Brief Thoughts On: New York City's Proposed, Urban-Focused Streetcar

Author's Note: This is the first of a new type of article on The Fox and the City, a "Brief Thoughts On..." piece. These articles are meant to be shorter, less polished, and perhaps a bit less considered than the usual fare here. Hopefully however, the shorter length will allow for more articles on timely issues as well as for more freedom to explore esoteric ideas. Whether this turns into more articles or not is an open question, as these have a habit of evolving into larger pieces. But enough with behind the curtain ramblings...
The Portland Streetcar at the OHSU Station The Portland Streetcar at Ohio State Health University1.

For those of you who haven't heard, last week, in his State of the City address, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio officially threw his weight behind a proposal to build a streetcar line along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront2. With a planned length of around 16 miles, and an estimated cost of two and a half billion dollars, this (at least partially) mixed-traffic streetcar would be New York's first major investment in crosstown travel since the Independent Subway's Crosstown Line (today's G train) was constructed in the early 1930s.

To be honest, my initial reaction to this proposal, like that of many initial reactions I've seen, was quite skeptical. Rumors have been circulating about a waterfront streetcar project in Brooklyn since at least the early 2000s, coming to a head with the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association's oft-maligned plan to connect downtown Brooklyn and Red Hook3. At the same time, real estate developers and parts of the city's government have been pushing hard for large-scale residential redevelopment along Brooklyn's East River and harbor-facing coasts. Given New York's transit needs, it is tempting to write this project off as frivolous at best, and cargo-cult thinking at worst—that is, other cities have successfully built streetcars which have supported residential development, so we should as well. But the longer I've studied the proposal and ruminated on its merits and its meaning, the more and more I've warmed to it, and indeed, the more and more I've come to support it.

A map of the proposed Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar The proposed streetcar route4.

As of right now, details for the streetcar are scant save for the broadest strokes—to my knowledge, there isn't even a promotional website as of yet. But these broad outlines are encouraging. This isn't a traditional transit project aiming to tie residential areas to a central business district. Instead, it is something far more forward-looking: a proposal to link large and geographically separated urban environments together. So many transit projects are hyper focused on carrying commuters, with little concern to their effect on the cityscape or to how cities function on deeper levels. Whilst this streetcar would certainly serve some commuters, it is aimed at all types of trips: a recognition that not all jobs are centralized, and that human activity, be it social (e.g. visiting restaurants, pubs, or friends and family), cultural (e.g. taking courses, visiting galleries, visiting museums), or economic (e.g. shopping), flourishes when people can traverse the urban environment quickly, without resorting to cars. This is the kind of transit New York has thrived on for well over a century, and it is what makes living in the city without a car not merely possible, but preferable.

For New York City, this focus on interconnecting the urban environment is a welcome change. I cannot help but compare it to some of the statements surrounding the closure of the L-trains East River tunnels for repairs5. It's not that I have a magic proposal to fix these tunnels, which are in dire need of major maintenance after being inundated with seawater during Hurricane Sandy. But many of the quotes about planning for this major disruption from analysts and those in the MTA alike seem solely focused on commuters. Make no mistake, commuting into Manhattan is a major role of the L train, but as a piece of socioeconomic infrastructure, it also does so much more. Neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Bushwick aren't mere bedroom communities; they are full-fledged centers of urban life, full of restaurants, galleries, nightlife, social venues, and more. These repairs may be necessary, but these places and their residents will suffer mightily if cut off from quick and easy access to and from the rest of the city for a long period of time. I fear that the MTA's contingency plans will focus solely on commuters, forgetting the larger importance of mass transit to these communities, and ignoring other potential solutions—for example, attempting to coordinate the first phase of this streetcar to coincide with the shutdown—which could make the years of repairs far more bearable.

The streetcar would bring other benefits as well, such as serving shifting job distributions. By extending earlier, Brooklyn-centric transit proposals to the Queens waterfront, the streetcar would link what are currently lower-income neighborhoods to booming places like Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Downtown Brooklyn, and Sunset Park. This would give residents in what are currently transit-underserved neighborhoods both easy access to these places and to the jobs therein—all without having to travel out of the way through Manhattan. The restaurants, bars, stores, small offices, and other institutions along the route need employees, and many of these are jobs which are at least somewhat accessible to lower income New Yorkers. With this streetcar, many jobs which today would require an arduous and time-consuming journey would become far less burdensome and thus far more possible.

