Streetcars in NYC

Earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled plans for a streetcar line, called the BQX, that will run along the waterfront from Sunset Park in Brooklyn to Astoria, Queens. The $2.5 billon plan would bring public transit access to the fast-developing waterfront while serving nearly 45,000 public housing residents who currently rely on overburdened bus routes and subway lines. De Blasio estimates that the streetcars would travel at 12 miles per hour, with upwards of 70% of the route being separate from cars on the road. Riders would be able to travel between Greenpoint and Dumbo in 27 minutes, making for a faster trip than is current possible via bus or subway, for about the same cost as subway fare. Pending local approval, construction is set to start in 2019, with service commencing in 2024.
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Photo courtesy of The New York Times

The Mayor’s announcement comes almost 59 years after the last streetcar ran across the Queensboro Bridge in 1957. From 1890 through the late 1940s, streetcars carried 400,000 people across the Brooklyn Bridge every day. Trollies ran through the streets of Brooklyn so frequently that Brooklyn’s baseball team was nicknamed for the natives who had to dodge streetcars while walking around town. Then, as automobile ownership proliferated in the 1940s, General Motors, Standard Oil, and Firestone Tires started systematically buying up streetcar companies in New York under the name of National City Lines. They replaced streetcars with inefficient buses and lobbied local governments to portray trolley lines as a nuisance to street traffic. National City Lines was later found guilty of a criminal conspiracy to remove streetcar transit systems, but by that point New York City’s lines had been all but decimated.
Some New Yorkers never lost hope that we would see the return of streetcars. A local group called the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association began building a trolley line in the 1980s. The line was meant to run from Red Hook to Downtown Brooklyn, and relied on private and public donors to install 1,500 feet of track on Red Hook and buy a fleet of trolleys. The Association got city approval and funding, but the city lost interest in the project in 2003 and ripped up the tracks. Bob Diamond, anElectric-Streetcar-NYC engineer and member of the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association, told the New York Times that New York politicians are tough to convince when it comes to reinstating streetcars, since the project would take too long for a politician to be able to take credit for it. As de Blasio prepares to run for reelection in 2017, he has worked with real estate interests to move forward with a streetcar plan that could help him achieve his goal to reduce car traffic and make the city more friendly to pedestrians and bikers.
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Map courtesy of citylab.com

The BQX, at an estimated $2.5 billion, would cost less than a new subway line, and de Blasio claims that tax revenue generated by increased property values would reimburse the city for construction costs. Skeptics point out that the city has contributed more than $367 million (and counting) for the Hudson Yards 7 train, which was also supposed to be covered by tax revenue. Unlike a subway line, which would need approval from the state-controlled MTA, a trolley system could be built by the city independently. The BXQ line could also make life a lot easier for the low-income residents living in housing projects near the waterfront – on average, they spend an hour commuting to work each way, in part due to inefficient bus and subway service. New Yorkers who need to travel across Brooklyn and Queens are often forced to travel into Manhattan or to sit on a bus in rush-hour traffic, adding a considerable amount of time to their trip.

Critics of de Blasio’s plan point out that there are much more underserved areas of the city, including parts of the Bronx and the Utica Ave Corridor in Brooklyn, which are more densely populated and are in dire need of more public transit options. They also wonder whether it will be financially feasible for low-income residents to use the trolley system if it is built independently of the MTA – a lack of fare integration could make streetcars too expensive for that population. It should be mentioned that de Blasio has not mentioned whether fare integration would be available, and that even if existing residents choose to stick with the bus and subway systems, streetcars could help ensure existing transit infrastructure doesn’t become overwhelmed by the inevitable influx of residents along the waterfront. Modern streetcar systems have popped up in Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, and the Twin Cities, and there are plans for new systems in Washington DC, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Milwaukee, among others. Cities like Boston and Newark have found ways to integrate their streetcars with subway lines, and when San Francisco replaced an electric bus line in 1988 they saw an increase in ridership of 300% and better business for local bars and restaurants.
While the city still needs to run several studies to assess engineering challenges that come with building a streetcar system in New York, enthusiasts see de Blasio’s plan as a relatively affordable means of accommodating the city’s rapidly growing population. If the BQX proves to be successful, the city might be encouraged to build similar systems in other underserved areas. As the Brooklyn/Queens waterfront real estate market continues to grow, it will be interesting to see how de Blasio’s plan develops.

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