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In which The Times discovers waterfront light rail

by Benjamin Kabak

The waterfront streetcar would make for a torturously long ride from Astoria to Red Hook, especially in mixed traffic. (Via Next New York)

As 2013 unfolded and the promise of a new mayor came into view, the Forum for Urban Design hosted a series of meetings on urban development. As part of the forum, a variety of planners and designers submitted ideas for the Next New York. I highlighted one of those ideas — Alex Garvin’s waterfront light rail — in a September post on light rail for Red Hook. It is, of course, an old idea that won’t fade away and could make sense as a speedier connection to the jobs, shops, restaurants and subways in Downtown Brooklyn if the costs are right.

Today, that idea — and the rest of Garvin’s impractical line all the way to Astoria — is back in the news as The New York Times has discovered it. It’s always dangerous when The Times latches onto an element of urban planning as they tend to push real estate interests over transit needs, and their coverage of this idea as a mixed-traffic streetcar connecting waterfront areas that don’t need to be connected to each other follows a similar pattern. This is a Big Idea for the sake of Big Ideas and not to solve a discrete problem.

The presentation comes to us in a Michael Kimmelman column. I’ll excerpt:

There’s a wonderful term for the dirt trails that people leave behind in parks: desire lines. Cities also have desire lines, marked by economic development and evolving patterns of travel. In New York, Manhattan was once the destination for nearly all such paths, expressed by subway tracks that linked Midtown with what Manhattanites liked to call the outer boroughs.

But there is a new desire line, which avoids Manhattan altogether. It hugs the waterfronts of Brooklyn and Queens, stretching from Sunset Park past the piers of Red Hook, to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, through Greenpoint and across Newtown Creek, which separates the two boroughs, running all the way up to the Triborough Bridge in Astoria. The desire line is now poorly served by public transit, even as millennials are colonizing Astoria, working in Red Hook, then going out in Williamsburg and Bushwick — or working at the Navy Yard, visiting friends in Long Island City and sleeping in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

They have helped drive housing developments approved or built along the Brooklyn waterfront, like the one by Two Trees at the former Domino Sugar Refinery. But this corridor isn’t only for millennials. It’s also home to thousands of less affluent New Yorkers struggling to get to jobs and join the work force. So here’s an idea: bring back the streetcar.

The idea of a “desire line” is a literary device; it doesn’t mirror reality. Furthermore, the rest of Kimmelman’s column is replete with contradictions about this streetcar’s plan. Kimmelman opts for streetcars over buses because of “romance,” but and while there’s something to be said about the psychological impact of a streetcar, we’re talking about a half a billion dollars and massive upfront infrastructure needs for a mixed-traffic line that won’t do what Kimmelman wants it to do.

Here’s the question that needs to be asked first: Will the “thousands of less affluent New Yorkers struggling to get to jobs and join the work force” benefit from this streetcar route? What problem is a line near the waterfront from Red Hook to Astoria trying to solve? One Twitter follower put together a Google Map of the proposed routing, and you’ll see that the best it does is provide direct access to the Navy Yard, a decent sized job center in Brooklyn. As passé as it may be, jobs are in Manhattan or generally along subway lines, and this route doesn’t help improve access to subway lines. (It’s also a mess operationally with tight turns along narrow streets that would limit rolling stock length. It also parallels some bus routes, raising even more questions of need and cost.)

While Cap’n Transit believes that any area that could support light rail would be prime for a subway, if costs are lower and ridership falls in between buses and a subway, light could work. As I mentioned, we can’t dismiss the psychological edge they hold over buses, and with the right routing — dedicated lanes that run, say, from Red Hook to the Navy Yards via subway stations in Downtown Brooklyn rather than via the waterfront — they could solve the gaps in transit deserts. But we shouldn’t, as Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen does, love this idea simply because it’s new, romantic or big. Will the ridership justify the costs? Will the service connect to job centers and destinations or provide a faster way to get to New York’s developed subway network? Can we identify a need and support that need based on a thorough study? “Desire” isn’t enough considering how much this will cost.

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John April 21, 2014 - 12:28 am

Great points, glad someone else can call the NYT on this. I think the revival of the Old Rockaway LIRR tracks would better serve the city.
This waterfront streetcar follows the NYT’s other articles in talking up Astoria and LIC as up-and-coming in Queens and of Williamsburg, DUMBO, and Bay Ridge. While all places have seen a lot of development, that doesn’t justify the streetcar idea as “forward thinking” in an ALREADY densely packed area.
Bottom line: there are areas of the city that would profit more from easier connections to Manhattan and/or other commercial areas of the city.

BrianVan April 21, 2014 - 1:16 am

There are a lot of transit projects right now that are worth what they cost, and then some, that aren’t getting built because the various disparate entities of government are either sabotaged financially (the MTA, piggybank for NY State) or corrupt politically (a long string of figureheads who have no interest in transit expansion as a concept but will dump billions into roads, roadway bridges, unneeded transit station remodels, etc.). This is a problem when the networked infrastructure has very large capital costs for expansion… no one wants to get over that hump of paying $5b+ for something.

Maybe a trolley line isn’t a most efficient use of transit dollars, but it’s within the range of a mayor’s checkbook, and that counts a lot for its possibilities.

