Up To Speed

More than $64.3B to be invested in North American rail transit in 2013

More than $64.3B to be invested in North American rail transit in 2013.

As the migration of people from the suburbs back to cities continues, so does the investment in urban forms of transport. A modern streetcar route is currently under construction in Cincinnati, and bus rapid transit, light rail and commuter rail is all being studied for the area. Nationally, more than $64.3 billion is being invested to expand rail transit. More from The Transport Politic (including map):

What is evident is that certain cities are investing far more than others. Among American cities, Denver, Honolulu, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington stand out as regions that are currently investing particularly dramatically. Toronto has the biggest investments under way in Canada. These metropolitan areas have invested billions of local dollars in interconnected transit projects that will aid in the creation of more livable, multi-modal environments. Dynamic, growing cities require continuous investment in their transit systems.

Up To Speed

Will Cincinnati be left behind in the latest passenger rail station boom?

Will Cincinnati be left behind in the latest passenger rail station boom?.

Inter-city rail is also booming as Amtrak experiences record ridership numbers, and is beginning to implement the first phases of the nation’s planned high-speed rail network. Cincinnati’s Union Terminal, however, sits waiting investment to allow additional passenger rail service. Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the nation, cities are investing to support this growth with new and improved central train stations. More from Denver Urbanism:

Los Angeles Union Station opened in 1939 and is often referred to as “last of the great railway stations in America.” And for the past 3/4 of a century that superlative has been largely correct. As rail travel declined, so did rail station design. During the latter half of the 20th Century, many cities replaced their grand historic depots with so-called “amshaks”, cheap and awful buildings that have more in common with utility sheds than anything else. But now that’s all changing, and soon Los Angeles will have to give up its title.

Business Development News Politics Transportation

New report confirms potential economic impacts of the Cincinnati Streetcar

A new report released by the Center for Transit-Oriented Development finds that transit investments like the Cincinnati Streetcar are winning economic winners. The report studied the three most recently opened light rail lines in the United States and discovered that urban portions of the lines were most successful at spurring economic activity and ridership.

Contrary to popular belief that rail transit is only successful in liberal bastions like Portland, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., Philadelphia or Seattle, the report looked at three modest cities in terms of political affections: Charlotte, Denver and Minneapolis.

Rails to Real Estate: Development Patterns along Three New Transit Lines also identified Charlotte’s Blue Line as the most successful despite being the having the least number of years studied of the three and being the smallest of the three transit lines. The economic patterns were consistent though, with each transit line experiencing anywhere from six to ten million square feet of new development since they opened. The report attributes the success is to five main considerations:

  1. Proximity to downtowns and other major employment centers
  2. The location and extent of vacant or “underutilized” property that might offer opportunities for development or redevelopment
  3. Block patterns that influence “walkability”
  4. Transit connectivity
  5. Household incomes

“We need to make transit investments that unlock the potential for TOD, but we need to make them in the right places,” said the director of the Center for Transit-Oriented Development, Sam Zimbabwe.

Cincinnati’s modern streetcar system has recently been challenged by Ohio Governor John Kasich (R) in regards to its ability to generate economic investments and create jobs. This challenge goes against economic studies performed by HDR Economics and confirmed by the University of Cincinnati’s award-winning economist George Vredeveld. When applying the key findings of the Center for Transit-Oriented Development’s recent report Cincinnati’s streetcar system looks to be an even bigger winner than expected by the OKI Regional Council of Governments (OKI) and Ohio Transportation Review Advisory Council (TRAC) which have both enthusiastically supported the project.

The Cincinnati Streetcar meets all five of the reports key considerations for economic success along transit lines. The system runs through downtown Cincinnati and connects the regions two largest employment centers, and serves areas that include vacant and underutilized properties that offer opportunities for development or redevelopment. The Cincinnati Streetcar also connects with the region’s focal point for bus transit, serves a block pattern that is extremely walkable, and includes a diverse range of household incomes.

And while the report shows Charlotte as the big winner, its findings show that the Cincinnati Streetcar could be even more successful than the Blue Line’s approximately 9.8 million square feet worth of real estate investment between 2005 and 2009. The main reason is, of course, location.

Cincinnati’s streetcar line will serve an area better equipped and positioned for transit-oriented development (TOD) when compared to Charlotte’s Blue Line which saw economic investments drop off precipitously after leaving that city’s downtown (Uptown) and adjacent residential neighborhood (South End). When compared to Charlotte, Cincinnati’s downtown and adjacent residential areas (Over-the-Rhine, Clifton Heights, Mt. Auburn, Corryville, University Heights) served by the streetcar line represent significantly greater land area prime for TOD.

Major economic investments are already occurring on and around the Cincinnati Streetcar line in anticipation of its opening in 2013. In Clifton Heights the $70 million U Square at The Loop mixed-use development derives its name from its proximity to the streetcar’s connection to Uptown. In Over-the-Rhine Rookwood Pottery, Christian Moerlein, the $400 million Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati and dozens of small businesses have expressed their hopes for the eventual opening of the modern streetcar system. And in downtown developers of The Banks and other major developments have begun using the Cincinnati Streetcar as a marketing tool.

In addition to the existing positives for Cincinnati’s streetcar system when it comes to TOD, the planned streetcar system also has local planning efforts supporting it. In 2010 Cincinnati City Council passed a measure that will reduce or eliminate parking requirements at residential developments within two blocks of a streetcar stop. The streetcar system will also be managed with the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) which currently operates Metro bus service and plans to coordinate the two systems.

