The Merits of a Streetcar Along 42nd Street

» New York City’s Vision42 Envisions Pedestrian-Only 42nd Street with StreetcarVision 42 Streetcar Map

The New York Times reports that the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility advocacy group has published a new report describing the benefits of converting the city’s main Midtown street into a pedestrian mall with a streetcar stopping every block from the United Nations Headquarters at 1st Avenue to the ferry terminal on 12th Avenue. Vision42 calls its proposed service “light rail,” but it fits more of the characteristics of modern streetcar, with stops every block and slow running speeds. The report suggests that the 2.5-mile line would cost from $411 to $582 million and cross Midtown in 21 minutes, passing Grand Central Terminal, Times Square, and the Port Authority Bus Terminal. That’s with a “pedestrian-safe” top speed of 15 mph.

Eventually, Vision 42 proposes to extend the line down to 34th Street, where it run river-to-river along New York’s main shopping street, passing past Penn Station.

Vision42 has been planning this project for years, and the Times even reports that it’s garnered at least some interest from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. But initial proposals have yet to receive official support from either City Hall or the Governor’s office, and one wonders whether coming out with this report at the height of a major recession makes very much sense. Nonetheless, Vision42 is serious about its proposal… but does the proposal have merit?

The idea of banning cars from 42nd Street – and 34th Street, too – makes a whole lot of sense. After all, they’re probably the city’s two most walked streets and they connect destinations that are already very well served by underground rapid transit and commuter rail. It would make it considerably easier and more comfortable to walk in Midtown if these streets were nicely streetscaped and cleared of traffic. Vision 42’s report, says the Times, argues that the majority of buildings along 42nd Street have freight access from other side streets, implying that deliveries would not have to be made on 42nd, and there’s therefore no major reason to keep the street open to anything but emergency traffic.

But how about the streetcar element of the proposal? Already, two subway lines run below 42nd Street from Grand Central to Times Square: the S Shuttle and the 7 Flushing Line. The proposal makes the important point that the streetcar would provide a fundamentally different service than either the S or the 7, serving local versus city-wide commuters. And yet, this streetcar could play a very significant role in opening up a direct liaison between New York City’s two biggest destinations: Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station. Getting between the two rail stations on subway currently requires a transfer at Times Square, and the 7 train extension under construction wouldn’t help out on that matter, because it won’t serve Penn Station.Vision 42 Streetcar Map

But a map shown on the Vision42 website (at right) implies that the proposal for the 42nd Street streetcar was designed when the 7 extension was proposed to connect to Penn Station. It would probably have made more sense for the city to align the 7 towards Penn Station rather than running below 42nd Street all the way to 11th Avenue before turning south. But the fact remains that this extension is already under construction, and no one’s going to alter its alignment now.

It would make more sense to alter this streetcar route so that it provides service close to what was originally proposed for the 7 extension. In doing so, the streetcar would open up an important new connection between New York’s rail stations that will not be served directly by subways or commuter rail in the foreseeable future. The streetcar would run from the United Nations, down 42nd Street, past Grand Central and Times Square, to 8th Avenue at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where it would run south to Penn Station’s west entrance at 34th Street and 8th Avenue. A potential extension could then run east on 34th Street back to the East River waterfront; another could provide access to the west side of south Midtown, which currently lacks subway access. See a quick sketch of this proposal in the Google Map embedded at the bottom of this post.

Vision42’s proponent’s suggest that the extension along 34th Street proposed in the project’s second phase would allow for the Grand Central to Penn Station connection, but it would be indirect and make it less appealing for commuters. We should look at implementing this streetcar proposal, and we should definitely plan on closing some of New York’s most trafficked streets to cars. Let’s just change the route around a bit.

  • blue – from U.N. to Penn Station, via Grand Central along 42nd Street and 8th Avenue;
  • green – from Penn Station to Meatpacking District, via Far West Side, along 30th Street, West Side Highway, and 14th Street;
  • red – from Penn Station to East River, along 34th Street

Images above: Map of Vision42; Computer illustration of streetcar in front of Grand Central; Early map of the proposal, demonstrating original proposed path of 7 Train extension; from Vision42

9 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Peter

    rail lines should move you from one logical point to the next. build the line straight across manhattan so everyone knows what it does. then build another line. then another. make it a huge loop if you want — that would be ideal — but zig-zagging all over the place doesn’t make any sense to me.

    besides, above-ground transit is fundamentally different than below-ground transit — above-ground transit is dignified.

    and i want bikers to be able to be safe, not dodging new tracks at every intersection. make things predictable, easy-to-understand, etc.

