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Monday, August 18, 2008

Cincinnati's auto-dependency and how to improve

Cincinnatians, like many people in America, are stuck in their cars. We were a nation that developed in a dense, walkable fashion (see East Coast and most Midwestern cities). As the industrial revolution took hold cities increasingly became places synonymous with disease, overcrowding, pollution, and overall poor living conditions. Throw in a few skewed federal policies (The American Dream, Eisenhower Interstate System, Urban Renewal) and you have yourself a rapidly changed nation.

So over the years we have continually built our cities to be more like machines rather than the living/breathing places they ought to be. All of a sudden public right-of-ways were no longer the public domain, but rather the cleared land for fast/efficient vehicular travel. Established neighborhoods made way for new interstates and 'The American Dream' of everyone owning their own suburban dwelling, away from the troubles of the inner-city, became firmly implanted in the minds of every American.

In 2000, over 81% of commuters in the Cincinnati region's 5 largest counties (Hamilton, Butler, Clermont, Warren, Kenton) got to their job by driving alone. Public Transportation accounted for a mere 3.2% which wasn't much higher than the 2.7% that worked from home. Hamilton County predictably finished as the most diversified county in terms of means of commuting, but even its numbers were nothing to write home about.

Breakdown of the Cincinnati region's 5 largest counties - Graph by UrbanCincy, data from U.S. Census

I expect that these numbers will look a little different with the 2010 Census data, but I also don't expect it to be dramatically different. As oil prices have soared, inner-city school districts improved, crime plummeted, and overall quality of life improved...our public transportation system has lagged behind. Similarly things like carpooling/ridesharing and walking/biking, that can see improved participation through relatively inexpensive measures, have also not seen much change/improvement over the past 8-10 years.

Part of the answer could be the proposed streetcar system, an improved bike/scooter infrastructure, possibly a light rail system, expanded bus service with new/innovative programs (real-time arrival information) that make the system easier to use. All of these must be done and more. Another item that I propose is that businesses/institutions offer financial incentives for their employees to bike/walk, bus (transit), or carpool to work.

This can be done relatively cheaply and could potentially have a major pay off. As we continue to improve our city/region we can not afford to forget about our transportation system and habits. We can only be as strong as our weakest link, and this is an area that has long been ignored.

Read my full proposal for a Walk/Bike, Bus, Carpool to Work incentive program HERE!


VisuaLingual said...

I'm glad you mention the workplace incentive program, because it's fairly common in some metropolitan areas but, obviously, not here. I actually worked in Cincinnati for a company with offices in other cities, which offers such an incentive program. I was the only person in the Cincinnati office to take advantage of it; it exists as part of the benefits package, but mainly for employees in other cities. I wonder if other large local companies actually have such arrangements as well, but maybe they're not part of the culture, so to speak, and aren't talked about. My taking the bus certainly wasn't accepted, but whatever!

Anyway, thanks for putting all this together.

Chris S said...

I'd love to see such a private incentive program, and I have seen it in other cities where I have lived/worked. However, Cincinnati has a unique problem in that the vast majority of the workers in its two largest employment centers don't live in the "public transit/biking sweet spot" (ideally < 5 miles, within 10 for the bus - there is only so much hassle or sweat people will put up with to get to and from work). The only system that truly solves that transit problem for Cincinnati, as it exists right now, is light rail. This is not to say that as urban densities increase (correlated to the increasing costs of fuel oil) there won't be other solutions in the future, but for now, I don't know that such an incentive program would have many takers. (I'd do it, but that would be hard to justify implementing at my workplace wher 80% bike or walk to work already... how are we gonna justify that, decreased health care costs? No, not really...)

Randy Simes said...

Chris s, if an incentive program were put in place and nobody used it (or very few) then the costs would be very low or zero. The only way the program would become costly is if lots of people took advantage of the program...and if that happened then success has been reached by reducing the amount of people driving to work alone and diversifying our means of commuting.

The thought behind my proposal is similar to your comments. Many of the suburbanites can't take advantage of the program...and if they can it is more expensive for them to pay for the monthly Metro passes. That's why my plan pays $5/month more for those who take Metro.

5chw4r7z said...

If UC didn't pay for my bus ride, I'm not sure if I'd be using it. It can't be overstated how much they need to improve. GPS with realtime arrival info would make a world of difference. It is so frustrating rushing out of the office only to have the bus arrive 15 minutes late.

dave said...

This sounds like a pretty good idea. I would love to get $25 just for walking to work, which I already do anyway.

How to walkers and bicyclists prove that they walked/biked to work? What keeps everyone from claiming they walked?

Randy Simes said...

dave, that was the first question I asked when I spoke with someone in Portland about how they run their system. The transit is easy to track, and carpooling is somewhat more difficult but still doable through receipts.

Walk/Bike users are the trickiest, but he explained that it mainly operates on the honor system. It would be tracked on a department by department basis so you would generally know if someone is driving or if they walk/bike to work. People could potentially take advantage of the system here, so if there are any suggestions let 'em rip.

Chris S said...

I can see that with few takers the costs would be low, but in business, you have to justify it in terms of the bottom line. If there are few takers, while costs are low, its still an added cost that is hard to justify in terms of savings elsewhere. With many takers, the cost savings become apparent (health care costs may go down, less sick days, etc), but cincinnati is not likely to have a large number of takers for the reasons above... I like the idea, I really do, I just don't see how it will get widespread adoption without some real tangible benefits for the companies that provide the incentive. Chicken and egg problem as I see it.

Quimbob said...

I can take issue with a lot of what you have in this post but I'll just focus on one thing as you seem to mainly be looking at white collar office workers here.
In the summer in Cincinnati, the temperature in the morning is great for bicycling but the humidity is so insane (I swear it magically manages to go over 100%), one can easily break a sweat just coasting down Gilbert.
Considering the cyclist will need to interact with people for the rest of the day, showers would probably be more appreciated (by everybody) than cash.
Besides, the cyclist is going to be feeling a LOT better than the guy who just sat out on I-75 at a dead stop for half an hour.

Randy Simes said...

Interesting article in today's Soapbox edition about commuting by bicycle in Cincinnati:

mandy jeanne said...

mmm... walking. i can do it in old milford ; )

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