Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Streetcars in New York? Ask JSK

A visit to exchange ideas could possibly spark the New York Streetcar renaissance. Janette Sadik-Kahn will visit the city to talk about bikes and the big changes in New York but might come away excited about streetcars, something Toronto never left behind.
Janette Sadik-Khan, Commissioner of Transportation of the City of New York, is in Toronto tomorrow to celebrate Earth Day and to see a Toronto icon that she wants to bring back to the Big Apple: the streetcar. “I’m very jazzed about my visit,” Ms. Sadik-Khan said today from her New York office. “The streetcar program is something that I’m looking at here. We threw away our streetcars, and you kept them. I think it’s a great economic development tool.”
I don't think that New York should adopt the streetcar model of Toronto exactly. For one thing the single cars are more like buses instead of the sleeker more comfortable european trams that can be of greater size due to modular designs. You would lose out on some of the benefits of greater capacity and energy usage. Toronto is currently looking to replace the existing vehicles so we'll probably see them make the switch soon as well. Also it's likely that a dedicated lane for streetcars will be necessary to make the lines even more efficient, something Toronto is starting to do.

Perhaps we'll see some sort of study soon. And perhaps New York can look to some of Scott Bernstein's ideas on using funding from electric companies to bring them to scale. Not everywhere, but on a few key routes that could use the capacity.


arcady said...

The idea of streetcars has been kicking around for a very, very long time, at least since the Dinkins administration, but who knows, perhaps JSK will get it done like she got the bike lanes and pedestrian plazas done. Streetcars would do well with reserved lanes and high capacity vehicles, acting as a sort of super bus on busy crosstown routes in Manhattan, with 42nd or 34th Street being a logical place to start. There's also potential to use streetcars as a sort of pre-Metro system in the outer boroughs on busy routes that don't have subway service, like Flatbush, Utica, and Church Avenues in Brooklyn, and a Toronto-style connection between subway and streetcar would be quite useful here.

Corey Burger said...

Trams/streetcars are one and the same. The latter is merely the North American term for the former. The only difference is that modern European-style streetcars/trams are getting bigger, almost to the size of a small LRT vehicle. The only reason Toronto is not running them is that the TTC is woefully underfunded.

Corey Burger said...

Oh, I guess I should also mention that the Toronto streetcar system has some very sharp curves, which makes running longer vehicles more difficult.

kenf said...

Some of the last streetcars to run in NY were in Brooklyn, on Church Ave. They were PCCs.

Randy Simes said...

Streetcars would be great for NYC because they would help act as a relief for the crowded subway system for those going on shorter trips.

Anonymous said...

Toronto will be replacing its 30 year old streetcars with 204+ 30m long low-floor single-ended light rail vehicles.
In addition, within 10 years, the more suburban areas of Toronto will require 400+ double-ended low-floor light rail vehicles, which will run in right-of-ways, separate from car traffic.

Adam said...

Streetcars would NOT take relief off the subways. Subways run at a much higher speed and a much higher capacity than a streetcar. Streetcars run as a single car; the subways run as ten cars. The streetcars usually run at 10-20 mph and are subject to traffic signals. Subways don't have this problem. To get from one part of the city to the other, streetcars are the last thing you need. You need subways and there are lots of places where we need more subways.

This isn't to say, of course, streetcars shouldn't be in NYC. They should just be on a smaller scale. A streetcar is nothing more than a glorified bus when you think about it, and to make it work it needs its own right of way. I've been thinking about streetcars in NYC. Here's where I came up with some ideas:

(Keep in mind these are designed to fill in transit gaps where there's either no subway or where I don't propose a subway)

Manhattan: 34th Street crosstown (ban all vehicles from 34th Street except emergency vehicles and have a dedicated streetcar line stopping every two blocks).

