Tuesday, October 16, 2012

[Views of Cincinnati] A Series Named Southbank


In every city I go to, I feel the best way to truly see that city is to ride public transit. You see the real parts of that city, the people, the life on the streets. It's a better way to view an unfamiliar urban core and get a new perspective on a place you know well.

Public transit can be taboo subject in Cincinnati. Most people don't understand it or don't use it. This city started to build a subway, but politics and circumstances never allowed it to be completed. The first step towards modern rail transit, the Cincinnati Streetcar, is currently under construction and will likely open in late 2014 or early 2015.

The first time I ever used public transit to see a city was when I went to Cleveland, Ohio in 2009. I hopped on an RTA Red Line train and got lost. It was confusing at first, being someone who grew up in the suburbs and wasn't use to public transport, but it was an adventure in itself. I felt I saw the city in a way no tour could really offer. You got a realistic view of a city that was foreign to you. I used the same method in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and most recently on Chicago's Green Line.

In Cincinnati though, there's no rail transit. There's two bus agencies, operating parallel of each other and run by different governments in two separate states. Since moving to Northern Kentucky to attend NKU, I've used TANK regularly to commute. Until yesterday though, I had never ridden its Southbank Shuttle service. The shuttle connects the cities of Bellevue, Newport, Cincinnati and Covington with frequent service and stops at major tourist attractions, hotels and businesses.

In 2010, the service debuted "heritage trolleys" that give the route's vehicles a distinctive look with a small enough weight that allows them to cross the Roebling Suspension Bridge.

- A Southbank Shuttle "trolley" on the Roebling Suspension Bridge. Photo via Kentucky.gov.

I boarded in Bellevue, KY near the parking lot of a Frisch's restaurant as the only rider. The curved windows and wooden seats evoke a historic "trolley" car, but the bumpy ride and rattling wheelchair lift remind you you're on a rubber wheeled bus.

A few more passengers were picked up along Riverboat Row and near the levee a family visiting the aquarium boarded for a ride back to their hotel. Everyone braced themselves from sliding on the slick seats as the trolley made a sharp turn onto the Southgate bridge into Cincinnati. At Fountain Square, the vehicle filled up and then made a loop through The Banks and over the Roebling into Covington.

In Northern Kentucky again, most passengers departed for their cars or homes. It picked up a woman fresh off her shift at Popeye's Chicken. She complained about her hours being cut as the shuttle began retracing its route and heading back to where my trip began.

Four new frames in the 224 Views of Cincinnati series made via the Southbank Shuttle:


#79 - Southbank Shuttle at 2nd and Main

View 224 Views of Cincinnati Locations in a larger map


#80 - Southbank Shuttle Crossing the Roebling Bridge

View 224 Views of Cincinnati Locations in a larger map


#81 - Southbank Shuttle Under CSX Tracks at 4th & Main in Covington

View 224 Views of Cincinnati Locations in a larger map


#82 - Southbank Shuttle at Freedom and Walnut

View 224 Views of Cincinnati Locations in a larger map

The only thing I can't figure out about the Southbank Shuttle is why it doesn't offer late night service to different night life destinations. I'd much rather use public transit that deal with cab drivers.

For an excellent way of navigating Cincinnati's often confusing public transit, check out this map by local artist Nate Wessel.


  1. I'm glad to see that the Southbank Shuttle continues to "move" people. I am proud to be one of the first drivers for the Southbank Shuttle way back in 1998 when the service was hatched and fare was only a quarter.

    What an experience! It was fun. I hope it still is.

    Good job, QC Discovery.


    I could never figure out why QC Metro never got on board with a similar service.

    1. Nick,

      Thanks! Glad you liked the photographs.

      I was trying to find out when exactly the service started and couldn't find a definitive answer, I appreciate you letting me know and sharing your experience. Do you still work in transit or for TANK?

      Metro sort of offers something similar - the "1 for fun" is kind of in the southgate tourism spot vein. I just wish the southbank busses hit up Mt. Adams/OTR/Covington/Newport late into the night. It'd make getting a cab no longer an issue.

  2. Hello Gordon,

    The Shuttle was the brainchild of a group of forward-thinking business people sparked by Wally Pagan of the Southbank Partners in the mid ninties. While there is a lot more behind the scenes activity than is immediately apparent, the Northern Kentucky consortium saw an opportunity to collectively promote the assets of Northern Kentucky.

    While I'm not privy to all the details, bus driving fit a niche in my life as part-time job. The actual operation of the service was initialy managed by Executive Transportation of Newport under contract to TANK in collaboration with the Southbank Partners. I was employed by Executive.

    The operation was highly experimental and cobbled together with a dozen or so very used (and inexpensive) repainted 26-passenger busses that were abandoned and later rescued from a Florida public transit company. To entice ridership, fare was initially set at 25 cents. The initial routes were circular between the cities and operated simultaneously in clockwise and counterclockwise directions across the Bailey, Beard, and Veterans' Memorial (Fourth Street) bridges.

    After an appropriate kickoff on Fountain Square sometime in the spring of 1998, service began. It did't start off as well as it is going today. Indeed I drove many complete routes with absolutely no riders.

    Ridership built slowly, and after about two years, total management was taken in house by TANK. Route changes have been made continually over the years to maximize ridership and adjust to changing traffic patterns on both sides of the river. Recall that this was before the stadiums, the Freedom Center, the aquarium and Newport on the Levee, the Purple People Bridge, the Ascent in Covington, the Covington Convention Center, the Hoffbrau House, the proposed Ovation housing complex in Newport, and numerous other developments.

    I'm a former school teacher (with a CDL) who's had the fortune to witness and participate in all our cities' rebirth. I'm proud to have played a variety of roles over the past decades.

    There is no question in my mind that the Cincinnati streetcar will be part of similar reinvestments in Cincinnati.



    PS. Personally, I related to your public transit comments. My personal experience as a bus driver graphically taught me why the modern civil rights movement started on a bus. Public transit is more democratic than most car-bound people realized. Next chance you get, ask a bus driver for some stories. Then thank him.

    Best wishes.

    1. Nick,

      Wow! Thanks for all the info! That's an awesome story behind the shuttles that I never realized.

      I grew up in the suburbs and never used public transit until 2009, I can't imagine getting around cities any other way. While I do use my car a lot in Cincinnati, TANK has been a great service to me.

      Thanks for sharing all that!

  3. I love the pictures! My boyfriend and I were actually just talking last night about the seeming dearth of well composed photos from the inside of transit vehicles.(OK, I was talking, and he was listening politely) Good stuff :)

    1. Thanks! Glad you like the shots. Transit is a gateway to creativity.