A stubborn city without streetcars

By · Published in 2011

A proper light rail network could redefine public transit in New York City.

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.

97 Responses to “A stubborn city without streetcars”

  1. Marty says:

    Get high quality BRT established and once that’s working and has a constituency and has pushed most of the private motor traffic off the street, convert the street to light rail. It’s the only way it’ll happen in NYC.

    • Bolwerk says:

      It’s also a waste of money. BRT brings only some of the benefits of LRT (possible dedicated ROW) with the added operating costs and capacity constraints of buses.

    • David says:

      Pushing private vehicles off the streets will never happen considering the “outrage” just with bike lanes. Manhattan is plagued with its limited number of north/south avenues. Imagine if the LONG blocks would have been rotated 90 degrees effectively doubling the number of north/south streets.
      Light rail doesn’t work in heavily congested cities since the trains get stuck in traffic too. Plus no more parades crossing 42nd Street with overhead wires.
      This country used to be able to afford subway lines and people weren’t nearly as wealthy. There’s a much bigger problem going on here.

      • Bolwerk says:

        That outrage needs to be kept in perspective. It’s a pretty small minority that gets way more attention than it deserves. Long blocks were a poor planning decision, but we’re stuck with them now.

        I don’t see why parades would necessarily be a problem with overhead wires. Floats might be a problem, but even then there’s no reason wires need to cross every street. Electric rail can be battery powered for short stretches.

    • Serge says:

      Excellent idea. I was also thinking that Bus Rapid Transit is an intermediate step to light rail, by changing traffic and transit patterns and expectations to becoming accustomed to a dedicated transit lane with timed lighting.

      – Serge

  2. One correction: the Newark Airtrain is a monorail, but the JFK Airtrain is a simple driverless metro (with two regular rails). Also, in your inventory of light rail proposals you forgot the Village Crosstown Trolley Coalition. And of course, my proposal for Queens Boulevard.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    Three things:

    1. New York’s cost issues don’t disappear when you downgrade technology. The cost estimate for Vision42, $200 million per km, is appropriate for a subway in most developed-world cities, and stands at 4-10 times the cost range for LRT.

    2. The Shanghai Maglev Train is not a monorail – it’s maglev. The technology is totally different.

    3. Monorails can’t run at street level. Their supporters argue for fenced or elevated systems to provide intermediate-capacity rapid transit; the argument is that monorail technology allows the berms to be lighter and thinner than with regular rail and is quieter – though the same can be said for ordinary driverless metro, including the Skytrain system used on the JFK AirTrain.

    • Bolwerk says:

      I was on the Dusseldorf Underground this summer. I didn’t notice a train on another platform had arrived until I turned away from the map I was looking at and saw it leaving.

  4. James says:

    Great post – it’s absolutely criminal that we’re being forced to build a 2nd Ave Subway when a light rail system covering the same distance could probably be built and functioning for both the same price, and in the same amount of time, as the small segment of 2nd Ave Subway that we’ll have by 2016/17.

    Light rail would make the boring streetscapes of NYC’s avenues infinitely more interesting, and it would provide safety at night during its operation, both for the passengers on the train and pedestrians walking down a street that remains “fully activated” even in the wee hours of the morning.

    • Shabazz Stuart says:

      Interesting post Ben

      However I don’t think that light rail would be appropriate for 2nd avenue, it certainly would not replace the capacity of a full 2nd avenue subway (assuming one gets built). The expense and cost of building infrastructure in New York (and in the United States in general) needs to be examined closely

      But the answer is NOT just to build cheaper infrastructure. In this case, building a light rail that is not connected to the subway system that would travel down the avenue and presumably be affected by traffic signals (like the light rail in Boston) would not relieve the lexington avenue line traffic (it will almost always be faster to take the subway). Also, it would not spur the type of real estate development on the east side that the city is looking forward to.

      And as Alon mentioned, light rail in NYC will be very expensive as well. Just like the big dig in boston, the 2nd avenue subway will be a pain to construct, and then we’ll all wonder how we lived without it once its done. At the end of the day, we might discover that the lexington avenue line is still over capacity, and the light rail is slow and under-utilized, and then the same people who cried about expensive subway construction will wonder why we just didn’t spend the money to build the subway.

      light rail would be great along 42nd street and in parts of the other boroughs (think queens and brooklyn specifically), but light rail will never end the need for subway expansion, as it is a completely different mode of transit.

