Apr
27

Inside the city’s report on the Brooklyn-Queens Connector

By
A streetcar cuts through the rain in Downtown Brooklyn. (Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector)

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.



49 Responses to “Inside the city’s report on the Brooklyn-Queens Connector”

  1. Nyland8 says:

    Without a dedicated traffic-free ROW, travel times can never be reliable. Something as simple as a fire truck can literally shut the whole thing down, because the streetcar can’t leave its tracks. Buses don’t have that problem.

    But of course with a dedicated ROW, the eventual number of people who would use it from Astoria to DUMBO and back would eventually grow quite large – because as the subway system itself has taught us, if you build it, they will come.

  2. John-2 says:

    The narrowness of the North Brooklyn streets means if they want to do light rail, the best option would simply to pick one street and ban vehicles entirely for bi-directional light-rail use, as opposed to the initial diagram, which showed the lines using separate streets for north-south traffic through Williamsburg. Any mixed-use street is just a disaster waiting to happen.

    The other thing is the Queensbridge-Navy Yard time was picked because if you look at the initial mapping for the line, 21st Queensbridge and York Street are really the only two subway stops the line would pass right over to allow easy transfers north of Brooklyn Heights. It would come close to the G and the 7 around Court Square/Vernon-Jackson, but would run a couple of blocks to the west of the Bedford Ave. L stop and well west of Marcy on the J/M/Z. That means for many people a subway/light rail combo will not be an option if the routing stays as it is — they’ll either stick with the current bus route to the subway or just walk it to begin with. For $2.5 billion, they need to do more to insure the line has connectivity to the main form of transit to and from Manhattan.

    • LLQBTT says:

      And those streets, Kent & Wythe, always jam up at certain times, riverside events and weekend nights out as examples.

  3. Eric says:

    US streetcars aren’t transportation. They’re landscaping.

    • adirondacker12800 says:

      Passengers in metro Boston and Philadelphia might disagree.

      • eo says:

        Boston and Philadelphia have very old systems which effectively run as subways. While new light rail has been success in Seattle and probably couple of other places, Atlanta and a few other places south and midwest really qualify for his vivid description.

      • tacony says:

        Both Boston and Philly’s successful trolley lines have extensive exclusive right-of-way including underground tunnels and stations. Are we going to build that kind of infrastructure in Brooklyn? No? Landscaping.

        • Bolwerk says:

          The bulk of Philadelphia’s streetcar ROW is in mixed traffic.
          This isn’t a make-or-break issue. Mixed traffic is obviously not as good as dedicated ROW, but people who prattle about how it can’t work well simply don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. Mixed traffic works as long as the mixed traffic is on the lighter side.

          Basically the same rule applies to buses, fantasies about buses tearing off the road around obstacles aside.

          • Dan says:

            As long as the mixed traffic is on the lighter side… So nowhere the BQX would go, basically. And as far as streetcars that work in the US, most of them are heritage systems that were turned into light metros during the middle of last century, so the important connectors exist in rapid ROWs, with the mixed traffic in the suburbs… and usually then in the middle of a pretty wide street, where cars can maneuver around a stopped streetcar (a la http://images.greatergreaterwa.....1216-2.jpg). Again, nothing like that exists where the BQX would go.

            • Bolwerk says:

              Haha, what the hell? Your picture literally depicts the exact opposite of what you’re talking about. That’s a 2-lane street, not a “pretty wide street” even by the standards of Brooklyn. It’s not exactly suburban either; Philly’s approximation of Midtown is about ~25 blocks away from that point.* Cars don’t go around Philly trolleys in those conditions either. They stop and wait when the trolley stops; your picture even depicts that! Philly also makes cars stop and wait for buses, which in turn makes Philly buses work better than New York buses, which are expected to “go around” obstacles.

              From what I can tell of BQX, 70%-100% of the ROW will be in its own ROW. Of course having 30% in mixed traffic could be bungled, but that’s hardly an unreasonable proportion of mixed traffic for a modern tram system.

              * The picture looks like Baltimore Avenue near Clark Park in West Philly, but I’m not sure. Actually, calling that area “West Philly” may be insulting the white gentrifiers moving in there. So I’ll do it.

              • Dan says:

                I would say that it’s suburban compared to Williamsburg or Astoria, certainly. And the street looks to be at least 60 feet wide, quite a bit more than the waterfront here and wide enough for a driver to straddle the rail tracks with one tire in- one tire out. Also that 70% ROW is, like everything we’ve seen so far about the BQX, a back of the napkin calculation provided mostly by real estate interests, so pardon us all for not believing that until the full alignment is announced.

