Downtown Signal Study Stuck in Political Traffic

Every weekday tens of thousands of commuters in downtown Cincinnati struggle in traffic to get onto the highway and back to their homes in other neighborhoods or the suburbs. However, City Hall is stalling on taking advantage of a unique opportunity to capitalize on funds to study and re-time the traffic signals to benefit all road users downtown.

The last time the traffic patterns of the city’s downtown Central Business District were studied was in the mid 1990’s. Back then the city had about 80,000 workers (a New York Times article puts the number at 82,000 in 1991) which is about 17,000 more than the most recent Downtown Cincinnati Inc. count of 65,000.

There are plenty of other things that have happened in downtown Cincinnati since the last traffic signal study, such as the reconfiguration and realignment of Fort Washington Way, the building of the Banks development, an increase of over 10,000 residents and of course the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar.

A traffic study and signal improvements would benefit all modes of transportation downtown

The funds for the study would come from the Cincinnati Streetcar Contingency Fund, basically funds left over from the construction and startup of the system. The study would not only allow the city’s Department of Transportation and Engineering (DOTE) to conduct the study but also would fund much needed upgrades to signals across downtown.

This would allow for the city to implement a more robust and flexible traffic timing scheme beyond the archaic three phase programming of the current signal system which is only programmed for rush hour, non-rush hour and weekend traffic patterns.

In October, City Council voted to approve a motion to start the traffic study.  Since then, however, progress has been stalled for unknown reasons.  The study was discussed again in council chambers this week as Council members probed Metro and City Administration on streetcar operations.

Streetcar supporters are quick to blame the city leadership on stalling to create a narrative that the streetcar is a failure. And the response to that, to blame Transdev, the company that operates the streetcar, should not go unheeded. However; the city is stalling on a golden opportunity to modernize and coordinate downtown traffic for the 21st Century.

This is a project that would fit perfectly into the data driven decision-making vision this administration values. And maybe we will all benefit from time saved being stuck in traffic whether we are drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, bus commuters or even streetcar riders.

  • Steve Weide

    I think the problem is that it is tied to the streetcar when really it shouldn’t be. The traffic study is something that needs to be done for the city in general, not specifically for the streetcar. Council has put off doing one for 20 years when they are normally done every 5-10. Now that the streetcar is pushing it, everyone assumes the only reason to do one is because it will benefit the streetcar, so it is more “wasteful spending” on the streetcar they hate. In reality it is something that needs to be done for the city as a whole, and will benefit all the traffic. But trying to convince the streetcar haters of that when the money is coming from the streetcar budget is nearly impossible.

  • It’s hard to believe that the city wants to take an honest look at the situation and do an unbiased traffic study when the Mayor’s former Chief of Staff and current Campaign Manager tweets things like:

    “Elitism of streetcar: Disrupt traffic for 10s of thousands of drivers to accommodate hundreds of streetcar riders.”

    “You don’t think that giving the streetcar a constant green light will disrupt traffic?”

    By the way, no one is suggesting “giving the streetcar a constant green light.” The plan is to do a traffic study and figure out how to coordinate all modes of transportation downtown. Council did push for signal priority for the streetcar and Metro*Plus buses, using the logic that a vehicle with dozens of passengers should be prioritized over single-occupancy vehicles. But that’s hardly going to “disrupt traffic.”

    • Jesse

      Giving streetcars signal priority is a good idea. So is giving the streetcar a dedicated traffic lane.

      Streetcar supporters shouldn’t be afraid to take on this “elitism” line of attack. The streetcar is better for our city than private cars. It doesn’t matter how many people ride as opposed to drive. This isn’t a popularity contest. This is the future we decided on and it needs to be prioritized. We didn’t spend all that money to stage some kind of transit experiment. The city should do anything it can to make sure the streetcar is faster and more convenient than driving within its service area.

      So I’m basically saying complaining about rigging the system against cars is dumb. After spending all that time and money building the system, one would ASSUME the city would put their fingers on whatever scales it took to make the streetcar was the best way to get around downtown.

