In his first blog post, Andy Shenk helps cincyopolis think about the role of public transportation in community development by giving us a picture of what his life in Cincinnati has been like since he arrived here – without a car.
For much of the city of Cincinnati and surrounding metro area, car ownership is a given. Thousands of jobs are not even accessible without one. Try finding a restaurant, school, or shop that advertises information about the nearest bus stop; you’ll soon realize that directions in Cincinnati are for cars only. Big, fancy parking garages sprout overnight; bus stops are lucky to have a little green sign, perhaps a bench every half mile or so.
Cars are so tightly stapled into Cincinnati’s consciousness, life without them is difficult to imagine.
And yet, twenty percent of Cincinnatians do not have access to a car. 20%!! Let that number sink in. Sixty thousand people, most of whom live outside the urban basin, mainly rely on bus service that is slow and infrequent. From Westwood to South Cumminsville to Evanston, Cincinnatians are stuck in crumbling neighborhoods with limited access to jobs, education, and grocery stores.
I repeat: twenty percent of Cincinnatians do not have access to a car, my wife Nikki and I included. Here is a glimpse of what that has meant for our lives here.
A bit over a year ago, Nikki and I arrived in Cincinnati on a Megabus from Chicago. Dropped off in a Queensgate parking lot, we began our new lives by lugging our suitcases through downtown, then waiting almost an hour for the 1 to take us up the hill to Mount Adams. So much for a warm welcome to Porkopolis; I think the pigs had an easier time getting to the slaughterhouse.
Later that afternoon, I jogged to Covington to get a router from the nearest Time Warner Cable store. Burned once by the 1, and not sure what to make of the TANK, it seemed quicker and more efficient to travel five miles round-trip by foot. (And yes, I know about Uber, but we were nearly broke. Twenty dollars in cab fares didn’t fit the budget.)
Now I regularly bike to Covington for work, and I often remember that first excursion. Carrying my bike up and over a pedestrian overpass on Columbia Parkway, I catch myself gaping each time at downtown Cincinnati and the Ohio River, nestled beneath the Kentucky hills. It’s a remarkable view, one of my favorites in a city blessed with stunning panoramas.
A few weeks ago, Nikki and I went out for dinner with friends in Norwood. We had what we thought was a perfect plan: a restaurant located next to one of Metro’s most reliable routes, the 4, which also stops an easy ten-minute walk from our apartment. We had no trouble getting to the restaurant and enjoyed a relaxing meal and good conversation. At 8:30, I checked the bus app on my phone; we could catch a bus for downtown at 8:53. Perfect timing.
Around 8:45, we started wrapping up the conversation. It’s always a bit awkward to cut a visit short because of the bus, but we are trying to get used to it. We said goodbye in the parking lot and turned to cross the street, only to watch in horror as the 4 went hurtling by on Montgomery.
It was cold that night and there wouldn’t be another 4 for at least twenty minutes. Uncomfortable asking for a ride from people we didn’t know very well, we smiled and waved as they pulled away.
Inside, both of us were seething and even more pissed after shelling out $10 for an Uber ride. We’d tried hard to get it right, even picking the restaurant and watching the time, only to be screwed into wasting money on a stupid car ride.
At the same time, Nikki and I have it better than the average person without a car. When we get stranded or the weather is miserable, we can, if absolutely necessary, order an Uber on our smartphone and get going in minutes. It’s a luxury but one we can now occasionally afford. For thousands others around Cincinnati, barely missing the bus means a 20-30 minute wait without a place to sit or protection from the elements.
When you take a broader look at the city and bus service, the picture is bleak. What do you do if you live in Price Hill and work at Kenwood Towne Centre? Or commute from Avondale to the airport for work each day? Can you really afford a vehicle when you are earning $8-10/hour with minimal benefits (if any)? That said, who can spend ninety minutes on the bus when a car gets you there in twenty minutes?
Imagine, three hours per day on the bus. In Cincinnati. For jobs that barely pay the rent.
I’ve lived in Moscow and New York City. There, an hour-plus commute is nothing out of the ordinary. Life in a mega-city is exhausting and expensive and everyone knows it.
In Cincinnati, we’re fed a different narrative. Jobs are relatively plentiful and the suburbs offer cheap rent and easy access to the interstates. But while many hang onto middle-class status, thousands across our city can’t afford the one item around which the system revolves: a car. Far-flung jobs and spotty bus service make getting places a logistical nightmare.
Don’t get me wrong. More cars
are not some magic potion. Compared to public transportation, cars are expensive, dangerous, unhealthy, and require staggering amounts of public investment.
I think there are other ways for our city to move forward, building on the infrastructure we already have, without blindly paving bigger roads and more parking lots. Smart public transportation is good for everyone, whether you live in South Fairmount or Hyde Park.
It’s not charity; it’s designing a city that better manages resources and capitalizes on its biggest asset: the 300,000 of us spread across fifty-two neighborhoods.