New York City has $300,000 to Look into Brooklyn Streetcars

I wrote last week on the potential for Brooklyn to build its own streetcar network, arguing that such a system would be effective in (relatively) cheaply improving the commuting options of people living in transit-unfriendly sections of the borough.

Little did I know that the city already has $295,000 earmarked by the federal government to study such a network.

Bob Diamond, discoverer of the borough’s now-famous Atlantic Avenue tunnel and streetcar advocate, was kind enough to inform me that the money was inserted into the 2005 SAFETEA-LU bill by Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez. The project has been placed on the state transportation improvement program this year, and the city DOT is supposed to issue an RFP for the contract to do the study, but has yet to do anything. Time to wake up.

I know, $295,000 isn’t much money. But it’s a start, and even the most basic first step in planning makes streetcar service in the borough more likely.

12 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • I sympathize with your goal of putting streetcars back in Brooklyn, but I don’t see it as particularly cost-effective. The B46 runs limited and local buses. If you replaced the limited B46 bus with a streetcar, you might save time, as much as 15 minutes on the 47-minute bus trip between Kings Plaza and Eastern Parkway, where a commuter could connect with the no. 4 express to Manhattan.

    The issue I see is that the no. 4 express already takes 28 minutes to get to Grand Central (sample midtown destination station I’ve chosen). That 15 minutes of time saved on the rails is 32% savings vs. the bus trip, but only 19% vs. the total trip, including the subway ride. Kings Plaza commuters, however, can already take the B2 bus to the Kings Highway Station on the B/Q subway and get to Bryant Park in less than an hour, so the streetcar on Utica doesn’t really save any time for the midtown-bound commuter.

    This same issue is going to come up with any kind of multimodal trip: you need service improvements on all legs in order to make substantial improvements in the overall commute. The coming uptown-6 to IND transfer at Broadway-Lafayette will have probably just as great an effect on Brooklyn commuters as these new streetcar lines, because it will allow more commuters to take the faster BMT into Manhattan and transfer mid-trip to the more conveniently located IRT stations. (Same thing for the 2nd Ave subway connection at Grand St, whenever that gets built.)

    The transportation-equity point is a different kettle of fish, however, and you are right on when it comes to that. A greater mix of transit options can widen the horizons of nondrivers like teens, the disabled, and the elderly.

  • anonymous

    AWESOME!

  • Woody

    Jonathan,
    Thoughtful and informative comment, with solid detail. And thanks for making me feel good about the coming uptown connection at Broadway-Lafayette. I cling to the hope that our subway system continues to improve. No, really.

    But I think you miss the main point of streetcars in this city. It’s not to speed up long-distance commutes. It is to improve the short-and-medium-distance rides.

    And Brooklyn has plenty of those, to employment sites and schools, along with a large number of ‘sometimes’ destinations like retail strips, entertainment venues, cultural institutions, medical facilities, etc.

    Many of the commutes within the borough, and many of the occasional trips too, are made by bus today, and many more drivers would shift to streetcars if they were available.

    When you follow the link in Yonah’s Streetcar post to his TriboroRX study, it shows huge numbers of potential outer-borough commuters along that proposed line, which would not even go into Manhattan. (And iirc, these estimates did not include students going to a distant school, which is a large number in the NYC system.)

    That count gets us back to the standard comparisons between bus and rail. And of course, rail wins. Studies in Europe show trams usually attracting 30 to 40% of their riders from former drivers, while buses rarely seduce drivers out of their cars.

    In Brooklyn, sleek Euro-style streetcars with their contemporary and upscale image can run in grassy trackways and narrower right-of-ways, while buses always require wide paved lanes. Low-floor streetcars allow passengers to load and unload quickly and comfortably. The electric power gives quicker acceleration and yet a smoother (and pothole-free) ride.

    Electric-powered streetcars remove pollution from the streets. Of course, trams are more energy efficient overall, and cheaper to operate over time, than buses.

    That’s why there’s a worldwide renaissance of trams/streetcars, in Adelaide, Barcelona, Bern, Bilbao, Blackpool, Bordeaux, Brussels, Cologne, Dublin, Edinburg, Florence, Grenoble, The Hague, Zurich, and others. It would be great to add Brooklyn to that list.

  • Woody,

    Improving short- and medium-distance rides? You are arguing two sides of the argument.

    Either streetcars save enough time over buses for folks taking intraborough trips, like a 20-minute trip instead of a 30-minute trip, to make a real meaningful impact in their choice to take mass transit over autos, or they don’t save enough time but riders are mesmerized by the cool Euro styling of the streetcar and take it anyway.

    But your two-fisted argument points out the underlying issue: the municipality has no policy with the goal of getting drivers out of cars and into transit. If the city wanted to, they could build bus lanes right down the middle of Utica Avenue, and specially timed traffic signals, by the end of the summer and we could get that 33% time savings with the present bus fleet. Since that’s not happening, obviously city transportation policy on Utica Avenue is to maintain present conditions for automobilists. My advice is to address that first before going gaga for cable cars or trams or streetcars or BRT.

  • Woody

    I don’t favor wasting any money or effort on Bus Repackaged Transit.
    The Bush Administration is out of office, so there is no financial reason to try to ride ride that dead horse. I took Ms. Sadik-Kahn’s outspokenness about streetcars as her reading of which way the wind now blows.

    Anyway, whether you hear politicians talking about getting drivers out of their cars or not, the actions of our Transport Commish makes me think she wants to do that. And the fact is, replacing buses with streetcars draws motorists out of their cars. And nothing either/or. You misrepresent my position, which is and/both. Some riders will be lured by slightly faster travel times, while others like the smoother ride and the quality image, and most riders will like both.

