Well hello there! It’s been a year, what did we miss?
All kidding aside much has happened over the past year. While our team was alive and well, doing what we do, the site crashed. We can discuss how much effort we had to put into restoring the site from the archive but the long and short of it is that the back end server and hosting needed to be rebuilt almost entirely.
Thank you, Travis, for all your hard work!
In lieu of a broader update, we have decided to focus on catching up on some of the major developments in Cincinnati over the past year. Here’s a brief review of news from 2019 and early 2020:
Of course, we would be remiss to not mention the current COVID-19 crisis. We will continue to track its impacts on urbanism in Cincinnati and beyond. This Friday, the city will close 15 street sections in downtown and Over-the-Rhine to allow for expanded outdoor dining. Other areas may follow.
With the site back, we hope to become a public platform for urban thought in Cincinnati. With most of us now working full-time, we have less time to devote to the site. With that in mind, if you, our reader have an article you would like to submit or an opinion piece, please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On January 18, Mayor John Cranley proposed $900,000 worth of pedestrian safety improvements across the city, including the addition of new crosswalks, improved signage, sidewalk bump-outs, and the conversion of some off-peak parking lanes into full-time parking lanes. Some of these improvements are located near schools where students are likely to be crossing the street. Others are located in neighborhoods like Pleasant Ridge where residents have been asking the city for traffic calming initiatives for years.
In the 1950s, Liberty Street was widened from two lanes to its current seven-lane configuration in order to funnel automobile traffic to the newly built Millcreek Expressway and Northeast Expressway, which are now known as I-75 and I-71. Hundreds of properties in Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton were purchased and demolished to accommodate the widening project, which cost $1.3 million at the time, the equivalent of $12.3 million in today’s dollars. Within years of the project’s completion, residents were complaining that the widened street was unsafe for school children to cross.
A “road diet” was proposed in the 2011 Brewery District Master Plan as a way to reconnect the Brewery District in northern Over-the-Rhine with the rest of the neighborhood. In April 2013, City Council directed the Department of Transportation and Engineering (DOTE) to begin studying the idea. DOTE hosted several community input sessions in 2015 and 2016, studied several options for improving the street, and settled on a plan to narrow the seven-lane street down to five lanes. The city presented a “final schematic design” for what became known as the Liberty Street Safety Improvement Project in October 2017.
However, in August 2018, it was revealed that city administration had “paused” the project. An August 7 memo released by then-Acting City Manager Patrick Duhaney explained that the project was paused due to concerns that a slimmed-down Liberty Street couldn’t handle the traffic headed to and from FC Cincinnati’s new West End stadium, and a funding gap due to the need to relocate a water main for the project. In a subsequent memo released on August 31, Duhaney recommended an “Administration Preferred Option” that would “scale back the project to install bump-outs at each intersection” without any reduction in the street’s width.
In October, City Council allocated more funding to the project to cover the cost of moving the water main and directed the administration to proceed with the road diet. However, it seems that city administration has began considering several new options that would keep Liberty Street at its current width. According to city documents and emails obtained by UrbanCincy, the following options now appear to now be under consideration:
The 5 Lane Option was the “final” plan presented to the Over-the-Rhine Community Council in October 2017.
The 7 Lane Option would keep Liberty Street’s current width and configuration, but add bump-outs at each major intersection, slightly reducing the crossing distance for pedestrians.
Cycle Track Option 1 would add an 8 foot wide bidirectional cycle track on one side of the street and maintain 7 lanes of automobile traffic in the configuration that exists today but with narrower lanes. Sidewalks would be narrowed to 8 feet.
Cycle Track Option 2 would add a 10 foot wide bidirectional cycle track on one side of the street and maintain 6 lanes of automobile traffic. In one direction, the street would have two vehicle travel lanes and a full-time parking lane. In the other direction, it would have one vehicle travel lane and an “off-peak” parking lane that would convert to a travel lane during rush hour(s). (Note: In this draft document, the parking lanes appear to be mislabeled. The parking lane on the left should be labeled “Travel/Parking Lane” and the parking lane on the right should be labeled “24 Hour Parking Lane”.)
