Check Out These Cincinnati Transit Maps That Could Have Been

As the region's public transportation hits a crossroads, these maps of never-finished Cincinnati transportation projects are timely reminders of what could have been.

click to enlarge Hamilton County's proposed Metro Moves transit plan - Jake Berman
Jake Berman
Hamilton County's proposed Metro Moves transit plan

If you've never wondered what Cincinnati would be like had we finished our now-abandoned, unfinished subway system, well, I'm revoking your Cincinnati card right now. Fortunately, New York-based artist Jake Berman has made our back-to-the-future transit daydreaming a little easier.

Berman embarked on a unique quest after he got frustrated waiting in Los Angeles traffic, deciding to create transit maps for so-called "lost" subway and streetcar systems. He's drawn maps of Detroit's streetcar system circa 1950, a 1997 monorail proposal in Seattle, Cleveland's Electric Interurban Railway circa 1898 and a number of others.

Cincinnati is the subject of not just one but two of Berman's maps. One shows Cincinnati's ill-fated subway system, color-coded by sections of the proposed 16-mile loop that still exist today, those that were built but later demolished and those that never left the drawing board, along with proposed connections to streetcars.

The city first began planning the subway in 1912, but local politics, the first World War and the Great Depression all kept officials from green-lighting the roughly $10 million (about $144 million today) needed to complete the project.

click to enlarge The proposed route of the Cincinnati streetcar - Jake Berman
Jake Berman
The proposed route of the Cincinnati streetcar

Berman's other Cincinnati-centric map features the 2002 Metro Moves initiative, a vast multi-modal transit system that would have been financed with a half-cent Hamilton County sales tax increase. Would have being the operative words: 68 percent of county voters rejected the proposal to build a 60-mile, five-line light rail system throughout the county at a cost of $2.6 billion. But those light rail lines live on in Berman's map, a timely reminder of what could have been as the region faces big challenges around public transportation.

"A region's infrastructure says a lot about its priorities, because the political decisions made about infrastructure don't come out of thin air," Berman says, pointing to Metro Moves as an illustration. "When the owners of the Bengals and Reds complained about Riverfront Stadium, it was treated as an absolute priority, and the result was the 1996 stadium tax. But when the exact same (half-cent sales) tax was proposed for the construction of a regional light rail system six years later, the proposal went down in flames."

Berman starts the process of making the maps by sifting through old city tour books instead of maps from the time period he's investigating. Color printing was rare and expensive through the first half of the 20th century, he says, and most maps don't offer the level of detail he needs. Berman majored in history in college and says he's a stickler for detail, trying hard to put a map together for a specific year when he's mapping bygone transit systems.

Eventually, Berman says he'd like to do that for Cincinnati's original streetcar system. Horse-drawn streetcars were prevalent in the city as far back as the 1840s, and by the 20th century, electric-powered cars were carrying thousands around the region. During World War II, more than 400,000 people a day were riding them into downtown or out into far-flung suburbs like Milford. But the rise of the automobile caught up with the system, and the city's original system made its last run in September 1951.

"Most people don't realize that most cities, especially older ones like Cincinnati, were originally built by the streetcar and not by the highway," Berman says. "People are amazed when they find out that it used to be possible to get from downtown Cincinnati to Kings Mills by train, and that that used to be normal."