The geography of New York City makes for some strange transportation bedfellows. Manhattan — a long, narrow island — contains a lot of key job centers and is the house of city government while Brooklyn and Queens, as close neighbors, are home to a combined 4.7 million people. Yet, it’s relatively easy to take a train into Manhattan and relatively painful to travel between the counties of Kings and Queens. That’s a problem.
Every now and then, this transit imbalance takes center stage for a few days. On and off for the past few years, the Pratt Center has tried to fight for better interborough travel options, and the G train remains an object of scorn and derision. Yet, true Select Bus Routes between Queens and Brooklyn remain elusive, and plans to build subway connections died along with the rest of the Second System in the 1930s.
For many New Yorkers, they why of it all is elusive. In 2013, it’s viewed as a great failing that there is no quick way to get from Forest Hills or Astoria to Downtown Brooklyn or Park Slope, that the best transit route from Coney Island to Flushing involves hours of travel through three boroughs. Yet, these patterns have their roots in the history of the city’s economic development and transit policy, and yesterday, at The Atlantic Cities, Richard Greenwald, a history professor at St. Joseph’s College, offered up a brief history of the tortured connections. Here’s his take:
In the beginning, the New York City subway system, as historian Clifton Hood details in his masterful book, 722 Miles, was a commuter line. As such, it was designed to bring people to where the jobs were, and that meant Manhattan. So all subway routes lead there…While the subway got people from the outer boroughs into Manhattan, the once-vast trolley system of New York connected the residents of Queens to Brooklyn…
The demise of the trolleys in the late 1930s and ’40s seems to be largely responsible for disconnecting the two sister boroughs. Yes, they were replaced by buses, but buses have never — for a number of reasons — been able to cement the connection the way trolleys seemed to.
Starting in the 1920s, a company called National City Lines started buying up street car lines, then mostly privately owned. In 1936, the company became a holding company owned equally by General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, and Phillips Petroleum. Perhaps you can guess where this is going. NCL bought up trolley systems in over 40 cities and 15 states, converting them almost overnight into bus lines. In 1947, they were indicted in federal court, in what became known as the “Great American Streetcar Scandal.” Two years later, the four original companies who owned NCL, along with MAC Truck, were found guilty of conspiracy to monopolize mass transit. But by then the damage was done. Most of the nation’s streetcar system was in junkyards, replaced by buses.
Outside of the streetcar conspiracies, Greenwald points his fingers at the social stigma attached to buses as a reason why the trolley connections were cut. “In the outer boroughs of New York, trolleys had acted as a primary mode of transportation,” he said. “Buses, on the other-hand, were tertiary, connecting commuters first-and-foremost to subway lines.” That’s not quite accurate though as the current Brooklyn bus map and the old trolley map look awfully similar. At ground level, at least, it’s no harder or easier to travel between Brooklyn and Queens than it was 80 years ago.
What happened were social shifts. Up until the last decade or so, few people noticed the poor quality of transit connections between Brooklyn and Queens because no one wanted to travel between these two boroughs. As gentrification took hold though, suddenly, middle/upper class neighborhoods were disconnected. It’s easy to travel from East New York to Jamaica or the Rockaways via the IND Fulton Line. It’s not easy to get from South Slope to Forest Hills without a arduous slow ride through Manhattan on the F train. Neighborhoods eight miles apart may as well be in different cities.
Fixes for this problem are not easy to identify. Even the long lost Second System wouldn’t have materially improved connections between Brooklyn and Queens. We instead need something as creative and fanciful as Vanshookenraggen’s Franklin Ave. Shuttle extension (or the entirety of his Second System plans). Such plans, though, require money to be no obstacle, and for the foreseeable future, money is an obstacle.
In the meantime, a better Select Bus Service would do the trick with a focus on interborough connections between neighborhoods that are current disconnected. Of course, SBS takes literally years of planning and is fraught with its own problems. Meanwhile, as jobs migrate from Manhattan to centers in Brooklyn and Queens, the Outer Boroughs remain frustratingly disconnected, a victim of the history of the economic growth and centralization of Manhattan and a lack of foresight by politicians over the past 100 years. It’s a rather familiar story after all.