      One conversation that I would be interesting to have is the relative benefit of building another trunk line in Manhattan vs expanding in the other boroughs. In Brooklyn for example, the Nostrand avenue extension of the IRT talked about for years. In queens extending the 7 train to Bayside is another worthy project. Extending the subway in these locations will be cheaper (not building under bedrock and complex manhattan infrastructure), less traumatic, (away from the politics of the city) and arguably more beneficial since it would extend the subway to some of the suburban areas of the city.

      • Scott E says:

        Perhaps, but people in the “suburban” parts of the city tend to like it that way. 7 to Bayside might make sense, but I don’t think Douglaston, the next community to th east, would want it.

        • pete says:

          Bayside has the expensive LIRR “subway” that keeps the poor out of Bayside. Nobody in Bayside wants to see $2.25 rail transit.

          • ferryboi says:

            Nothing necessarily wrong with that. If I lived in Bayside, I’d hate to see it turn into a carbon-copy of Main St in Flushing. Some of us choose to live in high density, crowded housing with tons of commercial traffic, some of us don’t.

            • Bolwerk says:

              Nothing forces it to become especially higher-density after getting a subway line – and nothing about high-density housing demands “tons of commercial traffic.” In the case of Main Street, it seems to me that the 7 should be extended towards wherever the hell all those people are coming from. It might help de-congest the neighborhood a little.

          • Eric F. says:

            That’s a baffling assertion. Bayside has several bus routes that go through it from other “poorer” parts of Queens. There are some realtively poor parts of Bayside. Also, historically, Bayside was not as wealthy as it is now. I’m not sure how you’d run a subway there, probably under Northern Blvd. from the current Main Street Flushing terminus? Many Baysiders take the bus to Flushing to connect to the train, and if you magically plunk down a 7 line under Northern, they’d probably name the place after you.

            • ajedrez says:

              One question: Does anybody think that it would be feasable to extend the 7 north towards College Point, or south towards Jamaica (maybe ending around Queens College)? Or would there be similar issues with NIMYism?

              Juding by how well-used the Q20/Q44 and surrounding bus lines are, some kind of Flushing-Jamaica rail line might make sense.

              • Bolwerk says:

                For now, no. But I’m only saving that because outer borough subway expansions, which potentially make a hell of a lot more sense than anything that could be done in Manhattan (even the SAS), seem to completely off the table.

              • Alon Levy says:

                Yes, it should be feasible, at normal-world costs. It would also be more advisable than a Bayside extension: College Point has more commercial development, about a square kilometer of developable land on the route, and no LIRR service.

            • pete says:

              Bus service in Bayside? There is no way to get from minority Jamaica to Bayside on weekends without going through Main Street Flushing on weekends anymore after the 2010 MTA budget cuts. Q79 was cut 24/7, Q31 weekend service was cut. Q76 had Saturday service cut (it never had Sunday service). Theres the racism for you.

      • Joe Steindam says:

        While the 2nd Avenue Subway has always been envisioned as a trunk line, it’s hard to call the current plans for the construction a trunk line. With 2 tracks along its route and only one track connection in the works (which puts trains onto another Manhattan trunk line), and no mention of any sensible extensions to the line (whether to the 63 Street tunnel to queens or extensions into Brooklyn or the Bronx or along 125 St), I don’t think the words “trunk line” best describe the project. The MTA might have benefited from picking another place to try such a large addition to the system, because it might have sheltered them from the closer attention paid to Manhattan, and given the Authority more time to get its Capital Construction act together, but the demand for SAS had grown too loud. Plus, the MTA’s track record in the outer boroughs (with the 63rd Street tunnel or the Archer Avenue line) was not stellar to begin with anyway.

        But back to the main point of the article, the issue of streetcars in New York. I would think a big part of the delay in implementing streetcars in New York City stems from our ability to reference the subway as a mode of transit. It is too easy for New Yorkers to see streetcars as a cheap, poor and half-ass alternative to subway service, because we have a grade separated system that offers rush hour wait times under 8 minutes and express routes and 10 car trains, and it thoroughly covers the majority of the city’s dense neighborhoods.

        The proposed streetcar ideas aren’t meant to compete with subway service, rather it’s meant to compliment it. But I really think it’s too easy to come to the conclusion that if NYC already has subways, routes that are busy enough to warrant streetcars should probably have subways instead. It’s certainly easy enough to maintain that logic if you ignore the difference in costs or that the subway system was primarily built between 80 and 100 years ago or that not every route needs a 24 hour system that can discharge and pick up hundreds of passengers in under a minute.

        • ajedrez says:

          I believe there is a connection to the 63rd Street Tunnel Queens-bound.