  • Jesse

    It’s amazing that none of this was done during the Streetcar’s design. Better late than never I guess.

    The traffic patterns issue is far from the only baffling oversight or misguided decision. For example, it’s good that they got rid of the ticket validation process, but why was that put in place to begin with? The confusing and time consuming ticketing process was such an obviously bad idea it should have been tossed early on. I was dumbstruck the first time I used one of those machines at how user-unfriendly it was. No streetcar system I’ve ever used had machines like that. Why not just copy what works other places?

    And the system that predicts when streetcars will arrive still doesn’t work? To ensure a good rider experience, they shouldn’t have given the green light to start operation until that was fixed. Better to delay the start than roll out a sub-par experience.

    None of these problems are the kinds of glitches one would expect from a new system. These are things that could easily have been prevented with a little rider experience testing and by paying attention to how established streetcar systems work.

    • ED

      For two years prior to the streetcar breaking ground, the focus was on project management and simply saving it when there should’ve been a reevaluation of the “path of least resistance” OTR route, lack of dedicated lanes, frequency/ridership, funding, and all operational details.

    • You could say the same about the opponents. Instead of trying a second and third time to kill the project, they should’ve realized it was happening and suggested ideas that would have made the project more successful.

    • ED

      Several months of valuable planning time were wasted prior to Deatrick’s appointment. So they rushed to break ground in order to get enough of the project started to continue it, not the only “let’s just start and figure it out later” Mallory/Dahoney initiative.

  • patrickjnewton

    Don’t try to turn in the CBD, ever. Go in one direction during your entire trip and everything will be fast and easy.

    • Eric Talbot

      It’s totally depressing to me how ignorant and unresponsive our city officials are regarding matters like improving traffic flow. Looks like we’ll have to wait until 2017 when we have the opportunity to vote in a City Council and Mayor who are PROGRESSIVE-MINDED. Time is long past due for us to put the Neanderthals currently in power out to pasture.

  • Matt Jacob

    System reliability is only one part of the problem that we’re facing right now with the streetcar. Low hanging fruit like a traffic study for downtown that will help all modes work better together is a no brianer (which makes the opposition to it even more baffling). Measures like holding certain green lights (a lot of them at pedestrian crossings anyway) may be another fix that makes a measurable different in the streetcar’s on-time performance.

    But in today’s world convenience is another huge part of the equation that this added reliability will only partially address. Reliability’s not the only answer to the problems we’re seeing. There are really two ways that SORTA needs to address convenience if they want people to actually use it.

    First, they have to get the arrival times working correctly. Yes, part of this comes with reliability, but the rest of it comes with getting the station notifications accurate, getting accurate real-time tracking on the app, getting ways to notify riders when the streetcar gets to a certain point (geofencing) or at least each stop, and getting in-car announcement to actually sync up with the car’s location/stop. Many of these are basic transit 101 stuff that isn’t happening right now and it makes it overall less convenient to use (especially when competing with things like Uber).

    Perhaps even more critical if we want people to use it regularly is the convenience of paying in mass. If the app didn’t work, we’d already be screwed with how bad the ticket vending machines are. But even the app is still a hassle to use every single day if you are a regular commuter. If it weren’t for the app I probably wouldn’t keep taking it because of the time and hassle to buy the ticket from the machine. How many people don’t have the option to use the app because they don’t have smartphones?

    It is no coincidence that the drop in weekday riders coincided with the ending of the last 60-day passes (and had been stepping down with the 10day and 30day passes ending, hidden by the dwindling opening hype). Some people probably hung on there paying daily at first and then called it quits from the hassle. It just wasn’t as convenient as walking on and not thinking about payment because you already paid for an unlimited pass for the month. The biggest change that SORTA could make to improve the convenience would be to offer a streetcar-only monthly pass. Period.

