Good Streets Include Streetcars

Last stop for Brooklyn’s trolley dodgers at Fairway Market in Red Hook.

Devotees of the Red Hook, Brooklyn Fairway grocery store can have the pleasure, after loading up on gourmet salt and other essentials, of sipping coffee on their back veranda over looking the river. It’s a wonderful view. On your right is the Statue of Liberty, flame aloft, and to your left, about ten feet away, a decrepit old green streetcar.

This old trolley, which adds a rough urban charm to the spot, is about all that remains of an admirable effort that ended a few years ago by Bob Diamond and cohorts to bring streetcars back to Brooklyn.

Diamond, renowned for his discovery of the old Atlantic Avenue tunnel — one of the oldest rail tunnels in the world – may have simply been peaking too soon, for streetcars are coming back. While they aren’t back in Brooklyn yet, they are in many cities. Dozens of cities have built, or are building, new streetcar lines. They include Portland, Kenosha, Charlotte, Little Rock, Lowell, Memphis, Tampa, San Diego and Charlotte. Some of them are installing vintage or antique cars; some are installing brand new ones. They join cities like New Orleans, Toronto, Melbourne and San Francisco that kept or revived existing lines.

Paris, France launched a sleek, modern streetcar system last year.
More Paris photos below…

This trend is a good one, for streetcars can be one more way to give people alternative to driving, and thus enabling more walkable, bikeable streets. Perhaps most important, streetcar lines are the most urban of transit systems, at least those that run above ground. Unlike their competitor, the so-called "light rail line," streetcars mesh almost seamlessly into a street without bulky grade-separating apparatus and stations that can end up making a street less walkable. Streetcars are also less polluting, more energy-efficient and cheaper to maintain than their other big competitor, freewheeling buses.

Before World War II and the complete domination of the private car, streetcars used to run on virtually every major street New York City and indeed, every major street in every city in the United States. These old lines, although long gone, have left their mark on streets in big and small ways.

For example, most local shopping streets tend to be where the old trolley lines ran, like 5th Avenue or 7th Avenue in Brooklyn. That’s because commerce tends to congregate around transportation lines. Those shopping streets are still there, even though the streetcar lines are not. Most of New York City’s current bus lines run along the same routes as the old trolleys.

Another marker is in names, which, as in shopping streets, tend to persist. The Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, formerly of Brooklyn, derives its name from the hundreds of streetcars that used to roll down the streets of this New York City borough, and the "trolley dodgers" who had to jump out of their way. The name was apt, for the number of streetcar lines that once were in Brooklyn is truly astonishing. It is indeed a subject for an entire field of research.

Could Brooklyn or other boroughs ever have anything like the dozens of different lines they once had? I don’t want to rule it out, even though it’s clearly a dream. What’s not just a dream is that streetcars are coming back, perhaps even in this region. Stamford solicited proposals just last week to examine the potential for a new four-mile line that would connect major nodes within the city. Whether this would qualify as a streetcar or a light rail line might be a matter of semantics.

I could see streetcars playing a substantial role within many cities in the region, even Manhattan. The Regional Plan Association’s (where I’m a Senior Fellow) Third Regional Plan recommended a Midtown light rail loop, which is essentially just a streetcar loop. Vision42 has been pushing for years for a Midtown light rail loop part of its plan to pedestrianize 42nd Street. Vision42 argues that light rail loop could be built at far less cost than the proposed #7 subway line extension while providing many of the same benefits in helping to improve mobility and galvanizing development on Midtown Manhattan’s far west side.

As a "mode," to use a planneresque word, streetcars have a lot to offer. They are better than buses, which are the usual lower cost alternative, because they provide a smoother ride, even while traveling at higher speeds, and being more beloved by customers. One study showed that streetcars travel faster than buses, because drivers tend to defer to a train-like vehicle and get out of their way. As significant, they tend to attract more private development because rails in the street have a permanence that inspires confidence in commercial and residential developers.


The usual competitor to streetcars is light rail lines. Interestingly, there is no clear distinction between a light rail line and a streetcar line, although there are general ones. Light rail lines tend to have dedicated and separate right of way, tend to travel out of town rather than within town, tend to have longer trains, and tend to have fewer stops. And most significantly, tend to cost a lot, lot more to build, often three times as much per mile.

A good place to start looking at the possibilities of streetcar revival is Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Gloria Ohland and Shelley Poticha of Reconnecting America. In a series of separately authored articles, it provides a range of both broad overview and technical analysis of the options involved. They look at vintage cars, new lines, even things like the "rapid streetcar," that blends the best of both the streetcar and light rail styles.

Some combination of the above could clearly work in Brooklyn, to name my own favorite borough and dwelling one. If that were to happen, then the lonely streetcar in Red Hook could be a reminder of what is to come, rather than just of what was.

Photos: Aaron Naparstek, Paris, France, March 21, 2007