Cincinnati is caught up in the nation-wide paradigm shift concerning what makes a community attractive. Like many other older American cities, ours is growing with new residents and businesses for the first time in two generations. Nowhere are our improved fortunes—and new challenges—more evident than in our urban basin, home to both Fortune 500 companies and crushing poverty.
Elected officials and community leaders all talk about the need to maintain a mixed-income, racially diverse, inclusive Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Mostly they have focused on the creation or retention of low-income housing and rent-control policies, often as a prerequisite when building new, market-rate units. While these approaches can do much for many, they are not fully effective at reducing total housing costs, because rent is only a part of the problem.
My argument is simple: eliminating the absolute need for car ownership and the requirement to provide off-street parking will have the immediate effect of reducing the cost of living in the Downtown and Over-the-Rhine areas. Smaller housing costs mean that the neighborhoods are more affordable for a wider range of people.
I am frustrated with every announcement of new construction in Downtown or Over-the-Rhine, and the inevitable inclusion of off-street parking. I am frustrated because car ownership is a huge expense, and the cost of building all this parking is a huge expense. In the context of creating a mixed-income neighborhood, then, we aren’t putting our money where our mouths are. The typical American household spends almost $10,000 a year on automobile-related expenses. And as a society, we have failed horribly at capturing the cost of negative externalities associated with all our driving, such as: urban flooding, pollution, psychosomatic illness, and the 30,000 Americans who die because of cars each year.
How do we adequately move around our city while also reducing the need and expense for costly car-related infrastructure? By funding a better public transportation system and changing the rules.
Cincinnati Metro already does a lot on a shoestring budget; the organization is regularly lauded for the creative ways it stretches each dollar. It could do a lot more with even a modicum of increased funding. First, Metro should work to eliminate stops and increase the frequency of core routes. Transit is a constant trade-off between access and ridership. Does the system touch the greatest number of people at an infrequent rate? Or does it focus on frequency and therefore ridership numbers along core routes? Metro should tip the balance of this equation toward ridership, an easy goal in hilly Cincinnati. Second, it should focus on building more defined stops and transfer points. Bus stops with more effective shelters—including cover from the elements and a bench—would increase route visibility and provide needed protection for its riders, as well as a space to post route maps and timetables. Providing faster, more frequent service between our neighborhood business districts (NBDs), primary jobs locations, and shopping destinations is the smart way to move people for work and pleasure.
While transit funding can be affected by City Hall, our local government’s major contribution to the creation of more broadly affordable housing should be to eliminate minimum parking requirements near the city’s NBDs, particularly within the urban basin. Note that this move would not forbid the creation of off-street parking; it merely removes the government mandate that parking must be built. Thus, the market can take over and developers can decide for themselves how much parking is required for a project. Two underlying policies must change for this to happen. One: the City must stop viewing parking as a primary source of income. Instead, City Hall should focus on boosting income, sales, and property tax receipts through increased economic activity in our NBDs. Two: developers and their bankers must become more comfortable with quality access to transit substituting for proprietary parking. This will take time and clear signals from City Hall.
When seeking to create a racially and socio-economically diverse community in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati’s leaders fail to take a holistic approach. Rather, they seem to focus solely on the flawed metric of physical housing costs as a means to fight increasing rents and to maintain financial diversity. Their failure to design and fund a superior transportation system imposes unnecessary costs on those at the bottom and middle of the economic ladder. The government policy of mandated minimum parking requirements distorts the market, reducing the efficacy of Metro while costing developers – and the taxpayers who inevitably subsidize them – millions of dollars. Our current policy may have been applicable when first designed, but it is no longer relevant. Indeed, it has failed for everyone, both those with cars and those without.
It is time we design a new transportation system to reflect our changed values and needs.