Home Brooklyn Is the waterfront streetcar a solution looking for a problem?

Is the waterfront streetcar a solution looking for a problem?

by Benjamin Kabak

In my write-up of Michael Kimmelman’s Times column on the Brooklyn-Queens streetcar route, I posed a question that would be answered by any study examining this proposal: What problem does this light rail/streetcar line solve? Intuitively, it seemed as though the biggest problems were at either ends of the line — Red Hook and Astoria — and the idea of an interconnected waterfront was otherwise a developer’s dream masquerading as a solution to something that isn’t actually a problem.

One of the bigger issues with The Times’ proposal is how the routing doesn’t connect to subways. While Alex Garvin’s original plan brought the streetcar through Downtown Brooklyn, Kimmelman swung west, away from badly needed subway connections and instead tightly hugging the waterfront. The Times scribe claims this will help serve areas that are “inaccessible” or served “barely” by the G train, referred to in the article as “the city’s sorriest little railroad.” It’s not clear how a low-capacity streetcar running at slower speeds will be better than even the much-maligned G train, but that’s besides the point for these so-called “desire lines.”

One of the biggest issues though with Kimmelman’s argument is that most of the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront isn’t really that far away from the nearest subway (let alone feeder bus routes). I did some radius mapping tonight of the waterfront and various other areas in Brooklyn and Queens, and the resulting images are instructive. I cannot unfortunately embed the map so you’re stuck with some images. Take a look at what happens when you chart areas that are more than half a mile away from the nearest subway.

In Brooklyn, Red Hook and Navy Yards are far from the subway.

In Queens, parts of Astoria are a trek away from the nearest subway stop.

If we’re truly concerned about getting people from transit deserts to jobs, then there are three discrete problems: The Navy Yards, an actual job center, isn’t close to transit while Red Hook, where low income housing dominates, is physically and psychologically isolated. Finally, in Astoria, parts of the waterfront are far from the N and Q trains, but there is an area where a ferry would make more sense as a lesser cost option.

The truth is the waterfront is not, by and large, without access to transit, and the G train, as scorned as it is, provides an adequate crosstown connection. A shorter streetcar route could help solve Red Hook’s problems and make the Navy Yards more attractive; a long streetcar that snakes past luxury developments that are a 10-minute walk from the nearest subway seems like more of a bonus for developers than a solution to a problem. But it’s still worth studying, objectively and thoroughly, and then when we have cost estimates and ridership projections, we can talk. As an object of desire though, it leaves much to be desired.

* * *

For fun (?), I have two more screenshots of the radius maps. Take a look at South Brooklyn and Eastern Queens. Forget desire lines and the developing waterfront; these are massive areas of the two most populous boroughs where the nearest subway connections are miles away. No one seems interested in solving that problem though.

Lots of highways but no subways for eastern Queens.

Forget about catching the train in South Brooklyn (or East New York for that matter).

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Pat Gunn April 22, 2014 - 12:20 am

The G isn’t really adequate (it’s infrequent, unpleasant, and has poor connections to other lines), but the solution to that isn’t to create a new, slow, redundant system that requires entirely different infrastructure. Finding a way to hook the G into Atlantic-Pacific and/or making more non-Manhattan lines would do a lot of good. Either way, we need more subway, not experiments with a third, slower means of transit.

Jeff April 22, 2014 - 8:56 am

Everyone knows we need more subways, but it ain’t happening in this city anymore. Too expensive, takes too long for results to show, and too much construction disruption for NIMBYs to take.

Bolwerk April 22, 2014 - 10:27 am

Everything is too expensive, and instead of addressing that advocates fall for fantasy subway substitutes like monorails and BRT (rarely, LRT falls into this category too). Next to everything else, BRT is comparatively affordable, at least up front, but the impact is comparably slight too.

And the time taken to build things is ridiculous. In the time it took the B44 to be completed, many cities could have had a subway. And that was a subway-ready corridor.

SEAN April 22, 2014 - 11:39 am

Slight disagreement – there is a place for LRT in NYC even if the waterfront isn’t it. The issue is SBS arangement doesn’t solve the most importent issues namely capasity as stated over & over as well as the fact that no matter how you spin it, it’s still slower than LRT & heavy rail. Besides if it’s so successful, why are cities across the globe in process of replacing it with LRT or something else?

Bolwerk April 22, 2014 - 12:07 pm

Frankly, if costs were controlled, I think you could pretty much throw a dart at a big map of New York City to randomly select a route for LRT or subway, and it could probably work. You just need to make sure both darts hit land and that there is a few miles of distance geographic distance between the end points.

It’s just that, even though LRT makes more sense than BRT/SBS in a lot of cases, but it’s not a subway either.

SEAN April 22, 2014 - 4:01 pm

I agree, but with my eyesight I’m most likely going to land one dart at East Brunswick & the other at Riverhead. LOL

Jeff April 22, 2014 - 12:11 pm

The question is how can the construction costs issue be addressed at this day and age. Its not just subways in NYC, commercial development is sky high in costs compared to the rest of the world too (the kilometer high tower that was just announced in Saudi Arabia costs $700 million less than 1 World Trade Center for example). The problem is that the unions are able to get away with it, and developers are still building with the high costs because the returns they get (ie rent and property values) are just as high if not higher….

The whole structure is messed up and it’s not going to be easily fixed by anybody unless something drastic happens. Not even the financial crisis was able to change things much after all.

So really the thing to do is to look for alternatives that can work inside of such a screwed up structure, ones that can pay off the most in the end… And like you said, things like BRT and bike lanes and ferries really aren’t long term solutions. Perhaps LRT might be.

Pat Gunn April 22, 2014 - 3:04 pm

Subways are the only decent long-term solution to moving people around. The sheer volume they can manage can’t be matched even by bus fleets, and streetcars probably can’t even compare to busses. What’s the point of the lower-volume solutions? Every dollar spent on them would move more people more effectively in the subway. On the rare occasion a line is taken out and replaced by busses, it takes a small army of busses to service the same load, and those busses are packed, there are terribly long lines, and the bus takes at least three times as long to get people somewhere.

