Thursday, February 4, 2016

No, Brooklyn and Queens do not need a waterfront streetcar

The Times reports on a proposal by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, to be unveiled at tonight's State of the City address, for a new streetcar line along the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts. The "Brooklyn-Queens Connector," or BQX, would run from Astoria to Sunset Park, serving a 16-mile route at a projected cost of $2.5 billion.

Let me not mince words: this is an awful project.

Why? Let me count the ways:

  • $2.5 billion for 16 miles of light rail  = more than $150 million a mile, which is so stratospheric as to seem an outright insult. The T Third Street light rail line in San Francisco cost $110M a mile, already well into the cost range for heavy rail, and unlike the proposed NYC project, some of the T has dedicated right of way. 
    • And dedicated ROW, not the mystical power of steel wheels, is the secret to faster vehicle speeds.
  • By wasting money on fixed rail guideways and extremely expensive light-rail vehicles, this project guarantees that, all else equal, the frequency of service along this line will be (much) lower than it could have been, if the same alignment were served by less expensive buses.
    • And frequency, not shiny trains, is the real secret to faster, more reliable door-to-door travel times!
  • Placing a transit line along the waterfront is a questionable decision, because it automatically reduces the impact of the service by increasing walking distance to the line for most customers. (This is because nobody lives in the water, so serving the nobody-in-the-water conveniently means serving the actual-people-on-land less well.)
  • Rail transit presents serious logistical problems when vehicles break down. This includes both the streetcars themselves and the ubiquitous double parkers for which the outer boroughs are justly famous. Streetcars can't generally pass broken-down trains or abandoned cars - which adversely impacts reliability. And we're meant to pay more for this luxury?

Rail = grail?

It is telling that the Times names Alicia Glen, de Blasio's Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development, as the chief booster of this project. Streetcar projects are often presented as a panacea for economic growth, notionally because the permanence of the rails is meant to translate into a perception among investors that transit service is there to stay. (I recently attended an event at which former Portland Mayor Sam Adams referred to that city's downtown streetcar as "development-oriented transit"!)

But one need look no farther than H Street in Washington, DC, to appreciate that steel rails alone move nobody (track was laid in 2009, but revenue service has yet to begin), and a glimpse at Buffalo's Main Street streetcar corridor should indicate that light rail can be an economic lightweight.

Glen is not wrong when she states that New York's existing transit network no longer serves the city and region's changing and growing needs. But when resources are limited (and they always are), turn to buses! In some situations, full-blown heavy rail is justified - and indeed New York City is full of such situations; New York is also, not coincidentally, full of subway lines. But where the capacity and speed of true grade-separated transit is not economically justified, buses and bus rapid transit provide performance competitive with, and often superior to, light rail and streetcars at a tiny fraction of the price.

In fact, it would be feasible to run a high-quality bus rapid transit line, with off-board fare collection, dedicated right of way, and traffic signal priority, along this (bad) alignment and still have well over $2 billion left over. Blowing all that money on a streetcar is what it looks like when people who do not fundamentally understand public transportation plan transit investments.


Perhaps the only good news here is Mayor de Blasio there are two and a half billion dollars just sitting around waiting to be squandered on this terrible project. That's enough money to deliver a vast network of excellent bus rapid transit lines and increase bus service hours enormously. And these investments would actually make a difference for mobility in Brooklyn and Queens.

As long as politicians continue to throw their support behind major capital expenditures on system expansion, while starving the operating funding that actually animates transit systems, public transportation will fail to reach its full potential, and American cities will have to do without the badly needed mobility that wiser planning could provide. (To be fair to politicians,  they are only following their natural political incentives: a ribbon-cutting is a highly visible show of dollars delivered, while frequency is invisible.)

As a transportation planner, I'm urgently interested in raising the public's awareness of the tradeoffs among project alternatives. In this task, I am up against a persistent bias among Americans toward rail transit and against bus transit, even when buses are, by the numbers, a much more appropriate solution. The tone of the comments section on the Times article was a mix of romantic interest in the idea of a streetcar and shock at the profligacy of this project. So perhaps there is hope yet.