Home Brooklyn-Queens Connector Links: Competing views on the Brooklyn-Queens streetcar

Links: Competing views on the Brooklyn-Queens streetcar

by Benjamin Kabak

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

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

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

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DF February 11, 2016 - 9:17 am


General Motors, Phillips Petroleum, Firestone Tire, et al., were convicted in 1949 of destroying trolley systems in cities across the country. The motivation? Get the cities to switch to buses, since the companies were all in the motor vehicle business.

They were fined a mere $5,000, but it was too late to save most streetcar lines.

Very hard to take this seriously.

tacony February 11, 2016 - 12:01 pm

Yes, it’s disappointing to see him regurgitate the conspiracy theory in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

He also picks and chooses his examples to support his incredibly misleading narrative on “the conversion of tracks to car lanes.” Yes, the idea to replace the trolley tracks on the Brooklyn Bridge with extra car lanes was poor. But the trolleys then ran through Brooklyn on either elevated lines, or on the street in the “car lanes.” The difference was that there were few cars back then. (So much that the shorthand for “trolley car” or “streetcar” was just “car” — we only started using it to mean “private passenger automobile” when that became the default type of car on the street.)

He picks a piece of separated, exclusive right-of-way to illustrate the folly of dismantling the trolley system, to justify investing in an on-street trolley that he and other project backers have not shown to involve separated right-of-way. This project does not involve putting streetcars back on the Brooklyn Bridge. It involves putting them in the middle of the public streets of Brooklyn. The trolley system worked very well when car ownership rates were practically zero and the streetcars didn’t have to compete with private auto traffic. It has not worked since then, as the new generation of useless, low-ridership, infrequently-running expensive toy boondoggle projects in DC, Atlanta, and elsewhere have shown.

It’s also convenient that he uses the Brooklyn Bridge as his example in that it’s the only major bridge that doesn’t have transit of any kind running across it today. In every other case the trolleys were replaced with buses of course, and that was originally expressed to be the plan on the Brooklyn Bridge. I know I’ve heard DOT claim the Bridge can’t support buses due to weight restrictions– and who knows whether that was intentional or not given that Moses was involved– but after the last trolley ran over the bridge in 1950, they started handing out free transfers from the trolley terminus in Brooklyn to the IND subway, in an arrangement that everyone viewed as a great alternative.

Thomas Graves February 17, 2016 - 1:56 am

Yet somehow streetcars work very well in Frankfurt, Zurich, Munich, Amsterdam, San Francisco and dozens of other cities where they mix with car traffic. So NY is once again ‘exceptional’? Car ownership rates in NY grew precisely because transit options like streetcars were being aggressively eliminated throughout the 1950’s. If those options are restored, the need to drive in the city should once again be reduced. And isn’t that the whole point?

Bolwerk February 11, 2016 - 11:43 am

The Freemark article seemed right about a lot of design matters, but then it seemed to me a lot of the problems he mentioned didn’t really apply. For instance

The current plan does not include dedicated lanes

isn’t my understanding. It is my understanding it mostly would be in its own lanes. There would be mixed traffic segments, which obviously isn’t ideal, but also isn’t damning.

Several organizations and transit pundits, including Streetsblog, are on a raging bumblefuck crusade against this. It’d be nice if they instead put effort into fighting for a better place for light rail.

tacony February 11, 2016 - 12:07 pm

Explain to me why it’s so difficult for NYC DOT to obtain dedicated lanes for buses, yet “mostly” dedicated lanes across this entire trolley route are a done deal that no one should question?

The renderings don’t even show them as separated in any way.

These details matter because they’re literally what make transit useful. The fact that it’s a trolley does not make it more useful than a bus. The streetcar mania sweeping much of this country is producing transit that’s less useful and more expensive than your average bus route.