Let’s stop wasting political capital on lesser solutions and get more service on our existing subway lines while pressing for more of them. In 30 years, any reasonably planned new subway lines will be seen as so obviously a win that nobody would regret them; in 30 years the streetcar will be another fleet of ferries – an expensive and inefficient mistake.

SEAN April 22, 2014 - 3:53 pm

Unfortunately, the reality is a few nymbys & a few lawyers are enough to put most large scale projects on hold if not out right canciled. Look at the mess that was SBS on 125th Street as an example. At some point someone needs to tell these people that the world doesn’t revolve around them no matter how special or importent they think they are.

Bolwerk April 23, 2014 - 11:52 am

That’s almost entirely wrong. Subways may be necessary, but can’t do all the transit work. Streetcars have significantly more carrying capacity than buses. When volumes reach a certain level, trams simply move people more cheaply, and even in mixed traffic they’re usually faster, than buses.

The subway is the backbone of the transit system, but the fact of the matter is surface transit (trams, buses) has a place and buses aren’t sufficient for all surface transit.

Jeff April 22, 2014 - 9:03 am

And who needs to experiment? Get out of the city for once and go to the many cities of the world that have a world class metro/subway system and complimentary light rail systems also. Light rail has proven to compliment subway systems quite well

Bolwerk April 22, 2014 - 10:53 am

Both you and the guy proposing this LRT service actually seem to miss the same point: you don’t see rapid transit and surface transit service meet vastly different, though certainly complementary, needs.

Subways are critical, yes. They move so many people so far so efficiently that it’s impossible to resist the need for more of them.

Buses and surface LRT do not replace subways. LRT/trams can sort of be between the two, but in general street-running modes are about surface transit rather than rapid transit. They move people over shorter distances more locally. They are very accessible and easy for the disabled to use. So your complaints about a “third, slower means of transit” is not a bug – it’s a feature.

I don’t know if this is possible here, but a good rule of thumb seems to be that LRT is cost-competitive or more affordable than buses once a few thousand riders are generated per route-km.

Alon Levy April 22, 2014 - 4:17 pm

The question is why build an LRT line paralleling the G and not a more crowded line, which needs the capacity *cough* QB *cough*.

lop April 22, 2014 - 5:33 pm

Astoria isn’t all that transit accessible coming from the QB line – the buses there crawl and run infrequently. Replacing parking on 21st with a transit lane, carrying buses, LRV, or both, could help change that. And serve some twenty thousand people from 20th ave heading south that are currently more than a half mile from the subway, bringing them to the F, E, M, G, 7. And facilitate travel for those staying in Astoria/Long Island City. There would never be reason to put another heavy rail line there, at least not in the next fifty years, but there is demand for better surface transit. If you build a light rail surface line where you should be building a grade separated higher capacity line, then it seems like you’re just giving up on building the subway sometime in the future. If it’s just a bus lane that’s different, since the capital expenditure is much smaller though.

When phase one of the second avenue subway opens, does Astoria lose the Q? Will the N run more frequently, or are they facing a major service cut? Maybe a light rail surface line would make that more palatable.

Alon Levy April 23, 2014 - 2:15 pm

My assumption with SAS is that Astoria loses the Q but instead the W is restored.

The Astoria-QB access issue is entirely a matter of not having a good QBP-QP transfer. Building such a transfer would be beneficial for several different lines: people could connect from the 7 to an additional Manhattan trunk line, and people could connect from all Broadway BMT routes to both the 7 and QB.

Twenty thousand people, in New York, is a fourth-rate priority for surface transit. There are three lines serving Southeast Brooklyn with thirty to fifty thousand people each, and two circumferentials in Brooklyn with thirty and forty thousand each. The Bx12 has almost fifty thousand.

Bolwerk April 22, 2014 - 6:29 pm

Would LRT solve the subway capacity problem on QB? Or increase it? The answer might turn on where the LRT goes.

Alon Levy April 23, 2014 - 2:16 pm

A QB light rail line should go on QB continuously, partially overlapping the E/F/M/R and the 7, and cross the bridge to terminate at 59th/Lex. This would slightly alleviate the crowding problem on lines from Queens to Manhattan, I think.

Bolwerk April 23, 2014 - 3:23 pm

I was thinking the same, but the segment that would use it to get to Manhattan is probably between Grand Avenue and Queensboro Plaza. IIRC Archer Avenue had the effect of feeding Queens Blvd from the J.

It does close a big transit gap though.

Fbfree April 22, 2014 - 12:41 pm

I’ve toyed with the idea of an extension of the Franklin Shuttle to Bedford-Nostrand in order to improve the connection between the IND crosstown and the Flatbush lines. This would involve a 1km long single track tunnel under Franklin connecting with either the center track at Bedford Nostrand, or level with the existing NB track. This would allow at a minimum a cross-platform transfer from the Q to the G at both ends, or through service if the frequency on the G can afford to be split. Rebuilding the double tracking of the shuttle up to Franklin would be required.

This would cost on the order of $100 million which is likely too steep or the benefit provided. In addition, the intersection of Jefferson and Franklin would probably have to be closed for the tunnel portal. Since the portal is single tracked, it is sufficiently narrow for Franklin not to be closed.

On a similar note, I don’t understand why several weekends ago when the Q was terminated at Prospect Park for construction why they didn’t through run the Q with the shuttle? That could have quite easily reduced trip times compared with boarding the replacement shuttle bus service.

Benjamin Kabak April 22, 2014 - 12:44 pm

Q trains are approximately 3 times as long as the current shuttle iterations. It’s not worth the operational troubles.

Furthermore, I’m not sure the old elevated structure could withstand the weight of a full train set.

