Smale Riverfront Park

Strategic transportation infrastructure investments in Cincinnati

Strategic transportation infrastructure investments set the framework for a vibrant, pedestrian-oriented riverfront neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio

Cincinnati was founded as a river city. Overtime, public infrastructure investments in the downtown riverfront area alienated pedestrians from the neighborhood. In the past 15 years, community leaders developed a $2 billion master plan that guided transportation and public infrastructure investments that spurred $600 million in private redevelopment to create a pedestrian friendly vibrant neighborhood. An analysis of the planning, design and implementation of these transportation investments illustrate the need for an integrated, strategic and detailed approach to the design of these facilities to foster human interaction in public spaces.

Settled in 1788, Cincinnati’s reliance on transportation to shape its growth started on the banks of the Ohio River where steamboats served as a vital part of the transportation network.

When steamboats gave way to trains, trucks and automobiles, the riverfront was transformed by an interstate highway that cut off downtown from the river and the installation of rail spurs to serve industrial users. Riverfront Stadium opened in 1970 and was connected to downtown with elevated pedestrian skywalk bridges across the ramps of the interstate highway. Human social interaction occurred within the stadium during events, but pedestrians immediately fled after games. Public investments of the time had created a transient and industrial environment.

In the 1990s, government and civic leaders collaborated to plan investments to spur the growth of the riverfront neighborhood known as The Banks. Together they quickly realized that transportation and public infrastructure investments would shape the development and social use of the neighborhood.

The Cincinnati Riverfront Master Plan outlined a planned transformation of the 120 acre riverfront to create a vibrant neighborhood anchored by professional sports stadia flanking the Historic Roebling Suspension Bridge to the east and west, the symbolically positioned National Underground Railroad Freedom Center at the northern terminus of the bridge, a 40 acre grand civic park at the foot of the bridge and mixed-use residential/office/retail neighborhood city blocks located between the civic investments and growing the downtown back to the Ohio River. The plan also outlined strategic transportation and public infrastructure investments that set the framework for the neighborhood. While improving the overall transportation flow and safety of these infrastructure facilities, designers balanced vehicular movement with pedestrian friendly design and art opportunities. The key strategic transportation improvements that transformed pedestrian interaction in the riverfront neighborhood include:

  1. The reconfiguration of the Fort Washington Way highway and related transit center.
  2. The connected network of neighborhood streets.
  3. The intermodal parking facility and related stadium/museum/mixed use development.
  4. The reconfiguration of Mehring Way around the historic Roebling Suspension Bridge and related riverfront park and bike trails.

Each of these transportation investments contribute to an enhanced human experience within the neighborhood. The following examination of each facility explores the impact of pedestrian friendly design on human interaction in public spaces within and around the facility.

Reconfiguration of Fort Washington Way and Related Transit Center

Originally constructed in the late 1950s, Fort Washington Way (I-71) cut a two-block wide highway corridor through Downtown Cincinnati. The right of way location was intended to provide a direct highway connection to Downtown Cincinnati, but Fort Washington Way bisected the central downtown core from the riverfront neighborhood.

The original highway design focused on vehicular movement. In a span of one-mile, Fort Washington Way’s interwoven ramp system included 23 entrance and exit ramps including six dangerous left side ramps. This complex series of ramps dictated the two block width of the transportation facility.

Overtime, the complicated highway ramp system failed to meet modern highway design standards for vehicular traffic. From the very beginning, the complicated highway ramp configuration created an unsafe, uninviting pedestrian environment. 

If pedestrians chose a route on grade from the downtown core to the riverfront, they quickly transitioned from wide sidewalks oriented in a rectilinear city block grid to narrow concrete sidewalks navigating a maze of highway ramps that followed disorienting vehicular turning path radii patterns.

For stadium events, pedestrians avoided the highway by choosing an elevated route on narrow skywalk bridges. On event days, the constrained skywalk bridges created an uncomfortable shoulder to shoulder pedestrian environment that caused patrons to hurry to their cars and flee downtown for their suburban neighborhoods.

In the 1990s, transportation officials recognized the need to correct safety problems with the one-mile stretch of highway and worked collaboratively with community and business leaders to design a major reconfiguration of the highway that integrated the transportation facility into the riverfront master plan while balancing vehicular and pedestrian needs. Completed in 2000, the reconfigured Fort Washington Way project shrank the width of the highway, pushed the entrance and exit ramps to the edges of the downtown and lowered the mainline interstate to allow downtown streets to flow seamlessly from the downtown core to The Banks riverfront neighborhood.

