Archive for Brooklyn-Queens Connector

Are concerns over gentrification enough to oppose the BQX?

Are concerns over gentrification enough to oppose the BQX?

As the summer heat descends upon New York City, transit news often slows down. It’s an annual tradition, one exacerbated this year by the looming Second Ave. Subway opening and a fall budget proposal that will reinforce another looming MTA fare hike, set to arrive in 2017. But in certain corners of the city, a debate over a transit proposal and its effects on neighborhoods has emerged. In a way, it’s a debate over the future of the city, and it’s a proxy for anti-development forces. But at the same time, it raises some uncomfortable questions regarding transit, gentrification and displacement.

This issue has arisen in the so-called visioning sessions New York City has held on the mayor’s Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar proposal. During multiple sessions, attendees have expressed concerns that the streetcar will speed up gentrification and displace long-time residents. Thus, the plan, these opponents say, should be discarded in the name of affordability.

Both Gothamist and amNY have explored these arguments, and for the sake of fairness, I have to note that those at these sessions have raised more compelling arguments against the streetcar, including the lack of subway connections, its location in a flood-prone area, and the overall concern with the viability of the route. It may not do what a transit line should do — that is, connect people with where they are with where they want to go — and concerns that the streetcar is a giveaway for developers and waterfront tourists rings true.

But I wanted to look at the idea that transit improvements should be opposed because they lead to gentrification. The underlying philosophy here is that areas are home to lower income residents because they are inaccessible. Accessibility increases demand, and an increase an demand means an increase in rent. Thus, to maintain a neighborhood’s “character” and avoid the forces of gentrification, areas must be kept relatively inaccessible (or, at least, accessible only by bus, which exists with the perception that the bus is for poor people only).

This doesn’t work for me. On a citywide basis, one of the challenges to affordability is transit, and it’s been one of my concerns with the mayor’s affordable housing plan. This plan simply does not have a transit component. The mayor can talk about prettying up some subway stations in East New York, but that doesn’t do a thing to decrease travel times and increase mobility. (Whether the BQX itself does that is up for debate, but on a general level, that’s what transit improvements should do.)

But opposing transit upgrades because they may lead to displacement seems to suggest that we cannot solve accessibility and affordability as improving accessibility decreases affordability. Over the years, studies have shown that transit access will be a factor in increased rents and gentrification, but transit access isn’t the only factor. It is, then, possible and necessary to implement zoning and housing policies that can tamp down on the upward pressures transit access exerts on the affordability of a neighborhood and stave off displacement. And that’s what we need to see here. If the city is going to push a streetcar funded by real estate developers who are keen on realizing property value increases, the plan must come with some anti-displacement policies that will keep neighborhoods in tact.

I don’t know where the Brooklyn-Queens Connector plan will go from here. Mayor de Blasio has had other issues on his plate in recent months, and the EDC has been forging ahead quietly. It’s not a route that many transit planners embrace even as certain advocacy groups have lined up behind it. But oppose it on its merits and not on a trumped-up charge that transit upgrades can’t occur in un-gentrified areas because of displacement. The end result of that argument leads to a dead end for increased transit usage, improved mobility and better opportunities for everyone.

Comments (29)
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.

Comments (49)
The Mayor unveiled additional details on the Brooklyn-Queens Connector earlier this week in Red Hook (Photo via Mayor's Office)

The Mayor unveiled additional details on the Brooklyn-Queens Connector earlier this week in Red Hook (Photo via Mayor’s Office)

After days of discussion amongst the transit literati and a short delay due to the TriBeCa crane collapse, Mayor Bill de Blasio held his long-awaited press conference to release more details on the Brooklyn-Queens Connector earlier this week. Despite the pomp and circumstance and despite additional glimpses into the plan, de Blasio’s presser led to more concerns and more questions than the initial proposal had, and the consensus regarding this project and its $2.5 billion price tag focuses around the idea that the mayor has not rigorously defended the real estate-backed streetcar.

The general details we know: The $2.5 billion investment will, according to de Blasio, create $25 billion in economic activity and 28,000 temporary jobs over the next 30 years. It will, he claims, draw 50,000 riders per day (somehow from an area that generally borders water on one side), and while fares will be pegged to the cost of a Metrocard, revenue from ridership is supposed to cover 66 percent of the streetcar’s operating costs. (For what it’s worth, New York City Transit’s farebox operating ratio of around 53 percent is highest in the nation.) As Yonah Freemark noted, it will not connect to L, J/M/Z, N/Q or F trains in Brooklyn or Queens, and it is not yet guaranteed to be integrated into the MTA’s fare system. (That’s a major point, and I’ll return to it shortly.)