Eric Brasure April 22, 2014 - 1:42 pm

I live off the G and use it as my primary train. If it works for you, it works for you. But I find that in general, the people that say things like it’s infrequent (okay, I guess? So are the C and the R), unpleasant (how is it unpleasant?) and has poor connections to other lines (it crosses the E/M/7/L/A/C) don’t really know much about the G.

If the G had never been built and we were to design in in 2014, would we build it like it was built in the 1930s? Well, no. But the G is a far, far better option than an at-grade streetcar.

sonicboy678 April 22, 2014 - 3:39 pm

Having used it quite a number of times in recent days (after getting off the B44), I can certainly agree with you.

Phantom April 22, 2014 - 4:45 pm

The R is not infrequent.

Not even close to infrequent during any daylight hour.

Tower18 April 22, 2014 - 8:58 pm

Its not infrequent for NYC (most lines are 6 tph on B division outside rush periods), but it is infrequent elsewhere in the world among the top tier cities.

I agree that the G gets a lot of flak, but really it’s not so bad. Its efficient, sticks to schedule better than most lines, and runs only slightly more infrequently than others. The lack of non-IND connections in Brooklyn is the only problem.

Eric Brasure April 23, 2014 - 10:16 am

I used to ride the R during rush hour. Waits of 10 minutes were not uncommon.

LLQBTT April 23, 2014 - 1:33 pm

The G, like much of the MTA, cannot keep up with demand. On certain portions of the route, during peak times, the G is as crowded as the Lex and people have to let trains go by. The solution seems stupidly simple, add a car or two to each train. Then the service would be somewhat adequate instead of inadequate.

sonicboy678 April 23, 2014 - 6:06 pm

Key word: seems. It’s really not that simple. For one, where are the extra cars coming from? Another issue comes in with the cost-benefit analysis. Is it really worth trying to restore the extra two cars? If the cars are restored, expect longer waits to offset the cost difference.

Roxie April 22, 2014 - 2:15 am

Why build anything for existing residents? Everyone knows the trust fund babies will live here forever, and definitely won’t do what their parents did and move back out into the newly-made-cheap suburbs because there are too many black people.

lop April 22, 2014 - 2:42 am

The population in NYC is projected to grow by a little under one million people in the next 15 years. They’re going to live and work somewhere. And they’ll need a way to get from A to B. Why are neighborhoods near the water, with many existing residents and with relatively poor transit access less deserving of transit investment than the existing residents who moved into what was once ‘newly-made-cheap suburbs’ that happened to be within the city’s municipal boundaries in Northeastern Queens or South Brooklyn? Those areas still have low population densities and can’t justify subways. And the people who live there don’t want the density to justify heavy rail. Because if you had that density you might get ‘too many black people’ moving in nearby. Hell a lot of them don’t even want any transit nearby, it takes room away from their cars and brings dangerous criminal elements into their ‘pristine’ neighborhoods. Instead of trying to force expensive transit on people who don’t want it, why not build cheaper than heavy rail surface transit for those who do want better non car options? No it’s not as high capacity or as fast as heavy rail. But if you’re closer to your destination and there are too many people for everyone to drive, but not enough to justify subways, it can be a good fit. If the trust fund babies that you think are moving in there decide to leave the city in ten years that’s fine. Someone else will be happy to move into their recently vacated apartment with good transit access.

Joseph Steindam April 22, 2014 - 7:34 am

They’re not less deserving of transit investment, the point is they already have a lot that is serving them, including new buses that we’ve added since the recession cuts in service. And unlike a streetcar hugging the waterfront, the buses actually bring people to subway stations, where people can use their free transfers to complete trips to Manhattan. Hell, this whole area even has vanity ferry service.

I was curious, and I looked into the ridership history of the B61, which before the recession cuts, ran from Long Island City, close enough to the waterfront in most areas, out to Red Hook. It was then split into the B61 and B62, which today carry approximately 20k daily riders. This is not a small sum, many new light rail networks built in the past decade don’t carry that many riders. But for starters, some large segment of this ridership is generated entirely within Red Hook, which needs more transit investment. Second, this combined route would roughly be the 25th busiest surface route in Brooklyn. The busiest routes run through Southeastern and Southern Brooklyn, which ferry more than double the passengers from very dense neighborhoods to their closest subway connection, at least 1/2 mile away, and usually more. Rail of any kind is an expensive investment; our goal when expanding the rail network should be to first cover areas of great density and need. To parrot Kimmelman, this is development-oriented transit at its purest, except the development has been in existence for decades.

SEAN April 22, 2014 - 11:27 am

Roxie says:

Why build anything for existing residents? Everyone knows the trust fund babies will live here forever, and definitely won’t do what their parents did and move back out into the newly-made-cheap suburbs because there are too many black people.

Yesterday it was the “hipsters,” and today this garbage? How is this at all constructive.

Nathanael April 22, 2014 - 3:27 pm

“Why build anything for existing residents? Everyone knows the trust fund babies will live here forever, and definitely won’t do what their parents did and move back out into the newly-made-cheap suburbs because there are too many black people.”

Tongue-in-cheek, I know. The trust fund babies certainly won’t move to the suburbs, since the suburbs suck. They could, however, move to DC, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, LA,… or indeed London, England…

SEAN April 22, 2014 - 4:10 pm

I’de even add Seattle & Miami to that list as the former is techy & the latter is more or less a playground.

Brandon April 22, 2014 - 7:53 am

The areas near the waterfront far from the subway could maybe use a streetcar on their own, or a select bus line.

This includes Red Hook and the Astoria waterfront. Again, on their own.

Running a line between them would be far too long and unreliable and not that useful to that many people.

Jeff April 22, 2014 - 12:20 pm

There are trade-offs if they choose to build separate lines too, such as the need for multiple maintenance facilities, and not being able to move trains around with as much ease.

Elvis Delgado April 22, 2014 - 9:37 am

I think Ben’s point – and I agree completely – is that there are lots of areas that are not currently served by adequate transit, and that the waterfront is probably suffering less than many.

