CNU’s 2018 Transportation Summit: Lessons for Greater Cincinnati

CNU’s 2018 Transportation Summit was September 16-17 in New Orleans. The purpose of the summit was to bring together people focused on the revitalization of urban neighborhoods disrupted by freeways. In attendance were people from Massachusetts, California, Colorado, Texas, Wisconsin, Washington DC, and two members from CNU Midwest, Chris Meyer and Brian Boland. There were many takeaways from the summit but three lessons seem applicable to Greater Cincinnati.

The first is that freeways and urban fabric are incompatible. Urban fabric in Greater Cincinnati typically consists of fine-grained parcels, 2-5 story buildings, and a dense street with grid pedestrian-scale streetscapes. Urban fabric is fundamentally sized for people. The 19th century blessed present-day Greater Cincinnati with an abundance of high-quality urban fabric. A minor takeaway from the transportation summit was that other cities would be jealous if they knew what we have.

Freeways are scaled for cars and trucks. They are always interruptions in the urban fabric. They break up the street grid wherever they pass through it and form barriers to people passing. The urban fabric for blocks around a freeway is degraded not only by the dirt, noise, smell, and ugliness but also by the profusion of vehicles they concentrate and deliver into the urban fabric. This is true for greater Cincinnati along the I-75, I-71, and I-471 corridors.

Freeways are a necessary part of the urban economy but they are incompatible with the urban fabric. It was a mistake to run them through central cities. Dwight Eisenhower, the father of the interstate system, certainly thought so.

Multiple people at the summit noted that urban freeways are “monuments to racism.” That’s obviously the case in New Orleans. In Cincinnati, the West End neighborhood is physically gone but the Kenyan Barr photo exhibit, currently showing at the University of Cincinnati, illustrates the neighborhood destroyed by I-75. Ninety-seven percent of the residents were black.

A second lesson from the transportation summit is that urban fabric is valuable. Anyone familiar with CNU understands that. What was new is that urban fabric can be more valuable than the freeways running through it. Implicitly or explicitly, a big part of the argument to remove freeways, be it Denver, Oakland, or Austin, is to free up land for profitable new development.

The same principle applies to Cincinnati. The value of land with urban development on it is greater than the same amount of land with auto-centric development on it. The blocks around freeways are almost always taken up with auto-centric development because of how freeway ramps concentrate vehicles in a geographic space. Cincinnati would reap greater economic, tax, and social benefits if the space around Interstate-75 followed urban development patterns rather than auto-centric development patterns.

The third lesson is that the future of urban development doesn’t have to look like the past. When the first Congress for New Urbanism met in 1991, most new development was going to suburbs and central cities were still losing money and population. That has changed. People are moving back to places where they can live, work, and play, without a car. It’s happening in Cincinnati too.

Recognizing the value of urban fabric and the cost of freeways in the urban fabric allows people to recalculate the costs/benefits of future transportation projects. Two high-profile Cincinnati transportation projects include the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar and the Brent Spence Bridge expansion.

One argument against the streetcar is that it is not “profitable,” so it should be shut down. However, streetcars are compatible with the urban fabric. Most buildings and parcels on the streetcar route have been improved. Streetlife – outdoor dining, social interaction, economic activity – along the streetcar route is as vital as it’s been for decades. The streetcar is a fellow dancer in the sidewalk ballet. It improves the value of adjacent urban fabric, in opposition to freeways that destroy value. A better cost/benefit analysis of the streetcar would include the increased tax value derived from adjacent improved parcels.

The inverse argument occurs with the Brent Spence Bridge project. The primary cost/benefit evaluation looks at congestion. The potential value of restored urban fabric has never been a part of the bridge’s cost/benefit analysis. When they factored the value of urban fabric into the Fort Washington way redesign, they decided to sink the freeway below grade so it could be capped in the future. It’s easy to envision a redesigned bridge project that includes land for new urban fabric, much as the Fort Washington Way project did.

The 2018 CNU transportation summit brought together thought leaders, local activists, transportation professionals, and city designers. A repeated statement at the 2018 summit was that multi-million dollar infrastructure projects should improve the value of places where they are constructed. In Greater Cincinnati, it seems like the value of place is often not considered in the cost-benefit analysis of large transportation projects.

In the past, it was possible to argue that urban fabric had no value, or that its value was equal to auto-centric development. Those arguments can no longer be made in good faith. If Cincinnati is going to capitalize on the wealth of its urban fabric, the value of that fabric must be included when evaluating future transportation projects. If it’s done so accurately, we should be all the wealthier.

This is a guest article by Chris Meyer reporting on the 2018 CNU Transportation Summit. CNU and CNU Midwest are content partners with UrbanCincy. Chris is an Architect at Hub + Weber, PLC

If you would like to have your thoughts and opinions published on UrbanCincy, simply contact us at editors@urbancincy.com.

Cincinnati Posts Population Gain for Second Consecutive Year

Cincinnati has added about 1,000 new people since the decennial census in 2010, according to new estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The modest increase comes from two consecutive years of population gains that followed an immediate downward revision after the 2010 Census. The increase also means that just Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton were the only big cities (more than 50,000 people) in Ohio to post gains.

Columbus and Cincinnati, meanwhile, were the only big cities to post population gains for the past two years.

The population estimates are derived using the 2010 Census as a baseline and then factoring in new permitted residential construction and mobile homes, and subtracting out the estimated number of homes lost each year. As a result, all of the annual estimates should come with a grain of salt.

Ohio Cities Comparison

With that said, Dayton’s population gains appear to be an anomaly, while the increases in Columbus and Cincinnati appear to be more rooted. In any case, the news for Ohio’s big cities is not good as the rest all lost population, especially those in the northeastern part of the state.

