Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Streetcars are not a good inter-borough transit choice for New York City

I can hardly claim to be an expert on New York City or its transit system, but we do get to Queens, Manhattan, and Brooklyn from time to time, because we are privileged to have occasional access to a friend's apartment in Astoria.  Queens is still not considered hip like Brooklyn or preferred like Manhattan, but on the N Subway, Astoria is only 6 stops to Manhattan, and Astoria is cool in itself.

It turns out years ago I wrote a piece ("Retail and authenticity: continued") on the Steinway Street commercial district based on a New York Times article  and the place we can stay is just a couple blocks from it.  The same with my use of a green grocer photo from Queens that I plucked off Flickr, it's from 30th Avenue in the same neighborhood and just a few blocks away.

Similarly, I have ridden modern and historic streetcars in places like San Francisco, New Orleans, and Portland, and I can say unequivocally that they are not suited to great numbers of people.

So while I appreciate the need for a waterfront transit service as suggested by New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman in yesterday's article, "Brooklyn to Queens, but Not by Subway," I worry that he made the wrong recommendation, for streetcar not light rail. 

Peak ridership on the Portland streetcar now is about 12,000 daily riders, on two routes spanning 7.2 miles.  The G subway line between Queens and Brooklyn carries about 115,000 daily riders.  


A surface transit line about 11 miles long serving Brooklyn and Queens would have the capability of drawing tens of thousands of daily riders, at least 50,000 and likely more. 


Right: T3 tram in Paris.  Image from Linternaut.

Plus, to move that many riders reasonably efficiently, dedicated transitways would probably be required--to the extent possible--and again, Kimmelman specified streetcars moving in mixed traffic.

On the other hand, some of the light rail projects implemented in European cities, including Paris but also Bilbao, are better examples.

A good comparison would be T3 tramline in Paris, which draws more than 100,000 daily riders on its 14 mile long line.  Streetcars don't have the capability of comfortably serving that many riders.

And it turns out that light rail was what was  suggested ten or so years ago, by Alex Garvin, who came up with the idea originally.

So it is unfortunate that instead the NYT architecture critic highlights a great idea bringing better and more transit to underserved parts of Brooklyn and Queens and giving it the endorsement of the nation's leading newspaper--but he suggests the wrong solutions (1) streetcar instead of light rail and (2) mixed traffic instead of dedicated transitways. 

Images below of trams in Bilbao from "Bilbao Straßenbahn und U-Bahn."



Bilbao.  Bilbao demonstrates that unlike in the US, it is possible to implement light rail programs relatively quickly.

After the Guggenheim Museum opened in 1998, the city's economic development team realized that Metro subway service wasn't situated well enough to serve the museum and to move people between other areas along the waterfront.

They realized that trams (light rail) could be a good way to move people between subway stations and to various destinations along the river and in adjacent districts.


Subway service was included in the original economic development and transportation revitalization planning for the city. but light rail was not.

They revised their thinking and decided that light rail would complement and extend plan objectives.

They committed to go ahead very fast, and four years later, in 2002, the first part of the tram line was opened between two Metro stations and providing service to the Guggenheim Museum.

The original line continues to be  extended, and additional tram lines are now being constructed elsewhere in the metropolitan area.

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