New York to Study Red Hook Streetcars, But What Are the City’s Goals?

» New route would fill a gap in rail coverage. But this may not be the most promising alignment for streetcars in the borough. Nor will the historic vehicles increase capacity.

There is, of course, something romantic about a good old trolley: Its slightly plodding pursuit of its course down the street; its frequently open-windowed approach; its clanging bells. On the other hand, there are some really quite rational reasons why most American cities abandoned their street railroads in favor of buses beginning in the 1930s. At the time, buses were more modern, faster, and more comfortable for their daily users.

Yet cities like Savannah, Little Rock, and Memphis have brought back streetcars built decades ago (or simulacra of them) and are running them on their downtown streets. Now New York City may do the same, having launched a study to run streetcars from downtown Brooklyn to Red Hook. This retrospective transportation device is not going away.

But these mobile museums are more about tourism than they are about meeting typical commuting needs. Unlike modern buses, these old streetcars are not handicap-accessible, nor are they air conditioned. Even more problematically, they often carry fewer passengers than the buses they’re supposed to replace. And yet Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez from New York City, a real public transit kind of town, has funded a study on reinserting them into the urban space. Ms. Velazquez wants a further $10 million earmark to put them into operation.

The sums we’re discussing are relatively minor, so to call this investment a “waste” of money would probably be exaggerating. Moreover, Brooklyn itself is one of the country’s top candidates for improved street transit — but this probably isn’t the way to go about providing it.

Indeed, it would be worthwhile to take a step back and consider what goals the City of New York has in terms of improving its transportation system. How can the existing transit network be improved? What routes are missing or need to be reinforced? Where should future development be oriented?

If one of the many possible answers to these questions is that the city has an interest in developing a tourist circuit between downtown Brooklyn and the waterfront at Red Hook, then this project, pushed for years by the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association and its dynamic head Bob Diamond, may be ideal.

On the other hand, if the city wants to increase capacity on its most heavily used bus routes, provide circumferential travel corridors, and encourage increased development in underutilized zones, then there are plenty of other projects that would make more sense. Plenty of them could involve streetcars, just in a different mode than this Red Hook trolley scheme is supporting.

For one, modern vehicles are very different than the ancient tramways being considered for this Brooklyn route. Such streetcars, used in cities across much of the world, have the capacity of two, three, or four buses — and they’re outfitted with modern low-floor, climate-controlled interiors. In other words, they’re designed to fit the needs of commuters in today’s world, and they do so while providing substantial improvement over the transit services offered by modern buses.

If streetcars cannot provide improved operations over typical buses, why should cities spend millions of dollars installing them?

Even more important, however, is the fact that the Red Hook route shouldn’t necessarily be a priority for a city that has literally dozens of transit corridors that are more vital to its functioning. The B61 bus that runs a similar route to that planned for the streetcar attracts about 17,500 daily users — a respectable sum, but still ranking only 39th among all the lines in the bus system. If the city is interested in finding ways to ramp up and improve the surface-running transit offerings by replacing some bus lines with streetcars, it should do so on corridors that are already the most heavily used and provide high-capacity vehicles to do so, not decades-old trolleys.

Nevertheless, there are some arguable benefits to the Red Hook corridor. As the map at the top of the page demonstrates, this section of Brooklyn is poorly served by subways, even though it is relatively close to downtown. One could argue that a streetcar line could bring in more transit users in the area and spur increased development, especially along the waterfront, where a Fairway grocery and an Ikea store are already located. And the use of heritage vehicles could theoretically be seen as a money-saving instrument, since acquiring enough to run the route would probably cost a lot less than buying brand-new tramways.

The study that Congresswoman Velazquez funded will be completed over the next five months by consultant URS. If the research had not gotten underway now, the city would have lost the federal funding, since earmarks lose their value if they’re not taken advantage of after several years. The specific route, as illustrated above, was derived by Diamond’s group after City Hall asked the organization to refine the corridor for study. URS’ evaluation could produce a different corridor plan and perhaps also encourage the use of modern, rather than heritage, trains.

