Episode #37: Angie Schmitt

Playhouse Square chandelierOn the 37th episode of The UrbanCincy Podcast, Angie Schmitt of Rust Wire and Streetsblog joins the UrbanCincy team to discuss news from across the state of Ohio. We talk about Cleveland landing the 2016 GOP convention and the possible political narrative that may result; the return of LeBron James and the potential economic impact; and the Playhouse Square chandelier. We also compare Cleveland’s Opportunity Corridor with Cincinnati’s Eastern Corridor. Finally, we discuss the Ohio gubernatorial race, the impact of casinos, and the bonding of the Ohio Turnpike to fund highway expansion across the state.

Region’s Transportation Funding Disproportionality Favors Cars Over All Other Modes

Research continues to show that Americans are driving less, but are biking, walking and using transit more. This is true in Cincinnati to the extent that transit ridership has increased in recent years.

While originally attributed to the economic downturn at the beginning of the century, these trends have continued while the economy has rebounded – leading many to believe it is an indication of new market forces being driven by aging Baby Boomers and emerging Millennials. Perhaps predictably so, governments have been slow to change with the changing economic forces.

Despite a growing number of trips for biking, walking and transit, funding has not increased correspondingly. In fact, many communities have seen funding for these non-automotive forms of transportation decrease as governments have worked to cut spending at all levels. This, new research finds, is only exacerbating the problem of having underfunded these modes of transportation for many years.

“Conventional statistics tend to under report active travel because most travel surveys under-count shorter trips (those within a traffic analysis zone), off-peak trips, non-work trips, travel by children, and recreational travel,” stated Todd Litman, Executive Director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, in a summary of his report entitled Whose Roads? Evaluating Bicyclists’ and Pedestrians’ Right to Use of Public Roadways.

“More comprehensive surveys indicate that active travel is two to four times more common than conventional surveys indicate, so if statistics indicate that only 5% of trips are by active modes, the actual amount is probably 10-20%.”

Litman indicates that funding levels tend to be much lower than even the low 5% trip share estimates, and recommends changing those levels to reflect not only the current trip share levels, but those that could be achieved should investments be made.

Unequal Funding Allocations at Regional Level
At the local level, the same situation of unequal funding allocation exists. In the 2040 Regional Transportation Plan, developed by the OKI Regional Council of Governments, approximately 88% of the nearly $21.5 billion in funding is recommended to go toward roadway projects, just 11% to transit and a mere 0.1% to bicycle and pedestrian improvements.

While the level of investment in transit appears closely aligned with current ridership levels for commute-related trips, it is far below ideal levels for bicycle and pedestrian investments.

“Relatively aggressive pedestrian and cycling improvement programs only cost about 1-4% of the total per capita roadway expenditures, or just 4-10% of general taxes spent on local roadways,” Litman contests. “Since walking and cycling represent about 12% of total trips, and a much larger share of short urban trips, and since most North American communities have under-invested in walking and cycling facilities for the last half-century, much larger investments in walking and cycling facilities can be justified to meet user demands and for fairness sake.”

OKI leadership contends that the organization’s regional planning document does not accurately reflect the level of investment being made in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, noting that many of the “roadway projects” in their plan actually include bike and pedestrian elements.

To that end, some recent improvements have been made with regard to bicycle infrastructure. The City of Cincinnati has installed around 40 miles of new on-street bike lanes or paths over the past several years, and has plans to install a total of 290 miles by 2025. The City’s Bicycle Transportation Plan, however, has been plagued by a lack of funding and has been relegated to only moving forward when roadway resurfacing projects emerge.

Not everyone is convinced, however, that enough is being done in terms of the overall investment needed for bike and pedestrian improvements.

Implications for Regional Transit
Of the money being recommended for transit investments, not including operations, approximately 96% is targeted for the contentious Oasis Line – a commuter rail line connecting Cincinnati’s far eastern suburbs with downtown.

Furthermore, the vast majority of OKI’s recommended transit funding is aimed to pay for ongoing operations – not pay for system expansions or improvements.

This grim financial picture for transit gets even worse when considering contributions from state and local governments.

In Ohio, the City of Cincinnati is the only local jurisdiction that provides a dedicated stream of funding for the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), which was also recently found to perform better than average given its low levels of investment from local, regional and state partners.

In Kentucky, meanwhile, communities struggle with state law that prohibits any dedicated source of transit funding – thus forcing the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK) to go before the state legislature every year seeking money, similar to how Amtrak must annually go before Congress.

Impact on Environmental Justice Populations
These dire funding and political situations have led to Greater Cincinnati taking the title of being the most populated region in North America without any rail transit; while even far less populated regions advance their own regional transit plans.