Based on the chart below, it also seems as though the Mayor is exaggerating the differences in travel time. Many of these current travel times are worst-case scenarios based on maximum waiting and missed transfers.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 12.06.07 AM

The city hasn’t released detailed models concerning ridership. It’s not clear, for instance, as Katie Honan asked, how many Queensbridge residents work in the Navy Yard or how many Red Hook residents need direct access to Industry City. In other words, the 50,000 daily ridership figure still seems to resemble wishful thinking. Meanwhile, de Blasio is already kowtowing to motorists on the issue of parking, and he claims the streetcar will be so successful that the MTA could reduce B61 service. That’s quite a claim considering a key driver of the streetcar is the way it doesn’t involve the state-controlled MTA (and in fact, Gov. Cuomo is content to keep his hands — and state money — off the streetcar plan). It’s the perfect storm of a mess of an idea that should raise serious concerns as to how the proposal was developed and why.

Meanwhile, across the board, reaction has tended toward the skeptical. The Awl hates it; Gizmodo hates it; and Ben Fried at Streetsblog further elucidated his skepticism of the plan. While I still want to like this plan and support it especially in light of the fact that we need to find lower cost ways to expand the reach of transit in NYC, the questions surrounding the special interests backing it and the fact that this isn’t a particularly transit-starved corridor in a city filled with actual transit-starved corridors are concerning.

All of that said, let’s talk about fare integration. I’ve buried the lede here, but over the past few days, we’ve learned that, as now, the streetcar will not be a part of the MTA’s fare system. Much like the new East River ferry routes that should arrive in 2017, de Blasio claims a streetcar ride will cost the same as a swipe, but he can’t yet guarantee the swipe will include a transfer to or from the subway. This is a fatal flaw in the plan and one that will doom the Brooklyn-Queens Connector to a second-rate transit gimmick that cannot fulfill its ridership potential.

First, the idea that integrated fares are key for network acceptance and use is well established. To a rule, fare integration increases ridership and transit miles traveled, and without fare integration, the mayor will be asking riders of a system built with the promise of serving 40,000 NYCHA residents to pay two fares if they use the streetcar as a feeder to the subway. And nearly all successful streetcar networks work because they are feeders to and from the subway; just take a look at the map of the Paris tram system.

Without fare integration, potential riders will eschew the Brooklyn-Queens Connector for the MTA’s integrated network. These potential riders will take the subway to a bus because that additional fare — today, $5.50 per round trip — simply isn’t part of the economic equation, and in fact, a non-integrated fare defeats the purpose of expanding transit access.

Overcoming this problem is a seemingly simple negotiation with the MTA, but the City Hall-Albany relationship is anything but simple today. Still, without that transfer, this is a streetcar doomed to fail from day one. New York City, much like everywhere else, needs an integrated transit network. We shouldn’t build without one.

Comments (61)

I’m heading out of town to take a few extra days off around the Presidents’ Day Weekend so content will be light over the next few days. I’ll post the service advisories on Friday night, but unless big news breaks, I don’t plan on publishing anything else. That doesn’t mean I’ll leave you with nothing though. We’ll always have streetcar takes.

For your consideration, Yonah Freemark offers up a wary view of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector proposal while Sam Schwartz defends his work. Schwartz, who led the team studying the transit options, explains how his group determined a subway was too costly and bus too slow and insufficient for the area’s transit needs. Freemark, on the other hand, wants to see truly dedicated rights-of-way, free transfers and better connections between a streetcar and other transit modes, and, most importantly, zoning that eliminates parking requirements and allows for greater density along the streetcar route. The problem with hugging the waterfront is, of course, that we can’t build for height in the ocean.

I’m in the process of learning more about the nuts and bolts of Schwartz’s proposal, and while many think this plan is dead on arrival, from what I’ve heard, it seems to have a better chance than most at becoming a New York reality. (Unfortunately, the same may be said for the fatally flawed Laguardia AirTrain, but more on that next week.) For now, enjoy the weekend reading. If anything, the streetcar proposal has thrust the option of light rail in New York City back in the public mind, and hopefully, something good can come of it, whether it’s the Brooklyn-Queens Connector or a better route through a more transit-starved area.