Any trolley along the Brooklyn waterfront will have crowds on it (tourists and commuters) and I’m sure some Greenpoint and Astoria commuters would fill the Queens section to get to their Manhattan-bound subways. It doesn’t take much to fill a trolley. There are a couple of extremely-large new developments right in the middle of this nonexistent “right of way”, and I’m sure you could justify some upzoning in northern Red Hook if this ever got built. It would also probably raise the value of the Navy Yard and northern LIC, thus raising the tax base and providing additional income (beyond what the city already expects) to justify issuing bonds. When you start doing the tax base math, you start to see the appeal of raising property values for all of these slices of developing land that currently aren’t within 1500 feet of a subway entrance.

If the city is in the position to cut a check for $500M-$1B, I’d rather see it go into a meaningful outer boroughs subway expansion along the original IND plans. But $1B isn’t even enough for that. If this project got built, it could possibly justify itself by connecting some newly-prime real estate areas together, along with some Manhattan-bound subway lines. It may be an enticing enough use of financing on a marginal basis (A billion spent, likely to be mostly recouped, that gets people moving NOW) to beat out more expensive long-range projects that would almost certainly do more for the public in a less splashy way.

At the very least, such spending would be consistent with the history of the DOT, the MTA, and the whole grab bag of other transportation authorities doing business in NYC. It would be almost certainly less of a fiasco than, say, the PATH “network”.

Philip Marshall April 21, 2014 - 1:33 am

There are parts of this I really like (and I’m a fan of rail transit in general, both light rail and heavy rail), but I get the impression that Garvin and Kimmelman haven’t really thought through the details om this. For example, are they really proposing that this streetcar line will cross the LIRR at grade in Long Island City?

Bolwerk April 21, 2014 - 1:34 am

I see a lot of potential mistakes, but broken into an HBLR-like system of partially overlapping routes, it doesn’t seem like the dumbest idea. The track route doesn’t even seem that goofy, if you consider people need to get from these new waterfront developments to subways. There may be a certain logic about bringing people from residential parts of Astoria/LIC to Williamsburg for cultural life, but that means you don’t have a great feeder to subways in from Queens’ waterfront.

I’d mostly just question the utility of expanding growth on the waterfront. Climate change ‘n all.

Nathanael April 21, 2014 - 10:57 am

“I’d mostly just question the utility of expanding growth on the waterfront. Climate change ‘n all.”

This. Put “unimproved” parks on the waterfront where they can double as flood plains. Move everything else *back and up*.

Eric April 23, 2014 - 2:18 am

Flood plains work in river valleys where there is a discrete amount of water to be absorbed. Do they work for global sea rise or for storm surges?

Nyland8 April 21, 2014 - 6:04 am

It’s remarkable how quickly the author strays from his opening premise. “Desire lines” are well trodden paths that call out for becoming paved thoroughfares. This trail is not well trodden – which is not to say that it wouldn’t be given the opportunity. But underlying its premise is the feeling that the Manhattan-centric subway system should be evolving outwardly toward greater connectivity between the “outer” boroughs.

Reenter Tri-boro RX – or ultimately, Quad-boro, including the long-overdue leap from St. George to Owl’s Head.

While those who have followed this issue for some time recognize that part of its genesis comes from the Red Hook sentiment that it is long overdue for a subway connection, I can’t help but feel there is a better way to remedy that historic failing.

Bolwerk April 21, 2014 - 11:38 am

It is pretty well-trodden. The waterfront attracts tourists and locals, and locals need to get to the subway. Triborough RX is a great idea, but does nothing to move people from Kent Avenue on the South Side of Williamsburg to Bedford and North 7th.

Nyland8 April 22, 2014 - 4:44 pm

Really? There’s a well-trodden path from 21st & Astoria Blvd down to Van Brunt & Verona?? Who knew?

Bolwerk April 22, 2014 - 9:56 pm

If you have to employ insipid sarcasm like that, you really don’t understand transit very well. The A Train isn’t designed to bring people from the Rockaways to 207th Street. This wouldn’t bring people from Astoria to Red Hook.

Nyland8 April 23, 2014 - 12:16 am

My issue was with the author’s use of the phrase “desire lines” – i.e. the well-trodden footpaths that call for upgrading. The line that was proposed isn’t. Period.

” … which is not to say that it wouldn’t be given the opportunity.” I think that covers your A train reference.

Bolwerk April 23, 2014 - 10:30 am

What do you think “well-trodden” means? It’s a pretty thoroughly vibrant area these days. People live near the waterfront, and come to it for recreation.

Not saying that makes this an inherently good idea, but there is definitely a need there.

TOM April 21, 2014 - 11:53 am

But Red Hook is a flood plain! You want to dig down?

Quad-boro? The LIRR cut is for freight. A hundred years ago they squeezed in a seasonal passenger-train but gave it up when the 4th Avenue line connected to the LIRR at Flatbush Avenue. The proposed cross-harbor tunnel will take innumerable thru-traffic trucks off I-278 and get local traffic off the streets and onto the highway where it belongs.

