After Epic Struggle, the Cincinnati Streetcar Is Finally a Reality

Cincinnati's new streetcar, the Cincinnati Bell Connector, was running packed it's opening weekend. Photo: UrbanCincy
Cincinnati’s new streetcar was packed on an opening weekend with free fares. Photo: UrbanCincy

What a long, difficult journey it’s been for streetcar advocates in Cincinnati. After battling an extremely hostile state government, the project was nearly killed in the early stages of construction by an adversarial mayor. But a groundswell of grassroots support for the project pushed it over the top.

The Cincy route is not very long and operates in mixed traffic, which will limit the speed of service. Most new streetcar projects with those traits don’t attract many passengers. But the Cincinnati streetcar connects important destinations in downtown and the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, which bodes well for ridership.

Last weekend, the “Cincinnati Bell Connector,” as it’s now known thanks to a sponsorship agreement, made its first runs. The atmosphere was electric, reports Travis Estell at UrbanCincy:

After the first five ceremonial rides, the Connector opened to the public around noon. It was free to ride all weekend thanks to donations from Believe in Cincinnati, streetcar manufacturer CAF, Cincinnati Bell, Fred Craig, the Haile Foundation, and Joseph Automotive Group. Each station was staffed with volunteers who helped inform riders about the how the system works, where it goes, and how to pay your fare after the start of revenue service. Additionally, a number of special events and activities took place place near each of the streetcar stations, ranging from DJs to ballet dancers to sidewalk chalk artists. Many businesses along the route offered special streetcar-themed food, drinks, and merchandise.

The system initially opened with four out of the five streetcars in service, but the fifth was put into service around 4 p.m. on Friday and all five continued to operate for the remainder of the weekend. The system operated at nearly maximum capacity all weekend, with lines of people waiting to board at each station.

Unfortunately, the system was forced to close on Saturday afternoon due to a bomb threat. The threat, which appears to be connected to similar threats made over the weekend at the Cincinnati Zoo and two local high school football games, was not believed to be credible, but the system was closed down as a precautionary measure. After a bomb-sniffing dog searched all five streetcars and found nothing, they were put back in to service.

Despite this setback, the system transported passengers on 18,141 trips on Friday, 17,160 on Saturday, and 15,345 on Sunday, for a grand total of 50,646 trips during the grand opening.

We can’t tell much about what the long-term ridership will be on the streetcar from an opening weekend with no fares, although the enthusiasm is encouraging. In Kansas City, about 32,000 passengers rode the downtown streetcar on opening weekend, and it currently moves 6,400 riders each day, more than double the projection. One difference: The Kansas City streetcar is free to ride, while Cincinnati’s fare will be $1.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Reinventing Parking calls for cities to create “park-and-walk” districts. Plan Charlotte reports that the city’s new long-term plan calls for a “Vision Zero”-like approach to traffic safety and $100 million in bike spending — but that would be spread over 25 years. And the Amateur Planner explains how one small quirk in Boston’s evening T service wastes almost $4 million a year.

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