To focus on this area because it’s trendy or has recently been a locus of development constitues poor planning. Any new transit lines of any sort should be part of a comprehensive study. As many have pointed out, the funds for new lines are limited at best – so there is reason to be particularly careful in spending those funds and not to just jump on the first proposal that seems “cool”.

Jeff April 22, 2014 - 12:18 pm

A lot of areas aren’t served by adequate transit but many of those areas might not need transit since they are car-oriented neighborhoods. Staten Island for example comes up in this discussion a lot, and places in eastern Queens and southeastern Brooklyn too are mostly mid-to-high middle-class neighborhoods who don’t want subway access because it would change the character of their neighborhoods.

The waterfront routes, in contrast, are mostly new and high density developments that will add more stress to what is already an overcrowded subway network, so I think there will be merits to serving those neighborhoods. And the prospects for expansion of the line into northern Queens or various parts of Brooklyn that are public transit reliant but also are underserved are also there.

Benjamin Kabak April 22, 2014 - 12:19 pm

Staten Island for example comes up in this discussion a lot, and places in eastern Queens and southeastern Brooklyn too are mostly mid-to-high middle-class neighborhoods who don’t want subway access because it would change the character of their neighborhoods.

This is just buying BS NIMBYism arguments. It’s not an actual rationale.

Jeff April 22, 2014 - 12:22 pm

But NIMBY-ism is a reality that any new development must face. You cannot discount it as a wall that any potential project needs to climb over.

In order to build anything you need political support, and you just aren’t going to get support in neighborhoods where NIMBY factions are strong.

Bolwerk April 22, 2014 - 12:29 pm

But we could try to change the rules so NIMBYs don’t have such an amplified say in everything.

Jeff April 22, 2014 - 12:34 pm

We could try, but who’s actually going to do it?

Bolwerk April 22, 2014 - 1:01 pm

It would need to be a big grassroots coalition. I would think transit advocates, safe streets advocates, cyclist advocates, environmentalists, and (the kicker) many developers could all benefit.

ajedrez April 22, 2014 - 3:56 pm

The question is: Would NIMBYism even be a real issue in SE Brooklyn? It’s not like those areas are particularly low-density: The density is around 30,000 people per square mile in areas like Flatlands, Marine Park, etc, which is denser than inner-city neighborhoods in most cities. (I mean, think about it, you have a lot of townhouses, and even the single-family homes aren’t particularly large).

Bolwerk April 23, 2014 - 11:01 am

Definitely. It’s a problem in some form everywhere.

Regardless, the same rules that let NIMBYs derail everything let most other organized groups (unions) derail things. It’s not just NIMBYs I’m thinking about here.

Alon Levy April 23, 2014 - 2:17 pm

The main subway project under construction in New York, SAS Phase 1, doesn’t benefit developers at all.

Bolwerk April 23, 2014 - 3:11 pm

Do you mean to say it only benefits existing developments?

Alon Levy April 25, 2014 - 12:56 am

Yes. As a result, one of the developer bigwigs, whose name I’m blanking on, openly denigrated SAS and said the 7 extension was the better project.

Benjamin Kabak April 25, 2014 - 12:57 am

Dan Doctoroff.

Bolwerk April 25, 2014 - 10:01 am

Ah, yeah, he’s a clown.

OTOH, SAS still impacts property values in the way developers and the city like.

Jeff April 22, 2014 - 12:29 pm

Also many of these neighborhoods are low density residential ones that may not be able to support rapid transit lines on their own unless drastic rezoning and redevelopment take place… In which case the NIMBY’s fears WOULD be realized as it would mean scaling up of their neighborhoods.

Benjamin Kabak April 22, 2014 - 12:33 pm

There really aren’t any neighborhoods that sparsely populated in Eastern Queens or South Brooklyn that couldn’t support some form of mass transit.

Jeff April 22, 2014 - 12:45 pm

The neighborhoods of Whitestone, Bayside, Douglaston, Little Neck, and Queens Village (basically the neighborhoods of Northeastern Queens that make up a vast part of Queens that is without mass transit) add up to a population of about 180,000 people. That’s less than the daily ridership of the Time Sq station. And most people living in those areas drive. Others already use the LIRR which serve those areas well. So no, I am not sure I agree with you.

Benjamin Kabak April 22, 2014 - 12:49 pm

Less than the daily ridership of the most heavily used subway station in the city is a pointless comparison. Cincinnati has a population of 300,000 spread out over a far greater area than Northeastern Queens and even they can support light rail. I’m sure NE Queens would be just fine. As I said, this is giving into NIMBY tendencies.

Jeff April 22, 2014 - 2:16 pm

Cincinatti is building a single streetcar line linking its two CBDs and its meant for tourists and for people who work in those areas. The population of the city is irrelevant to its construction.

How many tourists and workers are in the residential neighborhoods I described?

ajedrez April 22, 2014 - 4:06 pm

The population density of a typical eastern Queens neighborhood is around 20,000 people per square mile. The typical neighborhood served by Miami’s MetroRail is around half that (and it’s not like it serves a ton of touristic areas. As a matter of fact, it completely avoids South Beach). I’m sure the density around most of the Washington MetroRail stations isn’t much higher than 20,000 ppsm either.

Jeff April 22, 2014 - 4:30 pm


Notice many of the districts in the neighborhoods I cited are under 15,000/sq mile in population. The ones that are grey appear to be along the LIRR lines (which tends to be more built up already due to the presence of a railroad).

Southeast Queens (ie Jamaica and surrounding areas) is a different matter, and it also tends to be a bit lower in income and more bus dependent. So that would be one of the good candidates for transit expansion that I mentioned.

Alon Levy April 23, 2014 - 2:22 pm

Jeff, the subway line that should be built after SAS, Utica, serves census tracts that on the map are light gray and middle gray, and at its inner end dark gray.

In Northeastern Queens, I agree that the LIRR should be the primary solution. Maybe they could build a 7 extension to College Point, but that’s development-oriented transit, and it would only really work if they could redevelop Flushing Airport and all the College Point parking sea.

