Future Travel: A desire named streetcar


A Brooklyn streetcar roams the streets of San Francisco. (Photo by flickr user phrenologist)

Once upon a time, Brooklyn was the borough of streetcars. Powered by catenary wires, this ubiquitous green cars would take Brooklynites from one end of the borough to another. With the advent of the automobile and the rise of buses, streetcars become obsolete. The tracks were ripped up and the wires torn down.

Now, though, New York officials are making sounds about a streetcar revival in Brooklyn. A few weeks ago while speaking in Toronto, NYC Department of Transportation head Janette Sadik-Khan praised the streetcar revival currently sweeping the nation. Streetcars, says, Sadik-Khan could streamline intra-borough transit while encouraging people to take advantage of their neighborhoods. “In Portland they just started a new streetcar and were able to leverage $3-billion in investment,” she notes. “We need to rebalance the transportation network and make it as efficient and effective as possible.”

Last week, Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic unveiled a very comprehensive study of potential streetcar routes in Brooklyn. Freemark analyzed current transportation patterns in the borough and proposed the following as a potential streetcar route. (Click the map to enlarge.)

It is a very appealing vision, and it’s easy to see how Freemark’s network fits in with my proposed Select Bus Service qualifications. These streetcar lines connect various subway routes at points deep in the borough, and they bring transit to underserved areas. This scheme offers up the option to connect into Queens, and the line terminating at Starrett City could easily extended out to JFK Airport.

There are of course very real objections to streetscars and very persuasive arguments in their favor. This came last summer when we discussed America’s streetcar renaissance. I’ll rehash them from this comment thread.

First, streetcars are clean technology. They rely on electrical power and do not emit exhaust. Buses on the other hand are only at their environmental best when full. Otherwise, they are historically inefficient automobiles. Streetcars encourage development along their routes; they run faster; and they eliminate some congestion by discouraging short-distance driving.

On the other hand, unless a city builds a dedicated right-of-way, these streetcars are beholden to surface traffic patterns. They can’t maneuver around accidents or traffic the way a bus can, and the catenary wires are rather unsightly in an urban environment. With the right-of-way, they aren’t appreciably more cost-efficient than bus rapid transit systems.

As Freemark notes, a streetcar system would require a serious transit investment. It would require infrastructure and rolling stock as well as a drastic overhaul of the Brooklyn streetscape. While we might want to toy with the idea, for now, it just might be a pipe dream

Categories : Brooklyn

35 Responses to “Future Travel: A desire named streetcar”

  1. Rhywun says:

    They’ll be back sooner than you think if there’s any truth to Peak Oil.

  2. Ariel says:

    Catenary wires would be unnecessary if hydrolleys, hydrogen streetcars, are used. Also, if we can make dedicated bus lanes a political reality, there would be no problem in implementing dedicated streetcar lanes.

  3. Lex says:

    While on the BK bound Broadway line over the Manhattan Bridge you can distinctly see the old tracks by Fulton State Park. It’s wild but I love this idea.

    • Mike says:

      Those aren’t streetcar tracks. They’re freight railroad tracks that used to serve the warehouses in what’s now Dumbo.

  4. Rhywun says:

    I see room for another crosstown between 36th Street and 86th Street, like, oh, around 69th Street would be nice….

  5. Brian H says:

    I’d rather see the MTA take a shot at increasing the long-haul ability of its existing fleet by introducing limited-stop crosstown routes – something they could do right now if they could shake free some operational funds. That R/86th to Q/Ave U connection looks appealing, but what good is it if it’s faster by subway via Pacific Street than by crosstown bus or streetcar?

  6. Adam says:

    I’d like to see several streetcar routes, but keep in mind that streetcars are neighborhood transit. I’d rather take a subway between Greenpoint and Jamaica than a streetcar. But between something like Gravesend and Bay Ridge, that’s about as long as a streetcar should get unless it gets, at the very least, its own lanes (and I wouldn’t mind lanes on streets being ripped up and replaced by rails). Streetcars do not operate well in mixed traffic.

    Also, I hope the MTA gets its act together and if they want streetcars to purchase some Avantos, Citadises, or even Flexity-Swifts. I don’t want to see PCC streetcars because those are basically just glorified buses.

  7. john says:

    Once again I do not get it.
    You said ‘first’, but then only gave one reason why streetcars are supposed to be good.

    streetcars are clean technology. They rely on electrical power and do not emit exhaust.

    Completely unlike this bus I guess.

