Light Rail New York Streetcar

Streetcars for Brooklyn: A New Life?

If New York City wanted to build a streetcar network in its most populous borough, where would the tracks go?

Once upon a time, Kings County, New York, had a very large network of streetcar lines, running to-and-fro across the enormous borough. Like in almost every other American city, however, those lines were torn up; unlike other cities, however, many lines were replaced by elevateds and subways. Today, there’s little evidence left of those streetcars. A couple of weeks ago, however, New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn, visiting Toronto, said that she wanted to consider the rebuilding of a streetcar transit network in Brooklyn, having learned that the street-running trains were quite efficient at attracting people away from their cars and in pushing transit-oriented development. “In Portland they just started a new streetcar and were able to leverage $3-billion in [private] investment,” she said. “We need to rebalance the transportation network and make it as efficient and effective as possible” (via TOW).

Ms. Sadik-Kahn isn’t the first to raise the possibility of running streetcars in the borough. An organization called Brooklyn City Streetcar Co. has fashioned a plan to reuse old PCC trolleys on easy-to-install track on several well-used streets. The Brooklyn Historic Railway Association has been building a few small track segments for trolleys near the Red Hook Ikea, and has suggested that the city build lines in the future Brooklyn Bridge Park, near Borough Hall, and even in the abandoned Atlantic Avenue Tunnel, a relic from the Civil War era. None of these projects has yet obtained official backing from either the MTA or City Hall, so they have a long way to go before being realized.

But Brooklyn is ideal for streetcars, and the city should be considering their widespread installation in areas where improved transit service is needed, because they’re effective in creating denser, more livable neighborhoods. The eastern half of Berlin is perhaps a good example for how Brooklyn could integrate streetcars into its existing transportation network. There, the 192 km collection of Straßenbahn lines run in areas that are not adequately served by the U-Bahn and S-Bahn rail services. The system runs mostly in areas that are less dense than Brooklyn overall, but it still attracts high ridership. (Berlin’s most central borough, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, has a density of 13,000 people/km2, equivalent to that of Brooklyn; the rest of Berlin, however, has about half that density.) Why not, then, envision a similarly ambitious program for transit expansion in Brooklyn?

Indeed, though streetcars have far lower capacity than subways, they’re far cheaper to build and they carry significantly more people than bus lines when they’re built close to light rail standards, with some of their own running way, high-quality stations, and extended vehicles. Because they’re electrically operated, they’re also pollution-free (directly, not necessarily indirectly). For a city that’s incapable of building a tiny two-mile extension of its subway system on time and on budget, a streetcar network might be the solution.

A streetcar network would have the added benefit of significantly reducing operating costs: those of buses are higher than those of streetcars because of fuel and also because an extended-length tram (such as is common in several European cities) has the capacity of multiple buses, meaning you need fewer drivers to handle the same passenger capacity.

There’s the added benefit of the improvement in quality of life that comes with a streetcar system; it’s hard to pinpoint, but the smooth, silent movement of a tram along a city street is infinitely more appealing to the eye, ear, and nose than a diesel or even hybrid bus could ever be. Streetcars are also far more accessible to the handicapped, who can wheel right onto low-floor trains, something rarely possible on buses. There’s also the fact — another sort of unexplainable issue — that people choose streetcars with their feet. When Paris replaced the bus running around the southern part of its perimeter with a tram, ridership doubled. They’re quite good at attracting passengers. It’s not a huge surprise that dense, urban development follows them closely.

It would be nice, then, to see them operating in Brooklyn, especially in areas that don’t have access to New York’s excellent subway system.

As the map below demonstrates, there are large sections of the borough that suffer from less-than-ideal transit service — mostly in the southeast quadrant — though Red Hook, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Dyker Heights all could use better connections to the subway network as well. Notably, Starrett City, a high-rise development of 6,000 apartments, is not in easy walking distance from any rail station. In addition, the Brooklyn subway network suffers from a lack of crosstown routes, which would add considerably to the mobility of the borough’s citizens, who for the most part must head downtown if they want to change lines.