Bolwerk April 22, 2014 - 1:05 pm

Seriously: with sane construction costs, rail can work fine in a place that looks like this.

Jeff April 22, 2014 - 2:18 pm

Would we want to spend transit money on areas of New York that look like that though? Or spend it on neighborhoods that rely on public transit and aren’t served well enough? That’s my point.

Benjamin Kabak April 22, 2014 - 2:21 pm

And my point is that the neighborhoods targeted by this waterfront streetcar are already well served and won’t be better served by a streetcar that won’t be up to the standards of even the G train.

Jeff April 22, 2014 - 2:39 pm

Red Hook is not well served
Navy Yards are not well served
The G train doesn’t serve anything well.
The N train is more than a mile from the waterfront in a neighborhood of close to 160,000 people (that’s Astoria) vs your advocacy for building significantly more infrastructure in northeastern Queens for just about as many people.

Benjamin Kabak April 22, 2014 - 2:46 pm

I’m concerned we’re talking past each other on many of the legitimate critiques of the proposal in question, but it seems to me that basically, you have a problem with the G train and can’t look past it. I’ve admitted that Red Hook and the Navy Yards need better options, over and over again in fact, and the number of people in Astoria who live a mile from the N train isn’t anywhere close to 160,000. (By census tract, somehwhere around 20,000 live more than half a mile away from the N.)

Bolwerk April 22, 2014 - 4:10 pm

@Ben: I think your point about distances is well thought out, but it’s also a really incomplete picture. There are possibly enough people in the waterfront skyscrapers we’ve built to justify transit investment in those people at this point, whether that means benefiting mega-developers or not. Just being within half a mile from a subway doesn’t mean you’re within half a mile from the right subway. It doesn’t make shorter trips, like to a grocery store 10 blocks away, any better. This proposal has problems, but tweak it and it might fill a lot of needs.

I think comparisons to the G Train are silly, and I think the “G Train sucks” meme is foolish. But comparing a streetcar to a subway is a bit like comparing SBS to a subway. SBS is good, but it’s not a subway. Forget trams for a second, a well-made waterfront surface service could be a good last mile solution to a lot of people and could have high turnover.

Alon Levy April 22, 2014 - 4:19 pm

Yes, and the point I and others make is that those areas where people supposedly drive generate 50,000 weekday riders on the Flatbush, Utica, and Nostrand buses, each.

Jeff April 22, 2014 - 4:36 pm

And that’s one of the neighborhoods I was thinking of when I mentioned “neighborhoods that rely on public transit and aren’t served well enough”

What I’m objecting to is Ben’s usage of a map of Queens or Brooklyn showing a lack of coverage in vast areas, but not really any consideration of factors such as demographics, population density, and political realities. There are neighborhoods where mass transit will NEVER be built, and that’s that. No amount of advocacy will change it.

Alon Levy April 23, 2014 - 2:26 pm

Ben’s map of the Brooklyn transit gap is exactly the area served by Utica.

The northeastern Queens transit gap is something else, but that, too, deserves a solution. It just so happens this solution should be better LIRR local frequency and fare integration with the subway rather than additional subways.

Jonathan R April 22, 2014 - 2:15 pm

I work in that area of NE Queens, which I reach on the Q44, and I would like to argue for transit improvements to support workers in the area.

Better transit connections will make it easier for workers to come to work and will also make the neighborhood more attractive as a place to settle. I would love to live a 30-minute bike ride away from work, but there is nowhere in that area that is also close to the subway for my non-driving spouse to use.

Jeff April 22, 2014 - 2:33 pm

I’m familiar with Whitestone/College Point. They are already pretty attractive areas to settle based on the property values in the area. Better transportation would be great, especially for the small commercial district on the Whitestone Expy, but its still not that many passengers that get on and off in those parts from the Q44 compared to the Bronx/Flushing/Jamaica.

Joseph Steindam April 22, 2014 - 12:33 pm

“The waterfront routes, in contrast, are mostly new and high density developments that will add more stress to what is already an overcrowded subway network, so I think there will be merits to serving those neighborhoods.”

There might be merit, if this was a system that would provide an alternative to the congested subway routes. All this streetcar proposal would create is an alternative to is the G, which no one would call overcrowded. You would have to propose a new bridge over the East River for this streetcar to actually resolve the congestion problems created by the new East River waterfront developments. For anyone that needs to get to Manhattan, they would need to get to the subway, which this streetcar idea currently avoids, and considering the current style of development occurring along the waterfront, few of the people attracted to those jobs along the waterfront will live nearby in the many high end developments going up. And no, those folks are probably not getting any of the affordable units at the Domino site or at the Edge. They’re off gentrifying the inner reaches of the borough, along the subway routes.

Also of note, the B32, which the MTA added in September to serve Kent, Wythe and Franklin Avenues (with terminals at Court Square and Marcy Avenue) had 132 daily boardings last year. I realize it only just started running, and it’s probably doing better than it did last year. But it begs the question: where exactly is the demand for this streetcar route?

ajedrez April 22, 2014 - 4:13 pm

The 132 daily boardings were averaged over the whole year, whereas the route only operated for about 3 months. So multiply that by 3 to get the average daily ridership (which would be around 400 per day), and then consider that ridership probably increased since it first began, which would give it a total of around 600 per day.

In any case, a better way to gauge demand would be to look at the B61 & B62 together, which run in the general area of the waterfront (well, I guess you could include some Q69 riders as well, along 21st Street, and some Q103 riders along Vernon Blvd). That gives you around 20,000 riders per day (of course, the B61 also serves Park Slope) But even then, there’s a lot better uses for that money, in areas where there’s absolutely no subway service.