Bolwerk February 11, 2016 - 12:29 pm

I’m not sure it is that difficult. They quite literally can choose how much they care to drag the process out, and probably the cynical answer is that dragging it out is nice busywork for an agency. But Who said anything about not questioning it? Freemark said the plan doesn’t include dedicated lanes, and, well, that’s at least not my understanding of the project from the PR about it I’ve read. You can not believe the PR, but that’s not what Freemark said.

I don’t know about “more useful,” but this is the right setting for a tram. It’s a high-density area. That doesn’t mean it’s a priority corridor. Whether it’s “more expensive” requires qualification.

AlexB February 12, 2016 - 11:03 am

I completely agree. The DoT and Dept of City Planning have consistently caved in on dedicated (physically separated) lanes for buses everywhere in the city. Why should I all of a sudden assume they won’t do it again? I could easily imagine this project doubling in cost and halving in effectiveness after bargaining with loud neighborhood car owners. If it’s a choice between this or the Utica subway DeBlasio proposed a while back, the Utica subway is the obvious choice.

Douglas John Bowen February 14, 2016 - 8:25 pm

More expensive to construct, to be sure. More expensive to operate? Hardly; LRT and streetcars do a far better job here.

But here’s one advocate pleased that tacony sees “streetcar mania sweeping much of this country.” Because naysayers I read about insist the streetcar “experiment” has failed, or at least has peaked. Glad they’re (apparently) mistaken.

mister February 11, 2016 - 2:32 pm

I have generally respected Schwartz, but this is terrible on so many counts…

As we studied the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront and saw the attraction between the neighborhoods and work and recreation areas (i.e. the Navy Yard and Long Island City, Industry City and Red Hook, downtown Brooklyn and Williamsburg), we realized that we could attract in excess of 50,000 riders per day to a transit line for that corridor. Like Goldilocks, we found a subway to be way too costly, a bus to not have sufficient capacity and be too lumbering (even if we tried a Select Bus Service approach).

A streetcar was just right.

Here we see Schwartz manipulate the data to suit his needs. Could the line attract in excess of 50,000 riders per day? Maybe, although even with the development already in the area, local buses are not growing by leaps and bounds, but this misses the point. This route would not function as a feeder, with vehicles picking up riders from one end of the line and carrying them clear to the other end of the line. The idea here is that this is more of a trunk line, so there would be multiple destination points throughout the line and high turnover throughout, and you wouldn’t need higher capacity because the vehicles are emptying out on a regular basis. Contrast this with the B46, a bus route that actually did carry over 50k riders per day at one point, and did serve as a feeder to the Eastern Parkway IRT line.

But there is another very important reason for backing the BQX — and one that helps get at why I believe the mayor is taking this initiative. It will require little or no city money.

Those who conceived the BQX recognized the value of having tracks with permanent stations. Land values and consequently tax rolls will increase along the corridor. This will allow the city to issue bonds against the future value captured by the increase in real estate taxes. The city estimates the full cost of the line at $2.5 billion versus an estimated $4 billion that could be raised against future taxes.

Here’s where he really goes off the rails. It’s absolutely going to cost city money. The city has to front the cash. Whether they do this through taking on additional debt, reducing their ability to borrow for other projects, or if it comes directly from city coffers, it’s money being spent by the city of New York. It’s great that Schwartz thinks that an estimated $4 billion in additional taxes will be raised by this project, but what if that doesn’t happen? City taxpayers will be left holding the bag.

For 70 years, we’ve had lousy transportation for our lowest income people. The BQX will add access to tens of thousands of jobs within a short, one-seat ride to residents of public housing.

Access to tens of thousands of jobs with a “short” one-seat ride? If you live in Queens, the G will still get you to jobs in Downtown Brooklyn and Sunset Park faster. The inverse is true for people living in Brooklyn. And this remains a relatively small pool of jobs: this streetcar will not have many useful connections to crossing subway lines, so there will be little opportunity to access the rest of the city’s mass transit network. I’m just curious to see what the proposal is to do to the existing bus network there: Many people will likely still opt for the B62/B32/B67 buses that actually do connect with the rest of the transit network.