    And of course you didn’t mention that streetcars are completely unable to turn to avoid hazards in their path causing massive delays all the time.
    Can you or anyone give a single reason why streetcars are actually a good idea? Better than a trolleybus with its own right-of-way?

    • Alfred Beech says:

      As mentioned below, streetcars can be hooked together to increase capacity on routes where that’s needed. It’s essentially an expandable articulated bus.

      Streetcars have higher initial capital costs: the cars cost more than busses, and laying the track costs more than, well, more asphalt, but they also last longer and have lower operational costs. Buses wear out in a decade, but the streetcar shown in the above photo was built in Philadelphia in 1947, and ran there from 1947 to 1992, 45 years. The steel wheels don’t wear as fast as rubber, and rails don’t wear out as fast as asphalt.

    • I didn’t mention that? I did write: “On the other hand, unless a city builds a dedicated right-of-way, these streetcars are beholden to surface traffic patterns.”

      Seems to me as though I mentioned exactly your complaints, John.

  8. rhywun says:

    I like trolleybuses too, but streetcars have the advantages of being able to run in multiple units, of attracting higher ridership, of being more permanent (assuming GM doesn’t buy ’em up), plus the several other reasons Benjamin mentioned and you didn’t notice.

  9. Duke87 says:

    Hold on a sec. The T train in Brooklyn? And the “Rx” train? Getting a little ahead of themselves on the subway expansion, aren’t they?

  10. john says:

    @rwhyen, @Benjamin

    Hi sorry I didn’t mean to sound boorish.

    I guess the point I was just trying to make is that people think streetcar are some kind of lighter light rail, when in reality they are buses on steel wheels (which is itself actually a serious problem). Toronto has an actual streetcar system (they never did away with their prewar system). If you go ride it you’ll see, it’s very similar to a bus except that it has a harder time in traffic. East Berlin has a similar setup. I think the romanticization of streetcars will or would go away if people had to actually take them to work every day instead of experiencing them as a tourist trap in san francisco. Torontonians love streetcars that have their own right of way (and they love being smug about things toronto has that other people don’t have), but no-one loves it when the 501 never comes.

    As I reread the post I realize, sorry Benjamin, you basically make my points about it not being functionally better than buses (halfway, at least). And I guess maybe that romanticization is worth something. I kind of wish people would just say it like it is though: people have this mysterious love of streetcars, which is basically the only reason you’d ever put in a streetcar, and there has to be a cost-benefit analysis of whether that’s worth tapping into.

  11. It’s an old school road-based train which I saw on various movies. Anyway, its very useful for the passengers to travel.

  12. Scott E says:

    I suppose a compromise is the trollybus (or as they call it in Philadelphia, a trackless trolley. It’s basically looks like a bus, rubber tires and all, but it’s powered exclusively by overhead electric catenary wires. It has the benefits of being “green” (doesn’t run on diesel/gasoline), while allowing some degree of maneuverability around obstructions. Unfortunately, the tires and road aren’t as durable as steel wheels and tracks, and still suffer the same wear as buses.

  13. Kid Twist says:

    It’s a myth that street cars or light rail (or subways, for that matter) are “clean” technology. You have to generate the electricity somehow and that typically means buring fossil fuels. The only difference is that the smoke comes out of the powerplant instead of an exhaust pipe.

    What’s more, cost estimates for these infrastructure projects never seem to take into account the cost of maintenance and the fact that you essentially have to rebuild them every few decades. This is one of the problems we continue to face with our subway, we all know.

    Before we spend billions on yet another transit system, I’d like to see us maximize what he have using BRT.

    Also, some of these proposed corridors (Avenue U, for example) are just too narrow to accommodate streetcars and surface traffic without causing major jam-ups.

    • Duke87 says:

      By virtue of scale, generating electricity at a huge power plant as opposed to using individual onboard combustion engines can create fewer emissions per vehicle, although not none. And there is something to be said for moving the pollution out of the city which is already choking on car exhaust and into a remote location where it doesn’t bother as many people as much.
      Besides, while most of the electricity in the US comes from coal, not all of it does (Indian Point…) and initiatives are in place to make more of it not.

      Still, BRT probably would be cheaper to implement, and you could also make the buses electric.

      • Alon Levy says:

        If you already have an ROW and electrification, the cost of putting tracks is negligible compared to the savings you get from lower labor and maintenance costs and the fact that EMUs cost less than buses per passenger and last twice as long.