Existing Brooklyn Transit Network

A new transit network, then, would emphasize serving areas that currently lack subway capacity; it would also improve crosstown mobility by being circumferential in form, rather than radial. Part of this work could be done with the completion of the Triboro RX project, which would provide subway service on a currently underused freight corridor which runs through Brooklyn (as well as Queens and the Bronx), and by building an extension of the 2nd Avenue Subway along the Atlantic Avenue corridor, which runs east-west through the center of the borough. Both projects have been prioritized by Regional Plan Association.

But even with those two projects in place, the borough would still need more transit. Here, and shown in the map below, are a few routes that might make sense:

  • North-South generally on Utica Avenue
  • Along the waterfront in Red Hook
  • North-South along the waterfront parallel to 4th Avenue
  • Along the waterfront on Coney Island
  • East-West generally on Church Avenue
  • East-West generally near Kings Highway
  • East-West generally near Avenue U

Presumably these corridors would interconnect and service patterns would depend on demand. For instance, a streetcar could be designed to run partially along Utica Avenue and then turn east to serve Starrett City. On the other hand, some trains could travel the entire length of Utica Avenue, only running north-south.

I would like to point out that I pinpoint these specific corridors arbitrarily, but with the general intention of increasing crosstown mobility and serving areas far from subway stations today. In other words, a comprehensive streetcar network in Brooklyn wouldn’t necessarily follow these corridors exactly, but it would have similar routes, because, as the map below shows, the streetcar network I’m proposing would provide rail transit service within a 1/2-mile (and usually a 1/4-mile) to almost all of the borough. This is a good — and reasonable — goal for a borough of 2.5 million and a density of more than 30,000 people per square mile.

Proposed Brooklyn Transit Network

The map below documents the top 10 bus lines by ridership operated in Brooklyn today, each with more than 20,000 daily riders, and with one — the B46 — having a ridership of over 50,000 a day. The streetcar routes I’ve mapped out overlap several of these bus routes directly; if built, the MTA would be able to operate a significantly lower number of buses along these routes and it would likely save in overall operating costs. The number of people already riding these buses indicates that streetcars in Brooklyn would have little trouble succeeding in attracting riders.

Top 10 Existing Brooklyn Bus Routes

Such a streetcar network would be highly advantageous in promoting interconnectivity between subway stations. Here are the potential connections available if the network were built as I suggest:

Brooklyn Proposed Streetcar Network

There’s no reason, of course, why similar networks couldn’t be built in the city’s other boroughs.

But New York City’s MTA, which has had trouble enough funding its transit system’s operating budget, can’t just plop down a huge sum to build miles and miles of streetcar lines. It has other priorities, such as the (eventual) completion of the Second Avenue Subway. I’m not sure, though, that the city lacks other options, because streetcars should be seen less as a mobility device than a development tool: they can make better neighborhoods. How can we leverage that power?

Atlanta’s Beltline project is being paid for by a series of transit districts, which will contribute a percentage of their property tax increases over time to the construction of a park and light rail system. If New York were to establish priority corridors for streetcars in Brooklyn — or even in other boroughs — it could establish similar zones that would let the streetcars “pay” for themselves. As neighborhoods build up because of their proximity to such transit lines, tax revenues will increase and build the city’s revenue base as a whole. Streetcars could bring new life to areas of the city that have been neglected over the past few decades.

It’s great to see Ms. Sadik-Kahn at the Department of Transportation examining the experience of other cities in building new streetcar systems. We’ll need her leadership if we want new transit projects to get off the ground in Gotham.

Note: this piece was auto-posted; I’ll be able to address errors and questions in a few days when I return. —

30 replies on “Streetcars for Brooklyn: A New Life?”

Street cars are a beautiful mode of transportation. If those are built in the line of light city rail then their attraction and profitability both increases. One area that is neglected is the design aspect if extended light rail could be double decker. If designed properly with aerodynamic and sleek look city people everywhere would love to use it instead of using their cars while going places at a distance of say 100 kilometers.
A big and densely populated city like NY could be changed using this type of mass transit. Compared to subway this type of system gives more pleasure to its riders. Another way is to develop elevated roadways with magnetic strips for the sensors fixed at two ends of the automobiles for autumatic driving. This way more cars could be packed in a particular roadway. For a glimpse into the world of future transportation please visit the website

While I agree that streetcars have great potential as a “development tool,” any transportation enhancements in the outer boroughs needs to focus on one thing: transportation equity. Transit needs to serve the residents of these neighborhoods, not the interests of developers. Not that streetcars can’t do both, but I think we need to evaluate transit proposals not by their development potential, but by the potential of linking underserved areas to job centers.

