Episode #36: Summer Update

Uptown Transit DistrictOn the 36th episode of The UrbanCincy PodcastJohn and Jake join Travis for an update on several projects happening around Cincinnati.

The main focus is transportation, with discussion of the Brent Spence Bridge and other I-75 work, the new MLK Interchange at I-71, Central Parkway bike lanes, the Uptown Transit District and various Uptown shuttle buses, as well as an update on the streetcar construction progress.

We also discuss the Uptown Consortium’s vision for new pedestrian-friendly development along Martin Luther King Drive, and revisit the conversation about the possibility of a downtown grocery store.

Chicago Serves as a Model for Midwestern Cities Looking to Bolster Bicycling

For the past few years anyone with an interest in bicycling has seen their Facebook and Twitter feeds stuffed daily with bike lane and bike share project updates from cities around the United States. Much of that news has come from our northern neighbor Chicago, where its first of 100 planned miles of protected bike lanes opened in 2012.

In 2013 Chicago also launched the nation’s third-largest bike share program, a 300-station network sprawling across large sections of the city. Then, in early 2014, construction began on the $60 million Navy Pier Flyover, an elevated structure that will speed Lakefront Trail bicycle traffic over the Chicago River and the congested Navy Pier tourist area.

In May I spent part of a vacation day biking 35 miles around Chicago to see its various recent bicycling improvements for myself. This ride included The Loop, parts of the Lakefront Trail, and various residential areas where bike lanes have been recently created.

Dearborn Street Two-Way Protected Bike Lane
This two-way protected bike lane opened on the otherwise one-way Dearborn Street in November 2012, and is among the most talked-about new bike lanes in the country. It occupies a 10-foot wide strip on the west side of this major north-south street, with bikes separated from vehicular traffic by bollards and on-street parking.

To manage conflicts between two-way bike and one-way automobile movements, bicycle traffic is controlled by dedicated signals at about a dozen intersections in The Loop.

I biked the length of this protected lane in both directions beginning at about 4:50pm on a weekday. It was immediately obvious that travel in the lane during rush hour was not particularly fast or orderly — pedestrians often stepped into the bike lane to hail cabs or to cross Dearborn Street mid-block. At cross-streets, bicycle traffic was sometimes unable to proceed when signaled due to surges of pedestrians or gridlocked traffic.

Bicyclist behavior within the protected lane was more chaotic than I expected.

Commuters riding their own bikes often passed slower Divvy bikes and northbound bikers sometimes drifted between the protected bike lane and Dearborn’s vehicular lanes. I observed a handful of northbound bicyclists ignoring the protected bike lane altogether, instead biking in mixed vehicular traffic up Dearborn Street as they had for the past 100 years.

Divvy Bikeshare
Chicago’s “Divvy” bike share system began operation on June 28, 2013 and by year’s end the system logged over 700,000 trips. This year the system is planned to expand from 300 to 400 stations and add 1,000 bicycles to its existing fleet of 3,000.

To say that the Divvy bikes are popular would be a gross understatement – the extent to which the blue bicycles have become a ubiquitous feature of Chicago’s cityscape in their first year has no doubt silenced all critics.

To that end, the utility of shared bicycles in Chicago is aided by the city’s flat layout. Recently a writer from Seattle expressed some skepticism of a planned bike share program’s popularity in the hilly Emerald City.

Similar questions have been raised locally and intensely debated on Internet forums. The questions bear enough validity to cause many proponents of Cincy Bike Share to concede that Uptown and Downtown operations may function and serve different customers from one another.

Navy Pier Flyover
Chicago’s Lakefront Trail stretches 18 miles along the city’s lakefront, and is home to a crush of bicycle traffic unlike anything to be seen in Cincinnati or elsewhere in the Midwest. In fact, the Active Transportation Alliance claims that Lakefront Trail is the busiest in the United States with peak daily usage reaching 30,000 people at key points.

Every type of bicycle and every type of rider uses the trail, along with joggers, walkers, and inline skaters – motivating the Chicago Tribune to remark earlier this year that the Lakefront Trail is “claustrophobic and dangerous—the antithesis of the shoreline as a refuge from urban crowding.”

The Navy Pier Flyover will link the north and south halves of the trail with 16-foot wide elevated approaches to the Outer Drive Bridge. The trail will cross the Chicago River on a new structure cantilevered off the west side of the famed 77-year-old bascule bridge.

