EDITORIAL: Parking Requirement Removal Should Be First Step In Broader Reform

Recently, the Cincinnati City Planning Department sent out a notice to property owners in downtown and Over-the-Rhine regarding the implementation of an Urban Parking Overlay District. The city will hold several meetings with the next one being at the City Planning Commission meeting this Friday, July 27th at 9 a.m. If approved, the district would remove the requirement for uses in downtown to provide off-street dedicated parking.

Since 2012 when I first wrote about parking in downtown and Over-the-Rhine the number of off-street parking supplied has increased well over 3,000 parking spaces (38,760 in downtown alone according to DCI). The Banks parking garage alone with over 6,000 spaces is the third largest parking garage in the United States.

We have an abundance of parking in the urban core.

At its core function, the removal of required parking minimums has proven to allow for more creative parking solutions to blossom. As Donald Shoup, parking guru and professor at UCLA found in his book The High Cost of Free Parking, most parking minimums were established as arbitrary standards by planners in the middle of the last century. Many of these requirements are intended to account for the busiest times of the day or year. UrbanCincy interviewed Dr. Shoup in 2014 regarding a variety of local parking issues.

In Nashville for example, the removal of parking minimums helped remove barriers for small-scale developers who could not afford to acquire additional land for a few parking spaces. Instead, agreements with nearby garages helped facilitate automobile storage demands.

Back in 2012 Nashville Planner, Joni Priest told UrbanCincy, “Removing the parking requirements from downtown zoning allows flexibility for site-specific and program-specific solutions. Flexibility is key in urban environments,” said Priest. “As downtown becomes more comfortable for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users, new development will have the flexibility to build less parking.”

Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, the city continues to struggle with developers looking to build new infill or rehabilitate and reactivate the many historic buildings in the urban core.

Even when parking requirements are reduced or eliminated most banks and investors still require parking to be provided or identified for developments to move forward. Removing zoning requirements for parking often allows the developer to build the parking that is really needed and not what is arbitrarily demanded by local zoning controls. This reduces the cost of development and in turn, allows more affordable housing to be provided.

Removing parking minimums also preserves historic structures from being demolished for parking lots and garages. Over-the-Rhine is the largest collection of German Italianate buildings in the country yet it currently has lost over half of its historic structures. If parking minimums are retained, the demolition of our communities historic assets will continue to be encouraged to meet the city’s parking requirements.

There is an abundance of alternative options to traverse to, from and around the urban core. These modes include walking, biking, CincyRedBike, buses, streetcar, uber, lyft, Gest, and Zipcar. In the near future, we’ll likely see Bird scooters and Lime bikes introduced. In the long-term, improved transit and autonomous vehicles will reduce the need to own and store a vehicle. Every one of these trips is one less parking space needed per resident, worker or visitor.

It would be wise for the City to anticipate criticisms from residents of the urban core. Some of whom recently voiced concerns regarding the increasing struggle to find on-street parking spaces. This is a struggle that is common in many dense, historic urban neighborhoods across the country where the expectation is that it is very rare to snag a parking space directly in front of a persons residence or business. However, it is important to consider this in light of a broader parking strategy, one that would balance resident, business and development demands.

There are a few additional strategies for city policymakers can consider in conjunction with approving the Parking Overlay District to remove parking requirements. Most of these are adapted from Dr. Shoup’s recommendations:

1.) Continue to pursue the implementation of the on-street residential parking permit program.

2.) Add on-street 10-30 minute convenience parking at some spaces around Findlay Market.

3.) Consider opportunities for future public underground parking facilities to serve Findlay Market and the rest of Over-the-Rhine north of Liberty Street.

4.) Enable the demand-responsive capabilities for on-street parking meters. This strategy will encourage more meter usage and could be a potential revenue add for the city’s parking meter program.

As part of a broader plan, it makes sense to remove the parking space requirements in the urban core. To quote Shoup, “If Cincinnati uses fair market prices to manage on-street parking – the lowest prices that will leave one or two open spaces on every block at every time of the day – it won’t have to require off-street parking spaces for every land use. If the government regulated any other aspect of our lives as precisely as it regulates the number of off-street parking spaces everywhere, everyone would join the Tea Party.”

Removing parking minimums is a productive first step in the city’s comprehensive strategy to balance the demands of residents, workers, visitors who help make our urban core a vibrant and attractive place. Supporting this policy is a step in support of enhancing housing affordability, historic preservation, environmental sustainability and livability in our urban core.

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.

Cincinnati Ranks as Top Bike City

The 2016 biennial list from Bicycling.com shows Cincinnati ranked 36th out of 50 bike-friendly US cities. The ranking is determined by variables such as the number of bicycle facilities, bicycle-friendly businesses, bike-share programs, and the length and safety of infrastructure, amongst others. This year and since 2014, Cincinnati has seen a dramatic increase in bikeability, due to Red Bike and the Central Parkway bike lane, being hailed the 3rd fastest growing biking community in the US. Even with our successes, Cincinnati has fallen from last year’s rank of #35. So, why the fall from #35?

Bicycling.com claims the lack of progress on the City’s Bicycle Transportation Plan, adopted in 2010, coupled with the increasing urban population, with little access to bicycle infrastructure, for the decrease. This year, the first 4.1 miles of the potentially 7.6 mile Wasson Way was purchased just prior to the release of the biennial list. The first phase implementation of the trail, which is scheduled for next year could positively affect the city’s standings in future rankings. However; future on-street connections to the new trail would further boost the city’s access to bicycle infrastructure.

The Central Parkway Protected Bike Lane

This could mean that our rank will increase in coming years. With 100,000 people living within one mile of Wasson Way, the potential for new cyclists and trail-servicing businesses are high and will undoubtedly affect the bike friendliness of the city.

