Mayor de Blasio’s plans to build a streetcar along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront — called the BQX — should be welcomed by all New Yorkers.
Not only will the project serve the hundreds of thousands of people living and working within a half-mile of the route, but it also will bring back a sorely missed mode of transport — one which dominated urban transit in New York City from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. (Disclosure: My firm did preliminary planning for the BQX.)
The last streetcars disappeared from Brooklyn and Queens in 1956 and 1957, respectively. Why they disappeared from most of the U.S. is a complex story involving conspiracies, thoughtless policies, a distorted vision of modernism and the meme that buses were superior.
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.
By the 1920s, urban modernism was in full swing with the French planner Le Corbusier setting the tone that the contemporary city should rely on sleek cars with even sleeker highways. In New York, not only did Robert Moses take this to the nth degree but the progressive Regional Plan Association (I’m a board member) in the 1940s supported one of the dumbest transportation ideas of the century — removing the four tracks of rails on the Brooklyn Bridge and replacing them with car lanes. Prior to removal of the tracks, the Brooklyn Bridge transported about 400,000 people daily; after “modernization,” just 170,000 people!
After World War II, numerous federal policies — from building highways to G.I. bills supporting construction mostly in suburbs, not city centers — further triggered ridership losses for transit, with the conversion of tracks to car lanes.
I can’t knock buses, as they play a very important and major role in New York City transit. But, one of the first things I learned in transportation planning in grad school in 1969 was that smart cities would have an array of transit options from subways to streetcars to buses and minibuses. European cities, just two-plus decades after the war, recognized this, and that’s why many of those cities have at least all three modes.
For the densest demand corridors, subways work best. For other high-activity areas, streetcars. For medium- to low-density zones, buses.
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.