The Seattle Streetcar with cranes and construction surrounding it.
Seattle Lake Union Streetcar at the Westlake Station
Westlake Station from Above
Tapping in at the Westlake Station
Above: The South Lake Union Streetcar in Seattle has spurred a massive amount of residential and commercial development.
Below: Seattle demonstrates how a streetcar can be woven into the urban environment, at the Westlake station.

Of course, that same accessibility brings with it the real risk of residents in lower-income neighborhoods being priced out of their homes. Quality transportation makes neighborhoods more attractive, a fact that the tax scheme proposed to pay for the streetcar—essentially a levy on property tax increases from rising values—depends on, at least to some extent. Putting potential displacement aside for one moment, this is another way the project can be seen as forward looking. Transit has often been forced to squeeze its sustenance from the farebox alone while its social and economic benefits evaporate as externalities. While it comes with its own issues, tax-increment financing is one way to recapture some of that loss for the public good. That said, displacement and rising costs are real concerns, doubly so in a metro area as expensive as New York, and this is something the city must plan to cope with before embarking down this road. Refusing, however, to invest in infrastructure is an incredibly perverse way to attempt to reduce the effects of income and wealth inequality. There are—one hopes, at least—ways of working to solve or at least alleviate these issues without taking a fundamentally destructive step: avoiding investment in the city's long-term function.

The streetcar project would also represent a major change in New York City's relationship with the MTA, a state agency. Since its inception, there has consistently been at least some level of tension between the city and the MTA. The agency is a highly independent organization, and though the mayor appoints some of the agency's board members, it must also answer to the governor. To my eye, this tension has only grown in recent years. For example, see the mayor's comments during the recent snowstorm where his praise for the governor for leaving the underground portions of the subway operating sounded as pleading as it did thankful6. While the city and the mayor usually bear the brunt of criticism for the MTA's operations and capital planning, in reality they often have limited influence and control on the agency's decisions. As both a highly independent agency and an organization torn between multiple masters, the MTA can be very difficult to bring onboard any particular political vision, particularly when that vision doesn't come from within the agency.

Portland Streetcar in the Pearl District
Portland Streetcar tracks Downtown The successful Portland Streetcar integrates well into the cityscape.

This streetcar, in contrast, would be built and financed by the city itself7. This is part of an ongoing trend which has pitted urban centers against larger state governments. Going back to its initial birth in Portland, OR, the current American streetcar resurgence has been financed mainly on a metropolitan, not state, level (with federal assistance, of course). This is why these projects are and have to be constructed as streetcars: the infrastructure costs of streetcars are much lower than those of traditional light rail, and orders of magnitude less than subway construction, allowing cities to again afford to construct their own local transit systems. For New York, not only would this allow the tax increment financing we discussed above—something the MTA would legally be unable to do without major, state-level legislation—it would give the city a much larger measure of control over its transit destiny. The proposal would not only allow the city to build new transit, it would allow it to do so while attempt approaches such as alternative financing and streetcar technology—things that the conservative MTA almost certainly wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole.

Of course, like all projects, not all is sunshine and rainbows, and like many others, I too have major concerns about this plan. First and foremost is subway connectivity. A major reason this line would be valuable is that it would serve a waterfront which is, at best, a good walking distance from existing transit. Much of the route is somewhat underdeveloped in the sense that it tends to brush against neighborhoods that are already destinations, without passing through their hearts. In order to be truly successful—again, particularly as it doesn't enter a traditional central business district—the streetcar must make good connections with the existing subway. It is vital the streetcar become part of a transit system, a dense mesh of services which connect the city together. Current plans seem have the line run quite far from most stations, meaning either there would be poor "transfers" involving long walks, or significant inland jogs, adding distance and slowing travel for through passengers. Further, the fact that this isn't an MTA project makes fare interoperability a concern. A dual fare would be a major negative for the streetcar, and though this issue should be solvable in negotiations to make the system a part of the Metrocard network, nothing is guaranteed when competing political agencies are involved.