General Observations
As someone who grew up biking the monster hills and hostile commercial avenues of Cincinnati’s west side in the 1980s, riding in Chicago – even the many areas without new bike lanes — is by comparison a piece of cake. So easy in fact that it’s boring.

Virtually all of Chicago’s streets are perfectly flat, perfectly straight, and traffic moves at pretty much the same speed and in the same fashion on all of them. There is little to no sense of exploration and discovery during a bike ride around Chicago – no wonder the Lakefront Trail is so popular when a ride between any two neighborhoods has the same character as any other combination.

No Chicago bicyclist knows anything like our varied street characteristics, our innumerable odd intersections, and of course the two-mile downhill runs that can be strung together between various Cincinnati neighborhoods.

Experimenting with side streets and alternate routes between points A and B is something that keeps the avid Cincinnati bicyclist exploring the city, year after year, and familiarity with all of the hills is a point of pride.

When Cincinnati’s bike share begins later this year, and if we eventually build more protected bike lanes beyond the current Central Parkway project, no doubt bicycling will become more popular in the center city, basin neighborhoods, and across the river in Covington and Newport.

Any city, however, can paint bike lanes and buy a few thousand bike share bikes, but the endless range of leisurely or challenging rides available to the Cincinnati bicyclist is something Chicago and most other American cities will never have.

ArtsWave Announces Recipients of $10.4 Million in Grants

ArtsWave finalized their list of grants to arts organizations throughout the region last Friday. This year’s distribution doles out $10.4 million to 35 different local arts organizations, ranging from $12,500 for the Contemporary Dance Theater to $3,020,000 for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to what ArtsWave calls their impact grants, they also distributed $435,000 for small project grants and strategic local partnerships.

The money comes from a fund that ArtsWave officials say is the largest of its kind in the United States, distributing more than $50 million to regional arts organizations over the past five years.

“ArtsWave’s grants are a differentiator for Greater Cincinnati,” Mary McCullough-Hudson, ArtsWave’s outgoing CEO, stated in a prepared release. “It is absolutely unique for a region this size to have an annual infusion of more than $10 million in its arts sector each year, creating both a stabilizing and a catalyzing effect for organizations and arts-related activity that have unexpected benefits for the community.”

The organizations and projects that were awarded money, officials say, were selected based on the input of grant making committees that evaluate submissions and determine the amount of money to be awarded to each applicant.

The average grant amount awarded this year was approximately $250,000. The Cincinnati Art Museum ($1,635,000), Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra ($3,020,000) and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park ($1,210,000) were the only organizations to receive grants in excess of $1 million. When removing those outliers from the equation, the average drops to about $110,000.

Other large recipients include the Cincinnati Opera ($935,000), Cincinnati Ballet ($850,000) and Contemporary Arts Center ($405,000).

The money for these grants comes from an annual fundraising effort, which yielded a record amount last year of more than $12 million. In addition to supporting the numerous organizations and projects, the money also goes to support shared service operations arts organizations throughout the region, like board training, volunteer programs and fundraising expenses.

“Our region’s residents support this campaign because they see every day how the arts bring people together,” said Karen Bowman, Chair, ArtsWave Board of Trustees and Principal, Deloitte Consulting.

In addition to these grants, ArtsWave officials also announced that they would be awarding $45,000 to designated community revitalization organizations in Price Hill, Madisonville, Covington, Avondale and Walnut Hills as part of LISC-Cincinnati’s Place Matters campaign. Those funds, they say, will be used to support community-building arts programs in those neighborhoods.

“Successful creative placemaking is about the impact of local arts on people in these neighborhoods,” explained Kathy Schwab, Executive Director, LISC of Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky. “This exciting partnership with ArtsWave will help fuel community engagement and pride in the five Place Matters communities.”

EDITORIAL: Improve Efficiency, Grow Revenues with Urban Advertising Program

Cincinnati City Council made the well-intentioned decision to prohibit advertising within the public right-of-way. The idea was to rid the city of what some perceived as unsightly bus bench advertisements and invasive and heavily lit billboards.

As is often the case with new regulation, it has created unintended consequences including the inability for Metro to collect advertising revenue from their bus shelters and stymieing the ability for Cincy Bike Share to properly advertise on its planned system in order to pay for its annual operating expenses.

