally starting to see the advantages of having a fixed-rail system. 

While other modes of public transit have seen plummeting ridership due to an increase in working from home, the streetcar hasn’t — because it wasn’t intended as a commuter agent. 

According to Burchett, the Connector is meant to function as a complementary junction to existing transit services. This may not eliminate the presence of personal vehicles, but it could relieve some traffic congestion and provide extension into more neighborhoods.

“We’ll see people park in less expensive parking garages and take it to baseball games, football games, events,”  Burchett said.

The exact reasons behind higher ridership are hard to pinpoint. The economic development team at DOTE, however, are working to retrieve this data. The community can anticipate a rider-non-rider survey to gauge not only why people are riding the Connector, but why many still aren’t. While the Connector isn’t as extensive as its predecessor — and DOTE could eventually plan for an expansion — for now, with the combination of DOTE’s operational improvements, and a promising NFL presence, Miller wants to focus on immediate impact: “What can we do within the confines of our current footprint?”

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