Nyland8 April 22, 2014 - 4:39 pm

Nobody is stopping the PA from building “the proposed cross harbor tunnel” – nor have they for the last century!

I think they have ground breaking scheduled for the year 2222 – exactly 301 years after they were created for just that purpose. In the mean time, we can run subways on that stretch for the intervening 200 years. After that we’ll all have anti-gravity suits to whisk us wherever we want to go.

Elvis Delgado April 21, 2014 - 8:03 am

I am very puzzled by the statement that the proposed line would “cross…a bridge to be built across Newtown Creek,…restoring a subway bridge torn down years ago”. Isn’t the only subway crossing of Newtown Creek that ever existed the tunnel that is still in use by the G?

What is Alex Garvin referring to???

Jeff April 21, 2014 - 9:52 am

Maybe he is referring to the old trolley crossing at Manhattan Ave?


Jonathan R April 21, 2014 - 8:39 am

The route goes too close to the water, and why should it detour around the Navy Yard? A streetcar could easily drive right through the Navy Yard.

Richard Grayson April 21, 2014 - 8:44 am

Living in Williamsburg, I’ve gone a lot along this route, from Sunset Park to Astoria, and while it’s sometimes a pain, so was growing up in Old Mill Basin and having to take a 15-20 minute bus ride to the Kings Highway/East 16th St. or Flatbush Ave./Brooklyn College subway stations. While I still hear people in my old neighborhood and other underserved parts of the city wistfully speak of wished-for transit projects, including the RX, the Rockaway LIRR, and extending the subway lines into northeastern Queens and southeastern Brooklyn, I have never heard anyone along this route say, “What we need is a streetcar line!”

This comes from above those of us who take the B61, B62, Q69 buses, the G and R trains, and even the ferries that pretty much were begun to make waterfront travel easier. The new people in the skyscrapers along Kent Avenue and at Queens West knew what transportation was like when they moved here.

I’m old enough to have ridden the last of the trolleys in Brooklyn. They aren’t very fast. The select bus on First/Second Ave. or Nostrand Ave. is faster than a streetcar. Streetcars have to stop for red lights, like buses. You can’t fit as many people on them as you do a bus.

Very rarely do I see hipsters on buses. I’ve had roommates and friends who are 30 years younger, and they are amazed I actually go on buses. (Our native hipsters are probably the exceptions.) For whatever reason, there is something to them that is uncool about buses. Streetcars are cool.

From the Lorimer Street L/Metropolitan Avenue G station and/or buses or the ferry, I have no problem getting to Sunset Park (my downstairs neighbor is a public school teacher there and so commutes every day) or Red Hook or Astoria. Yes, it would be nice to have a faster route to Brooklyn Bridge Park than say, the G to Hoyt/Schermerhorn and the A/C two stops to High Street — after night concerts and plays, I like to take the B25 from its first stop to the Fulton St. G stop — but I don’t think a streetcar would be much faster.

Like the High Line, it would be a tourist thing, and so it could be crowded. How many people would get annoyed if they can’t fit onto the streetcar when it finally comes to their stop?

Alan Minor April 21, 2014 - 10:02 am

Very rarely do I see hipsters on buses. I’ve had roommates and friends who are 30 years younger, and they are amazed I actually go on buses. (Our native hipsters are probably the exceptions.) For whatever reason, there is something to them that is uncool about buses. Streetcars are cool.

I see plenty of so-called “hipsters” on the B48 and B43 routes, which makes sense given that both routes traverse through Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights.

I can’t and won’t speak for the demographic you are talking about, but the idea that “hipsters” deem bus-riding to be uncool appears to be off the mark. Many ride bikes in lieu of riding buses, and many are simply not aware of bus routes.

Adam Forman April 21, 2014 - 10:23 am

I live in Crown Heights and use the B48 and B43 regularly. Wouldn’t say it’s packed with hipsters (a demographic of which I’m probably a member), but there are always a few.

Jeff April 21, 2014 - 10:20 am

I’m old enough to have ridden the last of the trolleys in Brooklyn. They aren’t very fast. The select bus on First/Second Ave. or Nostrand Ave. is faster than a streetcar. Streetcars have to stop for red lights, like buses. You can’t fit as many people on them as you do a bus.

Modern streetcar systems are a totally different beast compared to 50+ years ago. More carrying capacity (3-4 cars in a single train) and can pick up a lot more speed, plus there’s traffic signal coordination to minimize traffic stoppages. And self-powered vehicles means no unsightly overhead power lines.

Eric April 23, 2014 - 2:22 am

Does traffic signal transit priority ever work? I’ve been to multiple cities that claim to have it and not seen much of a difference.

ComradeFrana April 23, 2014 - 6:10 am

Yes, yes it does. In Munich signal priority treatments achieved 20% increase in travel speed with almost 40% increase in reliability. In Prague in two similar segments with separate ROWs the one with signal priority is significantly faster at at approx. 24 km/h average speed than the one (currently) without which manages only 16 km/h.

Bolwerk April 21, 2014 - 12:02 pm

I imagine streetcars in Brooklyn were in pretty sorry shape by the time the last of them extinguished. FWIW, Garvin is not talking about a streetcar in that sense, but modern LRVs maybe operating in mixed traffic. Like buses, they’d be about as fast as traffic and lights allows, but significantly higher-capacity.