    Your post only talked about the possible impact of streetcars on commuting into Manhattan. I’m ignoring Manhattan and talking about getting to jobs at Kings County Hospital or classes at Brooklyn College or going shopping at the Fulton Street transit mall downtown. Streetcars will get people there. Let’s go for it.

  • Woody, I hope you are right that streetcars could get people to stop driving, but kind words from JSK and the alleged aesthetic superiority of a streetcars over automobilism seem to me like very weak arguments.

    I went back to your earlier post, and maybe I didn’t get your point correctly. I guess you are saying that provided you can get the lane away from the automobiles, streetcars will prove more attractive to riders than BRT. I agree with you.

    Once you take the lane away from the automobiles, however, you will increase auto density and congestion and lengthen automobilists’ commutes. Then the public-transit commute time, which hasn’t shortened by very much, becomes comparatively more attractive. The streetcar is more aesthetically pleasing than bus, certainly.

    The hard part is not deciding between streetcars and buses, the hard part is getting the lane away from the automobilists. Maybe you’re right, that the style and excitement of a 21st-century streetcar would make that political decision easier,

    But I think you should be really explicit about that point, that the streetcar does not magically deliver speedier transport times with no effect on other road users. I think the streetcar makes things faster by claiming more lane space and slowing down automobilists. The best argument for that is transportation equity, something that I never hear from municipal workers.

  • Woody

    Jonathan, You got me this time. I was talking streetcars and then put in the mention of running in attractively grassy corridors — a light rail trait.

    Well, I think most non-experts have a good bit of trouble separating street-running streetcars from grade-separated light rail. It’s so easy for a system to be part street-running and part grade-separated that the distinction seems mostly marketing, as if repacking the things as “light rail” would get away from the dowdy old “streetcar” image. Dare I say “trams” like those damn European Socialists?

    I think trams would work in Brooklyn by running in the streets where necessary, and in dedicated lanes where possible.

    In most cases I’d hope the necessary lane could be taken out of the parking spaces (conceding the problem of commercial deliveries along the best routes). Removing parking spaces to make way for trams would impinge on some drivers, but would not directly affect driving time.

    There are also some very wide roadways in Brooklyn. And I’m thinking that a tram line from the last subway stop at Brooklyn College out Flushing Avenue and over the bridge to Riis Beach and the Rockaways would be worth looking at. Much of that line could run on its own right of way, if it didn’t take a Constitutional Amendment to shave a few feet off that federal parkland around the old Floyd Bennett Field.

  • Woody, if you take the parking away the merchants will complain. Small businesses lobbies claim that those parking spaces (and low-cost meters) are crucial to merchants’ success.

    In my opinion, you can’t take the lanes away–moving or parking–from the automobilists without raising enough ruckus to stop the project. The time savings you’ve advocated for those intraborough trips isn’t enough to suggest that riders might have time to make more trips than at present, or to go further.

    I’d like to see a more persuasive argument than mystique. Maybe the federal dough will fund a study that comes up with something.

  • Woody

    Actually, the on-going reworking of Broadway in Midtown is removing parking lanes from 59th to 34th St. I’m sure there’s been some ruckus but not enough to stop the project. Likewise the protected bike lane going in on 8th Ave from 14th to 23rd St.

    With streetcars, some merchants would win for sure, those located near the tram stops. Assuming a minimum 10% increase in passengers, which I do and you don’t, the merchants near the stops would see more sidewalk traffic, more than enough to make up for a few missing parking places.

    On other stretches, there is no parking, or no merchants. I suggested a line from Brooklyn college to Riis Beach; half of that length would be through park land, not parking land. Someone else wants a route from Williamsburg passing the old Navy Yard to Dumbo and perhaps connecting with a line to Red Hook. Depending on the alignment, much of that line would be on streets with little or no commercial frontage.

    We need one tram line on this side of the Atlantic, and this side of the Continent (Portland and Tacoma are too far off the path for New Yorkers), to show how well it works. Once we have a popular streetcar running in this city, it will be easier to get approval to add more of them. Houston’s “light rail” that runs on its own ROW down the middle of Main Street is very popular, and the city is now pushing ahead with two or three more lines to add to it.

  • Woody, I want a streetcar as much as you do, but when it comes to public funds, I’m a little more phlegmatic about whether rails would be worth the extra dollars. I am not ready as you are to commit to a streetcar line “to show how well it works,” when I don’t know that it would work well at all, or that it would work substantially better than Bus Repackaged Transit, using dedicated lanes and the existing bus fleet. Maybe the federal money will help move this project from wishes to reality.

  • anonymouse

    One plausible argument for streetcars is that they can be very effective in a corridor that has too much ridership for bus, but not enough for subway. There’s a lower limit on bus headway, somewhere around 5 minutes, where if you try to go below that, you’ll get bunching and an ineffective service. With a streetcar, you can use a modular vehicle, or couple several together to make a train, and have a 120 foot train running instead of a pair of leapfrogging buses. Plus streetcars, being electric, are faster and quieter than buses. One other potential advantage is that streetcars can run in tunnels very effectively, whether to bypass a particularly troublesome intersection or to provide a more seamless transfer to the subway.

  • Don’t get me wrong. I love trolleys and a business trip to SF or Boston is never complete without a trolley ride. SF is particularly cool if you’re lucky enough to get a PCC painted in BMT green!

    But Brooklyn is too far gone to get light rail re-instituted. Traffic in the Borough of Homes and Churches is so horrendous that trolley traffic will slow things down to where this improvement will be a hindrance.

    Had this study been done fifteen years ago, I think light rail traffic along the Bay Ridge Division would have been feasible. Today, the Bay Ridge Division is a bustling railroad and will be even busier if Rep. Jerry Nadler’s trans-harbor freight tunnel gets built.

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