Transit is key to Cincinnati's economic progress

The Cincinnati Streetcar is already under construction, but now faces an uncertain future. Photo via Flickr.
The Cincinnati Streetcar  is already under construction, but now faces an uncertain future. Photo via Flickr.

(The following op-ed originally appeared in the Cincinnati Inquirer on November 8, 2013)

I was the lead consultant, along with Jim McGraw of KMK Consulting, on the Go Cincinnati economic development strategy in 2008. While funded by the private sector under the auspices of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, Go Cincinnati became the City Council-adopted economic strategy for the city’s future. The City, along with 3CDC, Port Authority, Museum Center at Union Terminal and others, are already implementing it.

Brookings and KMK found that Cincinnati’s major economic deficiency is the lack of walkable urban places with the housing and jobs required for the 21st century knowledge economy. The city was not playing as large a role in the regional economy since it was not focusing on the development of these high-density, mixed-use walkable urban places. The city is now fulfilling the Go Cincinnati strategy by successfully building walkable urban neighborhoods, such as Fountain Square, Uptown Coalition and Over-the-Rhine. But much more needs to be done.

The walkable urban path toward economic revitalization requires investing in appropriate infrastructure, particularly transportation. It is well known that “transportation drives development”. If a city only builds highways, it will only get car and truck-dependent drivable suburban development. This is a viable development pattern, however, the country and the region have overbuilt this form of development.

Providing multiple transportation options, including cars and trucks, biking, bus, rail transit and walking, is fundamental to developing walkable urban places. There is a pent-up market demand for these types of neighborhoods and Cincinnati has a natural advantage within the region in satisfying it.

It is important to note that the goal of all transportation improvements – such as the streetcar – is not to move people and goods. The goal of the streetcar is economic development; the means is by moving people and goods. Most decision-makers get goals and means regarding transportation investment reversed.

The economic development argument for building streetcars is to provide households with transportation options beyond the current single option – essentially being forced to only use cars for all trips out of the home. Some people like this single option, which favors suburban, not city, development – but many others want transportation choices. In particular, young people are voting with their feet to move to walkable urban neighborhoods, places like downtown Chicago, Short North in Columbus and University Circle in Cleveland. As a result, vehicle miles traveled by young people (16-34 years old) peaked in 2001 and has dropped by a third on a per capita basis, reversing a 100-year trend.

Build walkable urban places that young people are demanding or they will go somewhere else, taking their skills and entrepreneurial drive with them.

The other economic development factor in favor of streetcars is the dramatic increase in private sector investment along approximately two blocks of both sides of the line. The track record (excuse the pun) for modern American streetcar networks is exceedingly positive. The Portland and Seattle streetcars are undoubtedly the most successful; the Portland phase I streetcar system cost only $55 million and the result was over $3 billion in private sector investment along the line.

And the argument that buses serve the same role is not correct. I have seen billions of private sector investment at rail transit stations. I have yet to see a dollar of investment at a bus stop.

It is ironic that Cincinnati and all cities have a choice of three 19th century transportation technologies – cars, bikes and streetcars – to propel their 21st century economies. Building only roads for cars ignores the pent-up demand for walkable urban places that is now plainly evident in Cincinnati and elsewhere. Build multiple transportation options – roads for cars, rail transit, lanes for biking and, of course, walking – and we will fulfill the Go Cincinnati strategy of building a modern and prosperous knowledge economy.

Leinberger is the president of Smart Growth America’s LOCUS coalition of real estate developers and investors, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and professor and chair of the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at the George Washington School of Business.