In short, the BQX will offer swift transport through Brooklyn and Queens, not require any existing public funding, and serve high-, medium- and low-income people. I call that a win-win-win.

In short, the BQX will offer plodding transportation through Brooklyn that is half as fast as an adjacent Heavy Rail line and doesn’t connect with the rest of the network efficiently. It will require that the public assume all of the risk with funding the line. And it will serve to increase the profits of developers who are not contributing to this project, and in some cases, are already benefiting from Tax abatements.

Who paid Schwartz to do this study?

Bolwerk February 11, 2016 - 4:40 pm

A bunch of real estate interests. It’s not really a secret. And I don’t know why you somehow think Schwartz and his army of engineers and planners aren’t capable of making a fairly informed estimate of ridership and doing a cost-benefit analysis.

It should bug people that this costs 3x what sane first world prices should be. That said, given the sheer size of NYC, the nonzero potential for TIF value capture, inflation, and the probable ridership, the people going on about how much this would cost really are exaggerating how much this costs relative to buses. There is really reason to believe the public financing side of this would be sort of trivial even without a nickel of TIF. (There is also reason that could be untrue. Maybe future inflation will be lower than I would guess?)

Distance from transfers seems like a potentially valid criticism, though also trivial to fix at this stage.

mister February 12, 2016 - 3:07 am

Yes, everyone does know who paid for the study, which was my point exactly. When a private interest with a clear cut objective is paying for this, then the conclusion is pretty clear cut. Which is why the ridership projections are likely inflated as well. Do I think that there could be 50k trips in this corridor? Absolutely. How many of them will utilize the streetcar? Probably not nearly that many.

Saying $2.5 Billion is ‘trivial’ is the opposite of reality right now, where the city pretty much balked at making that kind of contribution to the MTA capital plan. I don’t think that the comparison to buses, which already have infrastructure in place, is out of whack.

At the end of the day, as the streetcar becomes more and more winding to serve both the waterfront and the transfer points, it loses what little ability it has as a one-seat trunk line. If it is experiencing passenger turnover at regular intervals while it connects to transfer points, it starts to make sense to make this thing multiple bus lines, which already exists. There are many corridors which make sense for Light rail. This is not one of them.

Bolwerk February 12, 2016 - 11:32 am

No comparison there. $2.5B in mostly cash payments for a 5-year capital plan != $2.5B on a new project with new revenue of its own and a 40- or 50-year scope even without the value capture. (And I don’t doubt some value capture, though I think it is the biggest case for exaggeration in this from what I read.)

I really don’t see that as reason to believe that as any more than a possibility that estimate is inflated. It barely rises to the level of evidence, unless it’s a group that has a history of exaggerated estimates. Schwartz is, whatever reasons there may be to object to this project, an engineer. I would suppose what is not being reported is that the estimate is 50k ± some unavoidable error in the estimate, but that’s normal and the error may be in the project’s favor. 50k people over 16 (17?) miles is not that many really, so hopefully that means the seat gets sold a few times.

At the end of the day, as the streetcar becomes more and more winding to serve both the waterfront and the transfer points, it loses what little ability it has as a one-seat trunk line.

Hmm, not sure I believe it has any potential for that. :-p

Well, maybe I do, depending what you mean, but I think practical one-seat rides aren’t much longer than practical transfer rides. At most, the practical one-seat rides are between distances like LIC to Williamsburg or there is probably a faster option already available.

mister February 13, 2016 - 1:58 am

Maybe $2.5 Billion doesn’t generate revenue if it goes into rebuilding fan plants, CBHs and Relay Rooms, but certainly if those things fail, property values will fall. Also, $2.5 Billion could be pumped into SAS. Just sayin’.

I remain skeptical about Schwartz’s study because the people who commissioned him to do the study had an end game in mind. Now it could still be the right conclusion, but when you look at everything else here, it just doesn’t add up. 50k new trips in that area on a mode that won’t connect well to the Heavy Rail network? And on a mode where many one-seat rides will be slower than a two seat ride using a nearby heavy rail line? I just can’t buy into it.

