A Streetcar to Link Brooklyn and Queens

New York City is on the verge of rediscovering street cars and light rail. While the city and much of the region used to be covered by a dense network of trolleys, only three lines are running in the tri-state region today, all in New Jersey: the Newark city subway, the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, and the Trenton-Camden River Line.

It is time for New York to get on board. Across the U.S. and around the world, communities are choosing light rail as an efficient, accessible and comfortable way to move people. In research RPA conducted involving 17 cities around the world, 13 used light rail, adding up to almost 500 route miles of track that carry close to one billion riders a year.

If New York is going to continue to grow and prosper, we need these systems, too. Surging transit ridership is putting enormous strain on our buses, subways and commuter rail. The subways are more crowded than ever, but adding new lines is extremely expensive.

A streetcar in Vienna. Credit: My Train Pix (flickr)

More than 40% of New York’s population isn’t served by subways or commuter rail at all. These residents rely either on buses, which can travel at speeds equal to a brisk walk, or cars, which add to traffic and pollution.

The streetcar that Mayor Bill de Blasio is proposing for the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront would be the first light rail in New York City in decades. It would serve a dense and growing residential population, offering access to burgeoning employment centers in Sunset Park and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It would provide a direct connection to waterfront destinations that have either little or no transit, and link to subway lines and ferry landings along the route.  

Part of what makes the project so valuable is that light rail, like subways, has been shown time and again to be a catalyst for economic development, spurring job creation and new homes and businesses. That development potential is what underpins the project’s construction cost: The city could bond against future tax revenue that would come from increased property values along the corridor.

The Brooklyn-Queens streetcar also opens the door to exploring other places where light rail would make sense. RPA has long recommended building a light rail line along an underutilized right-of-way that stretches from Bay Ridge in Brooklyn north through Queens and into Co-Op City in the Bronx. The Triboro would intersect with 20 subway and commuter rail lines. And like the proposed waterfront streetcar, it would connect communities in the outer boroughs that for far too long have had little or no access to reliable public transportation. There even is an opportunity to link the two lines in both Sunset Park and Astoria. (See map below.)

Projects like the streetcar and the Triboro are designed to address the needs of a changing city, one where population growth is concentrated in places like Brooklyn and Queens and where more residents commute to jobs within the outer boroughs than to Manhattan. They aren't the only transit investments that our city and region need. We also need to upgrade and expand our subway and bus system, recommendations that RPA will be delving into in the Fourth Regional Plan. But unless we connect our communities and provide better access to jobs and services, we will be cutting off large segments of the city from the potential for growth and opportunity.