What makes the figures more troubling is that those most affected by the imbalanced funding appropriations are minority, low-income and disabled populations. While only 6% of the region takes transit, bikes or walks to work each day, that number escalates to 17% for African Americans, 11% for Hispanics and 10% for people with disabilities; while low-income commuters see that number spike to 21%. Quite simply, the lack of funding for non-automotive forms of transportation is most damaging to those who can least afford it.

The results of this inequality sparked a recent lawsuit by the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation and Midwest Environmental Advocates filed a complaint against the Wisconsin Department of Transportation over a $2 billion highway interchange project. In MICAH & Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin v. Gottleib, the ACLU states:

“WisDOT explicitly refused to consider transit expansion (or transit in any way) as part of this proposal. This will further widen the already large gap between transit-dependent communities of color and disproportionately white suburban commuters. The ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation was one of the organizations that have complained about the government’s decision-making and reporting process, as well as how the project would exacerbate segregation and disparities in transportation access for low-income people to jobs.”

And while some of these mode shares may seem low, it has been noted by the U.S. National Household Travel Survey that commute trips are the lowest for walking and biking, while personal trips and trips less than one mile are significantly higher for both modes.

“In much of the region where we have large concentrations of EJ populations the sidewalk network is already quite developed, the roadway network is quite developed and available to bicyclists and the transit service is good,” countered Bob Koehler, Deputy Executive Director at OKI. “We do, as a community, need to do a better job at sharing the road and being aware of pedestrians to make these facilities better for all modes.”

Highway Building Frenzy
Even though young people are increasingly either delaying or choosing not to get a driver’s license at all, user fees collected from the gas tax continue to decline, total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has been decreasing since 2007 and annualized VMT has been decreasing for nearly a decade, the nation and Cincinnati region continue to build new capacity.

Of the roughly $8.3 billion being recommended for roadway projects in OKI’s planning documents, approximately 73% of that is targeted for additional lanes, new facilities or new interchanges, while reconstruction and improvements to existing roadways account for the rest.

“Although VMT may be slightly declining in recent years in some parts of the country this may not be a long-term trend. Clearly the region has many needs,” explained Brian Cunningham, Director of Communications at OKI. “This plan addresses the significant existing safety and congestion needs. The plan is updated every four years and will provide an opportunity to revisit the assumptions.”

Litman argues that shifting some of the investment from roadways to bicycle and pedestrian projects due to their proven ability to reduce congestion and improve safety not only for bicyclists and pedestrians, but motorists as well. He also believes that such policy directives empower people by giving them the ability to choose between multiple transportation options for each of their trips.

“It is important to recognize the unique and important roles that active modes [biking and walking] play in an efficient and equitable transportation system, and the various benefits that can result when walking and cycling are improved, including indirect benefits to people who do not currently use those modes,” Litman concluded.

“Just as it would be inefficient to force travelers to walk or bike for trips most efficiently made by motorized modes, it is inefficient and unfair to force travelers to drive for trips most efficiently made by active modes, for example, if children must be chauffeured to local destinations because their communities lack sidewalks, or if people must drive to recreational trails due to inadequate sidewalks and paths near their homes.”

This information comes at a time when the region has been identified as failing to develop walkable urban places, and thus putting itself behind its national competitors.

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.

What Does Cincinnati’s Nativity Rating Mean for Its Long-Term Migration Prospects?

Cincinnati has a migration problem that is two-fold. First, it lags behind most major metropolitan regions in North America when it comes to attracting international migrants. Second, and perhaps more significantly, is that the region has a stagnant domestic population.

This is not because domestic migrants are any more or less important than international migrants. But rather, it is because stagnancy is a major problem for cities.

As many demographers and social scientists have pointed out, focusing public policy on retaining existing talent is a bad approach. In fact, large movements of people out of one region can be a very positive thing. That is, of course, if it is balanced out by a large influx of people into that same region. This is the case for North America’s largest cities, and is also evidenced at a larger scale in California.

But beyond that, older Midwestern cities with a large cluster of high-quality universities also seem to export more people than they import. That, in and of itself, is not the problem.

“This notion of the university as a “factory” gets very close to the truth,” Aaron Renn, owner of The Urbanophile, wrote in 2010. “A friend of mine noted that if we treated steel mills like universities, Indiana would be obsessing over “steel drain” and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on programs to try to keep steel from leaving the state.”

Renn went on to say that the notion of doing such a thing would be ludicrous, and that it is important to understand the details of what is really going on when it comes to a region’s migration patterns.

“Migration does matter. Any city that thinks it can be blasé about this is fooling themselves,” wrote Renn in a separate piece. “On the other hand, surface numbers only tell us so much. We need to understand the dynamics going on underneath the hood.”

By most comparative measure, Cincinnati actually does very well compared to many places at retaining its population. The problem is that it does very poorly at bringing in new people from outside the region.