The sunken mainline provided a grade separation of highway speed vehicles with local boulevard traffic.

The rectilinear geometry of the highway facility and bridge overpasses provided a traffic calming result since vehicular drivers felt they had exited the highway and were driving on local city streets. This geometry also provided a natural urban orientation device to pedestrians since the existing downtown street network flowed continuously from the core across the highway to the riverfront. Transportation designers recognized the importance of the human perception that this highway facility should feel like downtown urban streets with wide cross walks, urban scaled traffic signals, way-finding signage and urban lane widths. Sensitivity to appropriately scaled highway elements such as retaining walls, bridge abutments, lighting and vandal screening contribute to the human comfort level in the space.

Designers improved the pedestrian experience when they shrank the width of the highway to shorten the walk from the downtown core to the riverfront neighborhood, introduced tree-lined boulevards to provide shading, widened sidewalks on each bridge over the mainline to improve pedestrian flow on event days and added places to gather within the transportation space. On a typical workday, pedestrians experience a comfortable walk along the planter lined sidewalks.

On game days, thousands of event patrons enjoy the interconnectivity of the pedestrian amenities provided in this transportation facility. 

On major event days, pedestrians have a public transit alternative. Within the Fort Washington Way transportation facility, transportation designers created the Riverfront Transit Center below the Second Street boulevard. The transit center is capable of handling up to 500 buses and 20,000 passengers per hour. The center provides a grade separated transit facility for event bus rider transfer on game days where pedestrians are dropped off in close proximity to the stadia, enter the tree lined street network through sculptural stair head houses and enjoy a neighborhood walk to the event. 

Network of Connected Streets

With the original construction of Fort Washington Way in the 1960s, Riverfront Stadium in 1970, and the installation of industrial rail spurs, the original rectilinear street grid in Cincinnati’s riverfront neighborhood had become disjointed and industrial scaled. The Cincinnati Riverfront Master Plan recognized that a working network of streets would be required to encourage new property development in the neighborhood. The street layout followed the rectilinear downtown pattern and provided a framework of city blocks for redevelopment. Transportation designers balanced the traffic flow demands with creating a pedestrian friendly, walkable neighborhood.

The street network consists of a two way traffic pattern and on-street parking for traffic calming and an urban mixed-use neighborhood environment. The mixed-use development spills out into the public right of way with sidewalk cafes and transparent façade treatments. The tree lined wide sidewalks encourage pedestrian interaction and art opportunities. On event days, sections of the street network are closed to vehicular traffic for pedestrian flow and serve as pre-game concert areas. 

Intermodal Parking Facility and Related Stadium/Museum/Mixed-Use Development

Previously, the industrial and stadium uses in the riverfront area demanded parking and railroad yards. Cincinnatians commonly referred to the area as a “sea of parking lots.” The Cincinnati Riverfront Master Plan outlined a new approach to the event venue parking demands. Contractually, Hamilton County was required to provide event day parking for the professional sports teams in Cincinnati (Cincinnati Reds and Cincinnati Bengals). The master plan outlined a shared use strategy that met the contractual parking demands but minimized the visible parking facility.  

The street network provided a framework for neighborhood development and public facilities and facilitated vehicular and pedestrian movement within the neighborhood. In order to maximize the pedestrian friendly environment, transportation designers took advantage of the existing topographic by placing parking facilities below street level. Serving as the platform for development and streets above, the intermodal facility includes parking for event/museum patrons, downtown workers and neighborhood visitors/residents. Vanpool and rideshare patrons receive special rates. Pedestrians flow to street level through uniquely designed stair head houses. The Riverfront Park Bike Center is located within the intermodal facility. Commuters and visitors may rent and store bikes in this facility located adjacent to the Ohio River Bike Trail system.

The master plan placed the shared parking facility and street network in the center of the riverfront area; Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park were pushed to the outer edges of the neighborhood to allow the city to grow to the river. Entry gates and ancillary facilities such as the Reds Hall of Fame were positioned at street level to encourage pedestrian interaction and human scale.

In addition to the intermodal facility, the City of Cincinnati is leading the effort for the initial 4 mile phase of this embedded rail streetcar route that connects the riverfront area to urban neighborhoods.