Joseph Steindam April 22, 2014 - 5:35 pm

I already talked about the B61 and B62 in an earlier post, but they run further inland, as opposed to the B32 which runs along a good swath of a likely streetcar route, that’s why I introduced that data point. I realize it hasn’t run for a full year, and I do caveat the ridership. My point is that the route was designed to serve this new development, and it’s making a small contribution, not enough to justify the expenditure of a streetcar. Even if we consider that a streetcar would likely capture some of the ridership from the B61/B62, the routes that were suggested by the Times again fail to access subway stations, something the B61 and B62 do rather well. So can we really assume that all 20,000 of the riders will take the streetcar, when it no longer provides them a transfer to the subway. The B61 exists the connect Red Hook to neighborhoods with better subway access (Park Slope and Downtown Brooklyn).

To be honest, I’m not terribly against this proposal, other than such an expenditure should go to the neediest areas first. The East River waterfront has decent connections through its bus connections and ferries and spotty subway service. There are other areas, which Ben points out, that have real access constraints, and those should receive significant transit investment first.

lawhawk April 22, 2014 - 11:37 am

Areas that are transit deserts comparatively speaking, like Red Hook, or Southern Brooklyn don’t have to be that way. Some of those areas had transit coverage with trolley lines extending into them, and it’s instructive to look at the old maps to see where lines used to run. What’s old is new again, and we’re now looking at ways to bring those underserved areas better access to mass transit.

The waterfront route would help Red Hook, and extending the line to the Navy Yard might be a politically savvy move to get more support for the line, especially if real estate developers are looking to bolster their bottom lines too with their luxury developments. It’s the further reaches of Brooklyn and Queens that are sorely in need of mass transit options beyond buses. Light rail might be the bridge to faster service to and from those areas.

SEAN April 22, 2014 - 11:51 am

Well said. I would like to add that in areas east of downtown Jaimaica along Hillside avenue as well as Archer Avenue, there’s plenty of demand for extended subway lines. The current arangements are a complete mess with bus volume overload near the 165th bus station, LIRR Jamaica station amung other nearby spots.

Ralfff April 22, 2014 - 12:17 pm

Cut and cover throughout these relatively low density areas. Even if there is not enough money to finish stations at present, our future selves will thank us for having the foresight to tunnel while it was relatively cheap.

Ralfff April 22, 2014 - 3:29 pm

By “these” I’m referring to the other neighborhoods cited, not Red Hook nor Astoria.

Gonzo April 22, 2014 - 1:48 pm

What if you could finance this project differently? If it could be a private investment (as crazy as that sounds) with little city $$$, would that change your view? It sounds like your issue with the proposal is that it is a misallocation of resources (which I don’t disagree with). Just a crazy idea.

lawhawk April 22, 2014 - 2:45 pm

You mean like the P3I efforts to get a private entity to build and operate for a period of time? Overruns are on them, as is the cost to operate? It might be worth looking into.

Separately, you could rezone areas to get developers to buy in, and the air rights sold would be devoted to mass transit improvements. Or BID tax/fees, to support new mass transit in selected areas.

Those financing structures might work elsewhere, and they could work here, if the costs were low enough, and you found a private entity that thinks they’d make money from the project.

Pat Gunn April 22, 2014 - 3:08 pm

If we can persuade people do do other kinds of investment, we’d be better off having them invest in a more efficient means of transit. Private and public resources are not fundamentally different – if we can get private resources to serve us, we still should try to spend them as intelligently we can.

Gonzo April 23, 2014 - 4:31 pm

“Separately, you could rezone areas to get developers to buy in, and the air rights sold would be devoted to mass transit improvements. Or BID tax/fees, to support new mass transit in selected areas.”

– That is what I am talking.

“if we can get private resources to serve us, we still should try to spend them as intelligently we can.”

– The reason this might be more feasible from a private standpoint as opposed something you view as more intelligent (2/5 extension down Flatbush, increasing headways on LIRR/MNR service within the boroughs, ect..) is because the land on the BK/Queens waterfront is incredibly desirable to developers, and will likely continue to be (until the next storm). Moreover, if this works, it can be implemented in other places.

Someone’s gotta dream…

neil April 22, 2014 - 3:14 pm

I love this idea. I think the route can be tweaked a bit in a couple spots, but the base is there for a great project. I see this happening as some sort of design build operate; like HBLR or JFK Skytrain. The MTA has no light rail or street car experience, and they already have quite a few large projects on the go, so I don’t realistically see them doing it. So if its DBOM then you have to sell it to investors, and if you have to sell it then it has to be this route and not something in East Queens or South Brooklyn.

Once it’s proven successful on the sexy route, then there’s the chance to expand it to the areas of the boroughs that are really in need of transit. It’s obvious that subways are too expensive build to be the solution, and the buses aren’t working. LRV and streetcars are the cost effective choice for most cities today. We just need one successful project to show that this can work.

Michael April 22, 2014 - 4:10 pm

There are just a few points that I want to make:

1) I am not liking the racism that has been displayed on this forum! STOP IT NOW!

The statements concerning “too many black people” are Reprehensible! STOP IT NOW!

From the earliest days of the computer modem bulletin boards, USENET and FIDO, on some of the transit forums every now and then somebody trolling would bring up the idea of “LOOT RAIL”. The idea of not extending or enhancing transit or transportation services because Black People might use those services to commit crimes. Or the idea of not building housing in particular places because “there will be too many Black people”. It was NONSENSE then, and remains NONSENSE!. The form has changed over the years, and it does not need a computer to spread it, but the racism and prejudice remain clear. STOP IT NOW! Sometimes this idea seems like a product of “Not In My Backyard”, but no, it is older than that.

2) I am troubled by the definition “transit deserts” and the maps that were shown for Southern Eastern Brooklyn. The map shows the areas that are nearest to the existing subway rail transit system. The map seems to give the impression that somehow the folks in the non-covered areas are left to fend for themselves. A quick look at the Brooklyn Bus map shows that the majority of those uncovered areas have bus service. Now I can not speak to the reliability or how adequate the bus service is, but bus service does exist. I wonder how such a map would look if all of the bus lines were included?