The street running ones in Philly seem about on par with the local buses in terms of speed, capacity, and reliability, and significantly better where they have a private ROW. Select Buses presumably stop much less frequently than trolleys did/do, and they do have a semi-private ROW.

Tsuyoshi April 21, 2014 - 4:04 pm

I hate to defend the trolleys here, since they’re kind of sad. But they are better than the buses.

The trolleys in Philadelphia are actually a bit faster than the buses. When you’re stopping every damn block, the better acceleration of electric motors does make a difference. Not that I’m a fan of buses by any means, but this advantage could probably be eliminated through stop consolidation.

And they have higher capacity. Which is not hard to pull off, because most of the streets are too narrow here to use the longer articulated buses like in New York.

Alon Levy April 22, 2014 - 4:25 pm

In Philadelphia, the main benefit of the trolleys is that they feed into the subway. It suck that they’re in mixed traffic in West Philly, but in the most congested part of the city, they run in rapid transit mode.

Bolwerk April 22, 2014 - 9:58 pm

Sucks, but he’s right. They’re still better than parallel buses, though admittedly not by much.

lawhawk April 21, 2014 - 9:14 am

Expanded transit has merit, particularly in underserved areas. This may be a worthy project, but one that falls below Triboro RX or other proposals with limited funds at hand.

Yet, there’s a possibility that a light rail line might create opportunities that Ben hasn’t considered. Take the SF example of the line running along the Embarcadero, the F line. It operates between the tourist areas of Market and Fisherman’s Wharf, while providing access to downtown.

It was a tourist destination in its own right, and it might be adaptable to the Brooklyn situation. Red Hook is a tourist destination in its own right as a hub for the cruise ships, but it has limited transit options. Likewise, the Brooklyn Navy Yard has historical and business ties that could be strengthened with light rail. The same goes for the Williamsburg waterfront.

If the costs could be kept down that meets the needs of the tight radii in Red Hook, this might be a winning operation. It might also open up additional opportunities for transit as people in NYC become familiar with light rail operation and see its merits versus a predominantly car-oriented road design.

Jeff April 21, 2014 - 9:41 am

Projects like Rockaway branch reactivation and Triboro RX simply don’t have enough momentum or political/rider support to get started. The thing about the waterfront project is that the people living in the neighborhoods it serves tend younger and be more riders than drivers, and are more open to alternative transportation options (re: ferries and CitiBike). So I’d think this actually stands a far better chance at getting implemented.

Benjamin Kabak April 21, 2014 - 9:43 am

That still doesn’t address fundamental issues of need and cost though. Just because something has political support doesn’t mean we should sink a bunch of dollars into it without a full understanding of what we’re getting.

Jeff April 21, 2014 - 10:04 am

That goes without saying. The same would apply to reactivating old abandoned LIRR lines too, and just about every other transit project out there.

Bolwerk April 21, 2014 - 12:04 pm

This has approximately zero momentum. Rockaway and Triborough RX have at least some.

lawhawk April 21, 2014 - 1:09 pm

There’s enough momentum for the Rockaway proposal to generate opposition from the people who want to turn it into a park, and preclude economic development and transit to an underserved area. Guess that’s what passes for momentum on a sorely needed transit project (though there is funding for some studies, so that’s something).

Bolwerk April 21, 2014 - 1:19 pm

I guess that is so. But besides that, Rockaway does have pols and advocates who at least want to study reactivation. That, and it’s a no-brainer. At least influential planning organizations seem to want to push RX.

Neither can be said for waterfront LRT, whatever merits it has aside.

Jeff April 21, 2014 - 2:38 pm

You’re right in that there’s no momentum now… But doesn’t mean there never will be. The Red Hook LRT actually got enough momentum for a DOT study, which is already more money spent by the government than on the Rockaway Beach line since the 90’s when they were studying the Airtrain and ruled that route out. I just think this has more potential to catch on due to the population it serves, but there’s a big chance I’m wrong.

Bolwerk April 21, 2014 - 3:05 pm

The waterfront LRT needs a lot of conceptual work before I could see a serious endorsement by anyone. To begin, you pretty much need to pick one: feed subways or be a waterfront line, and it’s torn between the two.

Triborough RX and Rockaway are pretty conceptually complete, and fix a lot of problems. Rockaway should even be *cheap*.

lop April 21, 2014 - 2:53 pm

I think I’ve heard more pro rail on RBB noise since the park group got their funding.

Alon Levy April 21, 2014 - 5:14 pm

What you’re actually saying is “this serves real estate developers.” If you’re looking at where riders live, it’s not the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront, but corridors like 125th, Utica, Nostrand, Second Avenue, and the circumferentials paralleling Triboro. But those areas are already developed, so the developers don’t care.

lop April 21, 2014 - 10:25 pm

The city’s population is expected to grow by a little under one million people over the next fifteen years. Where are there hundreds of thousands of vacant units in the city? Because without them, you need to build new housing, so any project to benefit those future residents would benefit ‘real estate developers’ who are building that housing. There seems to be widespread animosity to this, in NYC and elsewhere, even when new services, say a transit line, are financed at least partially by local value capture. Why is that so wrong?