Columbus continues to stand out from the rest of Ohio’s big cities in terms of its population trends. In this latest estimate release, Columbus posted the fifteenth largest numeric population gain of any municipality in America; and it comes on the heels of equally impressive gains in prior years.

Some observers, however, would attribute some of the gains in Columbus to its unusually large municipal boundaries that include what would be far suburbs in other Ohio regions.

While Columbus has been growing by about 1.5% annually over the past several years, Cincinnati has been growing annually by about 0.25%.

When compared with other peer cities, Cincinnati’s gains look even more tepid.

Peer Cities Comparison

Of fifteen other cities competitive with Cincinnati, the city bested only five of them in terms of population growth, while being significantly outperformed by most all others. In this comparison, even Ohio’s best performer – Columbus –fares only reasonably well against the field.

For Cincinnati’s peer cities, national trends appear to hold true. Southern cities continue to grow at the fastest clip, but their growth rates are leveling off. In our comparison, Austin, Atlanta and Tampa have all experienced significant declines in annual population growth since the 2010 Census. Charlotte has also experienced a similar trend, but appears to be holding steady more so than its Sun Belt peers.

Meanwhile, while many Midwestern cities continue to lose population, they are doing so at a slower rate or have stopped the losses entirely.

As we previously examined on UrbanCincy, the Cincinnati region continues to grow by about 0.4% annually. The City of Cincinnati’s 2013 gain represents approximately 12.5% of the total regional population growth, and half of Hamilton County’s increase last year.

In a nutshell, Cincinnati is over performing regionally, but under performing amongst its peers. If Cincinnati were growing as fast as Charlotte or Austin, the city would be adding around 9,000 new people every year.

VIDEO: Amtrak Sets Its Eyes on the Coveted Millennial Demographic

On the heels of kicking off their new Writers Residency program, where writers can ride intercity passenger rail for free, Amtrak welcomed 30 prominent new media “influencers” on a long-distance train ride from Los Angeles to SXSW in Austin.

The new initiatives are part of a larger effort by Amtrak to connect with a demographic they believe is already open-minded and passionate about intercity train travel.

“There’s a lot of talk about us being the Me Generation or the Do Nothing Generation,” said Charlie Monte Verde, who is a Millennial himself and also Amtrak’s Government Affairs Specialist for the Midwest Region. “The thing we always see about what we do, is that this can be one of those things that we take and run with. That we make our impact on the United States for the rest of our lives in growing this intercity rail network.”

Monte Verde says that the 30 participants had somewhere around 2.5 million followers on social media, and that the group logged their journey by using the #AmtrakLive hashtag.

The major takeaway for many of the participants, however, was the relaxing nature of the ride, and scenic beauty of the trip.

“I think train travel is a bit of a lost art. It was a very amazing thing to do years ago, and it’s still a very amazing thing to do now,” said Matthew Knell, VP of Social and Community Outreach at About.com. “What Amtrak is trying to do with the new generation; with high-speed rail and new technologies and solutions is great.”

Amtrak is currently in the process of upgrading intercity passenger rail service in the Midwest between St. Louis and Chicago and Detroit and Chicago. Segments of those routes are now operating at 110 miles per hour, with additional upgrades underway to bring the entire length of those routes up to higher speeds.

In October 2013, Amtrak officials signed an agreement with the State of Indiana to maintain Hoosier State service, and revisited the idea of improving service between Cincinnati and Chicago.

Should Cincinnati revisit the idea of an aerial tram between Downtown and Mt. Adams?

One of Cincinnati’s most unique and beautiful geographic features is its hills. They provide wooded hillsides, scenic overlooks and breathtaking cityscapes, but they also provide a headache for transportation engineers looking to connect the city’s neighborhoods with one another. While not a new idea, would it be worthwhile for Cincinnati to explore running an aerial tram from Downtown/OTR (near the casino) to the difficult to reach Mt. Adams? More from EarthTechling:

The aerial tram concept may just offer a workable solution for cities the size of Austin, which tend to face some real hurdles in developing any sort of mass transit system beyond that trusty urban stand by, the bus. That’s because any type of light rail or street car proposal often comes up against the major costs (and legalities) of acquiring land rights, which can be a maddenly slow process, and an expensive one. If a city tries to circumvent some of that red tape by building a subway system underground, construction workers may rejoice at the years of guaranteed work, but taxpayers often balk at the costs

An aerial tram, in contrast, has far less of a physical footprint, requiring only space for riders to hop on and hop off. Take a ride on Portland’s aerial tram on a weekend, and it will become clear that they also tend to become tourist attractions — not only because of their relative novelty in American cities, but because of the great views they offer.

South by Southwest conference comes to Cincinnati

The nation’s largest interactive conference takes place today in Austin, Texas, but the newly-formed New Press Club is helping bring the conference to local interested in interactive media with the first-ever “South by Southwest by Cincinnati” which will tap into the South by Southwest conference being held in Austin.

Event organizers say that for one hour, and possibly longer, South by Southwest by Cincinnati attendees will be able to hear some of top thinkers and most influential people in the world of interactive media. Those attending will even have the opportunity to ask questions of these individuals and get the latest news about what is developing in the industry.

“Greater Cincinnati has one of the most active social media communities in the world,” said Joe Wessels, New Press Club founder and board member. “This event provides an excellent opportunity for those in Cincinnati to get a cut of the action in Austin and bring some of that knowledge back here without leaving home.”

The live discussion will start at 5:30pm at Mainstay Rock Bar tonight in downtown Cincinnati (map), and will include a networking and social time immediately after the live discussion. The event is free and open to anyone who wants to come, and those with Twitter accounts are encouraged to follow @NewPressClub for live updates.

Mainstay Rock Bar exterior photo by 5chw4r7z.