Based on five-year estimates from the American Community Survey, this stagnation can be clearly seen.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the areas of the Cincinnati Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) which have the highest percentage of people living there that were born in another state are near state borders. Since the Cincinnati MSA stretches across three states, you can see that movement of Ohio residents to southeastern Indiana and northern Kentucky has boosted numbers in those locales.

On average, approximately 68% of the 2.2 million person Cincinnati region was born in the state where they currently reside. Meanwhile, Uptown and Cincinnati’s northeast suburbs appear to be the only parts of the region that are actually attracting newcomers to the region.

Another key finding here is the utter lack of movement of people into or out of Cincinnati’s western suburbs, which have a native born population between 80-100%. This number is roughly comparable to most rural areas in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.

The Cincinnati region, however, is not alone when it comes to a stagnant population.

While Columbus was seen as a leader amongst big cities in terms of its domestic migration rate, it appears that Columbus is merely attracting new residents to its region from elsewhere in Ohio. Almost the entire Columbus MSA has a native born population between 60-80%.

The numbers are even worse for the Cleveland MSA, which, on average, has a percentage of native born population higher than the average for Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. This is in spite of the Cleveland MSA attracting more international migrants than any other in the three-state region.

Even though Cincinnati continues to post modest annual population growth, it continues to be on the outside looking in when it comes to North America’s most economically successful cities. If Cincinnati wants to just focus on attracting existing Americans to the region, then it should look to Houston, Dallas or Atlanta, which are all hubs for domestic migration.

This scenario, however, seems unlikely since each of those regions is positioned uniquely in terms of their economy or their geographic location. So, if Cincinnati is to really ramp up its population growth, it better look at what other metropolitan regions are doing to make themselves more attractive to international migrants.

Perhaps Mayor John Cranley’s new, yet-to-be-unveiled initiative can help with this. But does he or his administration actually know what is going on underneath the hood?

Comprehensive Study Needed to Examine Cincinnati’s Migration Problem

Cincinnati has a problem with attracting immigrants.

While it is the largest metropolitan region in Ohio, Cincinnati lags behind both Cleveland and Columbus in attracting foreign migrants. Even as Cleveland continues to lose population and struggles with a weak economy, Cincinnati, with its much stronger economy and national recognition, attracts fewer of America’s newest residents.

More alarmingly, at 4.6%, Cincinnati ranks behind all of its regional competitors (Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville, Pittsburgh, St. Louis) in percentage of foreign-born population. Columbus (10.5%) and Indianapolis (8.4%) have double or nearly-double the percentage of foreign born population. Cincinnati only bests Pittsburgh and Louisville in terms of attracting immigrants over the past three years.

International Migration 2010-2013

The United States as a whole continues to attract millions of new immigrants. They’re just not coming to Cincinnati at the same rate as elsewhere.

Mayor John Cranley’s (D) recent announcement to start an initiative to grow the immigrant population in Cincinnati is a welcome one. With statistics showing that immigrants are more likely than non-immigrant Americans to start a business, a flux of foreign residents would be good for Cincinnati’s economy in more than one way.

Cranley is not unique among mayors in cities across the nation that have suffered massive population losses since the 1950s. From Baltimore and Philadelphia, to Detroit and Dayton, cities across the country are now targeting immigrant communities in order to help bolster populations and foster economic growth.

Preferably, Cincinnati’s quest to attract new immigrants will be part of a larger plan to attract new residents, period. While lagging behind in attracting immigrants, the region also continues to shed existing residents to other parts of the country.

International - Domestic Migration in 2013

Local leaders should authorize a comprehensive study to find out why Cincinnati struggles so greatly with attracting domestic and international migrants. With a growing economy and incredible regional assets, there is no reason why Cincinnati should fail so miserably at attracting new people.

It may prove wise to set city funds aside to create some sort of media blitz that touts the benefits of the city and the surrounding region. With a recent Gallup poll showing that 138 million people around the world would choose to move to the United States if given the opportunity, the market for new immigrants is surely present. Some sort of economic incentive would help as well. Tax breaks for immigrant businesses and incentives to live within city limits will help attract immigrants of all economic levels.

It is not a stretch to imagine that Columbus’ ability to attract and retain so many more immigrants than Cincinnati is due to the presence of Ohio State University, one of the nation’s most prominent public universities. As a result, Cranley should take heed and foster greater cooperation between the City of Cincinnati and the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University, using those nationally-recognized institutions to attract even more newcomers.

At the end of the day, however, immigration is a national issue. For that reason, regional leadership should be in active dialogue with Cincinnati’s Congressional delegation and lobby them to support immigration reform and initiatives that will help attract immigrants not just to the U.S. in general, but to the Cincinnati region specifically.