  • I like your model, though are you proposing to shut down that section of 8th Ave to traffic? I think that would be nearly impossible to shut down traffic on any of NYC’s avenues, but streetcars could do fine in traffic along that stretch.

    I also understand the importance of setting the line on 34th St., but Penn Station is largely between 31st and 33rd. Having the steetcar a block away isn’t bad, but it certainly isn’t ideal. It makes more sense to me to have it along 33rd between 8th and 7th Aves.

    Good stuff, though. Gotta love Google Maps.

  • Chris G

    Am very happy to see Vision42 get some press. I personally think the most important would be river to river on 42nd. Then a connection to Penn Station. Then at that point river to river on 34th. You dont need to have every train turn south to go to Penn. You can make some go river to river and others turn. But I believe going all the way to the Hudson will allow for better use of ferries to cross the river.

    Such a shame we spend all this effort to basically rebuild what was done 100 years ago.

  • Woody

    The way the economy is going, Mayor Bloomberg is going to run out money to build his 7 Line extension any day now, like, yesterday. Maybe then he’ll take a look at something to serve the Convention Center area in the meantime — “meantime” possibly being the rest of his life and mine.

    I love the 42nd St streetcar. I’m with David, here, keep it simple, river to river on 42nd Street. But I would look at also making it river to river on 34th St. With connectors up First Avenue and then down 12th Avenue it would be one big loop. I could see a loop within the loop, going up Park to Grand Central and down Seventh Ave to the busy side of Penn Station, the LIRR station. Ah, with two way traffic on every part of the loop-de-loops.

    Twice as big could be easier to do than one line alone: Any streetcar line has to have a car barn. Maybe we can find room for one on a pier on the West Side. But to find space for two? Real estate prices are falling, but even in a Depression finding space for two car barns would be hard to do!

  • mountaindog

    What everyone is forgetting is that Javitz Center (NY’s Convention Center is located where the new 7 line ends. A streetcar on 42 would let convention goers easy access to Times Square and Midtown. Right now as a pedestrian you have to go through the maze of roadway leading to the Lincoln Tunnel.

  • Woody

    mountaindog —
    It’s a good point that the Convention Center is almost inaccessible to pedestrians. And to be fair to Bloomberg, putting in the 7 line extension could transform an area that is at best dreary and at worst threatening.

    A couple of hotels night set up shop near the Convention Center if or when there is some way for guests not inside the exhibit halls to get to the lively parts of the city. So the 7 line extension will help with that directly, and indirectly by stimulating TOD. The streetcar line could top it off. I think it’s still true that some out-of-towners will never try to ride the subway, never, but would happily ride a streetcar.

    Vision42 asks too much in proposing to close both 34th and 42nd Streets to cars entirely. The streets are six (6) lanes wide, after all. Take two lanes for dedicated streetcar trackage and widen the sidewalks by a lane on either side.

    That leaves two lanes still. One way traffic on a two-lane street (with No Parking!) would allow deliveries in one lane, and a trickle of taxies, cars carrying handicapped people, airport shuttles, emergency vehicles, limos, whoever, to get to the middle of the long blocks. That’s the model we see on Broadway now, where two lanes have been recaptured for street-parks, but two lanes of traffic meet some real demands for deliveries and other services.

  • Woody

    I never see any comment on this point. But when you look at the map of the #7 extension, it goes down 11th Avenue to 25th St, where the boring machine is going into a hole in the ground. The stub end of the L train runs under 14th St. to about 9th Ave.

    So the two tunnels will be separated by little more than half a mile. Surely somebody is thinking about connecting the two lines. That prospect will give us something to live for after the Second Avenue Subway is opened.

  • Woody, the fantasy map people on Riders Diaries are years ahead of you. The arguments there are about whether to have the 7 stop at 34th, 23rd, and 14th to meet with the L, or to have the L go up to 23rd or 34th to meet up with the 7. (My position: a plague on both your houses – just extend both to New Jersey, toward Secaucus. You’d save the money on the new ARC cavern and avoid the corruption that Hudson Yards has created.)

  • Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the fundamental problem is that 7 trains are 8.60 ft wide, whereas L trains are 9.77 ft wide, and the stations are adjusted accordingly. How do you have through running with that situation?

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