          • Joe Steindam says:

            There are provisions for one, but not towards the Upper East Side (as that would be unnecessary), so the connection will only come into play if and when SAS is extended south of 63 Street. But I do find it striking that other services (Q, T) are already planned to use the SAS upon completion, but the MTA has not designated a service that will run Second Ave to Queens yet. Maybe a renewed V service when the time comes.

    • Eric says:

      Except that no light rail can come close to the carrying capacity of a subway. Like it or not, the Second Avenue line is sorely needed.

  5. Shabazz Stuart says:

    “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”

    I guess this is the paragraph that I take issue with.

    1) Building a subway could still very well be the most cost effective solution here. Even at 5 billion, the 2nd avenue subway will still be among the most cost efficient transit projects in the country.

    2) We have a mayor and a DOT commissioner who are very progressive, putting in bike lanes and pedestrian plazas everywhere. But there has been a ton of blowback, especially from people in Brooklyn and Queens. So its not quite that people in planning are unwilling to challenge the hegemony of the car, but a society that won’t let them.

  6. Jarrett says:

    Seems to me that any discussion of streetcars needs to be in the context of Select Bus Service. What would streetcars do that SBS doesn’t, or that SBS couldn’t do if operated to the same standard? If there are corridors that need more capacity, then great. But why else? Not clear.

    • pete says:

      The psychological comfort of seeing 2 rails in the ground and knowing it will come eventually. Thats it.

      • ant6n says:

        Not true. This ‘comfort’ can be accomplished for example with next bus displays at the stops.

        I think the actual difference is cheaper operation, higher capacity (than SBS, at least), smoother ride, level boarding (which can be done with BRT, but is not done with SBS), more permanence to the infrastructure (or the perception thereof), a culture favoring rail over buses. Of course it may make sense to keep advancing the SBS network, and possibly convert some of it into streetcar later.

        In this discussion, it should be important to make the distinction between LRT and streetcar. Some LRT lines are pretty much elevated lines – whereas streetcars are always at grade (even if they run in their own lane). It would be somewhat ironic if the 2nd avenue subway would’ve been built as elevated LRT – because then it basically would just be an EL again.

      • tacony palmyra says:

        I think this is the reason New York doesn’t need light rail as much as other cities. New York is the one city where everybody takes transit. We don’t need “psychological comfort,” we just want to get to work (or school, or the store, or the movie theater) quickly. We’re not afraid to take the bus and don’t need to be convinced that transit is the right mode to get us there.

        The idea that light rail is a physical reminder that I will always have a ride is compelling in Portland. It’s not compelling in New York City. I’m not afraid that the buses are going to suddenly stop running down Nostrand because of lack of ridership or something.

      • Al D says:

        Additionally, a light rail would have a dedicated ROW and thus not be subject to the whims of traffic. Plus, it seems that SBS drivers have carried over their bad habits. They regularly miss lights on purpose, slow down on purpose. This doesn’t happen on trains.

    • Bolwerk says:

      The upsides of LRT over SBS are faster acceleration, perhaps slightly better speeds, more capacity for ridership growth, improved passenger comfort, and lower operating costs per passenger.

      The downsides are probably somewhat obvious: you actually have to lay the tracks, store the trains, rerouting becomes difficult/impractical, and perhaps the low-floor vehicles wouldn’t perform quite as well in snow as buses.

  7. Peter says:

    SHELBYVILLE has a Monorail….

    • Scott E says:

      Actually they don’t. But Ogdenville, Brockway, and North Haverbrook, do. But if Springfield doesn’t want it, it might be because it’s more of a Shelbyville idea… 🙂

      That’s what New York needs … some urban competition!

      • Bolwerk says:

        New York has competition. At least places like London and Berlin are seriously taking some of New York’s economic and cultural edge away.

        Within the U.S., even Dallas manages to build fairly extensive rail services. Although, Dallas probably has more independence from Austin than New York gets from busybody Albany.

        • Alon Levy says:

          Extensive, by route-mileage. By ridership, the entire DART network is about even with the Utica Avenue bus.

          • Bolwerk says:

            I know, but you got to start somewhere. Anyway, the ridership besides the point. They’re actually building the infrastructure, and seem to be quite effective at it. Building on streets in NYC shouldn’t be much more expensive than in Dallas.

            A usenet commentator on DART pointed out that one big problem DART has is no say in land use regulations.

            • Alon Levy says:

              An even bigger problem with DART is that it’s all about extending out to the boonies. METRORail doesn’t have any say about land use regulations either, but its ridership per route-km is decent whereas DART’s is a joke.

