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Geography and Transportation in Greater Cincinnati

Terrain Map of Greater Cincinnati (Image: Google Maps)

Cincinnati is located on the Ohio River in the southwestern corner of Ohio. Settled in 1788, the city was for many years the largest city west of the Appalachian Mountains, the so-called “Queen City of the West”. The population of the city proper is 333,336 1, and the metropolitan area of roughly 2.2 million people 2 spills into neighboring Northern Kentucky and southeastern Indiana.

The city’s central business district and innermost neighborhoods are located within a relatively flat basin on the north bank of the Ohio River (opposite the mouth of Kentucky’s Licking River), and the most densely-populated areas of the urban core include portions of the Northern Kentucky river cities of Covington and Newport. The central basin is surrounded on most sides by steep hillsides that, for much of Cincinnati’s early development, limited development to within the basin area. As a result, the city’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood once boasted of being one of America’s most densely-populated neighborhoods outside of New York City. The ring of hills around the central basin is interrupted by the Ohio and Licking Rivers, the Mill Creek to the west of downtown, and the Deer Creek east of downtown.

With the advent of the streetcar and inclines, Cincinnati’s population began to spread to the surrounding hilltops in the late 1800’s. Today, the central basin still retains many elements of its dense urban scale, with neighborhoods that are often compared to those found in older East Coast cities such as New York and Philadelphia. The development along the hillsides and hilltops tends to be less dense and primarily residential in nature, although many of the city’s neighborhoods feature their own pedestrian-scaled business districts. The outer edges of the metropolitan area, primarily along Interstates 71 and 75 beyond the I-275 beltway, tend to be low-density, automobile-oriented suburbs developed after World War II.

Cincinnati is served by Interstate 75 running north-south between Michigan and Florida, Interstate 71 running northeast-southwest between Louisville, Kentucky and Cleveland, Ohio, and Interstate 74 running northwest from Cincinnati to Indianapolis. Interstate 471 forms a short spur from downtown Cincinnati southeast to Highland Heights, Kentucky, and Interstate 275 forms a perimeter beltway around the region. Other limited-access highways such as Columbia Parkway, the Cross-County Highway, Norwood Lateral Expressway, and the Red Bank expressway also serve the area.

The region’s primary airport is the Greater Cincinnati – Northern Kentucky International Airport located in Boone County, Kentucky, approximately 15 miles southwest of downtown Cincinnati. Lunken Airport to the east of downtown is a smaller airport that generally serves the general aviation market and private corporate jets. Intercity rail service is provided by Amtrak’s Cardinal, which stops at Cincinnati’s historic Union Terminal three times a week in each direction between Chicago and New York. Plans are currently underway to connect Cincinnati to Columbus and Cleveland with “3C” rail service operating up to four daily trips.

Despite once having an extensive streetcar system and beginning construction on an underground rapid transit subway in the 1920’s, Cincinnati remains one of America’s largest metropolitan areas without any form of rail-based mass transit. Public transit in the Cincinnati area is provided by the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) and the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK). SORTA’s Metro bus system provides 22 million rides per year on 52 bus routes 3, while TANK provides 3.7 million annual rides on 27 bus routes 4.

Traffic congestion remains a constant problem in the area, with the OKI Regional Council of Governments estimating that recurring traffic-related delays total to 50,000 hours per day 5. The most congested corridors are Interstates 75 and 71, although all major highways are known to experience heavy traffic congestion at times. Additionally, automobile-dependency has led to the construction of parking garages and surface lots downtown, where there once were shops and offices, and decreased travel options for those outside the urban core who do not own cars.

The following pages provide a historical overview of mass transit in Greater Cincinnati and describe steps taken by two other metropolitan areas to improve mobility and the quality of urban life:

Cincinnati Transit: A Brief History

A concise history of passenger rail transit in Cincinnati, from horesecars and inclines to Metro Moves and the current streetcar proposal.

Case Study: Washington Metro

The Washington Metro is the most extensive heavy rail transit system built in the United States during the post-war period, and enjoys the second-highest ridership of any transit system in the country.

Case Study: Portland Streetcar

The Portland Streetcar connects a variety of downtown neighborhoods in Portland, Oregon, and serves as a model for the streetcar system currently being proposed for Cincinnati.


  1. United States Census Bureau Population Division, 2008 Population Estimates, “Table 1: Annual Estimates of the Population for Incorporated Places Over 100,000, Ranked by July 1, 2008 Population: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2008”, 1 July 2009.
  2. United States Census Bureau Population Division, 2008 Population Estimates, “Table 1:  Annual Estimates of the Population of Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2008 (CBSA-EST2008-01)”, 19 March 2009.
  3. Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, “Metro Overview”, [accessed 18 February 2010].
  4. Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky, “About TANK”, [accessed 18 February 2010].
  5. OKI Regional Council of Governments, 2030 Regional Transportation Plan, “The Effects of Travel on Our Infrastructure”, 2004, p. 6.