3) There are plenty of folks from a variety of backgrounds that have transportation needs, and I believe that is important to focus upon their transportation needs. In any given neighborhood there are plenty of folks that make many different kinds of trips, have various abilities and dis-abilities – and need various means to make those trips. Some of those trips can be short-distance, middle-distance or longer distances, to or from business districts, shopping, school or jobs, etc. A car might be useful for some trips, a bus useful for other trips, while the subways would be useful for other kinds of trips. No one method is going to be useful for every kind of trip not in this dense city, or to reach destinations outside this city. NYC is a pretty big place with plenty of people, after all.

4) There are different forms of NIMBY-ism, and those different forms are applied to various issues. Just because there might be some opposition, “NIMBY” is often not a reason to not do what is right and proper. Sometimes those opposed might not be totally opposed to the whole project, but to aspects of the project – where listening, discussion, modification, and diplomacy could be helpful – but that kind of stuff takes time. Yes, there is a tendency to want a “master planner” or a “Robert Moses” or a “UDC” to come in with sweeping vast powers and unlimited budgets to build the “transit solution”. So there are appeals to the “old days when the land was barren” you could build whatever you wanted, and the people would marvel over what was done! LOL!

It is so much easier to draw lines on a map! It is not real life, but it is so much easier.

5) Exactly how one “ranks” a neighborhood more “deserving” of our few transit dollars compared to another neighborhood? Is it purely a scientific objective planning process or the political arena of squeaky wheel gets the oil? Having the facts and the statistics helps to argue one’s case, but gaining community support is vital. Once one is past the idea that every neighborhood and resident “deserves access to decent timely transportation” comes the hard part of actually making that happen especially when there are few transit dollars.


Quirk April 22, 2014 - 9:30 pm

Someone said black but it wasn’t used as an insult. I think it’s YOU that needs to work on a personal issue.

Also the comments on the blog have been going downhill ever since those at the transit forums have discovered Second Avenue sagas.

My request- If you’re from the NYCT forums please stay there with your absurd speculation and fantasies/incorrect info and leave this smart blog alone.

Eric April 23, 2014 - 12:23 am

We aren’t being racist.

We see that some neighborhoods oppose transit, and we think the real reason for their opposition is that THEY are against “too many black people”. They can’t say that publicly, because racism is unacceptable in public forums and being racist automatically makes you lose an argument, but we accuse them of thinking it privately.

sonicboy678 April 23, 2014 - 6:25 pm

On your second “point”: just stop. You’re making a fool of yourself. Contrary to what you believe, Southeastern Brooklyn has hardly adequate service. Buses are often packed and even arrive bunched (in part because Flatbush Depot sucks at dispatching, but that’s another story for another time). Really, people take these buses only because they can’t just hop on the train. Hell, I sometimes use the bus but happen to be just fortunate enough to live right by the subway. Walking along Flatbush Avenue, I see masses of people on the buses just to catch the 2 or 5; even when heading over to Nostrand Avenue, the buses are still struggling to keep service going. The buses are often packed and are nearing total inadequacy. This is why subway service needs to be expanded. I’ve seen countless buses arriving to the area packed only to practically dump so people can actually catch the train. Also, neither the B44 nor B46 have decent help in the areas they serve. The B46 basically flies solo while the B44 has the B36 between Avenues U and Z and an express bus between Gerritsen Avenue and Avenue K. The B41 is really lucky to have the Q35 as an actual supplement of sorts.

Michael April 23, 2014 - 9:35 pm

I very clearly said the following:

“Now I can not speak to the reliability or how adequate the bus service is, but bus service does exist. I wonder how such a map would look if all of the bus lines were included?”

No where did I say that bus service in Southeastern Brooklyn is adequate service, only said that it exists. Only for my neighborhood in Brooklyn when I lived there and for the area where I worked in Brooklyn, could I speak for the adequacy of the bus service. I very clearly said that I did not know the situation that folks find themselves in today, especially in Southeastern Brooklyn.

Ben presented a map that showed distance circles only about the rail lines. The map seems to give the impression that somehow the folks in the non-covered areas are left to fend for themselves. If such a map were created for Staten Island – it would appear that only the eastern side of island has any public transportation at all! Both the Brooklyn Bus Map and the Staten Island Bus Map show bus routes in areas that have subways, and the bus routes in the areas that do not have rail transit. On Staten Island plenty of the buses are scheduled for one bus every 30 minutes, a few lines with a bus every 15 or 20 minutes during the rush hours! Knowing about the buses becomes very helpful traveling at certain times. Please tell me something I do not know about waiting a long time for a bus, or having a crowded bus pass you by, with a very long wait for another! I can talk about the adequacy of the buses on Staten Island!

Basically the rapid transit map in NYC has not changed in major ways – if the rail transit line was not built by the 1940’s, the chances of it being built at any time since then are slim. That is why Staten Island is not connected to the rest of NYC by rail transit, there were no extensions of the IRT or IND lines in southern Brooklyn, or the building of planned additional lines in Queens. The 60-year period of subway building was over by the 1940’s. Practically all of the public transit that exist today has in roots from failed private transit companies going bankrupt – another major reason why many more lines were not built!

There has not been a single major transit line built in NYC since the 1940’s. Yes, there have been improvements to the systems, some conversion and connections of lines, improvements to stations, newer cars, etc. And yes, maybe every decade or two – a station or 2 added here or there, that was supposed to connect to a unified whole with further extensions that have not been built, but that is it. The Air-Train is a special transit service for folks getting to/from the airport. And yes, it needs to be said, the demolition of transit lines – but no newly built major lines!

There however have been changes in the bus networks both local and the express bus networks. And while many subway rail-fans like to pretend that buses “do not exist” or are not “real” transit – buses are what counts for “public transit” in many cities in the US.

