» 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.