The idea is great – I especially like the inclusion of Triboro Line into the plans – but I have to quibble with a few line choices:

1. The Utica streetcar should just follow the route of B46, so that it can make the connections to the 4 and A. In your map it goes a few blocks to the west – along Albany, maybe – which will miss the connections.

2. The Avenue P streetcar can’t really connect to the D at 18th Avenue – the grid changes orientation at Bay Parkway, requiring a somewhat circuitous route. It’d be better to connect to the D at Bay Parkway, possibly with a detour to connect to the N at 65th.

3. Triboro RX can obviate the need for several of the circumferential routes – I’d guess only 1 or at most 2 of the Church, P, and U streetcars could be viable. I’d also guess the one that’s viable would be the one on U, which is farthest away from TRX.

4. I’m not sure Red Hook could support two streetcar lines. However, in either case, the waterfront line should continue further north, into the Navy Yard, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint. The waterfront area in all these areas is underserved, with the subway stops located too far inland.

5. Some of the streetcars could cross the bridges to go to Manhattan. Having some transit service on the Brooklyn Bridge again would be very useful. Having some on the Williamsburg Bridge might be useful at taking the load off the L – though having the V use Chrystie Street Connection to run into Brooklyn and merge with the M would be even more useful.

Yonah, Great work here.
(And on the linked page re the Triboro RX Line.

It is a wonderful thing to see the City’s Transportation Commish talking up streetcars. With a sympathetic Secretary of Transportation (and President), we have a window open like nothing seen in over half a century.

I admire the rigor of your analysis. And the maps are impressive. The bus routes are huge. Any of those ridership totals would be making headlines as another Light Rail success!

But while keeping your comprehensive plan in mind, I’d start by picking one or two routes to push. There’s only so much money, and only so much political will even with a friendly Mayor and D.C. on our side.

So look for demonstration projects: Which one or two lines would make the biggest impact — including being seen by opinion makers, politicians elsewhere, and their constituents elsewhere.

And sorry to be negative, but I’m not sure that all the neighborhoods in Brooklyn are eager to be more closely linked with all other neighborhoods. I’m sure they all voted for Obama, but many of his voters said something like, “He’s different.” It might be best to build fragments and later link those into a longer route and wider system after the streetcars are familiar and enjoy high approval ratings..

To get noticed beyond Brooklyn, that line along the waterfront from Dumbo to Red Hook could work well. I’m not sure what’s the timetable on developing the proposed park below Brooklyn Heights; I fear it could go the way of the Second Avenue Subway in the current recession>depression. But a streetcar would make this park easily accessible and a harborside tourist attraction in its own right, sure to get lots of coverage in the media.

Yeah, there may be an equity issue, but the media doesn’t give a spit about streetcars to Starrett City or through Bed-Stuy. If we want streetcars everywhere they are needed, we need to make them fashionable from the start.

Beginning the Brooklyn streetcars in upscale (the Heights) and up-and-coming (Red Hook) areas might head off another potential problem. If you try to put the first one in a poor or ethnic neighborhood, some folks may recall how streetcars were sneered at and argue, Aren’t we good enough for something better than streetcars?

If they start out in a trend-setting area, the new image, low-floor, Euro-sleek streetcars will become objects of desire, and everyone will want one for their neighborhood. That’s when we push down Utica Avenue and out Kings Hwy to Starrett City.

Utica isn’t all poor. Yes, it runs through Bed-Stuy, but the northern end of the B46 route is in Williamsburg, which is the nation’s hipster capital, and the southern end is at Kings Plaza, a suburban-style shopping mall surrounded by middle-class neighborhoods. If these demographics are enough to support a bus route that doesn’t even enter Manhattan, they’re enough to support light rail.

Great post!!