              • Bolwerk says:

                I don’t see how that’s necessarily a problem, if the service available gets used. Even rural small town rail service isn’t unworkable – though it might be infrequent. Is DART just running empty trains?

                • Alon Levy says:

                  Rural small town rail service can be workable, but not the way it’s done in the US. If you need to construct tracks on a greenfield alignment, it’s almost always a waste of time. Now if non-FRA-compliant regional rail were legal…

                  • Bolwerk says:

                    I’m not aware of it being meaningfully done in the U.S.. Various kinds of suburban services have been done reasonably well, though I don’t know enough about DART’s ridership to know for sure. (Above, I was just praising their ability to complete projects.)

                    • Alon Levy says:

                      DART’s weekday ridership doesn’t crack 1,000 per mile. (Houston’s is 5,000. The NYC Subway’s is about 22,000.)

                      A good example of how to do it, even within US-style freight compliance laws, is in Ottawa. Calgary is a separate example, of how to do greenfield LRT well.

  8. paulb says:

    The Monorail Society implies that monorails are less expensive than railroads. But I don’t see how you switch a monorail from trunk to local lines, local/express, etc., which is trivial for a railroad. Same goes for maglevs.

    I see the gee whiz factor, but modern trains are pretty gee whiz also, whether in light rail or subway or high speed rail form, and seem much more practical.

  9. John says:

    Don’t forget the Seattle Monorail! http://www.seattlemonorail.com/

  10. Or, here’s a thought: Cross the river and take a look at Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Transit. In fact, some New Yorkers can simply look across the river to the wilds of New Jersey and see it in operation. Credit Staten Islanders for a vision of not just LRT, but HBLRT itself into the borough — true bistate transportation.
    And the “supposed” development incentives LRT and streetcars offer are in fact quite real, if you ask real estate agents and developers themselves. Prior to HBLRT, the western side of Hoboken was borderline vacant in many areas. Would development have occurred without LRT? Maybe, but not in the way it has actually taken place. Come see for oneself–then argue that LRT is irrelevant to development (good or bad).

    • SEAN says:

      Well said. Infact take a hard LOOK at Portland OR & it’s MAX light rail system along with it’s streetcar line.

      MAX as of this post has 85 stations with 52 route miles on 4 lines. Several lines are in development with one in preconstruction.

      As for the streetcar, a new loop line encircleing the Downtown, Pearl & loyd Districts is under cunstruction right now. the original line maybe extended south 7.5 miles along an existing ROW.

      The Pearl Districts success as a walkable neighborhood is do in part to the streetcars ability to transport residents & visitors to other parts of Downtown & connect them to other transportation modes. Granted that Portlands small 200′ by 200′ blocks in the Pearl & elsewhere make walking easier, the streetcar plays a roll in as an extention of the street grid.

    • Eric F. says:

      But the Manhattan corridor is fully “developed”. So much so that you can’t do much more development on 34th or 42nd streets. Not that you’ll ever see either, but I think a monorail would make more sense, perhaps perched about 15 feet high off the ground, as it wouldn’t interfere with vehicle or pedestrian crossings, but if the “point” is to block vehicles because, hey, who doesn’t ahte vehicles, right?, then you’d want it at grade I guess.

      By the way, you guys planning on building a light rail vehicle storage yard somewhere along 42nd street in Manhattan? I’d love to see you get that sited, that would be a real fun community board meeting to watch.

      • ferryboi says:

        Never mind finding land for a trolley barn, which would be crazy expensive. Isn’t it all a moot point, since the #7 train will take you from Third Ave/42nd St to the Javits Center in 6 mins? With stops at Grand Central, 5th Ave, Times Square and (maybe) 10th Ave, a trolley/monorail along the same corridor would be redundant.

        34th St is probably a better location since it has no crosstown subway like 42nd or 14th Streets.

        • pete says:

          Maybe its time for the MTA/City to do land reclamation, Battery Park City style. Sell the new land, earn $. You can also sell Central Park for development, its a couple trillion dollars of real estate jk jk

          • al says:

            That could be problematic. Extending the shoreline out out the bulkhead line would reduce the cross section of the Hudson. After Battery Park was built out as landfill, there was, and still is, concern that the landfill altered currents and the riverbed. That scour can be an issue for existing tunnels.


            The current is already above 3mph on strong tides. Any higher and it wills start moving gravel around. Restricting open an channel’s width can also increase water height above and below the restriction point. That might lead to increased risk of flooding, especially as sea levels rise.