Complaints aside, the work that Mr. Diamond has pursued over the past few decades is truly worth admiration. After discovering a tunnel under Atlantic Avenue in the 1980s (which could be a section of this project), he has campaigned religiously to get trolleys up and running in Brooklyn. These efforts are the work of a true and tireless transit advocate; we need more of them.

44 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Peter Smith

    more comfortable for their daily users.

    I’m assuming this is a typo?

  • Anon256

    The 17500 daily riders figure for the B61 from 2009 is somewhat misleading. Until the end of 2009, the B61 was a much longer route, meandering over 10 miles from Red Hook all the way to Long Island City. To improve reliability, the northern portion was then split off as the B62, leaving the B61 covering only the 3-mile route now proposed for a streetcar. (In the mid-2010 service cuts the B61 was actually extended further south to take over parts of discontinued routes.) In light of these changes it’s hard to guess what current ridership on the route covered by the proposed streetcar is, but it would be surprising if it were over 10000.

    • Thanks for mentioning that, Anon. I think the whole idea of comparing ridership per bus route is a little bizarre. Route lengths are arbitrary. A measure like ridership per route-mile would be more enlightening.

      • AlexB

        I agree, and I think the B61 probably has high ridership per mile. When I lived on Columbia St, the bus came every 7-8 minutes on average and was packed in the morning. Most people don’t travel more than 3 miles maximum on this bus. When it’s not delayed, it’s the easiest way to most anywhere else, especially now that is extends to the Smith-9th and 9th St on the R. It is the bus for the entire neighborhoods of Red Hook and Columbia St.

  • If they are planning on using historic rolling stock, are they planning on permitting historic operating practices–such as letting patrons on and off wherever they want (including possibly while the tram is moving), rather than at designated stops?

    Somehow, I kinda doubt it…

    • Adirondacker12800

      And finding historic rolling stock isn’t going to be easy. It’s not as if there’s a warehouse somewhere with a few hundred PCC cars just waiting to be put back in service.

      • I believe they were stored in the same government warehouse as the Ark of the Covenant–and we all know that it was plundered by Soviet agents in the 1950s.

        Or maybe it was all just a really bad dream.

  • poncho

    did they end up destroying all those PCCs that were planned to be used for this line and stored in brooklyn? i think they were from cleveland and buffalo.

    what do you mean historic cars wont be accessible? the line will have to be, either using lifts or stop ramps. and people seem to manage just fine without air conditioning on the st charles and f-line. thats what operable windows are for.

    • As I recall, all but one of those ex Cleveland (actually Shaker Heights) PCCs were hauled away for scrap in May 2005. In 2008, one was rusting away behind a Brooklyn supermarket along with two ex Boston PCCs. I found some pictures of them in a forum posting. I don’t know if they’re still there.

      Buffalo was going to use those cars for a new branch of its light rail line, but that plan fell through.

      • Woody

        If those old PCC cars had to be hauled away for scrap in order to stop them from being used somewhere instead of a sleek contemporary, low-floor tram with easy-entry doors, wide windows, and modern heating and a/c, then I say, Hurray!

        The antique cars belong in transportation museums, not in real cities.

  • Nathanael

    This is a remarkably excellent tourist route. It would also be a very good local circulator route.

  • OceanRailroader

    They could build a modern Tramway along some of the bus routes and run modern commuter type trams on them during the weekdays when everyone has to go to work and then on the weekends they could let some old fashioned streetcars run on the same tracks if they are the same gauge and run down the same street right of way on the weekends. Or they could have eight modern trams and two Old Fashioned streetcars go running down the streets during the days. We don’t have to have one or the other we can mix things up to make life more fun.

    • Mason Hicks

      I believe there are FTA(or FRA) rolling stock compatability issues with running both on the same line. I beleive they do what you suggest in Charlotte along the Lynx line, but when the line first opened for light-rail service, the historic tourist trolley service which made the Lynx LRT line possible had to be discontinued. I believe now, they are now running the historic trolley for part of the route outside of peak commuting hours, but I do not know how that was arranged.