One major question, how much is a streetcar per mile assuming there is no new right of way built? How much could be installed for a few hundred million? The MTA drops that much on a decent sized station renovation.

The details of the actual street network and actual connections aren’t quite right, but the analysis of the bus routes and basic corridors is spot on.

The Utica Ave bus is the second most used bus route in NYC after the first/second ave routes. It almost begs the question of whether it should just be a subway – unrealistic, but not improbable. It has been in every major subway expansion plan since the 30s.

I could also imagine flatbush ave and nostrand ave routes. Also, the Flatbush and Utica routes, if connected to the rockaways, would be the fastest routes to manhattan from the rockaways.

Streetcars won’t compete with the TriboroRX line.

Usually streetcars act like buses, running local-local, with stops every few blocks, while subways run semi-express, with stops every half mile or so. Streetcars may be a little faster because of better acceleration from electric motors, and with low floors and wide doors the new generation cars allow quicker entry and exit.

And in NYC the streetcars would serve a large population who cannot or will not ride subways. I have arthritis, and the stairs into and out of subway stations are ever more discouraging. With a greying (and dare I observe, a widening) population in this country, this segment of riders is sure to grow.

In fact, I could easily see streetcars running at street level directly above subways. They used to run up and down Broadway over the IRT in Manhattan. Subways and streetcars have overlapping markets but don’t really compete.

I yield to no one in my love for Brooklyn and the streetcars are a critical element of our history. But, exactly what fantasy world are you living in? The best in this regard is DMIJohn who want to focus on something called transportation equity. American society generates inequality in every conceivable way that transit, somehow, is supposed to mitigate. The last great equity move in NYC transit was the end to the “two fare zones”. These neighborhoods have since become the center of gravity for the opposition to bridge tolls and long-term funding of the MTA capital plan. Do you think the “outer boroughs” have any intention of giving up a lane of surface space for their precious SUVs?

I like Alon’s idea to extend the waterfront line from Red Hook north, into the Navy Yard, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint. This stretch is underserved already and growing rapidly, while much of it is now zoned for more dense development.

And yes, some streetcars could cross the bridges to Manhattan.Take one across the Brooklyn Bridge to the World Trade Center site and hope to get extra funding for helping to rebuild Lower Manhattan.

There’s already a huge bus transit station at the Williamsburg Bridge. I guess the buses that converge there feed the overcrowded subway, or do riders pop out of the subway to grab a bus? Either way it suggests that a streetcar over the bridge would be high volume.

Norman: light rail plans allow the MTA to try to present the Outer Borough pols with a deal – take bridge tolls, and get X miles of light rail in the next 10 years.

Woody: the J/M/Z is actually running far under capacity, with only 18 tph over the Williamsburg Bridge against a capacity of 30, and a higher seated to standing ratio than most lines. The problem is that it only serves Lower Manhattan, without good connections into Midtown – hence the recurrent proposals on various subway message boards to combine the V with the M.

Having light rail run over the bridge as well might serve different Downtown destinations from the J/M/Z. World Trade Center is one possibility, but that would require the streetcar to wend its way through narrow streets, mostly above where the J/M/Z runs; it would compete with the subway instead of complementing it. Another possibility is to run west to the Village, or possibly north along First or Second Avenues to connect to East Midtown; that could displace the overcrowded L as the best way to get from northern Brooklyn to Midtown.

Of course, not everyone can or wants to take the subway. But a) new lines are going to be fully accessible because of ADA requirements, and that includes TRX, and b) even without accessibility, the presence of a subway line dramatically reduces the market for surface transit.

Looking at the connections for Red Hook, I think this plan actually short changes the people who live there. Only taking the Streetcar to Smith/9th St really doesn’t give them the connectivity they deserve. You at least need it to go to 4th Ave/9th Street so that they have decent connections to both the F line and the R/M. Also, making that transfer from a Smith/9th streetcar to the F Line is quite a transfer to make just to be able to take the F line another stop or 2 to give you the connectivity you need between Red Hook/Carroll Gardens/Park Slope.

Streetcars could really draw these neighborhoods together but this doesn’t take that into account and if you’ve ever tried to use Smith/9th you know what a bear of a transfer that would be for people who are looking for an easy transfer.