Alon Levy April 22, 2014 - 7:54 am

The hostility is to the city ignoring areas of existing subway demand and building in areas where it’s also subsidizing developers (i.e. Hudson Yards). I don’t mind the existence of vacant units. I mind the way real estate developers demand that the city spend money to make their investments more profitable. They talk of value capture, but at Hudson Yards the city is forgiving a large fraction of the property taxes, so not only is it not getting any value capture, but also it’s actually forgoing taxes. The term value capture de facto means that the city is borrowing to spend money on things and pretending to be doing something else.

Jeff April 21, 2014 - 9:32 am

I think the benefit of this plan extends past the transportation benefits of having the line. LRT/streetcars need a Trojan horse into the city’s consciousness.

Right now it seems a large barrier to having LRT in the city is that there is no existing infrastructure/equipment/experience in having them. If this idea gains support, actually gets implemented and catches on with riders, the chances that a larger LRT network would be built becomes higher.

And quite frankly, I think the reality of the situation is that the best-case scenario for transit expansion in this city is LRT. Heavy rail is simply too expansive and disruptive to see any major construction here and is more of a pipe dream at this point.

lop April 21, 2014 - 12:36 pm

The first line will carry some one time costs as well, such as converting existing maintenance facilities to work on these new vehicles, or building a new maintenance yard somewhere in the city, and retraining employees to work on the new vehicle type.

Jeff April 21, 2014 - 1:12 pm

Exactly. Everytime a new transportation alternative report comes out light rail is always ruled out with that one-time cost as a reason. The best way to turn that reason around is to get a light rail line built. Then light rail becomes a viable option for every transportation analysis out there.

Benjamin Kabak April 21, 2014 - 1:13 pm

But it would have to be networked. Otherwise those one-time costs replicate throughout the city. If you build this light rail network, what’s the next logical connection away from the waterfront so that you can use the same shops and yards a waterfront line would use? (And where are we putting those shops and yards so they aren’t in Zone A flood areas?)

Bolwerk April 21, 2014 - 1:41 pm

In his infinite wisdom, Robert Moses left us plenty of creative spaces that could probably be used for LRV storage and maybe even light maintenance. How about under here? Probably room for four relatively long trains there. If the structure isn’t too low, there are several blocks of such space ripe for the taking.

I suppose at least one expensive maintenance shop might be necessary, though maybe something could be provisioned relatively easily in the southern reaches of LIC.

SEAN April 21, 2014 - 3:14 pm

Greater Portland OR is expanding both it’s light rail network & it’s streetcar system. http://www.trimet.org & http://www.portlandstreetcar.com. The regional government”Metro,” is in process of updating the regional transit plan RTP for the next 30-years. This includes commuter rail, expanded MAX routes, aditional streetcar lines & maybe BRT.

lop April 21, 2014 - 3:26 pm

In Queens Northern Blvd and Astoria Blvd have been put forward as future SBS corridors. Either would be close enough to the proposed route of the waterfront line to connect them. With Astoria Blvd a lot of the push might be as an airport connector for Manhattan, but you could still run the M60 bus on the same lane. There are some industrial areas along Northern in Sunnyside, perhaps there’s room for a small maintenance yard around there. There are corridors heading to downtown Brooklyn that have been proposed for future SBS as well. Again, close enough that connecting to a waterfront line would be feasible.

Jeff April 21, 2014 - 8:26 pm

Running it down Astoria Blvd towards LGA for one, or towards the Willets Point development to serve well populated and low/middle income neighborhoods that lack options like East Elmhurst and Corona as well as said Willets Pt development… Plenty of underserved areas in Queens.

Jeff April 21, 2014 - 8:27 pm

Whoops, missed Iop’s suggestions above.

Pat Gunn April 21, 2014 - 2:46 pm

And then the best way to turn it *back* around is to get it shut down so space at those facilities and parts and training can be reduced. There’s no good reason to add *or* keep yet another transit mode in our city.

Jeff April 21, 2014 - 3:24 pm

“Yet another” mode? LRT (both the grade-separated variant and the streetcar variant) has proven to be the most cost-effective way to bring rapid transit to underserved areas of cities worldwide, especially to less dense but still well-populated municipalities (such as the outer boroughs). Subways expansion has been proven to take too long and too much money to work, so WHY NOT try something else (and something better than BRT?)

Bolwerk April 21, 2014 - 4:03 pm

If you don’t care about light rail lowering costs, here’s another very good reason: there is nothing between the low capacity of buses and the mammoth capacity of subways, and sometimes the low capacity of buses is wholly inadequate while the mammoth capacity of subways is too much.

Tsuyoshi April 21, 2014 - 4:10 pm

There is a light rail system just across the Hudson River, though. It doesn’t seem to have entered the city’s consciousness much at all… maybe because it’s usually slower than taking the bus.

Herb Lehman April 21, 2014 - 10:05 am

This actually sounds like it would be a great idea if it were privately funded. It might be cool for tourists, and especially for weekenders who want to explore the waterfront neighborhoods, e.g. someone who wanted to check out some art in Red Hook, then go explore the record stores in Greenpoint. Is that worthy of public money? No, but it’s not a worthless idea.