  14. john b says:

    i think one big thing that hasn’t been mentioned is that people are more likely to take a trolley then a bus, even if those people are tourist, it still gets them out of their rental car. i’ve known people who have lived here there whole lives who will not set foot in a bus but they’ll take the light rail in jersey city. just like economists transit advocates can’t ignore psychology. sometimes its not all about the initial cost effectiveness.

  15. Rhywun says:

    The ride is smoother too. Sometimes buses make me a little queasy.

  16. Woody says:

    Rule of thumb: Ridership on streetcars is always about 10% higher than on the bus routes they replace. And replace buses they do, all over Europe. Those stoopid Europeans. What do they know about organizing a livable city anyway?

    The Swiss run streetcars up and down the prestigious main drag, the Fifth Avenue/Rodeo Drive of center city Zurich, and their citizens keep voting to expand the streetcar lines. Likewise in the capital city of Berne.

    And the stoopid French, when will they ever learn? As Railway Gazette reported, last month “Jean-Louis Borloo, the government minister responsible for transport, announced the list of projects selected to receive the €800m allocated to help finance sustainable urban transport projects between 2009 and 2011. The list includes … tram projects totalling 215 km in Lyon, Grenoble, Le Havre, Angers, Brest and Le Mans. A further call for projects will be issued at the end of 2010.” This part of France’s stimulus package, and other programs already underway will add hundred miles of streetcar lines in the stoopid country.

    The early results of the streetcar renaissance in France is described here at Der Spiegel online:

    Space does not permit discussion of trams in Spain, the Low Countries, Eastern Europe, etc.

  17. Pete says:

    The plural of streetcar is streetcars, not streetscars

  18. Adam says:

    I used to be an opponent of streetcars as glorified buses (similar to BRT), but modern, articulated, low-floor trams I have come to accept so long as they have their own right of way. They have WAY more capacity than buses and they don’t swing out into traffic because they’re on rails.

  19. Sam says:

    Other than MAYBE environmental and rider psychological (there are tracks in the street, its real, its gotta come [eventually]), trolleys/lightrail have zero advantages over subways and buses. If you by some miracle have a dedicated ROW, use it for fast subways. Otherwise use BRT/SBS/ or a trolley bus that can get around accidents, and less maintenance because of no rails. and no blocking traffic while picking people up, or a dangerous central island trolley stop scheme. Did I mention streets have crippling 4 mph traffic and trolleys will just make that worse?

    • Sam says:

      If you don’t want ugly wires for your trolley bus or trolley/light rail, the following exists, most trolley busses today are hybrid and have batteries, allowing them a couple minutes of driving time off the wire during an emergency or accident detour or a ripped down overhead wire ahead.

    • john b says:

      but you can’t ignore the environmental or psychological reasons for trolleys. why invest money in a system that you would just have to spend more money on to make environmentally sustainable? why invest money in a system that will attract fewer riders?

      so being able to have a renewable energy powered transit system and being able to attract more riders and neighborhood invests are 3 advantages over BRT not 0 like you claim.

      also streets have 4 mph traffic because of too many cars, build a trolley and get more people out of their cars.

      • Sam says:

        You can run a Trolley off coal power, and you can run a bus off biodiesel.

        MTA uses less than 7% renewable electrical energy right now.

        Recommendation 1. Move Aggressively Towards Renewable Energy Generation
        The MTA should move forward with an aggressive schedule of renewable energy use,
        development and generation, with an initial phase of 7 percent renewable energy by

        Whether or not public transportation uses “renewable energy” is a decision that has nothing to do with the mode of transportation, especially with CO2 certificate and renewable energy trading.

        Investing in a system for psychological reasons is just pork. I want cushioned seats in the subway and on city buses like on commuter rail if your going to be porking it away (screw vandalism), before spending it on a billion dollar railfan’s toy.

        Anyways, the psychological reason of wanting to see infrastructure at the stop can be met with trolley buses, either a Ground-level power supply with a pickup shoe beneath the battery bus, or a good old high visual contrast view spoiling catenary, or an easy digital “minutes till next bus”/location of next bus system, the MTA keeps using off the shelf GPS solutions from contractors that just want $ and don’t care if the system works or not and management is more interested in powerpoints and the sales rep’s cleavage than about the technical details. Permitting railed vehicles into NYC streets is just anti-transit regardless of mode.