As a result, the City of Cincinnati should toss out the ordinance approved last January and replace it with a new comprehensive Urban Advertising Program that protects residents from unsightly additions in their neighborhoods, while also preserving the flexibility for the city and its various agencies to collect revenues that reduce the burden placed upon taxpayers.

SORTA Non-Transportation Revenue

Public Right-of-Way Advertising Lease
Under UrbanCincy’s proposed plan, the City of Cincinnati would lease their advertising assets. These assets would include a predetermined set of advertising locations (bus benches and shelters, newspaper stands, bike share kiosks, car share and taxi cab stands, and intercity bus stops).

The lease with the private company that would manage the system would then include a small upfront payment for the rights to the assets and annual payments to an authority that would oversee the program.

Such agreements are commonplace in many other North American cities and are often undertaken by companies like JCDecaux, Clear Channel and Lamar.

Program Membership & Representation
In this proposed arrangement the City of Cincinnati would be one entity, albeit the primary one, in the overall program since they control the right-of-way. The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) would also be involved so that they could have representation for their Metro bus and streetcar systems. Cincy Bike Share would then be a third organization that would need to be represented, along with a representative for private taxi cab, car share and intercity bus companies.

The City’s established Community Councils should also have representation on the board, and potentially even share directly in the revenues generated by the program outside of those funds paid to the City of Cincinnati.

The share of the annual revenue payments, of course, would not include any of the private companies operating within the public right-of-way, such as Megabus or Zipcar, but their representation on the board would ensure that their interests are in fact considered in the oversight of the program.

Essentially their lack of collecting annual revenue payments would serve as their annual payment to advertise their particular operations within the public right-of-way without needing to go through the private company managing the assets. This allows those companies to advertise for their services in the public right-of-way, which is currently prohibited.

The members appointed by these various agencies and companies would then become the decision making board governing the new program. This board would also be responsible for contracting out the management of the program.

Urban Advertising Program Org Chart

Economies of Scale
Bringing all of these various entities under one roof, with one unified leasing strategy, will increase the value of public right-of-way advertising. Businesses could work with their advertising representatives to ensure the exact market saturation, exposure and risk aversion as is desired. They would have one contact point that could manage their advertisement campaign in a comprehensive, city-wide manner.

This would also mean that the various government agencies and private companies operating in the public right-of-way involved would not need to have their own full-time staff equivalent to manage their own individual advertising program. Instead, they would collectively decide upfront on an initial value assessment of their various assets, and an ongoing value share agreement based on the contracted annual payments.

Standard Guidelines
The appointed board would be able to determine what kind of content to allow to be advertised. This would need to be a decision made up-front and in conjunction with the private operator so that there is no confusion later. But this would, in theory, allow advertising to return but in a regulated marketplace, thus preserving neighborhood character and integrity.

This is not something that can be accomplished without a separate operator involved, since the City and other public entities are not allowed to decide who and who cannot advertise.

Right now none of these entities are able to take advantage of the potential advertising revenues that would otherwise be available. And if they were, the total profits from the system would be severely diluted due to the fractured and duplicative management and oversight needed.

This Urban Advertising Program would solve those problems by allowing for the capture of an unrealized revenue stream in a well-regulated manner that would protect the integrity of our neighborhoods.

But perhaps even better is that the program is scalable and could include other cities like Norwood, Covington and Newport to opt in should they so choose. All that would change is the representation on the board and the share of the annual revenue payments.

Advertising is part of everyday life. By prohibiting our local governments and public agencies from benefiting from the revenues that come with it, we are only tying their hands and placing an even greater burden on taxpayers. There is certainly a balance to be struck, but UrbanCincy is confident that the representatives that would make up this board would be more than capable at striking that right balance.

This is the third part in a series of proposals offered by UrbanCincy that would help grow city revenues, enhance public services and make for a more efficient local government. If you are interested, you can read our proposal for shifting to a Pay As You Throw trash collection system and our eight-point plan for fixing the city’s broken parking system.

VIDEO: Springtime in Cincinnati Along the Banks of the Ohio River

April is winding down, and our good friend Brian Spitzig put together a time lapse video for us all to enjoy.

The nearly two-minute video showcases a number of unique perspectives, including breathtaking views of the Ohio River and its boat traffic. The video concludes at the banks of the river in Covington; looking back north toward a dazzling fireworks display at the conclusion of a Reds baseball game. Enjoy!