By Benjamin Fang
Leading transit experts from Portland, San Francisco and Budapest led a panel discussion and visioning session on Tuesday, March 7, at Brooklyn Law School on building and maintaining a connected streetcar network in Queens and Brooklyn. The event was an opportunity for city officials to take notes as they plan the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX), a proposed streetcar that will run along a 16-mile route from Astoria to Sunset Park. The plan is in its early stages but The Friends of the BQX has been garnering support over the past few months.
Although the project, which is still in its early design phase, likely won’t be ready until at least 2024, the Regional Planning Association (RPA) felt sharing what was learned in other cities with light rail systems would help us streamline our efforts here.
A capacity crowd listened as Portland Congressman Earl Blumenauer, who helped reintroduce the modern streetcar in Oregon, offered his take on how to create a successful transit system.
Every one of the 35 streetcar projects around the country, in cities like Atlanta, Detroit, Seattle and Kansas City is unique, he said. They have different funding sources and development approaches.
“A characteristic of the successful ones is they’ve invested in the citizen infrastructure,” Blumenauer said, “trying to figure out what people want, what they’re concerned about and how to accommodate that in their vision of the future.”
In Portland, for example, to get activists on board with the project, Blumenauer said they created and funded transportation classes where engineers worked with residents to solve local transit issues.
Blumenauer added that in the next two decades, transportation will look different than it does today. With the increasing use of Lyft and Uber and development of autonomous and electric vehicles, people will change how they get around.
Funding models based on gallons of fuel consumed, traffic fines, speeding and parking will also shift, he said.
“We’re facing an era that is going to radically change the face of public transportation in the United States,” he said. “We’ve got to be thinking in different ways. I think a community ought to look at adding a modern streetcar to the toolkit.”
He argued that a streetcar in Portland was more cost-effective than buses and that people were excited to use it.
“The streetcar has the opportunity to attract riders that would not get on a bus at gunpoint,” Blumenauer said. “It has revitalized troubled areas and has been a magnet for people we want to attract: well-educated young people.”
The Oregon congressman acknowledged that there were concerns about gentrification and that even in his own project, they “did not do it as sensitively” as they should have.
“There was too much displacement,” he said. “Frankly, we were surprised at how fast the change came. We weren’t ready for it.”
Blumenauer said that’s why New York City should draw on lessons from other streetcar projects from around the country.
“You’re in a great position to be able to build on this foundation. You’re also New York, what happens here matters internationally,” he said. “If you do it successfully, it will galvanize the streetcar movement we’ve been working on for 25 years.
Screw it up and maybe you’ll kill it,” he added. “You can set the movement back.”
Streetcar advocates from other cities also shared their experiences and advice. David Vitezy, who ran the Budapest tram, said their network was fully integrated into the transit system, including subways. Their system has 396 million annual riders in a city of 1.8 million people.
“Streetcars are everywhere,” he said. “They are the essential surface transit of the city.”
Alicia John-Baptiste, deputy director of the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), said the BQX has to figure out technical considerations, such as signal priority and a dedicated right-of-way.
If streetcars are going to be an actual choice for commuters, she said, they will have to be “really frequent and really reliable.”
“If people have to wait more than a few minutes for transit, they’re not going to wait,” she said. “They’re going to take another choice.”
She expanded on the gentrification concerns many New Yorkers feel will accelerate under the BQX project. Displacement is still a big issue in the Bay Area, she said.
Though San Francisco added 550,000 jobs in five years, she said, they were mainly going to people moving in, not the unemployed.
John-Baptiste said while the city failed to create enough housing, newcomers who arrived for high-paying tech jobs and could afford to live there were taking up existing units.
“There is a fear that if we make our city more attractive by investing in them, by improving transit, we will hasten displacement,” she said. “I understand that logic, but I have a moral problem with the conclusion that we should underinvest in our low-income communities.
“Our low-income communities are those which have the fewest options in terms of how to get around and need the most level of investment,” John-Baptiste added.
To alleviate displacement concerns, cities like San Francisco and New York need more rent control and tenant protections, she said.
“I personally hope that, for you all considering a real generational investment in transit, that fear of displacement won’t stop you from making an investment that could improve the lives of all those living along this route,” John-Baptiste said.
For Rick Gustafson, the mastermind behind the 15-mile Portland streetcar, light rail is “the most effective operation” because it costs less per ride. He said traveling north-south in Brooklyn and Queens has been “a missing component” of the city’s transit system.
“Adding to your access choices is going to be a long-term benefit for everyone involved,” he said.
The panel event then turned to Adam Giambrone, director of the BQX, for insight on how the project is advancing.
“The project we have here is still very much in flux,” he said. “There is a route that has been talked about and proposed. We’ve been looking at it for as long as I’ve been here.”
Giambrone sees streetcars as an “intermediary mode” between subways and buses. While they’re not as expensive or challenging as subways, they are faster and more reliable than buses,.
“It’s not about one mode over the other,” he said. “It’s about choosing the mode that works best in the right corridor.”
They’re still in the process of “digging through the data” to determine the best route and to see if and how it can have integrated fares with the MTA system.
Though the BQX would connect with 16 subway lines, buses and even the ferry system, they’re still in dialogue with the MTA about fare transfers.
“It’s about tying in with the existing network,” he said. “It has to be an integrated approach.”
Though the BQX planners still have much to refine and learn from other cities’ streetcars, they have time. Giambrone said it will be at least eight years before “opening day.”
“This isn’t going to open next year,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do.”