Look, ma! No wires. (Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector)
There’s a table in the city’s assessment of the proposed Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar that drives home the inherent tensions in the city’s plan. Over 70 percent of the expected ridership is going to use the streetcar as they would a bus. That is, instead of connecting neighborhoods in ways that the Mayor has repeatedly said it would, the streetcar will simply be another means for people to get from their homes to the subway and back.
The numbers themselves are stark. Using models that have projected exceedingly optimistic East River ferry ridership totals, the streetcar may carry 48,900 people per day by 2035, but around 71 percent of those are expected to be bound for Manhattan while another 16 percent are likely to be heading toward destinations in Brooklyn and Queens that aren’t along the streetcar route. Thus, 13 percent of riders will use the streetcar to go from one place to another along the waterfront. No wonder then the city is projecting that a whopping 21 people will use the BQX to go from Astoria to DUMBO.
On the surface, these figures aren’t a total indictment of the BQX, but they do little to assuage concerns from the opponents and skeptics that the streetcar doesn’t do anything better bus service can’t accomplish at a fraction of the cost and that the streetcar doesn’t actually serve a corridor where people need or want to go. If 0 people per day need to ride riding from Red Hook to Greenpoint, what’s the point of investing $2.5 billion in a underutilized corridor with little demand for service? And if there’s no free transfer between the streetcar and the subway, fuhgeddaboudit.
There are quite a lot of details in the report that Capital New York provided to the world earlier this week (pdf). We learn that many of the proposed stations are located in the city’s 100-year flood plan, that Two Trees was indeed the driving factor behind the proposal, and that ridership figures seem awfully rosy. We hear about how it’s not at all clear that the streetcar would operate along a 100 percent dedicated right-of-way, a strong negative for any big surface transit investment, and we learn that it could poach significant bus ridership from nearby routes (if that transfer I mentioned exists). These are tensions inherent in a project that, for reasons of politics, doesn’t play nicely with our existing transit infrastructure. And we learn that estimated travel times seem plucked out of thin air and again do not align with the current reality.
As you peruse the report, read through Dana Rubinstein’s continued coverage of the project. She offers up a few key points:
The report also amends several of the assumptions of the project’s progenitors. For one thing, as the city has already noted, the project will likely cost $2.5 billion to build, rather than the $1.7 billion originally projected. It also seems to dismiss any notion of building a streetcar spur from DUMBO to Atlantic Terminal, an idea considered by the project’s advocates, but that the report says would be duplicative and “unnecessarily” complicate the plan…
It would induce an initial 10 percent bump in demand, according to the city, and the study assumes riders won’t have to pay an additional fare to board an MTA subway or bus. (The project’s advocates argue that the induced demand could actually be up to 20 percent.)
The BQX would, the report says, reduce travel times dramatically, though some of the travel calculations used to arrive at that conclusion have raised eyebrows. The report calculates that the streetcar would cut 34 minutes from what it describes as 61-minute public transit trip from Williamsburg to Astoria. But Google maps puts the existing public transit time at somewhere in the 25- to 45-minute range. Similarly, it argues that traveling from Queensbridge to the Navy Yard now takes 59 minutes, while the streetcar would take 27. But Google maps puts the trip by F train from Queensbridge South to Brooklyn Navy Yard in the 45-minute range.
I’m not quite sure what to make of this all (though I could care less that the city may be funding competing niche transit services that appeal to a small subset of people who, by and large, have reasonably decent nearby transit alternatives). I’ve tried to find ways to like this light rail proposal because it may be a necessary step toward finding solutions for the city’s true transit deserts that don’t involve waiting infinitely long periods of time for increasingly expensive subway extensions that won’t ever see the light of day.
Yet, I’m not sure the BQX is the right example to set the table for more. We’re still eight years away from it becoming a reality, if it ever does, and the city can’t really wait that long for piecemeal solutions to an accessibility crisis. Plus, if the city spends $2.5 billion, whether its taxpayer money, Two Trees’ money or some mix of both, and no one shows up, what lessons do we learn? After all, the same company that prepared this somewhat pessimistic ridership report has over-projected streetcar ridership figures throughout the nation.
So we have this idea that’s just an idea. It faces an uphill battle, and perhaps, like Gov. Cuomo’s bad idea to route an airtrain to Laguardia via Willets Point, it won’t overcome the forces of common sense and practicality. Still, the city plans to begin outreach soon with an eye toward beginning construction in 2019. It’s so close but yet so far.