Buffered Bike Lane Option 1 would add a 5 foot wide bike lane on each side of the street, located between the sidewalk and parked cars, and maintain 6 lanes of automobile traffic. In one direction, the street would have two vehicle travel lanes and a full-time parking lane. In the other direction, it would have one vehicle travel lane and an “off-peak” parking lane that would convert to a travel lane during rush hour(s). Sidewalks would be narrowed to 9 feet.
Buffered Bike Lane Option 2 is similar to the previous option, except that in one direction of travel, the bike lane and full-time parking lane have swapped positions. While this allows sidewalk bump-outs to be added on one side of the street, reducing the crossing distance for pedestrians, it is also more dangerous for cyclists, who will be riding next to fast-moving cars rather than in a protected zone between parked cars and the sidewalk.
While the 2011 Brewery District Master Plan proposed adding bike lanes to Liberty Street, DOTE didn’t spend much time studying them due to lukewarm response at the public input sessions. According to a city document, “Bikes, pedestrian, and vehicular needs, among others, were all prioritized based on data and community feedback. Bike lanes were determined to not be a high priority and were eliminated from the options very early in the process. The top priority was pedestrian safety with a focus on the long street crossings that exist today.”
The idea of adding bike lanes returned in early October 2018, when city staff began to “brainstorm different scenarios for Liberty Street that do not involve moving the water main,” according to an email sent by a city staff member. The bike lane options would allow for some safety improvements to be implemented without narrowing the total width of the street, so they wouldn’t require the water main to be moved. However, these options would not achieve the “top priority” of the original project: significantly reducing the pedestrian crossing distance and reconnecting the northern and southern halves of the neighborhood.
Now that City Council has now provided the necessary funding to move the water main and narrow the street, it would seem that the primary reason for the ongoing “pause” and re-evaluation of the project is the city administration’s desire to maintain maximum vehicular access to the new FC Cincinnati stadium in the West End. In October 2018, Mayor John Cranley dismissed what he called “conspiracy theories” that FC Cincinnati had anything to do with the decision. And while we uncovered no evidence that FC Cincinnati’s ownership asked the city to kill the road diet, it does seem that DOTE is prioritizing traffic headed to and from the stadium above other users of the street.
In an email from May 2018, one DOTE staff member explained, “We anticipate having a Event Timing Plan for the signals that will favor funneling vehicles towards the stadium prior to the game and away from after the game.” So while a larger traffic study of the downtown street grid, which primarily focuses on improvements for transit riders and pedestrians, is stuck in political gridlock, traffic signal timing changes to speed cars down Liberty Street have been fast-tracked.
Additionally, the DOTE staff member explained that “Central Parkway is not a good conductor of large event traffic” and that the city wants to “try to minimize the vehicular traffic on the N/S portion of Central Parkway as this will have a very large number of pedestrians.” This explains the city administration’s desire to close a portion of Central Parkway on game days, which would have the effect of funneling even more highway-bound traffic down Liberty Street.
What does the Liberty Street “pause” tell us about the city’s commitment to Vision Zero?
During Mayor John Cranley’s pedestrian safety announcement in January, he mentioned that Cincinnati would move forward with implementing a Vision Zero program. While few specifics were given, Vision Zero programs typically have the goal of reducing the number of traffic-related deaths and serious injuries by rethinking how streets are designed in order to prioritize all users—including pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders—instead of designing them to move as many cars as possible, as fast as possible. Vision Zero programs often include reducing speed limits, reconfiguring overly-wide streets and intersections, and adding new crosswalks, sidewalk bump-outs, and bike lanes.
Vision Zero policies have been implemented by dozens of cities across the country and around the world, and have resulted in measurable safety improvements. New York City adopted Vision Zero in 2014 and has experienced a decrease in pedestrian fatalities for five consecutive years. The benefits aren’t limited to big cities like New York, though. Smaller Ohio cities like Canton and Lima have also incorporated Vision Zero-style traffic calming techniques into recent street redesigns.