                • Dan says:

                  *real estate interests in search of landscaping

                • Bolwerk says:

                  Baltimore Avenue is about 43′ wide, curb to curb. That’s a few feet more than Kent (~40′, curb to curb). Other potential ROW streets, like Wythe, are about 30′. Wideness is not good though. Narrower streets can have more people and fewer cars, and these are more condign for streetcar-like arrangements than wide boulevards like Philadelphia’s Girard Avenue streetcar, an utter PIA to drive in and prone to dealing with auto interference (probably still works better than the bus it replaced, but it adheres to roughly the same schedule).

                  Also that 70% ROW is, like everything we’ve seen so far about the BQX, a back of the napkin calculation provided mostly by real estate interests, so pardon us all for not believing that until the full alignment is announced.

                  No it isn’t. What Ben was writing about is an EDC-backed report critiquing the initial Friends of the Connector report. Still preliminary, of course, but far from back-of-napkin work. Not sure who “us all” is (do you have multiple personalities?), but if you’re saying a still-hypothetical project could be screwed up and that’s a reason not to build it, why build anything?

                  • Dan says:

                    Yeah, I perused the report. Just because someone wants 70% of something doesn’t mean they’ll get it, and if you look at their preferred routing, there’s no way they’ll get it given the streets chosen. BTW, did you notice they also propose running with 5 minute headways with an initial ridership under 25000 daily (not the 2035 guess)? Do you think whatever agency runs this streetcar is going to run half-empty trains all day?

                    The point being that no, the ways something can be screwed up is not a reason to oppose anything. But the obvious, logical outcomes of something are.

                    • Bolwerk says:

                      What “logical, obvious outcome” are you taking issue with though? I don’t even see why you’re hung up on the 70% number. 98% dedicated and 2% mixed could still flunk if that 2% is in the wrong place. Conversely, I’d guess Philadelphia’s city transit streetcar trackage is well less than 25% dedicated tramway, and it works pretty smoothly.

                      Those 5min headways project peak frequency, so if they expect initial uptake to be 25k I take it they’re minimally expecting give or take 7k-10k riders during morning and evening rush hours and the rest distributed throughout the day, so…

                      Do you think whatever agency runs this streetcar is going to run half-empty trains all day?

                      …yeah. But that is also pretty normal for a busy agency, I’d think. Not-so-busy Sacramento (?) handles it by never changing TPH frequency, but instead doubles train lengths during peak times.

                      That chart on page 5 also says they intend to drop TPH in half during non-peak daytime hours. I guess that’s about 14 half-empty trains running along the corridor at around, say, 1pm.

                    • Dan says:

                      The report says a full train is 180 passengers. The track is 16 miles long. It takes 3 hours to make a round trip. Meaning there would need to be anout 36 trains on the rail during 5 min. frequency. 25000 riders, even spread over only 4 hours (to say nothing of 24 hours) would give you about half-full trains.
                      And you brought up the 70% thing, Mr hangup.

                    • Bolwerk says:

                      I mentioned a range, not a single number. I’ve seen varying numbers cited, though it looks like this report is backing off from 100% that de Blasio or someone suggested a month or two ago. Of course I prefer dedicated services to mixed traffic as much as anyone, but a change in the percentage that is dedicated is pretty shrug-inducing if you can’t provide a specific reason it’s a show-stopped.

                      I think I actually am reading the described projected outcome less optimistically than you are. I only perused it myself before getting bored, but I took it to mean they prefer “modern generic streetcar” vehicles (what they cite on page 10) of 150 people. 12 TPH frequency implies one or more peak load points in the peak direction of around 1800 people in an hour. Unless average “seat” circulation is very high, there is no way they’re moving an average much more than 3600/hour in both directions – when they say ridership is expected to be 25k/day (discrete boardings, AIUI, not 25k round trips), they’re probably expecting 40%-50% of those boardings in the 3-hour morning rush period. (Evening rushes tend to be more spread out because people leave work at different times and do different things upon leaving.)

                  • tacony says:

                    The Girard trolley is a great example of “landscaping.” It is no faster than the bus that replaced it for 20 years (on a good day when it’s not stuck behind a truck) and ridership is no higher. The scheduled frequency isn’t very good (it wouldn’t even show up on a “frequent transit” map of SEPTA: http://unofficialseptafrequent.tumblr.com/download). The reintroduction of trolley service on the route was done for the sake of nostalgia, primarily to please people who want to see it prattle on down the street but don’t actually ride it.