Plans are also underway to secure $21 million in funding to create 42 miles of bike paths, in order to connect Wasson Way, Oasis Trail, Mill Creek Greenway and the Ohio River Trail West. This project is known as Cincinnati Connects and if it passes, will further the city’s bikeability. Additionally, Cincy Red Bike has been an ongoing success; their annual installation of new stations, since its inception in 2014, has added to the momentum of Cincinnati’s bike friendliness.

Although change is afoot, Cincinnati still lacks the complete designation of being ‘bike friendly’ by its residents and outsiders, like those at the top of Bicycling.com’s list. When locals are asked about their view towards biking in Cincinnati, it’s still met by most with negativity: seen as an annoyance, while others are very concerned for their safety while cycling in the city. Cars still dominate the roadways, with some even parking in the bike lane along Central Parkway.

With the new year around the corner, Cincinnati appears to be on a continued path to being a top bike-friendly city however; the following issues are key: residents being made aware of the benefits and safety of cycling; continued implementation of the 2010 Bicycle Master Plan; and policy changes that mirror those cities at the top of the biennial list.

New Western Hills Viaduct Could Arrive in Late 2020’s

City officials recently unveiled plans for a new Western Hills Viaduct to replace the 84-year-old structure.

Built in 1931, the viaduct serves as the West Side’s main connection to the city’s urban core. “It affects everybody,” said Cincinnati City Engineer Richard Szekeresh, the project manager. Over 71,000 vehicles cross the bridge every day. However, a city study back in 2012 highlighted the bridge’s deteriorating structural conditions and the poor pedestrian and bicycle accessibility.

The current viaduct is a car haven. Vehicles zoom by a single, narrow sidewalk along the southern edge and cyclists are rare. According to Department of Transportation and Engineering officials, the new structure will be pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly and built to light rail specifications.

Wester Hills Viaduct NewNew cable-stayed design presented by DOTE

Design

Heading west, the current bridge passes over Interstate 75, the CSX Queensgate rail yard, and then deposits cars onto Queen City Avenue in South Fairmont. Queensgate posed a significant problem for the engineers because they couldn’t shut down a privately-owned and high-trafficked rail yard for several years. “We had to find a way to build only from above,” said Szekeresh.

Two design features overcome this constraint. First, the cable-stayed bridge (shown in the renderings) has large distances between its support towers that (mostly) avoid the yard. Second, the physical structure consists of several interlocking parts, meaning the builders can simply insert the relevant pieces into place without much delay. Some rail lines will still be affected, but never for more than a few hours.

Traffic concerns ensure the old bridge will remain in use until its replacement is erected just to the south. The Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) must acquire several land parcels. All of them have been appraised, but ODOT must complete its environmental review before it can purchase the properties.

Funding

Total project cost hovers around $310 million, a substantial hike from the city’s previous estimate of $240 million. Federal funds will cover 80 percent, with the city, county, and state covering the remaining funds. Szekeresh indicated that the project could receive a $20 million Transportation Review Advisory Council grant from the Ohio Department of Transportation.

When federal funding will arrive, however, is unclear. Extensions to the projected 2028 end date may be necessary, especially if President-elect Trump reneges on his promise to improve infrastructure.

After the presentation ended, Szekeresh conducted an informal poll to gauge support for the design. Most community members raised their hands in affirmation.

VIDEO: The Easy and Inexpensive Way For Cincinnati To Make Its Streets Safer

Anyone who rides a bicycle to work, either their own or on a Cincy Red Bike, knows all to well the commute mostly involves sharing the road with automobiles. With the current city administration focusing more on creating recreational trails for bicycle hobbyists, cyclists who bike as a form of transportation can only daydream about better on-street bicycle infrastructure.

That daydream could come closer to reality with the release of a new animation from planner and author Jeff Speck.

An accomplished author of books such as Walkable City and Suburban Nation, Speck describes four simple street reconfiguration options that would better accommodate all modes of transportation without adding to the roadway’s width. In order to accomplish that, the techniques include narrowing lanes, adding striped or buffered bike lanes.

Planners and engineers have found that such changes have a minimal impact on the flow of vehicular traffic, by adding only seconds onto commute times.

The street in the video is 38 to 40 feet in width, which is just about the average width of many streets throughout Cincinnati. In fact, UrbanCincy proposed a similar reconfiguration of Elm Street through the Central Business District in 2013. Such transformations have been noted to positively impact safety.

“Such a change on Prospect Park West in Brooklyn reduced speeding by 77% and reduced injury crashes by 63%, while having no impact on car volume or travel times,” Speck noted in the video.

When Randy Simes first wrote about the Elm Street reconfiguration, he explained that it would also serve as a critical connection point between the protected bike lane on Central Parkway and the Ohio River Trail. While Elm Street is a particularly obvious choice, other streets throughout the city could and should get some of the same treatment.

One another prominent example is Liberty Street, which Cincinnati’s Department of Transportation & Engineering has been looking at for years as a potential road diet candidate. Originally designed for much higher traffic volumes that were never realized, Liberty Street’s 70-foot width now functions more as a safety issue for people walking or biking, and as a barrier between the northern and southern portions of Over-the-Rhine.

Those plans for Liberty Street were originally envisioned by the Over-the-Rhine Brewery District, which then convinced City Hall to perform some planning work. At this time, however, the project does not appear to be moving forward.

Speck’s video makes it easy to see that for the cost of paint it would be relatively easy to install a more comprehensive bike network on streets throughout the city. Such changes would improve safety, increase the number of people riding bikes, which probably means more Red Bike usage, all while slowing down traffic just a tiny bit. Besides, even automobile drivers may appreciate not needing to directly interact with so many bicycles on the street.