Back in 2012, the hottest local political debate was over the Cincinnati Streetcar
proposal, hailed by urbanists as the future of public transportation and feared by others as a spending albatross. Derek Bauman stepped into the breach, a suburban police officer and new downtown-resident-turned-streetcar-activist who had the street sense and common sense to help both sides understand the appeal of rail transit.
Now, with the streetcar project’s first phase about to debut, Bauman is stretching his arms into statewide advocacy to change the future of public transportation across Ohio.
Bauman moved to Over-the-Rhine by way of Mason, but his story doesn’t start in the northern suburbs. He spent his childhood living a distinctly urban life on the east side of Cleveland. Among other memories, he recalls his parents sharing a car and using public transportation to get to and from work.
He was raised one of the only white kids in a predominantly African American working-class neighborhood, which gave him street sense and helped shape his love for the urban lifestyle. By the time he was in high school, his family had relocated to a suburban area of Cleveland, but Bauman credits his early years in the city with his understanding of urban issues and how important convenient transit and infrastructure are to lower income families.
Bauman was the first in his family to finish college. He worked his way through school, commuting to class every morning and working part-time jobs at night. He graduated from the University of Akron with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and then returned to earn an MS in Adult Education and an MBA.
'I was hooked' on police work
He describes one night during college when he was introduced to police work.
“Toward the end of my college career, I was still uncertain where my career track was going to take me,” he says. “My uncle, my mom’s brother who was a police officer, sensed this and asked me if I wanted to come on a ride along with him one day. I had never considered law enforcement as a career.
“But it just so happened that the shift he asked me to ride along on was a Saturday on the Fourth of July, and it just so happened that his shift was like an episode of Cops
, complete with getting into a foot pursuit of a subject with a warrant and breaking up a biker party. I was hooked. Within six months, I was in the police academy and finishing my degree at the same time.”
Bauman’s first years as an officer were in Medina County in Northeast Ohio. He relocated to Mason in 2003 and has been employed by the department there ever since.
He started spending time in Cincinnati and paying attention to city issues around 2008. Mark Mallory was mayor at the time, and the urban core was experiencing a significant transformation.
“I began doing some volunteer work and spending more time in the city and in OTR specifically,” he remembers. “I quickly fell in love. I saw and completely bought into the vision for a rejuvenated and vibrant urban core. I bought my OTR condo in 2010 and became a fierce advocate for the urban core, our neighborhood business districts and the city as a whole.
“It took me a while, but it finally dawned on me that I had come full circle in life. I came back to the city, my first love. My earliest memories were of riding the train into downtown Cleveland with my dad. I was back in the city, where I was meant to be.”
Streetcar supporter 'from day one'
Back in 2009, even as a non-resident, Bauman followed the anti-streetcar Issue 9
campaign. The streetcar project was one of the reasons he was willing to invest in OTR a year later.
“Having grown up with my dad using public transit, specifically rail transit, to get to work every day and riding it frequently myself, I inherently knew the advantages of a robust, modern transit system to a city,” he says. “I was a streetcar supporter from day one.”
Two years later, as Cincinnati residents prepared to vote
on streetcar funding again, now-resident Bauman got involved in the campaign. As far as he was concerned, the issue had already been approved by voters once, and it was time to move forward.
Streetcar supporters declared success
over the second ballot issue in 2011, but Bauman experienced a quick drop-off in activism from his new friends. Wanting to maintain the momentum, he contacted the people who had been so influential in pushing the streetcar project through to that point and offered to help with ongoing advocacy.
In addition to his own social media efforts, Bauman started contributing to refining the streetcar’s public image. His goal was to change the messaging around the issue, to move it away from political “us vs. them” rhetoric and into fact-based, common-sense information and ideas about the value of public transit. He wanted to dispel misinformation that the media seemed to be perpetuating about the project.
“Transit is used as a wedge issue to play groups off each other,” he says, and he wanted to put a wrench in the rhetoric.
'A connector of ideas and people'
Bauman’s voice is different than a lot of the others speaking up for transit in the region. He isn’t a young urban professional, an idealistic urban planning student or an environmentalist.
Instead, he’s the child of a working-class minister from inner city Cleveland and a 27-year police force veteran. Pair that with his penchant for public speaking and the business sense he acquired with an MBA degree, and Bauman is the perfect counterpoint to the perceived suburban bias against public transit.
