Streetcar turning the corner? City data shows increased ridership

The urban circulator has had its share of snafus, but changes to the system are showing positive early returns.

Cincinnati streetcar seeing an increase in riders, hours expanded

CINCINNATI (FOX19) - Hourly ridership on the Cincinnati Bell Connector is trending up in 2021, giving riders and transit advocates reason for optimism as the city looks forward to the end of the pandemic.

Hourly ridership in March was up 20 percent over ridership in the same month of 2019, according to city data.

The trend is doubly significant with thousands of downtown workers, some who used the streetcar for lunchtime or after-work trips, not yet having returned to their offices.

Total ridership is down about 4.8 percent, as the streetcar had been running on reduced hours through a pandemic-scarred start to 2021. The system is back to its original hours as of Sunday, so April’s data should paint a more complete picture of ridership gains.

But the year’s increased ridership is encouraging so far, something streetcar supporters like Cincinnati City Council candidate Derek Baumann attributes both to free fares and changes in the system itself.

“We’ve just got a series now of positive steps that are taking place, that are driving not only the increase in ridership, but also the increase of people in Downtown and OTR, enjoying the spring here in Cincinnati,” Baumann said.

Development along the streetcar line has never been an issue. Most recently, the developer of a project at Liberty and Elm streets in Over-the-Rhine committed $1.45 million to the streetcar budget through a voluntary tax incentive contribution agreement. VTICA contributions were always intended to pay a greater share of the streetcar’s operating costs over time.

Still, the embattled system has faced a number of challenges since its 2015 launch, including faulty air compressors, broken ticket vending machines, continued track blockages, a murky leadership structure and questionable support from city hall.

The city shut down streetcar operations from March-August 2020 as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19.

When the streetcar reopened, Cincinnati City Council overrode a mayoral veto to make the urban circulator fare-free, something transit advocates like Baumann had been clamoring for since its launch.

“The machines themselves were kind of bulky,” Baumann said of the original fare-paying process. “The app wasn’t very convenient to use, so a lot of people just avoided it, just because of that friction of the fares.”

Improved signal priority at certain intersections and a decline in the number of track blockages has sped the streetcar up, but few differences are as striking as the fare-free model.

For some on city council, it was a long time coming. Council members David Mann and Greg Landsmann voiced support as early as 2018 in motions recommending the city look at eliminating fares.

The administration produced a report in October 2019 that found the cost of collecting fares to be upwards of $200,000. Fare revenue, by contrast, was only around $400,000 that year.

To supporters of the fare-free model, the benefits of increased ridership on advertising revenues and real estate investment along the line outweighed that $200,000 difference.

Now, as pandemic restrictions are lifted across Ohio, Baumann and other transit advocates say folks have a speedier and much-improved streetcar line to look forward to in Cincinnati.

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