  • A.T.

    This good starter route. This tram project runs through some areas which could use more transit options. There a Cruise Terminal, an IKEA, factories and a decent population to start within blocks along the route. IF this project is successful, it would make a great case for re-introducing trams into other sections of the city.

  • Andrew

    Yonah, I think this is your clearest post yet on the ‘streetcar’ craze sweeping the nation. As you say – if your goal is to promote tourism in Red Hook, a streetcar is a tool (albeit perhaps not the most cost effective one) to promote that.

    But if you’re genuinely interested in providing transit to those who need it, this is not the way to go. It’s a little uncomfortable to be talking about streetcars as tourist magnets when Red Hook has a sizeable transit dependent population (car ownership in the Red Hook Houses, I suspect, is low) who could certainly benefit from mobility upgrades – more frequent bus service on a dedicated bus lane, for example, that might be prvoided for a fraction of the cost (and much more rapidly) than a streetcar. Obviously, practical upgrades for people who already ride buses aren’t very sexy, won’t attract much atention, and probably won’t win many votes. So here we are discussing streetcars…

    • People prefer riding rail to bus. It’s a matter of comfort, not “sexiness”.

      • jim

        In the sort of summer we’ve just had, people will prefer to ride an air-conditioned bus to a non-air-conditioned streetcar. It’s a matter of comfort, not nostalgia.

        • Nathanael

          Weirdly, your assertion is just not true in most cities. Honest to god, the ridership statistics prove it out where the streetcars run directly in competition with parallel bus lines. New Orleans, for instance. Or you can look at the historical example: when Philadelphia replaced clapped-out PCC trolleys with air-conditioned buses, ridership plummeted overnight.

  • Nikko P

    Supposing there were some sort of technological compromise? Like maybe a modern LRT operation with vehicles that resemble older streetcars but are functionally contemporary. The real benefit to using streetcars is their charm. If there were some way you could sufficiently combine their charm with a modern tram system, you might have a winning formula.

    • I’d much rather there were a technological compromise involving rail transit on a major bus corridor, which the B61 isn’t.

    • flierfy

      Since when are modern trams not charming? And how exactly do you want to raise capacity of a one-car tram as they used to be in the first half of the 20th century?
      Using ancient vehicles might be cost-saving in the beginning. If this line wants to be successful, however, it needs modern rolling stock. New York is a vibrant city and not a bloody museum.

    • alexjonlin

      You could have mostly modern streetcars, but then on weekends have a couple historic streetcars run the route instead. And I gotta say, I really love the idea of running them in the Atlantic Ave tunnel. Things like that really capture the imagination…

      • Nikko P

        Yeah, I think maybe you’re right. Maybe running modern light rail during peak hours and streetcars during offpeak. You’re probably more likely to find tourists at offpeak hours anyway.

  • Atrios

    No knowledge/opinion on this particular proposal, but Philly did add AC and handicapped accessibility to old PCCC cars for its re-established route 15.

  • jim

    Maybe I’m reading the story wrong, but what I see is a Congresswoman getting enthusiastic about something and getting money earmarked for a study. The City, though, is unenthusiastic and, after dragging its feet for as long as it could, now proposes studying using ancient technology on an unpopular route. In due course (as late as it dares) it’ll report that there are technical difficulties in establishing such a route, that its costs are likely to be unaffordable, particularly with MTA’s funding problems, and ridership will be low. The hope will be that the Congresswoman’s enthusiasm will have died down (or have been transferred to some new shiny) and she’ll accept the report with, “Oh well, it sounded like a good idea at first” and they’ll hear no more about it.

    But perhaps too many years as a bureaucrat has made me cynical.

  • Anon256

    The potential to use the Atlantic Ave Tunnel is the one thing that makes streetcars for this route potentially worthwhile compared to buses. Atlantic Ave is heavily trafficked, and even if a bus were given dedicated lanes it would still have to wait at stoplights (signal priority can’t do much in areas where pedestrian crossings are heavily used). The tunnel is almost certainly too narrow to accommodate buses (and ventilation would also be an issue). Thus the ability of streetcars to cut into Downtown Brookln via a grade-separated route could, if properly executed, provide significant increased mobility to and from Red Hook. Similar use should be considered for disused rail tunnels elsewhere in the city (e.g. the unused Nassau Street tracks could connect to Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridge light rail).

