Along Second Ave. right now, the MTA is slowly — very slowly — building part of a new subway line at an astronomical cost. By the time Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway opens in late 2016 or 2017 or 2018, the total budget for the four-stop extension of the BMT Broadway line will cost $5 billion. For its money, the MTA will alleviate overcrowding on the Lexington Ave. line, but $5 billion doesn’t go as far as it once did.
Around the country, city planners are looking for ways to build mass transit on top of a pre-existing network of roads. Once upon a time, when cars were not ascendant, cities had vibrant networks of streetcars, and public transportation didn’t carry with it lower class connotations. While DC and Los Angeles are both building new subway lines, most American cities are looking to expand public transit at lower costs. Enter the streetcar.
At Slate yesterday, Tom Vanderbilt explored the streetcar/monorail divide and noted how “the future of urban transportation looks a lot like the past.” In other words, although advocates on either side of the debate have their arguments, we’re seeing a decidedly old concept realized on our city’s streets. Dedicated lanes and grade separations dictate the speed and flow of technology, but the idea that to improve mobility, we must dig underground (and spend billions upon billions of dollars) is one no longer viewed as the Holy Grail of transit planning, if ever it was.
Vanderbilt talks about the monorails at Disneyland and discusses the once and former transportation of the future in the context of today’s urban planning:
Modern monorail partisans insist theirs is a viable, if misunderstood, transportation form.. The Web site of their leading organ, The Monorail Society…, extols successful monorails around the world (Tokyo-Haneda, the Shanghai Maglev, a monorail slated for the Philippines!) and argues their benefits: Safe (with some exceptions), popular, and cost-effective. The failure to spread in cities worldwide reflects, they argue, a sense that they are still “experimental.” It is as if they can’t shake the perception that their moment is not yet here. As Wayne Curtis wrote, “the monorail was twenty years ahead of its time, and it has been mired there ever since.”…
Streetcar supporters counter with a battery of well-practiced rejoinders. They say streetcars are cheaper than monorails. Sure, Japanese monorail systems make money, they argue, but so do Japanese trains. Light-rail—a term that has a somewhat slippery definition, but which I’m using here to refer to streetcars (whether modern or vintage in style) that run short routes with frequent stops at street level—has a proven track record in America and has carried infinitely more passengers. Supporters also claim that streetcars promote urban development—which seems possible if not proven….
In a conciliatory note, streetcar fans acknowledge that monorail is suitable “where nothing else fits and there is a need to connect at least two points of high activity”—situations in which you wouldn’t have to build lots of expensive elevated stations or worry about a lot of network “branching.” And if monorails are haunted by their forward-looking past, a rap on many streetcars is that they are simply vehicles for nostalgia rather than real transportation, “Disneyland toys,” as Randall O’Toole snorts. As a famous article, Don Pickrell’s “A Desire Named Streetcar,” noted, municipal officials have persistently underestimated light-rail construction costs and overestimated eventual ridership numbers. (A later study noted planners had gotten better on rider forecasts but no better on capital costs.)
Vanderbilt notes too a Jarrett Walker piece on monorails and why they’re aren’t widely accepted. “The current generation of urban designers is pretty passionate about the supreme importance of the pedestrian experience at the ground plane and resistant to putting any substantial structure directly over a street,” he wrote in 2009.
In New York City, our monorail is confined to the outskirts of Queens. It flies under highways and over parking lots en route from the subway to the airport. It serves its purpose, but it’s been marginalized. In a city once famous for its streetcars, our light rail network doesn’t exist. Vision42’s version of 42nd St. hasn’t gained serious traction, and the plan to bring streetcars to the Brooklyn waterfront is mired somewhere in the bureaucracy of the Department of Transportation.
It isn’t, though, for lack of trying. During the planning stages of the Second Ave. Subway, the MTA included various light rail iterations in the alternative studies. These proposals included a full-route light rail on 2nd Ave. and/or 1st Ave., a short subway line with a light rail connection to Lower Manhattan and a light rail spur from 14th St. via Avenue D and East Broadway to Canal St. But eventually, any light rail at all was discarded in the screening process because, as the analysis of the alternatives says, of “substantial potential traffic impacts.” The cars that pushed out the streetcars are still keeping them out.
Ultimately, that’s the problem with the way the MTA has approached its transit improvements. We’re paying through the nose to build a subway line because we can’t replace auto lanes with transit. We see extreme NIMBYism when the MTA proposes turning car or parking lanes into dedicated and physically separated bus lanes. We see uproars over bike lanes being installed in residential areas. The car reigns supreme, and no one in planning will challenge its hegemony.
It isn’t necessary to spend billions on an overpriced subway when cheaper alternatives that might require a surface-level sacrifice exist. These cheaper alternatives can bring service to areas of Brooklyn and Queens that aren’t due for any significant expansion of subway service, and they can complement our subway network with ease. But until we’re willing to give up lanes, light rail networks and streetcars will remain, at least for New Yorkers, something we see at the zoo, airports and, of course, Disneyland.