Comments (30)
A streetcar cuts through the rain in Downtown Brooklyn. (Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector)

Once more unto the Brooklyn Queens Connector we go. (Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector)

In the likely scenario that the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, Bill de Blasio’s developer-backed waterfront streetcar, never sees the light of day, an inch of progress, a foot of rail, or revenue service, what happens to the $2.5 billion the mayor thinks he has lined up to boost this project? It won’t wind up going toward some other transit project. As hard as we wish it to, the Mayor won’t come to his senses and fund more of the Second Ave. Subway, the Triboro RX proposal, or reactivation of the Rockaway Beach Branch. It won’t even go to his long-forgotten nine-month old call for a Utica Ave. Subway extension.

As various sides coalesce for or against the BQX, I believe it’s important to recognize this plan as an all-or-nothing affair. As I’ve mentioned before, de Blasio has latched onto it for two reasons. First, follow the money. The developers who stand to benefit — and who could help fund a reelection campaign — see this is a value-add for their waterfront buildings. It helps Two Trees, a company that will otherwise face a massive transit crunch as it builds out the Domino Sugar Factory site in Williamsburg, and it can be billed as an assist for transit-starved areas and neighborhoods lacking in interconnectivity. Second, it allows de Blasio to promote a transit project that his political nemesis Gov. Andrew Cuomo can’t touch or exploit. In essence, that’s the realpolitik of the QBX, and if it doesn’t happen, the money will simply go toward other city services and not some badly needed transit enhancements.

By itself, though, that the money and political will may be there isn’t enough to drive the project to completion. A previous feasibility study focusing on only the Red Hook-to-Dumbo section of the streetcar line [pdf] couldn’t justify the expense, and while this new routing is an improvement with connections north through Williamsburg and into Queens and south past Sunset Park and Industry City, it’s not a top-five corridor in need of better transit and may not even crack the top ten.

As reactions have rolled in, planning and politics have pushed the realpolitik of the money situation and Cuomo dynamic a bit out of the picture. Let’s look at Jon Orcutt’s take. The former DOT policy director and current advocacy and communications director of the TransitCenter offered up this view that a $2.5 billion project isn’t worth the cost:

From my experience, the biggest travel problem for most people is commuting to Manhattan, as straphangers battling their way onto rush-hour No. 4 or L trains will attest. The apparent lack of connections to subways in Williamsburg and an absence of free transfers to the subway and buses could further depress usage. Add it all up, and the market for travel along the waterfront seems far too small to warrant an investment of this size.

There’s a reason the streetcar proposal runs where it does: because it was hatched by developers putting in high-end condo buildings along the waterfront, now incongruously backed by the populist de Blasio. And although supporters are now putting forth arguments about transit access for low-income New Yorkers, most NYCHA sites along the streetcar route are already near subway stops. In fact, the streetcar route into Sunset Park directly parallels D, N and R subway service one block away. Red Hook certainly needs transportation improvement, but executing the city’s plan for a Select Bus route from Red Hook to Manhattan via the uncongested Battery Tunnel would meet the area’s travel needs in a much more direct way.

From what we know about the BQX to date, it is not part of any thought-out transportation strategy. Compare this to London, where light rail was introduced in the 1980s with deliberate planning for an area with no Underground service and for high-speed, completely dedicated rail rights of way. The service was always well integrated into Underground stations and fare systems.

I highlight that sentence regarding a transportation strategy because I said something similar to The Guardian last week. Is de Blasio planning to create a streetcar network or is this single line, with a massive up-front capital investment, all he has since that’s all his developer supporters have requested? It’s a question worth asking.

Meanwhile, as we stray further into politics, the realpolitik comes back into play. A bunch of Brooklyn politicians have more or less decried the streetcar plan because it’s not going into other projects. Mark Treyger, for reasons he probably cannot defend, wants the money to restart F express service; Chaim Deutsch wants to invest in subway accessibility; and Vincent Gentile wants better R train service and a streetcar into Bay Ridge. Conveniently, these three council members seem content to let Gov. Cuomo, the real man in charge of the MTA, off the hook. After all, why should de Blasio invest billions of dollars into something he can’t control that’s run by someone with whom he cannot cooperate?

I’ve said in the past I want to like this project, but it’s starting to rub me the wrong way. We haven’t seen the report defending the ridership figures or investment dollars. We have a map produced by Crain’s New York that’s laughable in its twists and turns, and we have a political fight between Albany and City Hall being waged by a mayor who comes across as the pawns of real estate interests. It’s ugly and not quite kosher. But when the dollars go back into something that isn’t a transit investment, will be worse off or not? That’s the $2.5 billion question.