How important is it to connect Red Hook to South Brooklyn by light rail, relative to having a good waterfront line connecting it to Downtown Brooklyn and by extension Manhattan?

brilliant! great article! bk is indeed an ideal ground for streetcars and its residents definitely deserve better transit, especially for trips that start and end in brooklyn. even if a streetcar network isn’t possible, it’d be good to see good brt. whatever is built tho should be simple and added to the subway maps, since that is what 90% of new yorkers (or nyc visitors) use to navigate the city.

I lived in west Carrol Gardens/Red Hook for a while. The neighborhood needs a fast connection to it’s neighbors AND a quick trip to downtown Brooklyn . There are more people both living and visiting Red Hook. The constant traffic bound for Ikea or Fairway or the Rec fields should be shifted to transit. There is definitely a market for it.

The F and R are just too slow. Even a fast connection to these lines would not do anyone a big commuting favor. Most people who are capable walk to the F and transfer to faster trains as soon as it’s available. A direct route to the 4 & 5 trains would be much more helpful, actually speeding up the trip faster than a person can walk. The streetcar should start at 4th Ave/9th St (maybe 9th st and the park?), travel through Red Hook around Lorraine St, go up Van Brundt/Columbia, take a right on Atlantic, a left on Court (converted to two way), a right on Fulton, stopping at the DeKalb stop on the BQ or continuing to Ft Greene via Myrtle Ave or Flushing Ave. This route provides a convenient connection to the rest of Brooklyn and a fast trip downtown.

I don’t know if it is feasible or not, but a second streetcar route via the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel would complete the picture. It could start in Lefferts Gardens, travel along Church Ave, Ocean Parkway, Prospect Ave, Hamilton Ave, and finish at Bowling Green. Connections would be available to the other streetcar route as well as the F, R and BQ. Based on the maps from the post, I would imagine many tens of thousands of people per day would use it.

AlexB: Brooklyn doesn’t have much need for extra crossings into Manhattan; my idea of a Brooklyn Bridge streetcar is intended mainly as restoration of previous service. The real problem is in Queens. Brooklyn and Queens have the same number of residents who work in Manhattan, and about the same transit modal share; Brooklyn has 9 two-track crossings into Manhattan, compared with 3.5 for Queens. Coming to think of it, the most important light rail projects in the city in terms of capacity are along 1st or 2nd Avenue, and crossing the Queensboro Bridge.

Alon: You are right; in terms of capacity, no new crossings are needed from Brooklyn right now. Queens definitely needs more capacity than Brooklyn. I am mainly speaking from personal experience. The Brooklyn Battery Tunnel could be major time saver.

For example, I used to live right next to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel entrance. During my 45/50 minute commute to work near Union Square, 20/25 minutes were spent waiting for and riding a bus to Jay St/Borough Hall (practically the same walking time.) If the bus went through the tunnel instead of congested downtown Brooklyn, I could have been at Bowling Green instead of Borough Hall and shaved at least 15 minutes off my commute every day. It’s a shame that the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel can only be used by drivers. It could chop Red Hook commutes in half.

In that case, I think the best solution is light rail that serves runs on Court and hits the Borough Hall and High Street stations. It can either turn west on Atlantic and then go down Columbia, or stay on Court until Red Hook and then go west on Lorraine.

Such a line could even feed directly into the local projects. In Singapore, it’s common to have people movers which are called light rail connect the ubiquitous housing projects with the subway mainlines. In New York this means light rail lines extending from the 6 to Coop City, from the L to Starett City, from some line in south Midtown to Stuy Town, and so on.

Impressive post. DMIJohn, why can’t transportation expansion meet both equity and development objectives? Cities need development. It generates tax revenues and further economic activity. It is a big part of the financial justification for public investment in transit. Transit in and of itself can’t fix economic circumstances. Cities need a well rounded economic development strategy, based on the competitive advantages that a rich transit infrastructure provides.

AlexB: Express buses from the outer reaches of the city (Staten Island and south Brooklyn, mostly) use the Battery Tunnel all the time. I ride one every day. Indeed, many times it seems as though the tunnel is overflowing with buses – perhaps that is why the city has not put a local bus through the tunnel. In any case, the tunnel is perfectly well-equipped for buses, which are allowed to use it and do so frequently.