        • Bolwerk says:

          It wouldn’t be redundant because of the 7. The 7 is several stories underground and makes a handful of stops. Its purpose is to get people across the river, not across Manhattan. In fact, it’s a rather poor option for getting across Manhattan even when compared to the Times Square Shuttle.

          LRT would quickly make most of the stops buses currently make. Keeping buses around after an LRT gets built might actually be “redundant.”

          • Alon Levy says:

            The 42nd Street bus route has stunningly average ridership – 13,000 per weekday. And before you say it’s because it’s slow and gets stuck in traffic, compare it to any crosstown bus that doesn’t parallel the subway. The M23 gets 18,000 riders, the one-time Pokey winning M96 gets 15,000, the M79 gets 19,000, etc. – and those buses don’t even come close to the CBD.

            • Bolwerk says:

              13,000 per weekday may be average, but is it bad?

              Anyway, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to mention the traffic. However, now that you mention it, it could suck especially badly on 42nd. But I think more likely is the range of destinations for people on 42nd is rather condensed; the heart of the district is the area around Bryant Park or Grand Central. Both are accessible by Subway from four directions, and the distance between the two is easily walkable. Of course, Times Square is important too – and it might be far enough to make either subway or bus fairly good substitutes from the east side.

              I think the Vision42 idea is good: a river to river, walkable 42nd that can be traversed quickly. It should promote economic development too. The M42 seems like a rather poor alternative.

              • Alon Levy says:

                13,000 is not enough to build LRT – what’s sauce for 23rd Street is sauce for 42nd (and let’s say 125th is unusually intractable, which it’s not). What you say about destinations on 42nd I didn’t think of, but it’s not really an argument for river-to-river LRT. It’s an explanation for why transit on the street would not get high ridership, regardless of mode.

                Traffic is not unusually bad on 42nd. The M42 doesn’t always win the Pokey, although it’s the current winner; the award rotates among the M23, M34, M42, and M96.

                • Bolwerk says:

                  Ah, well, I think it would get more ridership if they got their entire plan through – particularly if they managed to loop it to 34th. I’m rather hesitant to use buses as a benchmark for whether an LRT would work. One obvious difference is an LRT with river-to-river access on a dedicated, car-free route could make an attractive crosstown option for people several blocks north and south. The bus is at most a viable option for short distances on 42nd, or as a feeder to subways for those who have absolutely no other choice.

                  Seems to me that traffic is always miserable on the crosstown through routes (14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd, 59th, 86th, 125th).

                  • Alon Levy says:

                    Sure, more people would use it than use buses today. That’s a no-brainer. The problem is that 13,000 isn’t a high base to start from; better starter crosstown routes are 125th, 86th, and 14th-D. Those all have per-km ridership not much lower than the subway, and around twice that of 42nd.

                    • Bolwerk says:

                      I have no serious objection, though my original comment was considering the totality of the Vision42 proposal – not just the LRT. Specifically, the plan that I think is interesting is the 42nd-34th loop. Either way, a major aspect of it is 42nd would be walkable.

                      Of course, another major difference between 42nd and those other routes is that the M42 starts and ends on 42nd. Routes like the 14D dip into the underserved LES. 125th’s routes go all over the place. If we’re only talking a crosstown service over the street alone, performance might be worse than 42nd – and the bus not quite disposable.

                    • Alon Levy says:

                      14th-D is a longer route than 42nd, but it’s still pretty short, and has so much more ridership that it’s worthwhile.

                      125th should ideally never have LRT – it should start as an open BRT, with buses running on dedicated lanes and then branching out elsewhere, and eventually get a subway. But having nothing better than a pay-as-you-board bus that gets stuck in traffic there is inexcusable.

        • Bolwerk says:

          (Response to Alon, moved for threading’s sake.)

          The 14D is probably 75% longer than the M42. It dives deep into the LES, into an area with no rail transit, and ends near the Williamsburg Bridge. It might be a great route to completely replace with LRT – you get no argument from me there. But if only 14th Street gets the LRT (analogous to the most basic aspect of the Vision42 plan) it could easily do worse ridership-wise than 42nd.

          If Vision42 actually got the river-to-river service, it could probably draw a lot of taxi- and maybe even limo-riding UN workers. I don’t imagine those people are especially fond of utterly slow city buses, but a ~10m train ride to a livelier part of midtown could do well for them.

          • Alon Levy says:

            Oh, I definitely agree that it’d be stupid to restrict the line to 14th. Though, the optimal route may be slightly different from 14D – e.g. it would probably end at Houston instead of looping around to the south, since modern trams are bidirectional. This would be 1.4 times as long as 42nd, but has 2.8 times the ridership.