My second concern is the sheer length of the proposed line. Fundamentally, streetcars aren't all that fast. Don't get me wrong, the planned average speed of 12MPH compares favorably to many forms of transit8. More importantly, this proposal doesn't particularly focus on end-to-end travel, but rather on the many shorter, neighborhood-to-neighborhood and neighborhood-to-subway trips along the route. Still, sixteen miles is a long way, and for those who do end up going end-to-end, it will be a long ride—potentially longer than the same trip via Manhattan. This doesn't mean the project shouldn't be built or built as a streetcar—as noted, it is the affordability of streetcars that makes the line possible at all. But it does mean that finding ways to ameliorate travel time—most notably by giving the streetcar dedicated lanes wherever easily feasible, for instance, underneath the Gowanus Expressway—should be a priority. The good news is that this also seems to be a concern of the project planners, and according to at least one source, at this early stage of planning, up to 70% of the route may be built in dedicated lanes9.

There are also some complaints circulating which, to me at least, have less validity. These mainly seem to focus on why the plan would utilize a streetcar instead of some other transit mode. We've already covered why a streetcar is affordable for the municipal level: a streetcar allows for real investment in moving significant numbers of people in an attractive and efficient manner. More specifically, some have bemoaned that this system would not have enough capacity; that it would essentially be so successful as to become quickly overcrowded. That may well be a possibility, but consider this: the current, realistic alternative is not a massively grade-separated light rail system nor a subway line, but rather to build nothing at all. If this project is built and turns out to be wildly successful, its lower construction costs could hopefully allow more transit—for example, another parallel line say a mile further inland—to be built, providing an even denser and more complete transit mesh.

In the other direction, some have asked why a streetcar instead of improved bus service or bus rapid transit (BRT). Normal bus lines have a great deal of difficulty attracting riders who have other transportation options, and compared to rail transport, they are slower, less comfortable, and less psychologically comforting. Normal bus lines also don't excite the passions nor promote business or housing investment. BRT, by contrast, with its rail-like stations and dedicated, visible routes, may be an acceptable alternative. However, in order to carry the same number of passengers and be as attractive to riders—both in terms of comfort and trip quality—a BRT system would require an almost equal investment, both monetarily and in terms of road-surface space. This potential minor cost savings would come with the very real risk of the project being pared down to the point of being unrecognizable as rapid transit. And whilst some champion the flexibility of busses—for instance their ability to shift to other routes as travel patterns change—that same flexibility can just as easily mean a service reduction or removal as it can an increase. In contrast, rail transport would represent a permanent, physical, and visible investment in New York's urban future—particularly its future outside of Manhattan.

Most importantly of all, we have to keep in mind that this proposal does not directly compete with the city's other transit needs. It is tempting to view a Brooklyn-Queens streetcar as frivolous compared to completing the Second Avenue Subway, finishing the Long Island Railroad's East Side Access, connecting the region to LaGuardia Airport, or any number of other projects. But remember, this proposal is not under the aegis of the MTA, and as such, doesn't impact that agency's capital budget or plans. Whilst the projects listed above are certainly compelling and pressing, the streetcar project essentially exists in a separate, non-competing space. As such, it deserves to be understood and evaluated on its merits alone.

Portland Streetcar meets the Portland Aerial Tram The Portland Streetcar and the Portland Aerial Tram (no relation).

As I said at the outset, I was initially skeptical of this proposal. The more I study its merits, however—as I hope the above makes clear—the more and more exciting I find it. Right now, it looks to be a truly urban project: a way of connecting full-service, living neighborhoods together in ways that improve urban life first and foremost, instead of focusing solely on transit as a tool to move commuters.

So at the end of the day, where does that leave us? For all the buzz, discussion, and excitement this streetcar has created, it is still merely a proposal—one which is a long way from being funded and ready for construction. Proposals are cheap, and many similar projects have died on the vine with nary a further mention. Follow through matters the most, and only time will tell if the de Blasio administration can bring this streetcar to fruition.

That said, this streetcar plan is something different, something exciting. If built, it would represent a level of civic investment in urban life (and urban transportation) that New York has not seen outside of Manhattan in years. More importantly, it would also represent a new model for how we approach urban transportation planning and investment, one focused on a more complete understanding of urban life. This proposed streetcar would bring a lot to New York City. If it could also bring a deeper push towards investing in urbanity and urban life across the country, it would be worth well more than the price of admission.