*Culver tram (runs from the 9th Avenue station on the West End Line (D) east on 39th Street to Dahill Road, then turn onto Ditmas Avenue and end at the Ditmas Avenue Culver station (F). This replaces the old BMT Culver shuttle. Ban automobile traffic from 39th Street. If I had my way, I'd demolish the Gowanus Expressway, build a mixed-use community west of Third Avenue, and run the tram there.

*Myrtle Avenue - Runs from the Jay Street - Boro Hall station (A,C,F) east along Myrtle Avenue to Brooklyn Broadway where you can transfer to the J or M.

*Coney Island Loop - Runs around western Coney Island around Surf and Neptune Avenues between W 37th Street and Stilwell Avenue

*Queens - You could probably propose streetcars in Astoria and Jackson Heights. I doubt I'd do Flushing though because I have some subway ideas there.

*Bronx - Replace the "Select Bus Service" with a streetcar and ban traffic on Fordham Road. Have it run on dedicated ROW when you get to Pelham Parkway.

*(I WAS going to do a Third Avenue El replacement, but that's too long; you need a subway)

*Hoboken, NJ - though not in NYC, Hoboken could use a streetcar on Washington Street and have cars banned from it.

Matt Fisher said...

The fact is, they just call streetcars trams if you're in Europe or almost anywhere else outside North America. I just prefer to use local terminology.

Here are three sites advocating for light rail (really streetcars) in New York:


I really like the idea. London has done it, Paris has done it, and Hamburg's gonna do it. Their U-Bahn is actually largely elevated but with some subways, like the Chicago L.

Many of your suggestions sound quite good. Indeed, some European cities have trams running in the same areas as metro lines, like in Prague, Helsinki, Lisbon (?), and Milan. I've heard about proposals to bring back trams to Oxford Street in London, and possibly to some routes where metro lines currently exist in Brussels, including on the inner ring road, similar to another existing example (and one of my favourite examples), Vienna's famed Ringstrasse.

Oh, and by the way, the last streetcar in NYC ran in 1957 on the Queensboro Bridge between Manhattan and Queens, but this was interborough. The last intraborough streetcar line was in Brooklyn, as you appear to note.

It would be very nice to do this on 42nd Street. I haven't been to NYC, but I keep wanting to go there over and over again. Dang. (I may be going in Upstate NY to Utica this summer, and I've been in Upstate NY.)

njh said...

Adams says: The streetcars usually run at 10-20 mph and are subject to traffic signals.Neither of these claims are true, trams in Melbourne travel at about 40mph between stops, and the lights change in advance for them. You can also make them 10 cars long if you want, modulo willingness to block cross roads. (like the Budapest caterpillars)

And when you factor in the going up and down stairs time, trams become very competitive. People in Melbourne take the trams for moderate hops.

/me has just finished 'the pushcart war', which was very funny and rather topical.

arcady said...

Streetcars in NYC would compete with local trains on the subway and provide high capacity and high quality service on crosstown routes where there is no subway. The streetcars could get nice self-enforcing dedicated lanes, unlike BRT where enforcement is a constant challenge.

John said...


keep that scheisse out of lower Manhattan.

We are not middle america we are New York City. We do not need phony sentimentalism gumming up our streets with the retarded version of buses.

I hope everyone knows that they cannot turn to avoid obstacles. That's a problem in Toronto, but it would be a way bigger problem in NYC.

Toronto only has streetcars because they haven't upgraded their transit system since 1925... haha oh wait neither has New York.

Adam said...


I've been on systems with preempted signals, and they're still too slow (see the Broad Street line in Newark and of course the HBLR). The idea of transit is not to have to deal with anything automobile traffic has to deal with and that means not sitting at traffic lights for any reason.

I'm not saying streetcars are useless; I'm saying that for trips of more than two miles they're too slow.

And 42nd Street is NOT a good place for a streetcar, what with two subways already. Transit should be built where there isn't transit.

I like Barcelona's system a lot, where they have subways serving most of the city and have several tram lines on the outskirts. NYC should be like that (complete with Alstom Citadis).