David Brown April 21, 2014 - 10:15 am

I love Light Rail. Living in Phoenix and commuting to work in Mesa, it is a Godsend (I take it from the next to last stop in Phoenix (Camelback and 19th Avenue), to the final stop in Mesa (Sycamore and West Main Street). It is always on time, is extremely clean, and would be a major asset to the City. It is so effective, it is being extended further on Main Street (next year), then in 2016, deeper into Phoenix (near Glendale), and finally halfway into Mesa (East Main Street and Gilbert Road) in 2017. I am very happy NOT to be seeing West 4th Street ever again. The problems are 1: There are too many politicians who are opposed to transit and (or) development (see Brewer, Gail as Exhibit: A), to ever allow this to happen. 2: The actual cost of building it in New York. Think of this: The entire Mesa Project (about 8 to 10 stops) will cost less than one Subway Station (7 Train to the West Side).

John Petro April 21, 2014 - 10:20 am

Your point: we shouldn’t throw money at this until we study the demand and potential ridership… I don’t think anyone would suggest building it before studying it.

New developments at Astoria Cove and Hallets Point, Hunter’s Point South, Greenpoint, New Domoino… We’re talking over 10K new apartments along this line between Astoria and Domino. The Navy Yard and the surrounding area has the potential to be a major job center. Linking the Navy Yard with LIC and a connection with the new Roosevelt Island tech campus would be an economic driver.

In short, if not light rail, at least rapid buses.

Ben April 21, 2014 - 10:33 am

Anyone who has taken the T in Boston knows this is a terrible idea.

Jeff April 21, 2014 - 10:34 am

What’s wrong with the T?

Elvis Delgado April 21, 2014 - 11:25 am

“What’s wrong with the T?” – Just about everything.

But why should that have any bearing on the wisdom (or lack thereof) associated with the Brooklyn Queens Waterfront line?

Jeff April 21, 2014 - 11:46 am

I asked because I’ve taken the T and my experiences were generally positive. But maybe I just haven’t taken it enough.

james April 21, 2014 - 11:54 am

The T trolleys are slow and overcrowded. they serve a similarly young demographic as this LIC-bay ridge line. They are not pretty

Jeff April 21, 2014 - 12:29 pm

The Green lines are basically rapid transit trunk lines and serve the Boston CBD and major transfer points as well. They are also the only way to commute to a few of the major universities in Boston. So no surprises there with the overcrowding and so forth.

This looks more like a feeder line that takes riders to the nearest subway station, so I’m not sure about this comparison to the T. Streetcars will always be slower than subways anyway, but if designed correctly they can serve this purpose better than buses can.

Alon Levy April 21, 2014 - 5:16 pm

Yes, but this does not have a rapid transit trunk; it’s a long streetcar segment. In the Kimmelman version of the proposal it’s also in mixed traffic, which the Green Line isn’t with one small exception.

Jeff April 21, 2014 - 8:33 pm

That’s my point… Don’t think you can really compare them. The Green Line is basically subway lines that they were forced to use LRT on because they simply don’t have the infrastructure.

LLQBTT April 21, 2014 - 11:19 am

This is the connecting service that the B32 isn’t. Not only that, it does indeed connect with many subways, and yet is a discrete transit way unto itself. The problem with buses is that they are notoriously unreliable. I feel bad for the B62 riders. They can wait a minute for a bus or 20! LRT is ultimately better than a street car, but that involves losing parking spaces along this route and once that discussion starts, the knee-jerk overreaction usually kills off the plan or the plan then becomes so compromised as to not make sense any longer.

RB April 21, 2014 - 12:50 pm

I, for one, refuse to take transit advice from people who casually slag the G Train.

Stephen Smith April 21, 2014 - 1:55 pm

This idea is running up against a fundamental geographical dilemma: you cannot connect the waterfront neighborhoods both to each other and to the subway stations, since none of the Brooklyn subway stops are on the water. That and other reasons why this is a bad idea here: http://nextcity.org/daily/entr.....rification

Jeff April 21, 2014 - 8:20 pm

The proposed route would take you to walking distance from the following subway stations:
Borough Hall – 2/3/4/5
Court St – R
High St – A/C
York St – F
Bedford Av – L
Vernon/Jackson – 7
Court Sq – 7/E/G/M
Queens Plaza – E/M/R
Queensboro Plaza – 7/N/Q
21 Street – F

That’s MORE than enough connections to subways for a service like this one.

Alon Levy April 22, 2014 - 7:56 am

Did you see the map of the line? It has to detour to serve nearly every one of these stations. A surface transit line gets noticeably slowed by a single turn, let alone a whole bunch of detours.

Bolwerk April 22, 2014 - 11:27 am

That’s why, if this is done, it would need to be broken into a few routes. Say you’re traveling north-ish from the Navy Yard. Through service to Queens runs could be a straight shot up Wythe or Kent or whatever. One route might loop to Bedford (or even more sensibly, Lorimer/Metropolitan to catch the G too) and then return to Wythe and go south. Probably need a few arrangements like that.

It might not be financially justifiable, but the service area doesn’t seem inherently silly to me.