Comments (58)
A streetcar cuts through the rain in Downtown Brooklyn. (Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector)

The Brooklyn-Queens Connector is metaphorically and physically heading right toward us. (Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector)

After a day of headlines and intense discussion regarding the Mayor’s endorsement of a $2.5 billion waterfront streetcar connecting Brooklyn and Queens, Bill de Blasio’s State of the City speech was almost anticlimactic. His prepared comments contained only a few sentences on the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, and the fact sheet [pdf]his administration released on Thursday was light on details. We haven’t yet seen the report promoting this plan with its projections of 53,000 daily riders and $25 billion in economic activity over some indeterminate period of time, but it’s coming. Or so the mayor said.

“Tonight,” de Blasio said, “I am announcing the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, or BQX, a state-of-the-art streetcar that will run from Astoria to Sunset Park, and has the potential to generate over $25 billion of economic impact for our city over 30 years. New Yorkers will be able to travel up and down a 16-mile route that links a dozen waterfront neighborhoods. The BQX has the potential to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.”

According to the mayor’s fact sheet, the administration “will begin engaging communities along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront this year to develop a conceptual framework and expects to break ground on the project in 2019-2020.” That’s an aggressive timeline considering how Community Boards are structured to say no to everything new, and the city is going to have to line up the dollars while assuaging NIMBY concerns. Even with these challenges and a revenue service date that extends beyond de Blasio’s tenure in office whether he wins reelection or not, there’s plenty of reaction to go around.

First, a few of my random one-off thoughts.

In a way, the tweet speaks for itself. We need to be careful about what sort of infrastructure we’re placing in flood-prone areas and how we can best protect these investments. There is also a more expansive conversation to be had about whether or not city policies should be encouraging more development and growth in neighborhoods most vulnerable to climate change and future flooding.

In another vein, although it’s promising that de Blasio is the first city official in a while to look outside of Manhattan for transit expansion efforts, a mix of valid complaints and New York City parochialism has other boroughs peeved. Staten Island is upset that its five-year requests for streetcars has gone largely ignored, and no one is even considering transit through the Bronx, a densely populated borough that desperately needs additional high-speed, high-capacity transit lines. Even certain areas of Manhattan should be miffed as we’re only a few months removed from Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway being delayed. There are clear class issues at play as waterfront developers fund their streetcar project while East Harlem has to wait longer for a badly needed Second Ave. Subway. In fact, this speaks to the next issue regarding state and city cooperation.

As Jillian Jorgensen explores, de Blasio’s streetcar proposal highlights the tensions between NYC and Albany with regards to transit planning. We live in a city where our local transit decisions are controlled by the state capital and governor. The only way the mayor can bring projects into being is by bypassing the agencies that run our extensive transit network. Thus, a waterfront streetcar that isn’t part of the MTA’s network avoids meddlesome interference from Andrew Cuomo and the other electeds in Albany.

“I’m agnostic on the politics,” Thomas Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, said to Jorgensen. “I’m not a political commentator, but yes, it’s obvious that the city is looking for things that it controls, and it control the city streets.”

Others involved in the planning process see benefits to avoiding state agencies. “Everything is within the city family to do it,” Sam Schwartz, a major proponent of the BQX, said “It makes it easier and faster, and in my estimation probably would cost less, than having the feds involved, the state involved, all these oversight committees, whereas the city has a pretty good process.”

Others were a bit more skeptical of the plan. The Transit Center posed a series of questions New Yorkers should see answered before they embrace this plan. Two stand out to me: “If New York City has $2.5 billion to spend on improving transportation, what evidence indicates starting a streetcar system is the best use of the money?” and “What is the anticipated role of streetcars in the city’s transportation strategy?” It’s not really clear if de Blasio (or, for that matter, Cuomo) really has a holistic plan for improving transportation in New York City or anything related to access and mobility. Is this streetcar part of a bigger plan or is it just a cool idea? These are questions the administration will have to answer.

And finally, over at Streetsblog, Ben Fried unequivocally states that the proposal simply doesn’t add up. He looks at underserved neighborhoods and subway connections, questions surrounding the price tag and fare integration, and what should be the cities other transit priorities to conclude “there’s no way this proposal will deliver on the hype. What we’re going to end up with is a highly-subsidized transit route with modest ridership at best.” His critique is well worth a read.

Ultimately, though, I’m struck with a question regarding our assessment of this project. The transit literati will always have their pet projects and their fantasy maps. Right now, the consensus seems to be focusing around the idea that this project isn’t A-Number-One on the priority list, but it seems to be good enough. There’s a powerful coalition of backers who are willing to contribute the resources to see this through. It may not be great, but there appears to be a need for it. It also solves issues of interconnectivity and mobility between neighborhoods. Is that good enough? So long as other, more worthwhile projects aren’t jeopardized, it just might be.

Comments (136)