            Color me skeptical of a contingent of people who won’t take a bus but will take a streetcar. Maybe I’m overgeneralizing from my own family, but in New York it seems like people either take any public transportation that does the job, or stick to taxis.

            • Bolwerk says:

              I don’t necessarily believe that “contingent” exists – not a sizable one anyway. However, for the purposes above, the present local bus setup seems pretty undesirable. The M42 seemed as slow, crowded, and uncomfortable as any, as far as I can remember (admittedly, 6 years or so since my last regular use). Maybe an SBS like the one planned for 34th would work similarly well to an LRT.

              I took the SBS on First Avenue once – still had a pretty long dwell time, but it was an improvement I suppose. Definitely lacks the comfort and capacity of a modern LRT.

      • Bolwerk says:

        What’s with all these childish comments from you like, “hey, who doesn’t ahte [sic] vehicles, right?” You do, of course, realize that monorails, nonsensical as they are in a dense urban environment, are as much vehicles as cars, right?

        Buses operate at grade. I guess we should ban them because they block POVs, right?

      • Alon Levy says:

        Eric, off-topic, re: development, you asked on The Infrastructurist if transportation ever has positive externalities. The answer is, it does, but very little. It’s much harder to measure economic development than environmental damage, since the vast majority of development coming from transportation simply displaces development that would’ve happened elsewhere. But Robert Fogel measured the total social benefits of railroads in the 19th century and found they raised GDP trivially, about 1%, when one considers the fact that if there hadn’t been railroads, people would have developed canals and turnpikes better.

        The main social benefits of transit today are that it’s less socially damaging than cars. The same is true for TOD – the only real social benefit provided is that it’s less socially damaging than exurban development in the Poconos.

        • Eric F. says:

          That’s a shocking statement. When I look at what I can — as a rather typical middle class person — accomplish, see and experience through personal mobility in my own life vs. what would have been possible just 100 years ago, I see a complete repudiation of that statement. We are living in different realities.

          • Bolwerk says:

            Why would transit-oriented development take that away? Hell, by reducing the need for the middle class to pour a sizable portion of its earnings into automobile maintenance, it ought to enhance that too.

          • Alon Levy says:

            What you’re missing is that you live in a society that made itself comfortable with the car (and with the railroad before it), and therefore neglected figuring out how you can live without it.

            For example: personal mobility is mainly a question of how many people you can interact with. It matters how much of it you have relative to others more than how much you have in total. In a world without cars – say, a world that were exactly like our own but with no oil – cities would improve their transit systems and build high-rise apartment buildings with large units for the middle class. Total wealth would be marginally smaller than it actually is – just like Fogel found with railroads.

            It doesn’t mean infrastructure is bad. For a few things, absolute mobility does matter – for example, some leisure. I’m happy that if I wanted I could go to the Hudson Highlands. But the social benefit isn’t huge, so for the most part, users should pay. It’s good for taxpayer coffers, and, on top of it, it’s good habit to force the government to think in terms of minimizing costs and maximizing benefits.

            • Eric F. says:

              I definitely see where you are coming from. You simply look at cars as cost layered upon cost and ignore all benefits and argue your way to a car free world. You actually view as preferable a world with nothing but Manhattan densities consisting of mass apartment blocks. That is not utopia. It’s not even a return to the past. People didn’t live that way even before oil was discovered. What an odd goal to have, to want to reach a point where all of society is forced to live in a manner that they demonstrably don’t prefer in order to aggrandize a mode of transport that most people would rather not use.

              • Alon Levy says:

                Um, did you even read my comments? The only forcing I’m proposing is forcing users of infrastructure to pay for the costs they impose on themselves and on others. The world I view as preferable is one where the government spends scarce money on people who need it, and not on people who think that raising their property values is a legitimate social goal. (Thank you, Sen. Lautenberg, for naming megaprojects after yourself and then signing sham studies saying those megaprojects are social goods. I’m sure you’ll be long dead by the time the US has to pay down the debt you’ve amassed.)

                In a city where the government didn’t think maximizing passenger-miles was a good use of taxpayer money, there would still be mechanized transportation. Even Copenhagen has a lot of it – it just learned to build it for an order of magnitude less money than New York. New York, too, had a lot of privately-provided transportation, and profitable publicly-provided bridges, as did many other American cities. The government just regulated them out of existence – partly out of populism, and partly out of belief that it was a moral imperative to get people into cars and out of cities.

              • J B says:

                Great summary of American attitudes: how dare you not let me do what I want, even if it wastes resources and hurts others. If cars have so many benefits, they would not require so many subsidies to compete with mass transit, and mass transit would not need to be so overregulated and restricted to be uncompetitive.