Bill Collins is a fellow streetcar activist who met Bauman during the 2013 mayoral campaign while working for Roxanne Qualls, who lost to anti-streetcar candidate John Cranley, and they’ve worked together on various campaigns since. He’s seen firsthand the value of Bauman’s voice in the streetcar debate.
“Derek has excellent political skills, public-contact skills and diplomatic skills,” Collins says. “He also tends to see the world through what I would call a working-class lens, as I do. Derek is effective in his role as an advocate for public transit and rail because he gets the ‘big picture’ and does not just advocate for rail and for transit because of a personal ‘wonky’ passion for rail and transit.
“In other words, Derek understands how high-quality and frequent public transportation helps working people save money when they commute to work and travel between cities. He explains the cost of automobile ownership very well, so that he makes the case effectively for how high-quality public transit and rail reduces the cost of living for working people.”
As the streetcar project finally hit a stride a few years ago, Bauman turned his attention to other regional transit issues. He now sits as the SW Ohio Director and Vice Chair of All Aboard Ohio
, a nonprofit that advocates for better rail transit across the state.
One of All Aboard Ohio’s current projects involves working with rail giant Amtrak to bring back daily service on the Cardinal rail line that connect Chicago to New York City and Washington D.C. Cincinnati hasn’t had daily service since 1982, and the train currently runs just three times a week. The organization has already achieved success in securing a new Cardinal stop in Oxford, which could be a huge asset to Miami University and its students.
John Schneider, the man Mayor Mallory once dubbed “Mr. Streetcar,” has worked alongside Bauman and appreciates the contribution he brings to local transit issues.
“I would say there is a majority of people in the city who now support rail and want to see it happen, but I think guys like Derek and others will carry this to the next level,” he says.
He calls Bauman “a connector of ideas and people.”
“He saw the train tracks going through Oxford and asked what no one else was asking, Why doesn’t Amtrak stop here?” Schneider says. “Now the Oxford Cardinal stop is one more arrow in the quiver that we can use to start people thinking differently around here.”
'Transit is freedom'
The Cincinnati Streetcar will officially open for business on Sept. 9
. Phase one of the project looks to be completed on schedule and within budget and, like its advocates promised, has attracted millions of dollars of private investment in the urban core. Much of the success is due, in part, to its hearty citizen advocacy and support.
Bauman believes that citizen advocacy is the common denominator of all similarly successful projects across the country. He’s seen this scenario play out in cities like Dallas, Charlotte and Kansas City
, and he’s received calls from as far as Poland from citizen advocates soliciting advice and resources for their own transit projects.
But, as Collins points out, rail transit isn’t a pet project for Bauman. It’s just one part of his bigger vision for an affordable, livable and vibrant city.
Not all of the issues on Bauman’s radar are related to transit. He wants to make city life easier for all urban residents, especially youth and those affected by poverty.
For the past five years, Bauman has been back and forth, on and off duty, dealing with the long recovery of an on-the-job injury he sustained during an arrest. The injury has frustrated his law enforcement career but has been providential for his community involvement.
Bauman has spent a lot of time during the past few years volunteering in the West End, where he works with the neighborhood’s Reds youth baseball organization. He helps recruit players and raise funds to support the program.
“I’ll do whatever I can to help these kids or any others throughout the city, particularly those without the resources that others may have,” he says. “I was once that kid.”
But, even if transit isn’t the only issue, it’s still a primary issue in Bauman’s mind.
“Living again in what was a low-income neighborhood but is now a mixed income neighborhood, it’s clear to me what a great role transit plays in the daily lives of folks who can’t afford or don’t want to afford a car,” he says. “Transit is freedom. It’s the ability to get to jobs and escape pockets of poverty that, since suburban job sprawl, have become disconnected from job centers. It also shows us that we need to create conditions for job creation closer to urban centers where workers are located.”
To that end, Bauman is fighting one battle at a time. He believes in building on small successes and having reasonable expectations for progress. Bauman is excited about the future of All Aboard Ohio and its relationship with Amtrak, and he is now Chair of the Transit Committee at the NAACP Cincinnati branch, which he hopes will open doors and establish a relationship between the African American community and transit advocates.
The streetcar was important, Bauman says, but it’s just the beginning.
“September 9, the grand opening of the Cincinnati Streetcar, will be a momentous day for Cincinnati,” he says. “It will be the culmination of more than a decade of work by dedicated public servants and volunteers who spent countless thousands of hours advocating for the project. It will truly be a turning point.”