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.
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