        Adding LR/Trolleys isn’t going to magically clear the streets of traffic, Its the same reason building a double decker/more lanes on the LIE is pointless. You make more room for car traffic by shifting people to public transit, within a few days of opening the traffic will be just as bad at rush hour as before the extra lanes were added. Any people who choose to take public transit out of necessity due to congestion will just go back to their cars if given the chance (less traffic). A car is a sign of independence, prestige, wealth, ego, power and privacy/private property/private space in the USA. People want to drive in the NYC, they just don’t because public transit is faster and cheaper. If you make the roads faster, cars became faster than public transit, and more people drive clogging the roads up again until the time is the same as public transit.

        If getting to work a long distance from your home is impossible, then having work a long distance from your home is impossible. You add transportation capacity of any kind, and more people will get jobs further away that pay more/they like more. If its road capacity, it will shift users from public transit until road and public transit are the same in time. Trolleys/street LR suffer from road traffic. If they take cars off the road, new cars will take those places, and people will just be angry on how slow the Trolleys/Street LR are, and its the same speed as BRT or buses would have been or worse because you can’t get around anything.

        Again, what about accidents? What if a Street LR/Trolleys breaks down in the middle of the track/road? How many hours will it take to get a rescue locomotive to the scene? A trolleybus can be pushed to the side by any truck with a bumper, and removed by any tow truck. Any what about dangerous boarding in the street? Street LR/Trolleys don’t pull over. More traffic jams.

        The distinction between Subways and ROW LR is blurry. Even LIRR and Amtrak (this one is the functional definition of Light Rail) can be called Light Rail. What about the River Line, subway (long distances between stations, fixed price fare, no paper ticket collection, no bathroom), commuter rail (soft seats, real FRA railroad, single track, 60 mph operation, mostly dedicated ROW), or light rail (not FRA crash compliant cars, short cars, street running but FRAs can also street run, proof of payment fares, low level platforms (but high-level platforms are the exception in North America, we North Easteners are just too used to them))?

        Street LR/Trolleys are just insane in NYC. Dedicated ROW should be for subways and commuter rail. ROW LR in NYC is a waste of money since no interconnection and no cost savings with the subway system and creating a new division under the MTA or NYCT to take care of ROW or street LR will cause more corruption and management waste than there already is.

        Street LR/Trolleys still have no advantage over BRT or trolley buses in NYC.

  20. Louis says:

    This comment section mirrors all others in this debate. Let’s clear up some things.

    When have you ever been on a street with catenary wires, and heard someone say that the street was unattractive? The fact is that streetcars are street beautification, pure and simple. All streets look better with streetcars.

    Further, there is a reason that people say that BRT is a lead-up to streetcars. It’s because BRT is an inferior product. There is less investment around BRT, and this is deserved, as BRT is less of an investment into a neighborhood.

    Psychology or not, BRT buses are less comfortable than trains. Trains run on tracks, and BRT buses run on wheels on bumpy roads. It’s just that simple.

    If you can get the right of way, and you can, then you should run streetcars, not BRT. And certainly not a subway. Subways don’t run at grade on streets, so they have nothing to do with street right of way. OK? SBS is a fine system, but it is inferior to streetcars in terms of service and comfort. There’s no reason streetcars couldn’t have off-street payment as well, which is the only thing SBS has going for it, and the only thing differentiating from a Limited Bus.

  21. MAL says:

    I don’t know which is more surprising– the map’s inclusion of Brooklyn T stops or its inclusion of a stop on the mythical Rx line.

  22. anonymouse says:

    Who says that maintenance is going to be higher for rails? Sure, road maintenance comes out of a different budget, but roads a a lifespan of what? 5 or 8 years? And buses tear them up pretty badly. Rails have a much longer service life, and railcars also have a much longer service life even compared to trolleybuses. Plus, trolleybus wires really are uglier (there’s two of them, and intersections are a complete mess with pretty heavy special work suspended in the air). And of course streetcars provide a much smoother ride than trolleybuses, and can be made arbitrarily long for very high capacity service. And if they do go for dedicated lanes, with streetcars, they can be made self-enforcing, simply by not paving around the tracks (and putting grass there for example). That’s a big plus, as enforcement has proven to be the biggest obstacle to the effectiveness of the bus lanes we already have.

  23. Absolute_Cuban says:

    Streetcars are a pain. In Philadelphia they retired them. When it rains its dangerous to drive over on the tracks. When it snows they would get stuck. and if you were driving behind a streetcar and the trolley was stuck in front , you were stuck for hours. Streetcars are a thing of the past. I say no to streetcars…


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