Light Rail may be a great solution for many corridors: Utica, Eastern Queens, maybe even select crosstown Manhattan routes. But I just don’t see it here.

Bolwerk February 13, 2016 - 10:14 am

I guess the right way to put it in something resembling accountingspeak is expenses that make revenue generation possible are attributable to those things. But the more important point there is the repayment timeframe is probably minimally 30 years for the streetcar (I’d guess 50?), so the shock is actually much smaller. $2.5B thrown generally at the 5-year plan would be more a series of cash payments of $2.5B/5 or something – for something we were supposed to get anyway, before Cuomo arbitrarily decided to reverse decades of precedent.

The route length seems to suggest 50k is rather trivially attainable, not even impressive. What I haven’t seen addressed, which I might find more convincing, are growth prospects. If it starts at 50k, a trivial number for the distance and density, can we expect 75k within a few years? Or, how could we get to something like that?

Douglas John Bowen February 14, 2016 - 8:33 pm

I agree with mister to great degree. The problem is political will (or capital) seemingly isn’t available for those “better” routes, even though for us streetcar advocates crosstown Manhattan routes seem to logical.

So sometimes one must eschew that linear laundry list of top-down priorities — railfans and rail advocates are amazingly “a to b” in their thinking oftentimes — and seek out an opportunity that may have a chance to function.

I’d be tempted to accuse New York advocates of incredible myopia and/or resistance to surface rail, especially when evaluating a “less than ideal” or “less than the best” project. But that would be unfair; we faced similar frowns when advancing NJ Transit’s RiverLINE, hardly the most optimal route for the territory at the time (but one we could move forward). We don’t regret the outcome.

Bolwerk February 15, 2016 - 1:10 pm

Doesn’t exactly help that surface rail receives the butt end of the most anti-transit propaganda. People who wouldn’t ride buses or surface rail are Pretty Damn Sure buses are more cost-effective.

SEAN February 11, 2016 - 4:06 pm

As I see it – if this is going to be the only segment of the streetcar system, then it’s going to be a hard sell. However as I noted a few days ago, if this streetcar line gets extended & has new segments added to it throughout Brooklyn & Queens, then it becomes worthwhile.

Bolwerk February 11, 2016 - 4:24 pm

If you ask me, it’s too long if anything. Nobody wants to ride a plodding streetcar over that distance. That doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with plodding, much as the well,-let’s-inflict-buses-on-everyone crowd laughably suggests before presenting a mode fundamentally more prone to speed and reliability issues. To some extent, Schwartz’s estimate of 50k riders is a kind of low bar because 1923 riders/km isn’t actually that many people. The shorter M15 seems to carry closer to 2500.

Figuring out a cluster of useful stop pairs along a smaller route is a better way to start, and should satisfy people who have reasonable concerns about the risk and propose testing the mode.

Jeff February 11, 2016 - 4:59 pm

It can still end up being chopped down, or built in stages. I think it’s the right approach to be more ambitious to start and then let reality hit then to think small and then just lose momentum and stop there.

Bolwerk February 11, 2016 - 5:25 pm

May well be what they’re doing.

The northern half of this route seems daft to me no matter how you spin it. What actual commerce between the south-of-Broadway segment and LIC there is could be satisfied by a spur from Williamsburg’s waterfront to the L and G at Lorimer. To get to downtown Brooklyn you’re just better off with taking the Astoria spur to Brooklyn or to the R, and then transferring to the streetcar for the last mile to Red Hook or wherever.

This isn’t to say riders couldn’t be generated, but the benefit of generating riders those particular riders seems secondary since they’d have other options.

SEAN February 11, 2016 - 8:40 pm

I don’t view the streetcar line as a substitute for subway construction or bus service, rather I see it as an edition to what already exists & it can be more if done right. Now will it be done right? that’s an entirely different debate that will be rehashed over & over – here, streetsblog & elsewhere.