The Reconfiguration of Mehring Way around the Historic Roebling Suspension Bridge and Related Riverfront Park and Bike Trails

The iconic Roebling Suspension Bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The master plan reserved space around this important transportation landmark for the new riverfront park and implementers reconfigured Mehring Way (US 50) from its 1970s river’s edge location to a tree-lined northern alignment.

The reconfiguration of Mehring Way allowed the design team to enhance human interaction within the space beneath and around the historic bridge. The prior river’s edge location of Mehring Way served as a barrier to pedestrian interaction with Cincinnati’s natural asset, the Ohio River. In Mehring Way’s original location, in the shadow of the historic bridge, the new riverfront park provides a natural setting of tree groves, bike trails, interactive water features, a meditative labyrinth, public art and memorials, a transient boat dock, a great lawn concert venue and giant swings for riverboat viewing. 

The transportation and public investments also spurred many public art opportunities within the neighborhood including:

  1. Riverfront Transit Center Mosaic
  2. ArtWorks Wall Mural
  3. Black Brigade Monument
  4. Labyrinth
  5. Children’s Carousel

These public art features created in land adjacent to or made available by transportation investments contribute to the human scale and pedestrian environment.


Previous transportation and public investments within the downtown Cincinnati riverfront area created barriers to human interaction within the neighborhood. Cincinnati Riverfront Master Plan leaders recognized that transportation designers must consider many other elements of a transportation facility beyond maximizing traffic flow and safety in order to create pedestrian friendly environments. Additional considerations include:

  1. Strategic placement of a transportation facility can discourage interaction with surrounding land uses or serve as a conduit for human interaction.
    1. Fort Washington Way’s original placement bisected the downtown core from the riverfront neighborhood. The reconfigured Fort Washington Way better connected pedestrians to the land uses.
    2. Mehring Way’s original placement along the river’s edge served as a barrier between pedestrians and the Ohio River. The new location provides a human scaled park space in the shadows of the historic Roebling Suspension Bridge.
  2. The three dimensional configuration of the transportation facility is very important to human perceptions of the quality of the space.
    1. By simplifying the geometry of Fort Washington Way to match the existing city block pattern, pedestrians had a more natural orientation to urban patterns and more feel comfortable that they belong in the space. The grade separation of high speed and volume transportation uses allowed pedestrians to take over their part of the space.
    2. By placing the intermodal parking facility below street level and therefore allowing street level retail and restaurant land uses along the sidewalks, pedestrians feel more comfortable and linger in the space.
  3. The selection of materials, patterns, texture and detailing of transportation facilities can impact human interaction.
    1. The Fort Washington Way reconfiguration utilized natural elements (trees and flower beds) to create shaded and softened areas for pedestrians to gather. Sensitivity to the design of highway elements such as vandal protection screening, lightings, and traffic signals create a human scaled environment.
    2. The Riverfront Park and Bike Center facilities utilize natural elements (vegetation, water features), public art (labyrinth) and detailing (bike stair runnels) to create an environment where family interactions are a natural byproduct.


Figure Credits

Figure 01 – Larry Stulz – www.cincinnati –

Figure 02 – KZF Design, Inc.

Figure 03 –

Figure 04 – Larry Stulz –

Figure 05 –

Figure 06 – Jake Mecklenborg –  

Figure 07 – KZF Design, Inc.

Figure 08 – KZF Design, Inc.

Figure 09 – KZF Design, Inc.

Figure 10 – KZF Design, Inc.

Figure 11 – KZF Design, Inc.

Figure 12 – KZF Design, Inc.

Figure 13 – KZF Design, Inc.

Figure 14 – KZF Design, Inc.

Figure 15 – KZF Design, Inc.

Figure 16 – KZF Design, Inc.

Figure 17 – KZF Design, Inc.

Figure 18 – KZF Design, Inc.

Figure 19 – KZF Design, Inc.

Figure 20 – KZF Design, Inc.

Figure 21 – Cincinnati Park Board

Figure 22 – KZF Design, Inc.

Figure 23 – KZF Design, Inc.

Figure 24 – KZF Design, Inc.

Figure 25 – KZF Design, Inc.

Figure 26 – KZF Design, Inc.

Figure 27 – KZF Design, Inc.

Figure 28 – Riverfront Advisors Committee 

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