Two months ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio debuted a proposal for a streetcar line that would link the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts. His announcement was welcomed by many, as it addresses the inequities of travel around New York City. As denizens of the city are well aware, commuting to and from the Manhattan central business district is easy and convenient, but inter and intra-commuting between the outerboroughs is arduous and time-consuming. The streetcar would be the second transit line (in addition to the G train) that does not traverse into the urban core, but rather meanders through the neighborhoods of western Brooklyn and Queens. In addition, it would mark the historic return of streetcar service, which was last provided on October 31, 1956. However, upon closer scrutiny, this reiteration of streetcar service has many shortcomings.
One of the most glaring issues with de Blasio’s plan is that parts of the streetcar line run among mixed traffic. Transportation planners and city officials across the United States often celebrate the idea that streetcars are acceptable only insofar as they are flexible with the environment in which they are built. The prevailing thinking dictates that streetcars should not require any more infrastructure other than the rails that guide the vehicles. Exclusive right-of-ways for transit vehicles are considered unacceptable because they challenge the status quo of an automobile dominated streetscape. It is this planning ideology that is reflected in the latest streetcar incarnation, and which makes the design so problematic.
Well-designed streetcars require more than a set of tracks embedded into the pavement. The underlying principles of great streetcar systems is that they are fast, convenient, and reliable. As Yonah Freemark points out, these basic tenets demand the “[redistribution of] street space away from private automobiles and toward public transit.” The dedication of an exclusive right-of-way ensures that the streetcar can proceed along its route without any obstructions, which raises the operating speed and reduces travel time of the vehicle. Investing more into physical segregation between modes increases streetcar reliability and guarantees regular ridership. There is evidence that the lack of a separated street lane impedes, and even chokes, ridership as seen in the case of the Seattle South Lake Union streetcar, whose ridership numbers declined since its opening. Without the full dedicated right-of-way along the entire line, it is not clear whether the streetcar will exact true mobility in the way the mayor claims.
The design flaws are not the only issues plaguing the streetcar proposal. While it is true that the streetcar will add a more direct route to the subway system’s current hub-and-spoke layout, the areas it serves are not transit deserts. The neighborhoods through which the streetcar runs are already served by multiple subway lines and a plethora of bus services. Furthermore, much of the proposed route runs parallel to existing subway lines. The streetcar would not actually contribute to transit equity because there remain sizeable swaths of the city that lack any form of rail infrastructure, including most of peripheral Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Although Staten Island has a standalone rail line, it is not connected to the rest of the boroughs, which leaves the borough isolated from the rest of the city.
Rather than focusing on the streetcar, the mayor should refocus his attention on other plans that would do more to serve transit-starved neighborhoods and that would foster greater regional mobility. For example, New York’s City Council, citing above-average commute times for the Fordham Road corridor in the Bronx, advocated for a new subway connection that would connect several subway lines. Another project worth exploring is the reactivation of the abandoned Rockaway Line in Queens. Both projects are located in transit deserts, and would provide basic transit service to the demographic groups that depends on it most: low-income and immigrant households, as well as households of color.
About the Author: Allen Lum is a 2016 graduate of the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC. He was born and raised in New York City, and thrives on the constant visual, sonic, and interpersonal stimulation that big city life offers. Allen is a transit enthusiast, which is what brought him to planning school at UNC. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in history at Williams College, and understands the paramount importance of thinking about urban issues from multidisciplinary and intersectional angles. During his time at DCRP, Allen was involved in the Curriculum as well as the Alumni and Career Development Committees, the latter of which he chaired in his last year. He will return to New York and hopes to find work within the area of transit and TOD planning.