Njh, in New Orleans the streetcars can only run 10 mph, that's where I got the numbers from.

But the fact is for dense cities like NYC you need to build subways or elevated lines (ie anything grade separated). Surface transit just won't cut it here.

njh said...

After having seen the result of a tram and garbage truck having an altercation at speed, I think the tram's inability to go around things is overrated. You just need to teach people a bit of 'spect.

The truth is that people prefer trams and are far more willing to ride them. Even at 10mph they are double the speed of the cars in NYC.

arcady said...

Okay, let's not build a tram line on 42nd street. How about 86th Street? Less than 2 miles, significant demand, no subway or prospect of one. Oh, and as for signal preemption, while it's only likely in the outer boroughs, it can be quite effective. I did calculations of this at some point for the Blue Line in LA, but it basically came out to a 35 mph average speed on private ROW, about 16 mph with signal preemption (on Washington Blvd) and 8 mph without (in Long Beach). For comparison, the 1 train averages about 12.5 mph from Houston St to 125th St.

Adam said...

There are three corridors in Manhattan that need a something: 34th Street, 125th Street, and 96th Street. 34th Street should definitely be a streetcar (but not a "Heritage" type please) and 125th Street should definitely be a subway (extension of the Second Avenue Subway). In an ideal world, 96th Street would have a subway too if the SAS would have express trains, but it won't. So I guess a streetcar there, too.

Interesting comparison there, Arcady. That's interesting.

What I don't get is why you guys are romanticizing about streetcars when every other country continues to build subways without worry about the cost. I doubt many other countries are building heritage streetcars. Some are building modern ones, but no one is using historic rolling stock there.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Adam I don't think anyone on this page is talking about Heritage Trolleys. In the post specifically I linked to a post I wrote about modular tram construction because if you had a single 50 foot vehicle what is even the point of building a streetcar line?

As to other countries building subways, you must be talking about China because many countries in Europe if they are building subways, they are doing it one at a time just like us. Budapest will open its line 4 soon and London is planning Crossrail. However tramway construction in the EU is taking off as well.

Adam said...

Pantograph, that's definitely good then. I don't want to see PPC streetcars in NYC. It would be nice, though, to have Alstom Citadis LRVs and Siemens Avanto LRVs. I LOVE those.

Oh, and I'd like to see a light rail line in Montclair (or a bunch of them) because NJ Transit has so many stations there so close to each other.

Matt Fisher said...

By the way, a fourth metro line in Prague, Line D, is in planning. There is, however, 32 km of new tram extensions proposed there, including on Wenceslas Square, in planning or underway by 2015.

And in Milan, a new metro line, Line M5, is under construction. Another line, M4, is underway, and there are proposals for a Line M6.

However, the trams are quite extensive and interesting there. I find Prague to be an interesting example, but I'm not sure if Prague or Budapest is better. I don't want to turn it into a debate like this of my own I just wrote.

Jon said...

i just have a hard time seeing how streetcars fit into a busy midtown manhattan cityscape with high speed one way expressways/avenues. streetcars seem too low density for manhattan and completely out of scale. i could somewhat see, or better yet only see, if they ran in reserved streetcar-only lanes in which case it would be essentially LRT. right now the crosstown buses' average speed is 3.5 mph which is appallingly disgraceful and i dont really see the streetcars doing any better (unless of course dedicated lanes which would benefit streetcar or bus either way). in some ways you could say the frequent local subway trains function like a streetcar would though at a higher speed.

i could see a streetcar in manhattan in an operation that linked say battery park city to maybe city hall station. or maybe in brooklyn linking a major residential neighborhood to a major nearby subway station. but definitely not on the major crowded midtown avenues.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Jon you should take a look at Budapest's Line 4/6 which has the longest streetcars in the world. Comes every minute during peak and can carry 18,000 people per direction per hour. Yes it has its own lane and it works.