Cincinnati streets are a blend of the Midwestern grid optimized for mostly flat land and windy streets influenced by hills and valleys. While their alignments have mostly held up throughout the city's development, the form and function of these streets, like in many other places, have evolved greatly. This evolution is caused by changing transportation technology, employment geography and policy priorities oriented to avoid or achieve particular outcomes. Today, we need our streets to adapt again to changing transportation, demographic and employment demands. What does this mean for urban development and the street design that supports it?
Streets to Somewhere
Many of Cincinnati's primary street corridors owe their existence to the connection of two urban centers. Hamilton Avenue connects Cincinnati to Hamilton, Reading Road to Reading, Montgomery Road to Montgomery, Madison Road to Madisonville and so on. They were the primary trade and transportation routes connecting rural economies to urban ones, eventually leading to the Ohio River where products could reach the world (a system also supported by the Miami-Erie Canal and, later, railroads). As technology allowed, many of these routes became streetcar lines that opened up vast new areas to residential, industrial and commercial development. Many of Cincinnati's current neighborhoods and their respective cores were born during this era. They were either associated with factory jobs within walking distance or close enough to downtown to serve the emerging professional and service sectors of the local economy.
Historic Cincinnati Streetcar Map
Thoroughfares to get to Jobs
As the predominant transportation technology moved from streetcars to buses and then to the private automobile, the old regional and local transportation routes were deliberately changed to accommodate swelling automobile usage. This was further accelerated by the changing geography of employment that relocated many commercial sectors from decentralized industrial lands to downtown office space and out to new office parks. Suddenly, proximity to employment mattered much less and government programs were created to push residential development out into the hinterland to chase open space and office parks. Not only did this gut many of the neighborhoods that had been growing in value for generations but it forced the streets that once connected neighborhood centers to downtown to accommodate highly channelized through traffic rather than relatively more dispersed local traffic. The interstate system only made matters worse as it removed a lot of the traffic altogether, placing the final nail in the coffin for many historic neighborhoods and channeling even more traffic onto fewer, wider, faster streets that served no economic function other than to get people in and out of cities for the 9-5 job or to the occasional entertainment function. Neighborhood streets and, in particular, the primary corridors, were adapted – often disastrously – to accommodate four or more lanes of through-traffic to serve the 30 minutes in morning and afternoon rushes.
Many of the City's neighborhood cores have had their streets turned into thoroughfares that encourage speeding regardless of the posted speed limit. This lowers property values and makes crossing the street more difficult and less safe.
Centers of Neighborhoods
Now firmly rooted in the Internet Age, our neighborhoods are changing once again. New communication technology and changing preferences for employees are pulling exurban office uses back into town and tempting downtown office user back to the neighborhoods where cheaper land closer to employees may be had. Cleaner technology is re-industrializing neighborhoods, bringing good jobs close to where people live with fewer negative side-effects than the smokestacks they replace. Technological leaps are allowing a far greater number of people to work from home or have flexible schedules that can virtually be met anywhere. Demographic trends are also pulling people back to cities to live as both the boomers and millennials interested in connected, active and walkable neighborhoods close to education and opportunity hunt for a diverse range of housing opportunities. With both new residents and employers in neighborhoods, places once again have a buzz. Technology is also disrupting transportation, allowing car share, bike share, Uber, Lyft and even a more friendly-to-use bus system to thrive with ridership. With more people pedaling and walking, storefront uses such as breweries, coffee houses and a wide range of restaurants are taking hold in locations not previously imaginable.
Hyde Park Square along Erie Avenue during its Sunday Farmer's Market.
What this Means: Streets as Places
Neighborhood cores are no longer places to speed through but destinations in their own right. This phenomenon is challenging old transportation planning methods with a place-based approach to right-sizing street infrastructure to safely and affordably support not only car traffic, but multiple transportation modes, economic functions and community events. Not including the parking that supports it, nearly 3,800 acres of City land are tied up in streets. That is about 500 square feet for every man, woman and child living in the city. As such, streets, themselves, are the primary form of public space in the city and the demand is growing to use that for maximum productivity. We do so with:1. Slow traffic in neighborhood cores
This is more than a change to the posted speed limit. Today, many of Cincinnati's primary routes are 35 or 45 MPH. The obvious safety effects aside (the fatality rate drops precipitously when speeds drop below 20 MPH), analysis has shown that slower traffic speeds have a powerful effect on land value and sales performance. We can build slower streets that perform better with smarter and more regular intersections and crosswalks, on-street parking, narrower travel lanes, on-street bicycle accommodation and street frontages that have active uses on them. Drivers should feel like they need to slow down regardless of the posted speed.
2. Multiple transportation mode support
The great thing about streets in Cincinnati's neighborhood cores is that many of them were designed to accommodate streetcars, making them much wider than their older counterparts in eastern cities. Most of them were retrofitted to accommodate as many travel lanes as possible but now, with the changing needs of a mobile city, superfluous lanes can be repurposed to accommodate on-street parking and dedicated lanes for bikes. In some cases, dedicated bus lanes for express bus may also be possible. Most importantly, of course, is ensuring that the pedestrian realm has adequate dimension to comfortably walk along and across streets. Smart signal technology can be much more pedestrian friendly than the long traffic light cycles that are common in many neighborhood cores today. Regardless of mode, the connection to the surrounding neighborhoods and to destinations further afield is essential. If I can't get to the core from here, I probably won't go.
Neighborhoods such as East Walnut Hills have opened their streets to other modes of getting around. This has led, in part, to new retail and residents moving into the neighborhood.
3. Street activation
Increased demand for neighborhood services, restaurants and other uses (like busking in Walnut Hills) is incentivizing the creation of more space given over to active uses along streets in neighborhood cores. New and repurposed buildings are creating more flexible and active building frontages but the streets on which they front are only now starting to do the same. Activated streets have not only brimming sidewalks, but parklets and patios in the street that sometimes take an on-street parking space or two to effectively widen the sidewalk.
Street activation in Covington, Kentucky.
4. Mixed uses
Neighborhoods are not only becoming desirable once again to new and old residents but, increasingly, to employers, retailers, restaurateurs, schools and institutions. Cincinnati may be the original home of separated use zoning but economic and demographic forces are asking Cincinnati to once again lead a land use paradigm shift toward more nimble and flexible acceptance of infill development in a variety of forms. The more uses mix, the shorter the distance we all have to travel to get to places we need to go and the better use we can make of land that is already serviced by paid off infrastructure. The neighborhoods that will build the most value and become the most vibrant will be the ones that smartly work to stitch together old and new uses in surprising and unexpected ways.
Covington, Kentucky, opened up the Madlot for multiple uses on nights and weekends. It has been instrumental in attracting new office, retail, residential and hospitality development.