Jeff February 11, 2016 - 4:57 pm

That to me is the biggest reason to do this. Get a system going, have the rolling stock and maintenance facilities available, as well as an agency to manage all this, and that would open up so much potential for expansion of not only street car routes but light rail routes in general.

SEAN February 11, 2016 - 8:24 pm

There’s a city a few hundred miles to the northwest of NYC where we can get some instruction on streetcar design & development. most recently it was known for it’s crack smoking mayor – Toronto. http://www.ttc.com, http://www.metrolinx.ca & http://www.prestocard.ca.

Bolwerk February 12, 2016 - 11:33 am

I understand they have a lot of traffic problems with their mixed traffic trams.

Philadelphia, on the other hand, manages to operate a mixed traffic system pretty well.

John-2 February 12, 2016 - 3:01 am

Looking at the map of the proposed routing last week, one of my concerns would be the streets they’re sending it down over an extended stretch between LIC and DUMBO have poor transfer options to the subway. The line runs over the York Street station on the F, so that’s one connection, but it’s two blocks west of the Bedford Avenue stop on the L and five west of Marcy Avenue on the J/M/Z (it’s not directly over any station on its routing north of York/Jay until it meets the F train again at 21st-Queensbridge, though the line runs close enough to the 7 and the E/G/M in and around Vernon/Jackson and Court Square to at least make the idea of a subway-to-trolley transfer palatable).

I know the real estate developers’ goal is to make the riverfront property more valuable by having light rail access as close to the river as possible, but they are going to have to think over how far from a subway station people are going to be willing to walk to get to/from the light rail stops.

SEAN February 12, 2016 - 9:09 am

There is a city a few hundred miles to the northwest of NYC where streetcars exist in great numbers. This can be quite instructive on what to do as far as building a network that can move hundreds of thousands each day. Of course I’m talking about Toronto & as I speak, the TTC is in process of replacing it’s entire streetcar fleet over the next three years.

SEAN February 12, 2016 - 9:17 am Reply
Ethan Rauch February 12, 2016 - 10:50 am

A bus is too slow? Has this person ever observed a streetcar operating in mixed traffic? It’s slower than a bus. At least a bus operator can maneuver around crashes and stalled vehicles. “Streetcar” is too often a code word for “developer enrichment scheme.” Streetcars may be OK for less congested cities, but NYC needs reserved bus lanes or light rail in exclusive guideways. And by the way, I believe the case brought against GM was a civil action, so no “fines” were involved in the judgment.

Bolwerk February 12, 2016 - 11:51 am

Of all the poorly thought out anti-streetcar cliches out there, this is really the dumbest. Like Reason Foundation-level disregard for actual evidence. Have you ever observed a bus operating in mixed traffic? Even though a local transit bus works passably well in low traffic conditions, a bus maneuvering around stalled vehicles is pretty much hell on wheels, seriously possibly worse than streetcars. If those are your conditions, you need traffic calming or lane separation (preferably both).

It’s mostly a red herring anyway. Dedicated light rail lanes should more than suffice for reliability, and that’s what this project mostly includes.

johndmuller February 12, 2016 - 8:59 pm

Obviously, buses at least have a possibility of getting around a partial blockade of the road, but there will still be the ensuing traffic jam greatly slowing down the bus anyway.

Bus drivers are also pretty effective at playing chicken when they want to maneuver into a contested space even despite their disadvantages w/r length, agility and acceleration. Streetcar operators can be just as aggressive, plus they have an even more intimidating vehicle and while the rails limit their options, that also works as an advantage, since you know that they are not going to swerve off sideways at the last moment because they cannot in fact do that even if they wanted to. Sane pedestrians are not that likely to want to walk in front of a bus, but they are even less likely to want to try their luck with a streetcar.

Streetcar systems seem to more often come with some sort of special consideration w/r traffic signals, etc. than do buses, although it doesn’t have to be that way.


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