                    The “subway-surface” trolleys in Philly are useful because of the tunnel. The Girard line obviously doesn’t use the tunnel, so it’s not any more useful than the buses.

                    Regardless, SEPTA’s trolley network is based on decisions made 100 years ago and no one would argue that all those decisions should be made today if not for institutional inertia.

                    The photo Dan posted is definitely Baltimore Ave near Clark Park, for the record.

                    • Bolwerk says:

                      I use Girard now and then. It’s probably their worst trolley city route,* but it doesn’t really perform any worse than buses in similar conditions near as I can tell. People seem to like it, so I don’t see the objection if it’s wanted by its community. That’s not even comparable to the rather fair criticism of BQX: that real estate interests are pushing it. With a dedicated ROW on the wide street it runs on, Girard could be made to work a lot better. Maybe one day they’ll come to their senses and do that, probably at the behest of, *sigh*, real estate interests. I got the impression Girard was intended to be part of a wider resurgence in trolley usage in Philadelphia, including Route 23 restoration, but this keeps getting put off.

                      The tunnel may help the subway-surface routes avoid that kind of traffic – and when work is done in the tunnel and they have to loop to the MFL at 40th Street, they do encounter Girard’s problems – but the conditions of the streets the trolleys end up running on can’t simply be dismissed. If this “mixed traffic doesn’t work” canard were true, the subway-surface lines simply would not work. They are typically two-way, narrow even, and share traffic with a non-trivial number of automobiles. Somehow they work, arguably quite a bit better than local buses even in the same basic conditions.

                      * Philly has two suburban trolley routes too, but I’ve never used them

    • Jeff says:

      Plenty of successful streetcars in the US and elsewhere.

  4. Jeff says:

    Notably missing from your write up, Ben, is that the study confirms that the project funding will be self-sufficient via incremental tax capture. But sure, keep picking points to drive your narrative.

    • I’ve been far more supportive of this project than you insinuate, but even the financing claim is a stretch for areas that are already built up. The 1/2 radius and lowered transit premium would cover costs for construction if capital costs don’t increase. But they’ve already gone up by 40% in a few months. That said, if someone else – Two Trees – wants to pay for this, I’m not going to oppose them so long as the rest of us aren’t saddled with operating costs for a streetcar with diminishing returns.

      • Jeff says:

        Right, so they show actual numbers and analysis to back their claim, and you hand wave it off with anecdotal evidence that you spent two minutes thinking about. Very unbiased.

        • They show numbers that aren’t aligned with reality in other areas that have invested in streetcars. But again you’re barking up the wrong tree here a bit. I’ve been more open to this idea that Streetsblog or Transit Center have been. Why the hostility?

          Maybe this works but a healthy skepticism over a project never hurt, especially when you consider how wrong these same consultants have been in the past.

          • John-2 says:

            The easiest money in the world to spend is Other People’s Money. OPM goes a long way towards explaining the Port Authority’s attitude on the Calatrava PATH Transit Hub. The PA may not be known for being frugal under normal circumstances, but drunken sailor spending mindset took over among their officials and the top pols in New York and New Jersey once they had access to the federal source of income.

            Two Trees would likely be a lot more modest in their assessment of the light rail plan if Two Trees had to make up the cost difference if the project failed to meet revenue estimates.

        • Bolwerk says:

          I don’t see a problem with his coverage anyway, but he doesn’t have any obligation to be unbiased. He tells you what his opinion is. He doesn’t pretend it’s something other than his opinion.

          The problem with opponents of this thing is they actually don’t give a shit about what they pretend to give a shit about: costs usually, sometimes moving people. This does cost too much, but it also moves a lot of people. Those are smoke and mirrors. The real problem for them is BQX is a streetcar and they don’t look streetcars. Or it’s rail and they don’t like rail. Waaaahhhh, Streetcars!

          But the real problem with BQX is less cost and more, why? Sure, people will use it, and they’ll probably prefer it to a bus. Considering normal inflation, it’s probably going to end up costing about as much as a bus per rider for its first 50 years of existence. Not damning, but not exactly a big cost saver, so hopefully it offers some new convenience for riders. But it’s not really game-changing for most riders. I’m not categorically against the project, but there would be much better uses for light rail in this city. A few critics even say as much. My favorite choice is East River bridges to relieve crowded subways.