Alon Levy April 22, 2014 - 4:23 pm

It doesn’t matter how much you broke it. It wouldn’t by itself do anything about the detours, since each of the segments would need to serve both the waterfront and a subway connection or two. If you broke the line along multiple corridors, the frequency would suck too much.

Bolwerk April 22, 2014 - 10:20 pm

Waitwut? Detours wouldn’t be a problem because there would be few or no detours. Small segments would branch from the main line to reach subways and loop back. Mostly routes would share track with another route.

I don’t see any sense in a non-stop trip from Red Hook to Astoria. But LIC to the Navy Yard makes sense. Or Red Hook to Williamsburg.

Alon Levy April 23, 2014 - 2:07 pm

Eh. For LIC-Navy Yard, the most important thing is to build a QBP-QP transfer. Then it’s N/Q to the G with some walking.

Red Hook is of course a different matter.

The detour issue is that if you have small segments branching to reach subways, then the branching will reduce the frequency on each origin-destination pair, making the line less useful. A tree-shaped line is not very useful as urban transit, especially surface transit. Commuter rail, sure, since it’s possible to run branches every 30 minutes on a clockface schedule. But light rail at this frequency is a waste of money.

lop April 23, 2014 - 6:45 pm

Could you turn the G at Queens Plaza? Or did you mean extend a QB local to 179th st/down RBB to make room for the G.

How would a QBP-QP transfer work? Would it be a passageway under QB? Still another quarter mile or so with a few flights of stairs. Then a mile from the G under a highway to the navy yard. That would still take an hour at least for anyone coming from the waterfront in Astoria, and probably not better than Q69/Q100 to B62 today, and this for a trip of less than 7 miles. Maybe light rail is too expensive, but a bus lane down 21st would run close to the F, E, M, 7, G without any detours could speed up that trip.

Bolwerk April 23, 2014 - 7:38 pm

What frequency do you mean? 20 TPH split evenly between two services means the train to the branch you need every 6 minutes. It’s probably trivial for a modern LRT service to manage 40 TPH.

The G is the better part of a full mile from the Navy Yard.

Ralfff April 21, 2014 - 2:04 pm

People say that this is something that is within the City’s budget and not a multibillion dollar project. OK. But how far would ~$450 million go to implement Metrocard acceptance and subway fare equivalence for commuter rail stops within New York City (including Far Rockaway)?. Or that same amount to clear the L turnaround bottleneck or fix Nostrand Junction? I like to blame the suburbs as much as anyone, but the city’s taken part in robbing the MTA of revenues needed to do its job.

Eric April 23, 2014 - 2:39 am

Fare equivalence would increase LIRR ridership and there currently isn’t tunnel space to Manhattan for it, and won’t be until ESA finishes, if it ever does.

William Ronan April 21, 2014 - 2:36 pm

I’ve read a lot of puff-piece transit articles lately and have put together the following list of statements that are required in order to be published in a major media outlet:

1) Derogatory statement about the G-Train (“Ghost Train” “Little Train that Could” “Train that the MTA Forgot”)
2) Mention of “transit starved Red Hook”
3) Use of the phrase “MTA Inefficiency”
4) One sentence must begin with “In Europe” (or “In Denmark”)
5) Discussion of “modern light rail vehicles”
6) Mention of an “innovation corridor” or a “[blank] corridor”
7) Any article about Penn Station must include Vincent Scully’s quote about rats and the use of the term “megaregion”

Alon Levy April 21, 2014 - 2:45 pm

In Denmark, they actually rejected building light rail in favor of a driverless subway.

Louis April 21, 2014 - 3:00 pm

(Ignoring the political backlash) is it technically feasible to build dedicated BRT with streetcar tracks inside. In essence, could this be the beginning of a new Brooklyn/Queens BRT/Streetcar network?

lop April 21, 2014 - 4:42 pm

Do you mean could you take some road space for surface transit, and run LRV and buses in the same lane? Then yes, you can run LRV in mixed traffic, so no reason that you can’t give them a dedicated lane and let buses run there too.


Well, one reason that might come up on some streets I suppose is that you can run LRV in slightly narrower lanes than you’d want to run a bus in, so there might be a street where there is room for light rail alongside a traffic lane, but not a bus lane alongside a traffic lane. Other than that it wouldn’t be an issue unless it was made into one.

Alon Levy April 21, 2014 - 5:17 pm

Yes. In some cities, such as Berlin, the dedicated streetcar lanes also have buses on them, on routes that partially overlap the streetcar network.

Eric April 23, 2014 - 2:41 am

Yes, but why pay extra to construct two modes rather than one?

lop April 23, 2014 - 3:38 pm

Construct two modes? It would be a streetcar lane with the tracks embedded in pavement so that buses could use a single transit lane. Many roads already have multiple bus routes on them for some stretches, if streetcar tracks were only built fully for one of those routes, you would still be able to maintain the other one as a bus route and have it take advantage of the dedicated transit lane.

Kevin Walsh April 21, 2014 - 4:36 pm

Bob Diamond planned a trolley route from Red Hook to downtown over 20 years ago, and actually started laying tracks, but the City pulled its support.