        • Anon256 says:

          Transportation may have few positive externalities to society/GDP as a whole, but it definitely has positive externalities as far as benefiting non-users, most notably the owners of land and businesses that it makes more accessible. It therefore makes sense to have some subsidy for transportation, ideally from local property or sales taxes. Of course, depending on mode and situation these positive externalities may be outweighed by negative environmental etc externalities.

  11. AlexB says:

    When streetcars were invented, they immediately made cable cars, horse drawn buses, and other transportation modes obsolete. They were soon expanded to more than just commuter service, and spawned the interurbans. They were incredibly popular and changed the face of cities. What made the streetcar so amazingly successful in the late 1800s and early 1900s still applies. Electric traction is efficient, clean and fast; tracks in the street are (usually) not cost prohibitive to build; and, trolley wires are easy to install (if not always pretty). Ideally, we’d have dedicated streetcar/light rail lanes in most highway rights-of-way and along the busiest bus routes.

    It is clearly a problem that projects in NYC cost sooo much money. High quality rapid transportation is the glue that holds a metropolitan area together and a city like NY has huge pressing needs. While the existing system is mostly adequate for a Midtown based economy, it is not adequate for utilizing the cheaper land costs outside Manhattan that could allow for a ton more innovative, low-overhead, startups that keep an economy vibrant. Not to mention, moving away from the hub and spoke system would shift more trips to transit. Light rail built in the suburbs would be way cheaper than something like ARC or SAS, for example.

  12. What about elevated lines? All the rapid transit, grade-separated benefits of a subway at a much lower cost, without the stigma of a monorail, and with the ability to branch and integrate with the existing system. The downfall is the noise and lack of light, but given how much we’ve accepted this when it comes to highways and how lifeless parts of the city are anyway (which wasn’t the case a century ago), it seems like something that’s at least worth considering.

    • pete says:

      Unless this is Texas where property rights reign supreme (your problem you didn’t buy enough land for your neighbor to not annoy you), every judge in NY would kill elevateds. If only the elevateds would be expanded…..

      • Eric F. says:

        A modern elevated line can be pretty quiet and fairly airy, I think. The existing elevateds in NYC are an absolute blight on the places they pass over.

        • Joe Steindam says:

          I would advocate replacing an existing elevated structure with the technology of a modern elevated line. Seeing as most of the elevated structures are approaching 100 years of service, their refurbishment/replacement is certainly justified. If you could transform one elevated line from its current state to a modern structure with features to reduce noise and allow more light to reach street level, I think you could help eliminate much of the blanket NIMBY opposition to elevated subway construction.

          If it gets constructed and works out, the elevated structure of the Honolulu Metro (not the driverless aspect, specifically the structure) could be a brilliant tool in the expansion of elevated rail in NYC.

        • BBnet3000 says:

          With all this talk about elevated trains and monorails, I just thought id throw this in the mix (yes, its a monorail, but its a hanging one rather than a “skytrain” style: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schwebebahn

          My gf and I were looking at this the other day and talking about how well it integrates into the street. For my money it causes less physical disruption to the streetscape than even a modern elevated subway would. the piers are well spaced out and leave a footprint barely bigger than a mailbox or sidewalk tree, and this is a system built in 1900.

          Back on topic: It really seems like its all or nothing in New York. The MTA really should explore the possibility of making some of the highest ridership bus routes into light rail routes, ideally fully separated into their own lanes and given complete signal priority. Low floor trains would be nice too, no bullshit like in San Francisco. I see absolutely no reason why platforms should have to be built in the street rather than just boarding islands.

        • Alon Levy says:

          Some els are a blight, some aren’t. The 7 is pretty nice in Sunnyside, though it sucks further east.

        • AlexB says:

          I agree. They could start by replacing some of the old els with versions that are more modern, quieter, lower maintenance, higher above the street, cleaner, etc…

          • al says:

            The TA is slowly rehabilitating the El structures. It usually is a structural necessity that prompts them to do it. The El structure south of Queensboro Plaza, and from the Sunnyside Yards to just east of 32nd pl on the 7 got rivet replacement, some structural repairs and lead paint abatement (not totally). That section is very old and handled heavy traffic. I remember back in the 90’s they were rebuilding the concrete and steel viaduct that runs down the center of Queens Blvd.

            The Culver Viaduct is another example, with the tarps up to catch possible spalling concrete.

