Cincinnati’s “Mr. Streetcar” makes case for Cincy project on radio


John Schneider photo

John Schneider [Photo: Cincinnati.com]

Cincinnati, Ohio — This city’s streetcar starter line project is under way … but so is the continuing fight against it by rail transit adversaries.

On Thursday, July 18th, local airwaves became a debate forum as John Schneider (co-principal of Urban Rail Today) sparred with 55KRC talk radio host Brian Thomas over the pros and cons of the city’s project, now surging forward with a fresh infusion of necessary funding (see Cincinnati signs streetcar construction contract). Here’s a brief description from the CincyStreetcar Blog:

John Schneider, aka Captain Transit aka Mr. Streetcar, was back on the radio this morning. He was invited to join Brian Thomas on his regular morning show on 55 KRC.

The two discussed the first phase of the Cincinnati Streetcar project in detail, and also discussed the merits of rail transportation in general.

The discussion started with Brian Thomas going on an uninterrupted prelude where he discussed the City of Cincinnati’s finances and its lack of ability to proceed with the project.

“The fundamental problem with Cincinnati, and the fundamental opportunity is we’ve lost population and we need to repopulate our city. We have a city that was built for 500,000 people, but we only have 300,000 people today,” Schneider explained to an agreeable Thomas. “But the snow still falls on Martin Luther King Boulevard and it has to be plowed, the grass still grows in Mt. Airy Forest and it has to be cut.”

Schneider went on to explain that investing in the Cincinnati Streetcar will help stabilize the city’s tax base and repopulate the city, in perhaps the greatest challenge and opportunity the Queen City has.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Thomas spent almost the entire interview using anecdotes and anti-city hysteria to support his points, but he did loudly profess how much of a bus fan he is.

CincyStreetcar Blog also provides its own link to a nice, compact recording of the full 55KRC program, lasting about a half-hour.

Yak jock Brian Thomas was not only adversarial, but also somewhat overbearing. After long orations of his own view, he’d ask John Schneider a question, then interrupt him about a couple of sentences into his response. In fact, it didn’t appear that John was ever able to complete a response without interruption. Neverless, John maintained a cool, professional demeanor and seems to have presented a good case for the Cincinnati project.

Much of the de facto on-air debate focused on Thomas’s claims that buses could do the job at less cost (the “Just like rail, but cheaper” argument). But (before being interrupted each time) Schneider managed to emphasize some of the major advantages of rail transit.

It’s almost a sure bet that rail transit opponents actually ride public transit extremely rarely, if ever — and, especially before an audience similarly unfamiliar with the actual differences, this sophistic anti-rail rationale can effectively hoodwink some observers. But the reality is that a streetcar is far more attractive to the public than a bus, even for what will be, in the Cincy CBD, short circulator trips. There’s more personal space, you can board/deboard much faster, the stops are far nicer, the trip is faster.

As a result, significantly higher ridership is attracted. And, in most cases, in turn, rail’s operating and maintenance cost per passenger-mile is lower than for similar bus service.

One of the more curious aspects of the debate was Thomas’s argument on the claimed drawbacks of rail’s route permanence, and his praise for the supposed superiority of being able to “flexibly” change a bus route at will. Despite Thomas’s professed devotion to bus transit, almost any seasoned regular bus rider might seriously wonder whether he really rides the bus as often as he claims. As most regular riders know all too well, “flexible” route diversions are one of the greatest banes of bus passengers, especially when these diversions occur frequently because of special events such as parades, marathons, street fairs, and similar activities.

What this “flexibility” means for many a regular commuter, for example, is that you walk vigorously to your usual bus stop for your after-work trip home, only to find it closed because your bus has been re-routed six to eight blocks away — and you can’t possibly make your bus on time. (But it’s probably delayed by all the street activity and re-routings, anyway.)

In short, while route “flexibility” might be very handy for the transit agency (and muncipal public works roadway department) … it’s hell for the passengers. The people of Cincinnati — and, indeed, any community considering rail vs. bus alternatives — need to ask themselves if this is the outcome they really want.

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