Andres April 21, 2014 - 6:21 pm

IMHO, the line is too far inland (and redundant with the G and N trains) for some significant pieces of the waterfront. It also misses a significant amount of waterfront in Long Island City.

Jeff April 21, 2014 - 8:12 pm

Sure, if you look at a doodle on a map… But its at least a ten minute walk from most of the N and far enough from the G that it doesn’t matter. Plus its close enough to the some of the east-west lines such that it serves as feeder to them. Being too close to the shore would actually hurt it than help IMO. I don’t agree with what you are saying at all.

Syn April 21, 2014 - 7:23 pm

A couple points.

1) I plotted Garvin’s route to the best of my ability (it does lack specifics) in Google Maps. http://goo.gl/maps/Bp1tn Assume that it flies over or burrows under the Brooklyn Battery tunnel toll plaza. Also assume that it plows through a Navy Yard parking lot (I think this was thought out even less than Kimmelman’s). The Williamsburg detour is puzzling, but accurate.

2) There are four problems that a giant line like this is trying to solve: connect Red Hook to the subway and/or downtown Brooklyn; improve waterfront access in Brooklyn and Queens; connect Astoria/LIC to Greenpoint/Williamsburg/Downtown BK – essentially extending and/or circumventing the G train; and improve transit for dense, low-income areas in surrounding neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens (while espoused by Kimmelman, his route seems to go out of its way to avoid said areas)

The benefit, probably the only benefit, to solving all these problems at once is that it will cost less than trying to fix them all separately and join them all up later. However, the need for such a long streetcar line, which would likely be much slower than a bus/subway/bus combo from end to end, doesn’t seem to make much sense.

In keeping with the spirit of the first two proposals, I mocked up my own route. http://goo.gl/maps/m7qMH Since we seem to be in the “drawing lines on paper” stage, I tried to ignore the detailed technical challenges (though it seems plausible). I have separated the total line into four pieces.

The Red Hook-Navy Yard line (in red on the map), seems to be the only one that makes sense to actually build, because it solves a lot of problems without being too ambitious (it’s only 5 miles). Red Hook is connected to Downtown BK and the 2/3/4/5/A/C/F/R trains. It starts out in the NYCHA Red Hook Houses, travels through Red Hook, crosses downtown, passes through the Ingersoll and Whitman houses, and ends up at the Navy Yard. The line seems to have three distinct uses – Red Hook, downtown surface line, Navy Yard – that (I think) might actually be financially sustainable.

The Waterfront extension (in blue on the map) could be added at a later point. I think the main problem with Kimmelman’s approach here is that he decides to place his line on Furman, which not only avoids everyone that lives in Brooklyn Heights, but avoids easy access to the Promenade. There are three entry points to Brooklyn Bridge Park within a 5 minute walk. The line passes through Dumbo, before heading south and linking up with the red line. The Farragut Houses would have a tangible connection with the park a half-mile away that is currently blocked by a million tons of car infrastructure.

I think only the red and blue lines have a chance at being useful. I plotted the yellow and green lines along what I think is the most logical course (albeit with more turns than I like), but I don’t think either of them make enough sense to warrant construction.

Syn April 21, 2014 - 7:29 pm

Forgot to put this in: transit doesn’t need to bring people all the way to the waterfront, it just needs to give them access to the waterfront. I don’t think that ridership and servicing dense neighborhoods should be forgotten in the pursuit of a waterfront line. You can have it both ways. If tourists want a coastal tour of Brooklyn, some guy in a double decker bus will be happy to take their money.

tacony April 21, 2014 - 10:12 pm

with the right routing — dedicated lanes that run, say, from Red Hook to the Navy Yards via subway stations in Downtown Brooklyn rather than via the waterfront

But he’s even specifically stating that this streetcar should not be running in dedicated lanes! This is the worst of both worlds: An expensive project to build a slowly meandering streetcar line that gets stuck in traffic and plies along a corridor that doesn’t have much utility.

Bolwerk April 22, 2014 - 10:15 am

As Tsuyoshi says on this thread and I’ve said others, mixed traffic streetcars don’t necessarily work badly. If traffic is low on the mixed traffic corridor(s), they do fine.

The thing is, I don’t think anyone is intended to take it much further than the next neighborhood or the next subway stop. Whatever it is, utility probably doesn’t improve much with or without dedicated lanes.

Eric April 23, 2014 - 2:44 am

If traffic is low, then the expense of building streetcar tracks is not justified.

(Philadelphia’s streetcars have been there for about a century.)

Bolwerk April 23, 2014 - 10:35 am

They have nothing to do with each other. Car traffic is a terrible indicator of transit demand, especially here.

Nyland8 April 22, 2014 - 5:10 pm

While things like population density, and subway stations, might dictate that the ideal routes go down narrow streets through the heart of the boroughs, the practical reality is that the closer to the waterfront it runs, the less obstruction, and the less NIMBY opposition, it will attract.

I think there’s an awful lot of enthusiasm expressed on this thread for a mass transit system that can be entirely shut down by nothing more than a fire truck, ambulance – even a double-parked car – impeding its progress. If light rail doesn’t have a dedicated ROW, anything can, and will, stymie its appointed rounds.

It cannot detour like a bus can.


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