I do think putting a local bus route through the tunnel to the 4/5 station at Bowling Green is an idea worth exploring, though it may cause extra congestion, especially in the toll plaza. Perhaps one of the tubes could be open to buses only during rush hours.

Streetcars in mixed traffic won’t work these days with the number of cars on the road. You really need a dedicated roadway and it will not be easy getting people to give up a lane of traffic.

However one place I feel streetcars can work is along the Fulton Transitway in Downtown Brooklyn. A new transit Center at Atlantic Center should be built where all but two or three Downtown Brooklyn bus routes could terminate. A free light rail system should run from there up Ashland Place to the Fulton Street Mall to Adams Street, then cut through the pedestrian way (formerly the old Fulton Street where the judges now park) up Cadman Plaza East, across Tillary Street, down Fulton Street or stay on Cadman Plaza East (Washington Street) to Brooklyn Bridge Park. It could be eventually extended down the waterfront to Red Hook. The vehicles could have many doors for quick boarding and discharging of passengers and could run continuously all day every 2 minutes to replace at least 80% of the buses now coming into Downtown Brooklyn including the removal of all the buses from Livingston Street as well. The facility would be indoors and weather protected. I think that would be a great start and may be doable.

You forgot about including an image of the Combino Supra “caterpillars” as used in Budapest.

I had a dream the other day that there was a street car from the Prospect park B,Q station down Flatbush Ave. to the Loews Kings. Then today they just released news that the Loews Kings would be renovated. Then I coincidentally found your article. Is it all a coincidence? Let’s make it happen. i can see it.

> From Allan Rosen: “Streetcars in mixed traffic won’t work these days with the number of cars on the road. You really need a dedicated roadway and it will not be easy getting people to give up a lane of traffic.”

Do all those cars on the road really need to be there? I don’t think so. Putting in a streetcar would reduce the demand for private cars to travel on the road – it might even make car traffic lighter. Brooklyn is choked by cars and anything that can be done to give people alternatives would be welcome.

Yes, Brooklyn used to have streetcars. Pedestrians
dodging them gave rise to the name of the National
League baseball team, “The Brooklyn Dodgers”, who later moved to Los Angeles. (No i am not making this up.) More cities are waking up to the advantages of
streetcars and light rail, and Brooklyn could do well by going “retro” on this.

robert sourile
st paul mn

Not meaning to dash anyone’s hopes of getting any sort of streetcars to operate in the five boroughs, but the logistical questions of how you get the lines to interconnect so that they can all go to their own dedicated carhouse/repair shop, shall a new carhouse be built or simply repurpose a bus depot, do you use a whip-and-wire system, as the bridge-and-tunnel boroughs did, or a third rail (as Manhattan did), and where do you site the powerhouse for the necessary electricity– all these questions must be addressed in any proposal to bring back the streetcars. It will not do to have a half-fast sentimental plan that will only turn into a way-over-budget-way-way-behind-schedule-never-fully-implemented boondoggle/white elephant that satisfies no one.

Without dedicated lines (no running on the street with cars) buses are a better service. They can be taken off one line and put on another at any time, and they can drive around anything blocking the road.

And regarding pollution – don’t you dare talk about it until you know where th electricity is coming from. A natural gas-powered bus will run cheaper than diesel and cleaner than a coal-fired power plant.

And somehow, the writer has managed to avoid knowledge of the existence of articulated buses. Hard to figure how that is possible.

And on top of that, buses run without track or poles and overhead wires. Which means you can create a new route overnight. Can trolleys do that?

I think that what you said made a ton of sense. But, what about
this? what if you were to write a killer title? I mean, I
don’t wish to tell you how to run your website, however what if you added something
to possibly get folk’s attention? I mean Streetcars for Brooklyn: A
New Life? The Transport Politic is a little vanilla. You could glance at Yahoo’s home page and note how they
create post titles to grab viewers to open the links.
You might add a video or a picture or two to get readers excited about everything’ve written. In my opinion, it would bring your posts a little bit more interesting.

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