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A Brief History Of Streetcars In NYC

Mayor Bill de Blasio is set to announce a plan to build the city's first streetcars in almost 100 years. Why is it worth bringing back?

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The wind is shifting in New York, with people traveling more between outer boroughs like Brooklyn and Queens rather than solely to and from Manhattan. Today, Mayor Bill de Blasio will reportedly propose a plan to create the city’s first streetcar line in a century to connect the two burgeoning boroughs.

The streetcar will stretch about 17 miles along the East River waterfront, beginning in Astoria and ending in Sunset Park, and at 12 mph it’ll be slower than most subways, which tend to move at about 30 mph. Still, for most residents of the two boroughs, it’s a very cool idea. The plan has a target completion date of 2024, and will cost $2.5 billion. The news, announced by The New York Times last night, is set to be formally announced in a speech by de Blasio this evening, so we’re going to be hearing a lot more about the specifics today.

W.P. Snyder/New York Public Library Digital Collections

Why Did NYC Get Rid Of Its Trolleys In The First Place?

In a way, de Blasio’s plan marks a return to "old" New York City—and a form of transit that hasn’t been seen on its streets in almost a century. The first streetcars in New York weren’t even mechanically powered; they were horse-powered. The first horsecars, operated in 1830s New York City, used the animals to pull a car along rails (the technology had its issues: poop was a major problem).

Horsecars soon became cablecars and for decades, both New York and Brooklyn operated robust above-ground transit systems. In fact, the Brooklyn Dodgers got their name from the trolleys that criss-crossed the borough. "Dodger" was who still had to dodge the trolleys once Manhattan started building underground subways.

So, what happened to the streetcar system? A pointed assault from car-makers, which bought up the lines and got rid of them to promote cars and buses. A shell company owned by GM, Standard Oil, and Firestone Tires was responsible for the ploy, as Brooklyn Historic Railway Association explains, a perfect trifecta of companies that had very good reason to want buses, not streetcars, serving the city. The company was "ultimately found guilty of criminal conspiracy to destroy the American streetcar system," the BHRA writes. "Unfortunately, the damage had already been done; by the time of the verdict (the 1950s), most of America's trolleys were gone."

In fact, the very first horsecar line, which ran along the Bowery and was the first streetcar line in the world in 1832, is now home to the busy M1 bus line. The same process repeated itself across the country, as told by this shocking clip from the Center for Investigative Reporting's Heartbeat of America.

New York Public Library Digital Collections

Why Are They Worth Bringing Back?

There are major benefits to streetcar systems. First and foremost, this line will cost half of what the Second Avenue Subway, New York City's decades-in-the-making line, will cost, and it'll be completed much more quickly. Still, as exciting as the plan is, there are reasons to be cautious, as the Transport Politic's Yonah Freemark told Co.Design.

In addition to the slow speed of the system, not many people ride buses along the same stretch of neighborhoods, "indicating a lack of demand for this kind of expensive transit." Another critical issue? Making sure the line has its own dedicated lane, unencumbered by red lights or traffic, aka "transit signal priority." Finally, Freemark points out the most fundamental truth about any major transit project: that spending this money here means it won't be spent on other projects. "City residents should be asking whether this project is the best their $2.5 billion can buy," he writes. "If the money were spent on an extension of the Second Avenue Subway or a line on Utica Avenue—as Mayor de Blasio proposed in previous years—would the public be better off?"

Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector

The route runs along some of the most explosive growth areas in the city, and The New York Times reports that "officials believe the cost can be offset by a revenue stream taken from the expected rise in property values along the route." The driving force behind the project, a nonprofit called Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, includes developers and businesses like the Durst Organization, one of the city’s biggest developers with an Astoria project in the works, Steiner Studios, a movie production studio with an operation in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and Union Square Ventures, a prominent venture capital firm, according to the NY Daily News. Developers along the Williamsburg waterfront, like Two Trees, seem to be involved too according to Second Avenue Sagas. We don't know much about the specifics of the funding yet, but de Blasio's speech should shed some light on the plan.

Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector

New York is far from the first city to plan a streetcar—in fact, NYC is a bit late to the party, joining cities across the country in planning aboveground trolley systems. A few years ago, Eric Jaffe pointed out that there are a number of reasons to be cautious about the streetcar trend, ranging from the economic impact of the development around the lines on low-income neighborhoods, to the fact that, in some cases, buses may make more sense from an economic and infrastructural standpoint. Some cities have completed their lines, but others have abandoned their plans very recently.

All that said, it’s an exciting moment for New Yorkers. A project like this would mark a historic change in the city’s very fabric, a paradigm shift that goes counter to the last century of transit policy. We'll hear more tonight as the mayor formally announces the plan.

Slideshow Credits: 01 / Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector; 02 / Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector; 03 / Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector; 04 / Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector;

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