    I’ve personally kept track of every cent that I’ve spent on the streetcar since it opened and determined that SORTA would have collected over $30 more from me since the start if they only charged $35/mo. It’s nearly impossible and completely impractical for anyone to ride the streetcar enough to win out in a system like this where they see the full value of the discounted rate. On the flip side SORTA then has guaranteed revenue paying for the system every day of the month (even holidays). If revenue projections come in short, SORTA will be to blame for not offering this option. But why would I want a monthly pass where I end up paying SORTA more? #1 convenience of riding as described before #2 convenience of getting reimbursed for it by my employer. Right now I have to keep track manually every single day to be able to file for reimbursement at work for commuting via transit. I might be alone right now because of how inconvenient it is, something tells me it could be the norm someday if it’s easy (oh, like other cities?).

    • ED

      Why doesn’t the app and tracking screens simply show the location of streetcars? That would be a much easier way to determine if it’s worth hopping on or not.
      Convenience matters and would make a difference, but none of this technology existed 60 years ago to say an app or tracking info is why ridership has been declining since the honeymoon phase.
      What I see in the numbers is that ridership has been highest simply when the downtown/OTR population is ballooned with midday weekday office workers and during events.

    • Matt Jacob

      In today’s world there’s even less tolerance for inconvenience now that people are used to Uber/Lyft and the ease that they have built into their systems. Downtown activity definitely has the biggest impact on ridership, but with these inconveniences it still limits the potential ridership greatly. Great example of this was this weekend for Santacon, when a friend Ubered 3 times between OTR and downtown instead of using the streetcar simply “because it was easier to figure out”. Until you close the convenience gap and give riders a tool to make it easy on them to ride, you are losing riders like this even when downtown activity is up. At best it prevents the streetcar from reaching it’s potential ridership; at worst it’s death by a thousand cuts.

      Ridership is also like retail. If you have a bad experience, you are less likely to return to use it and try it another time. The experiences in the first 3 months were pretty bad (but have gotten progressively better). I ended up late to work every single day that I took the streetcar to work for the first 1.5 months. By November a lot of the weekday commuters started to go back to their previous ways of getting to work as a result (also coinciding with the ending of monthly passes). If you fail to recycle the ridership that you do get, even future population growth downtown/OTR is going to have a hard time translating into riders. Luckily there is a lot of residential development being built and planned along the route right now that should continue to boost the potential out there for weekday/regular riders.

      I think we’ll end up fine on ridership numbers in the end, but we have been seriously shooting ourselves in the foot since we got out of the gate. That has to change to make the streetcar as successful as it should be.

    • ED

      I experienced the same thing Saturday, the operator hasn’t done a great job anticipating event crowds even with published events.

      Regardless, if the lack of a dedicated lane in the entertainment district along Walnut between 5th and 7th is so negatively affecting frequency, that’s not something that can be overcome with technology. This is not an infrequent occurrence

  • I am surprised that DOTE doesn’t conduct traffic studies like this on a regular basis for high traffic locations around the city.

  • Jim Byerly

    Okay, lost in the city hall streetcar politics: multiple times daily, as a downtowner, I witness first responder vehicles hopelessly stranded in traffic, sirens blasting to no effect. Wouldn’t a modern traffic light system benefit them (and buses), too? This alone should justify a new study and a modern system (a system that many cities have had for a decade or more).

    • Exactly. Police officers and fire trucks should have the ability to turn lights green in addition to streetcars and Metro Plus buses.

  • ED

    It needs to be done simply for the fact that interstate access is primarily east-west and transit/pedestrian flow is primarily north-south.

  • matimal

    The war on Cincinnati will never end. Ironically, the fact that there are suburban interests who think that they NEED to actively work to hurt Cincinnati means they perceive Cincinnati as a threat.

  • ED

    Why don’t we have this? DC streetcar online tracker-

    • Go here and select route 100:

    • ED

      Why isn’t this on the station tracker screens or the app? That would end much of the frustration right there if you could see where it is rather than looking at a screen with a false ETA time that is refreshed with simply delays.