    Though it’s also worth pointing out that police in NYC are more likely to park in bus lanes than enforce them, and one could reasonably hope they’d be less likely to do so with trolley tracks (precisely because the technology is less flexible).

  • Dexter

    This sounds like a “Heritage Trolley” operation more than light rail. As for PCC cars there aren’t that many to be found. I think Newark has a few they’re keeping for a museum. They sold a group to San Francisco. There’s a few outside St. Louis, MO and a few at Lake Tahoe, CA, but most existing PCCs are spoken for.

  • I don’t mean to be a hater but in this case this streetcar is not a good idea for the MTA. They are in a severe budget crisis and they could spend the extra $10 or so million elsewhere. Red Hook does have less transit access than other areas of Brooklyn but maybe select bus service would be a good idea for now. The MTA needs to focus on immediate things like getting a stop at 10th and 41st on the 7 line extension. They are blowing a huge opportunity there. Granted I understand it is more the city’s extension than theirs but someone needs to start putting the pressure there. I mean I think the BRT and subway services needed to be expanded throughout the city but they need to have Albany put up a little more support first. Don’t get me wrong I think streetcars are a good idea but you have to prioritize sometimes.

  • dejv

    For Manhattan-bound trips, the detour via Atlantic Ave and CBD is going to reduce the ridership of the line. IMO, the line should offer direct transfer to the subway before turning east to CBD.

    It’s not a good idea to run historic rolling stock in daily operation, because of extensive maintenance needed to keep it running. New vintage-looking is better choice, but it still has a disadvantage of extended station dwell times, so fully low-floor is probably the best choice.

    The second vehicle from streetcar comparison actually exists – it’s based on Pragoimex‘s VarCB3 platform It can run on legacy PCC trucks, it costs about one half of 100% low floor tram and it has about 50 % of floor area low floor. It’s favorite solution for transit agencies in post-communist world to make the fleet at least partially low-floor, because it avoids need to of shops upgrade and they offer to sell just the chassis as a “spare part”. The train length scales to the 30-45 m (100-150 ft), equivalent to that of 100% low floor tram on the right.

  • Woody

    Thank you for a lovely weekend bike ride in Red Hook. After living in NYC for 40 years, I was finally inspired to visit the neighborhood.

    It looks like Red Hook will be a prime location for a spanking new tram line, when the country works off the excess housing supply (at least 2 million units today) and the economy finally gets going again. That could be in about 10 years by my optimistic scenario, or easily 20 years if things go badly.

    When demand for new housing starts to rise again, this neighborhood will be completely rebuilt. The harbor views are eye-popping, and redevelopment will come someday on a massive scale. I can imagine dozens of glittering glass apartment towers replacing block after block after block of parking lots, one-story commercial buildings, vacant lots, and other current minimal uses that occupy the space today.

    I’m not advocating large scale development, but I know how the world works. Developers will move in, our government will oblige them. So it makes sense to look at the best possible transit for this area, to be paid for in large part with transit-oriented development. The development will come, we should prepare for it, and modern streetcars could be the way to go. But for the next decade or so, better bus service would be fine.

    • Woody, I don’t think this gentrification is so inevitable. To some extent it is, but Red Hook’s active industries are a strong defense. Like Long Island City and unlike Greenpoint, Manhattanville, and 1970s’ SoHo, it lacks the abandoned housing and factories that make it so easy for artists to move in. The presence of Ikea makes the neighborhood cool enough for hipsters even without artists, but even then it will require massive destruction to change the neighborhoods’ demographics quickly.

  • FG

    Chrissakes, why not build an el? New York seems to be one place where mass transit is definitely heavy on the mass, does a streetcar really have the capacity needed? A new concept el – in other words, improved design of columns, quieter, less light blocked, etc, might make perfect sense here.