Yes, it is a cheap shot, but I’m gonna say it. For all of the moaning and groaning about building new subway lines, etc. The changes in bus transit has evolved greatly from the days of horse-drawn omnibuses, or steam-powered trolleys. Within the last decade several new SBS bus lines were established in NYC in a relatively short period of time. By way of comparison go back to the 1968 Plan Of Action for NYC – and review how few of those proposed items are anywhere close to completion or close to their original designers dreams. Note – the 1968 Plan Of Action is the Master Plan that gave us our current Second Avenue Subway and its Queens extensions, building the extensions of the Nostrand Avenue and Utica Avenue subways, using the 63rd Street tunnel for the LIRR, and well as other transit improvements. Those were planning documents that I was reading in junior high school at the public library! What happened? Not just Ford wanted New York to drop dead!

So, yeah the need for public rail transit expansion has been known for decades! There’s not a lot of money to pay for it, and public rail transit is very expensive to build! In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when it cost $100 million per mile to build rail public transit there were already concerns about the high cost. Now that public rail transit costs a heck of lot more than that, less costly alternatives have to be found!

I clearly said that I was not intimately knowledgeable about the bus situation in Southeastern Brooklyn. Nowhere did I suggest that bus service not be improved. I clearly said that Ben’s map had to be representative of the transit services that are available. If if his map were more representative of all of the public transit available – it would be easier to determine areas that do not have ANY. However such a map only goes so far, it says nothing about adequacy, time scheduling, ridership levels, waiting times for service, potential ridership, locations of major traffic generators, or has information about the places where folks have difficulty getting to. While his map is a first start, there needs to be more! That was my point!

If I were to presented a map that showed only the boroughs of NYC that were connected to the main land, and named the Map, “The Only Way To Get To NYC” – most folks would wonder about the missing boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens. They would think that my map was not the complete picture, especially since there are several ways of getting around. That was the point I was making. Besides rail transit, there are other ways of getting round Brooklyn. To work at creating the complete picture.


J April 22, 2014 - 5:00 pm

Your South Brooklyn map is a bit misleading, not mapping the N/Q and all..

Benjamin Kabak April 22, 2014 - 5:02 pm

It maps the Q up to Prospect Park and the N and D into Bensonhurst. Areas west of that have transit access. There’s nothing misleading about it if the point is to show how everything south of the 2/3/L and east of the Brighton Line is without easy access.

Nyland8 April 23, 2014 - 7:09 am

If the crux of this discussion is to weigh in on the best ways to get the “underserved” people to the subways – and subway ridership is at record levels and already approaching capacity – how does that work? If we are not building new subway lines, should we be finding more efficient ways to feed more people into the already overcrowded ones? What am I missing?

Bolwerk April 23, 2014 - 1:56 pm

There are certain capacity constraints at certain times on certain times. Overall, there is plenty of capacity.

Bolwerk April 23, 2014 - 2:09 pm

s/certain times on certain times/certain times on certain lines

Nyland8 April 27, 2014 - 11:31 am

Of course. But the times that it is at capacity are the times it most needs greater capacity – during the commuting rush hours. Who cares if it has unused surplus capacity at 2AM?

Let’s optimistically assume, for the sake of the argument, that future upgrades will someday enable 30 tph system wide. (Imagine a morning commute where you never have to wait more than 2 minutes for the next train?) Wouldn’t that mean that we’d have to double the number, or the size, of our train yards? How many more train sets would be required to run 2 minute headways on all of our subway lines?

My point is only that any greater efficiency in bringing more people into the subways should be accompanied by concomitant system expansion of some sort. If the Brooklyn/Queens waterfront light rail ever became a reality, then it would have to be met by complimentary capacity expansion. If the people getting off the waterfront rail cannot fit on the subway trains when they get to the stations, then the light rail system is doomed to fail to meet ridership expectations.

Bolwerk April 28, 2014 - 12:07 pm

There are different kinds of capacity problems. Some lines, like the 7, would have spare capacity into Manhattan(!) where the streetcar would meet them. The A/C probably can’t fit more trains through through the East River tunnel right now, but there is probably plenty of spare standing room. And there are still ~20 other hours in the day where trains are not at capacity, and good transit needs to be run throughout the day.

As for more TPH, I think undoubtedly more yard space will be needed. But there are different ways to increase service. If you can increase the speed by 25%, a similar number of additional runs should be completed in the same amount of time, which means moving more people with the same trains.

Spendmor Wastemor April 23, 2014 - 8:34 pm

Mm, just to be clear, what exactly are those points mapping?
Is each point a dot of “the nearest subway stop from this point is more than 1/2 mile distant?

1/2 mile is hardly the end of the world in an outer area. A mile is a long walk to do twice or more per day, but 6/10 or 7/10 is 10 minutes at an average pace. Part of the reason the outer boroughs are so miserable is that it’s 20 stop to get into Manhattan or even the younger sections of Brooklyn and Queens.

lop April 27, 2014 - 3:01 pm

The map is of 1/2 mile radius circles around subway stops. Actual coverage within a half mile is of course less than that, since that half mile is the air distance, and people have to stick to the street grid walking around. As to why a half mile, you might enjoy this read.


.6-.7 miles won’t be 10 minutes at an average pace. To cover most potential riders, as opposed to only young(ish) able bodied adults that aren’t carrying anything heavy, I wouldn’t assume more than 3 mph walking speed, before counting the time spent waiting for the light at a crosswalk. So you’d be closer to 20 minutes than 10 for .7 miles. Still not necessarily too burdensome, but you have to consider what type of walk it is. If it’s necessary to cross a major arterial like Woodhaven or Queens Blvd, or a highway, or multiple streets that intersect at angles that differ significantly from 90 degrees encouraging cars to take turns (left or right depending on the angle) at speed, or something else of this sort, then you might find that a smaller walking distance turns people off than if most or all of the walk was along pleasant streets.

Nyland8 April 27, 2014 - 3:11 pm

… and that’s to say nothing of the weather. Bundled up for severe cold, tramping through snow and slush, peeking past an umbrella in a wind-driven rain, … even something as unavoidable as the effects of 90+ degrees F in high humidity, will not only affect travel time, but willingness to even use mass-transit. Few things are as comfortable as a climate controlled car.


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