In order for a Vision Zero policy to be effective, it can’t just be a slogan. It can’t just be a one-time expenditure of $900,000 for a handful of pedestrian safety improvements that are easy political wins. It has to be a comprehensive set of policies that require DOTE to take pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders into consideration every time a street is designed. It requires that the city seek input from residents about changes they want to see on their streets and turn those ideas into reality. Sometimes, it will require that the city makes decisions that inconvenience drivers in minor ways—reducing speed limits in neighborhood business districts and on residential streets, increasing enforcement of traffic laws, and perhaps losing a few on-street parking spaces to add new crosswalks—in order to make streets dramatically safer for everyone.
The Liberty Street Safety Improvement Project is a slam dunk Vision Zero project. It is widely supported by neighborhood residents and has been fully funded by City Council. And yet, the city administration seems to have decided at the eleventh hour that the need to move cars to and from the new FC Cincinnati stadium as fast as possible is a higher priority than desires of residents who want a safer street and a reconnected neighborhood.
If the city implements a Vision Zero program, it will be faced with this same conflict over and over again. Neighborhood residents want a safer street with calmer traffic, but drivers want to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible without slowing down. With Liberty Street, the city administration has chosen to side with drivers. If this is representative of future decisions that the city administration and DOTE will make, Cincinnati’s Vision Zero program will not be successful.
Liberty Street was originally built as a typical 30 foot wide city street, but was widened to 70 feet in 1955 to serve as a connector to Interstate 471 and Reading Road. The widening required a significant number of building demolitions and physically severed the neighborhood into two halves. Over the past fifteen years, as the southern half of OTR has redeveloped, the northern half has seen much less investment–and most of this has been in the area around Findlay Market, not along Liberty Street.
It is uncomfortable as a pedestrian to cross Liberty Street, as the walk light changes almost immediately to a countdown timer, and it takes about a half a minute to cross walking at an average speed. The current design, at 7 lanes wide, is optimized for speeding cars and is wholly inappropriate for a dense urban neighborhood like Over-the-Rhine.
Liberty Street is too wide and the City knows it. At an open house event in 2015, the City of Cincinnati first proposed a “road diet” for the street. Over the next several years, they facilitated several community input sessions regarding what came to be called the Liberty Street Safety Improvement Project. Each of these meetings was held at the Woodward Theater for a packed audience of people who live, work, or spend time in Over-the-Rhine. Members of the community spoke about the need to make Liberty Street safer for all people, including pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders–not just drivers.
DOTE staff took the community input into consideration and ultimately presented their final plan to OTR Community Council on October 23, 2017. The plan called for removing two lanes from the south side of Liberty Street, reducing the crossing distance for pedestrians and discouraging excessive speeding. Additionally, this will free up land for new development along the south side of the street, providing space for new housing, retail, or office space.
Unfortunately, in August, the City Administration decided to “pause” the Liberty Street Safety Improvement Project because of concerns about the traffic that will be generated by the new FC Cincinnati stadium in the West End and a sudden concern about how the installation of a new water main would be funded.
The Liberty Street plan, which has been in the works for years, has now been mothballed because of a stadium plan that didn’t exist until a few months ago–publicly, at least. To make matters worse, City Council previously denied the OTR Community Council’s request to be involved in the stadium’s Community Benefits Agreement, saying that OTR would not be impacted by the stadium; but now seems that Over-the-Rhine may be negatively impacted by the cancellation of the Liberty Street Safety Improvement Project.
The City Administration’s concern about traffic is bizarre, as the narrowed Liberty Street would maintain five lanes of traffic during peak traffic times, the same number of travel lanes that exist today. Typically the outer lanes would be used for parking during off-peak periods, but the city could install “no parking” signs on game days. Therefore, the impact on traffic through the neighborhood would be minimal or non-existent.
As for the water infrastructure, that can be solved through a mix of council and departmental leadership. An example of that is a potential solution presented by Councilmember P.G. Sittenfeld to use the money from the sale of the Whex garage to plug the budget gap.
We urge the City Council to keep the city’s promise to the Over-the-Rhine community and pass legislation requiring the City to follow through with the Liberty Street Safety Improvement Project.