    • Even if an el got 100% of the local travel market, it would get about 20,000 weekday riders: each of Red Hook’s 10,000 residents would take the train twice a day. The el would be by far the city’s least used rapid transit line, unless you count shuttles.

      • FG

        Ah, yes. Somehow I keep picturing Red Hook the other side of the Navy Yards towards Queens or somewhere between two places rather than a dead end, so to speak.

  • tvs everywhere

    I’m not sure I see the point of a “Tourist Line” running next to active industry, along the BQE. If it were shifted over a couple streets so that it picks up people of a short walk from east OR west, then loop it close enough to the F at Smith and 9th so that it’s not a dead end loop, you could serve a wide variety of people, not just people looking to come and go from downtown.

    And I agree with comments about the need for transit in this area. There’s a tiny little section of Redhook that’s touristable, a perfectly respectable number of inter-city “tourists” from other neighborhoods, and a lot of residents that need a better transit connectivity.

  • Ben Patience

    There needs to be some kind of happy medium between operating “historic” tourist trolleys in Red Hook, and actually addressing shortcomings in existing service and putting Red Hook on the transit map. Perhaps one solution would be to operate modern Tramways during the week for local residents and commuters, and then perhaps mix in a few PCC’s on the weekends for the sake of nostalgia and tourism. I think light rail advocates would do more for their cause by advocating for modern tramways, which when built properly are almost always better than buses, than advocating for pseudo- historic trolley service which usually serve high traffic commuter routes far worse than modern buses.

  • New Flash April 20, 2011- City DOT has SCUTTLED the Red Hook streetcar plan- AGAIN, the first time was in 2002. You can read their new lame excuses here: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/201104-redhook-streetcar-cac3-slides.pdf

    However, I respond to DOT’s current falacies as follows:
    There are some major facts about streetcar projects that NYC DOT doesn’t want you to know:

    What this “massaged” report doesn’t say, is that while it costs $41 per hour to run a streetcar, it costs NYCT $160 per hour to operate a bus. What the report doesn’t tell you, is that according to URS’s own experience in Portland, OR, it really costs $12 million per mile to build the streetcar line, not $26 million per mile as URS now claims. What DOT DID SAY in an email last Dec, is that URS and DOT project a 43% increase in Transit Demand in Red Hook. Another thing they don’t want you to know, is a new streetcar costs about $800,000. DOT wants you to think its over $7 million per car…

    Finally, the ultimate key fact that DOT doesn’t want you to know, is that a 2 mile start up line could be built for under $33 million, with $25 million coming from a special FTA grant for new streetcar projects, called a “TIGER Grant”.

    Dont believe me though, read what the prestigious American Public Transit Association (APTA) has to say of the TRUE costs of a new streetcar line here: http://heritagetrolley.com/artcileBringBackStreetcars7.htm#Post11

  • Since you repeated your Streetsblog comment, let me repeat mine:

    The projected cost, $30 million per km, is only moderately high by non-US standards, and fairly low by US standards. And since the lowest operating cost of any LRT line in the NTD is $109/hour – in low-wage, non-union Salt Lake City – we can conclude that $41 is either extra operating costs or just avoidable costs, and can’t be compared to bus costs.

    Maybe DOT was biased against the project, but what it said about no extra mobility is frankly true, and reading the report I still came out with the conclusion that it’d be a good project, though not the city’s highest priority, if it had dedicated lanes.

  • Neville Ross

    I think that Brooklyn needs new streetcars, as we are getting here in Toronto, not old ones. Here’s an example of the kind that we are getting here in Toronto in 2014:

    <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RdN7Y2hPQ-0&feature=player_embedded&quot;

  • Neville Ross

    (continued)

    If Brooklyn gets new ones, these will service the borough better than what’s intended for it (the older PCC cars can still be used as tourist trams.)

    Even better, why not put streetcars all over New York in all 5 boroughs, and replace bus service with classy streetcar service? The neighborhoods will be revitalized and become better. because of them.

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