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.
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.
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.
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:
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. —