  5. Joby says:

    Couldn’t they just extend the G train to Astoria on 21st St?
    That leaves out Redhook but touches most of the same route.
    Maybe even turn it east toward LGA or west along the 125th St corridor in Manhattan to facilitate transfers.

  6. Larry Greenfield says:

    If “…the streetcar may carry 48,900 people per day by 2035” means the number of estimated fares, we’re probably talking about 24,450 individuals taking two trips per day. $2.5 billion is an awful lot of money to spend on such a small number of people. Why not just put them in taxis and pay their fare?

  7. Chet says:

    I’m often asked by students of mine why there is no subway to Staten Island. My answer usually comes down to money. There is certainly no technological barrier to let’s say extending the number 1 line to St. George.
    I continue that even if the $10 billion or so, that it would probably cost to build such a tunnel plopped into the MTA’s lap, they would spend it on something else, like the Second Avenue subway.
    Class.. “Why, Mista?”
    Well, class, because at best, about 100,000 Staten Islanders would use that new subway, but several hundred thousand will use the SAS every day. Money usually gets spent where it will help the greatest number of people.
    This light rail line along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront flies in the face of all common sense. As a long time Staten Islander, would I love to see a $2.5 billion transit investment here? Of course. But I’m also a realist…if there is $2.5 billion to spend on mass transit- use it where it will do the most good. Phase 3 and 4 of the SAS sounds like a good place for that.
    I’ve felt that way from the first mention of the BQX. This report on ridership just enforces what most of have thought- it is a craptacular waste of money.

    • AG says:

      What you say is true. It would certainly make more sense to connect Staten Island to PATH and/or HBLR through Bayonne. That would give connectivity to Jersey City and Lower Manhattan. Then another connection to SIRR with a subway tunnel to Brooklyn (which is still the main source of people who move to Staten Island as per REBNY report that just came out this week.. You could probably do both for less than it would cost to build a tunnel directly to Lower Manhattan.

      • Chet says:

        Yes, no doubt connections to NJ and Brooklyn would be cheaper.
        One thing I was looking at- instead of a tunnel to Brooklyn and R line, it would be better to have the tunnel go to around 65th Street where it could not only provide a transfer to the N and D express trains, but be an extension of a possible TriborRX line.
        (That would have made my trek via bus, ferry, and subway to Citi Field a lot easier last night!)

  8. 22r says:

    Sometimes new rail projects are a good way to spur investment and development along underutilized corridors, such as the Expo line in LA or the unmanned Metro in Copenhagen. But the BQX, nearly as a slow as a bus and with no integration in to the existing subway network, seems like a loser.

    • Eric says:

      Plus, the BQX neighborhood already has such high real estate prices that you don’t need to do anything to encourage development. Just upzone now, and everything in the zoning envelope will be profitable to build out.

  9. tenge1 says:

    A related, if slightly tangential, question from a transportation newbie: Has there been a streetcar proposal for crosstown routes in Manhattan? Thoughts on feasibility?

  10. Larry Littlefield says:

    The questions with streetcar vs. bus are always the same. Will ridership be high enough to justify.

    1) Taking a lane from general traffic? Bus rapid transit will do unless ridership will also be high enough to

    2) Fill larger, multiple unit vehicles, which light rail provides, with shorter headways.

    If ridership is high enough, the higher up front cost of the tracks and other infrastructure will be offset by the lower operating costs of the trains. Unless, as usual, we get ripped off with regard to construction.

    • Bolwerk says:

      Meh, you can probably just forget buses here. At least, you can forget BRT-like arrangements. The streets are windy and narrow. It’s not condign to a BRT like arrangement the way long, straight Woodhaven is.

      It’s $2.5B to construct, right? It may be passably acceptable on a per-rider cost basis, but you can be assured we’re being ripped off.

      • Eric says:

        “At least, you can forget BRT-like arrangements. The streets are windy and narrow.” So you’re admitting there won’t be separate ROW for the streetcar?

        • Bolwerk says:

          The plans currently call for mixed usage on some portions of the route. Why wouldn’t I take them at their word?

  11. Able says:

    An excellent plan to finally have modern streetcars in NYC. This should have been done long ago. The insane amount of money spent on the 2nd Avenue Subway should have been used to put light rail throughout the entire city instead, wherever subway lines do not provide adequate service.

  12. Otte says:

    Why not just make the G train full length and increase service; a way quicker solution?

  13. Robert LaMarca says:

    Why not make a light rail car to go over the WB bridge like there used to be. This might even be done quickly enough to help with the L-pocalypse.
    Is the Low Line too far along to use at least part of the old terminal?

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