            I don’t get why they didn’t rehab the section from Queensboro Plaza to Sunnyside Yards and that curve north on the Astoria Lines. The area adjacent has all these developments slated to or in already in place. In 20 years, that area will have some of the look and feel of the Loop on the Chicago L, or that of the Els in Manhattan in the 20’s and 30’s before their removal.

  13. John-2 says:

    Dedicated light rail seems like it would work best in New York on streets like Queens Boulevard or Ocean Parkway — wide avenues with dedicated lanes of traffic and side roads that can separate the parked cars, turning traffic from the lanes next to the traffic islands, where the underlying rails would be located. While Manhattan avenues for the most part are pretty wide, you still have to deal with the problems of turning traffic and parked cars in the light rail lane(s) or you’d have to slice off 1-2 lanes on an avenue for a dedicated rail line, as many downtown light rail systems do around the country. That’s likely to create as many or more NIMBY problems as the Second Avenue construction (and there’s a reason why Philadelphia buried it’s light rail cars under Market Street and next to its main east-west subway line in the most congested area).

    As far as elevated structures, while the 19th Century el design is both loud and ugly as sin, the recent snowstorms did show they perform better in really bad weather than solid concrete roadbeds. It would be hard enough anyway to get any new above-ground lines built; getting one built that would be out of service in the snow really would be a non-starter.

  14. alexjonlin says:

    The problem with at-grade light rail is that it has a much lower capacity, speed, and reliability than subways. I can see it working well on relatively short crosstown routes, but for a long route like the SAS corridor it would be pretty much impossible to get anyone to take it the whole way.

    • Bolwerk says:

      With a flat fare, it’s undesirable for any service to be taken “the whole way.” The ideal scenario for the TA is to sell each seat again and again.

      Lower capacity isn’t really a problem – it’s an advantage when it means the vehicles can go places subways can’t go. I don’t even see why speed or reliability should be lower with LRT; 20-30mph shouldn’t be out of the question with smart road traffic mitigation. The showstopper is NIMBYs throwing entitled fits about it.

      • Alon Levy says:

        The subway averages about 20 mph. 30 mph is out of the question except for subways with very long interstation distances. Modern LRT does 15-20, with signal preemption and a medium interstation.

      • Anon256 says:

        20-30mph for streetcars in Manhattan is out of the question. Streets in Manhattan are and should be first and foremost for people. The number of pedestrians in crosswalks greatly limits the amount of signal priority that could be achieved, and the need to brake for jaywalkers limits speeds between intersections. 30mph is the absolute maximum safe speed on Manhattan streets (that’s why it’s the SPEED LIMIT), which would lead to average speeds closer to 10mph.

        Streetcars New York City really only make sense (over improved buses) when they could run through into grade-separated infrastructure, like the Atlantic Ave tunnel or unused Nassau St tracks, and on a few subway-feeder bus routes where the capacity of buses in dedicated lanes just isn’t enough. There’s no reason to expect that running on the surface they’d be any faster or more reliable than bus lanes, except perhaps that police cars might be less likely to park on streetcar tracks.

        • Bolwerk says:

          I agree with your first paragraph. The idea of fast streetcars in Manhattan is probably a little absurd. But these are not technical limitations; they’re practical ones. Speed is going to be lower because there would be a stop every block or two. Averaging 10mph is a good speed for 42nd Street. It means crossing the island in under 20m. Buses often move nowhere near that fast.

          While using grade-separated infrastructure is compelling, it’s certainly not necessary. Once you have the infrastructure in place, LRT (even streetcars) do have pretty much every advantage over buses: speed, reliability, energy usage, capacity, maintenance costs. Over dedicated bus lanes or SBS, improved acceleration, higher rider comfort, greater capacity, and faster boarding of LRT are big advantages even without the lower costs.

  15. I was thinking about this last week riding light rail cars (trolleys) through Philadelphia. They zip along on, simply two rails and a wire through the streets, then plunge into the subway-surface tunnel to reach the city center.

    Trolleys, with separate lanes, traffic light priority, etc., would be ideal to funnel people in outer areas like Sheepshead Bay to subway transfer points, or to replace heavy bus routes like the B41 on Flatbush Ave. It’s a solution for cases where subway lines aren’t justified, but where crowded, herky-jerky buses aren’t adequate.

  16. Peter Smith says:

    ‘surface level’ is not ‘sacrifice’ — we shouldn’t be in the business of supporting rapid transit unless we’re prepared to charge people for it. we need to take care of non-rapid transit, first — namely walking and biking.

    after that we can talk about motorized transport of the dignified variety — trains/streetcars/trams/etc. — no buses need apply.


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