The report noted that while transit improvements were a factor in the real estate investments, that coordination with longer-term efforts to revitalize center cities was greatly important.

“This study marks an important step in understanding the impact of transit investments in three regions, and the implications for other communities looking to transit investments as a source of long-term economic prosperity and competitiveness,” Zimbabwe stated. “Investments in neighborhood infrastructure and amenities are critical for unlocking the potential for TOD.”

When the study examined the differences between the lines in Charlotte, Denver and Minneapolis it showed that the urban portions were most successful at attracting economic investment. Charlotte’s Blue Line (9.6 miles) saw approximately 1,021,000 square feet of development per mile, while Denver’s Southeast Corridor (19.1 miles) and Minneapolis’ Hiawatha Line (12.3 miles) saw 408,000 and 545,000 square feet of development per mile respectively.

The results from this study are clear for transit-oriented development. An urban setting with opportunities for development, close proximity to job centers and transit connectivity are critical for economic success. Suburban areas show diminishing returns in the form of economic activity and real estate investment along transit line. The Cincinnati Streetcar represents all of the key considerations and more, and is exactly why the project has received TRAC’s highest score for two consecutive years out of every transportation project in Ohio.

News Politics

Putting the Food Cart Before the Horse

Yesterday, Cincinnati Enquirer editor Tom Callinan wrote an opinion piece about Cincinnati’s growing street food scene. The column discusses his past experiences with street food and elaborates on how Cincinnati’s street food scene has changed since he arrived in Cincinnati some eight years ago.

Personally I appreciate the comments shared by Mr. Callinan and his apparent enthusiasm for the Cincinnati Streetcar project he mentioned four times in his relatively short op-ed piece about street food. The reason for this response piece is not to challenge his experiences with great street food (I too love street food), or his passion for the Cincinnati Streetcar project (also a passion of mine), but rather to explore his explanation of cosmopolitan cities and experiences.

Mr. Callinan explained how the growing street food options are making Cincinnati a more cosmopolitan place much like the Cincinnati Streetcar will. This however is putting the food cart before the horse. Street food options are not a driver of cosmopolitan behavior, but rather the result of a city becoming more cosmopolitan and craving such offerings. Likening this to the Cincinnati Streetcar which will actually drive additional lifestyle changes that make Cincinnati more cosmopolitan is inaccurate.

For example, when people living at The Banks development along Cincinnati’s riverfront ride the Cincinnati Streetcar to Findlay Market for their weekly shopping needs it is not the businesses that sparked this behavioral change, it is the streetcar that enables this, as Mr. Callinan would put it, cosmopolitan lifestyle. The lifestyle changes influenced by the streetcar system will create additional demand for cosmopolitan offerings like the street food vendors Mr. Callinan details as more people, instead of cars, begin to populate our streets.

You could almost view something like street food as an indicator species for the liveliness of a city. William H. Whyte’s groundbreaking research in New York City examined the social behaviors and usage of public spaces, and he discovered that people do in fact have a tendency to cluster around street food vendors. This is for two primary reasons: 1) the street food attracts people to the vendor for the product, and 2) people are attracted to other people and have a tendency to self-congest. But without people on the streets to begin with, there is no demand for a street food vendor. So the question is really how to increase the number of people out on the streets if we are trying to figure out how to grow the number of street food vendors in a given area.

Cincinnati’s food carts vie for the heavy foot traffic areas in downtown Cincinnati. The locations for each vendor is determined by an annual lottery held by the City.

New York City has no shortage of people walking around the city where there is a proliferation of these fantastic street food vendors. And it is no coincidence that Cincinnati’s food carts fight over the spaces surrounding Fountain Square during the annual lottery that allocates food cart locations. Those food cart spaces are located in the highest pedestrian count areas of downtown Cincinnati where each of the nearby intersections boast between 4,000 to 7,000 pedestrians per hour between 11am and 2pm.

But what about street food vendors in Portland that is the oft-cited streetcar case study for Cincinnati’s contemporary proposal?

Marisa Robertson-Textor wrote for Gourmet Magazine that, “Portland’s bustling street-food scene may soon be rivaling the hawker centers of Singapore in terms of quality, scope, popular appeal, and value for money. In other words, the Pacific Northwest is doing for street food today what it did for coffee in the 1990s.” She went on to say that picking just eight venues out of the sea of stands, stalls, carts, trucks, trailers, and even bicycles was a tough job.

Portland’s street food vendors tend to cluster around the streetcar and light rail lines…especially so around line crossings.

I spent the last week in Denver where I visited one of America’s most famous street food vendors. I got to speak with Jim Pittenger, owner of Biker Jim’s Dogs, during that time about his gourmet hot dogs that have drawn national acclaim and recent praise from food rock star Anthony Bourdain himself. Jim’s loyal assistant explained the importance of a high foot traffic location to me, and said that their prominent location at 16th & Arapahoe streets in the heart of downtown Denver has been critical to their success.

In Cincinnati we need to continue to do things like remove the hideous and life sucking skywalks, build modern transport options like the Cincinnati Streetcar to give people greater options to get out of their cars and onto the streets so that we can continue to create additional demand for the wondrous street food vendors that help make cities great.