Regional Plan Association: Brooklyn needs more housing, transit projects like BQX
“We’re going to need to be smarter about the way we do things,” Regional Plan Association (RPA) President Tom Wright announced at the beginning of RPA’s “Streetcar Success: What New York Can Learn from Other Cities” at Brooklyn Law School’s Feil Hall. Using graphs projected on a screen, Wright warned the assembly of transportation managers, community activists and business leaders that the tristate region’s previous 25 years of economic growth would slow to a trickle in the next quarter century without significant investment in housing, infrastructure and especially transportation.
RPA’s pitch in favor of the proposed Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) — a 16-mile streetcar line to run along the banks of the East River from Astoria to Sunset Park — took place just a few blocks from the previous week’s Brooklyn Heights Association meeting where the BQX proposal took a pounding from an entirely different panel of experts, and which drew scathing criticism from BQX proponents as having been deliberately one-sided.
RPA brought mass transit experts from Budapest, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon together with NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer from Oregon’s 3rd District.
“We’re looking for solutions, we’re looking in a bipartisan way,” Trottenberg said, introducing Blumenauer, who, as Portland City Commissioner played a key role in developing Northwest Portland’s Streetcar system. Later, in Congress, Blumenauer introduced The Streetcar Revitalization Act, aimed at promoting the use of streetcar transportation throughout U.S. cities.
Referring to mass transit programs, Blumenauer said, “The successful ones, find out what people want, what they’re concerned about, and how to accommodate that in their vision of the future … We’re facing an era that is going to radically change the face of urban transportation in the United States.”
Next up, David Vitezy, former head of the Transport Organizer of the Municipality of Budapest, described the Hungarian capital’s transit system as Europe’s most prodigious, moving some 400,000,000 riders annually with streetcars, subways and buses consolidated into a fully integrated mass transit system. With 65 percent of travelers currently using public transportation, Vitezy stated that the city’s goal of 80 percent utilization of mass transit by 2030 was within sight.
BQX critics have argued that the streetcar line proposal contains elements of a sweetheart deal for property owners along the banks of the East River, and that it would serve only a few thousand residents in neighborhoods such as Red Hook who truly lack access to mass transit.
But dozens of NYCHA residents from city housing communities far from existing transit options attended the meeting.
“Residents in Queensbridge Houses need more reliable and efficient transit to take them to jobs and job opportunities,” said April Simpson, Residents Association president of Queensbridge Houses. “While there are many details still to be worked out, BQX will offer a more accessible transit option that our residents need.”
“The biggest concern for me and members of my community is access to transportation so that we can get to work,” echoed Frances Brown, president of Red Hook East Houses Residents Association. “I support BQX because it will bring safe, reliable transportation to my neighborhood.”
Expedited bus lines serving central and northeast Brooklyn have been proposed as cheaper, more easily implemented alternatives.
Several speakers, however, discounted the utility of more buses on surface streets. “Bus ridership is down,” Tom Wright pointed out, in contrast to subway ridership, which has nearly doubled in the past decade. Buses compete with other street traffic.
Vitezy faulted buses for limited capacity: “A streetcar carries 2.5 times as many passengers,” he said.
And Alicia John-Baptiste, deputy director of SPUR, the Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, reminded the audience that longer wait times risk inspiring a class based transit system, as the more affluent would reject an excessively slow transit for faster alternatives.
“We have a real opportunity here,” Adam Giambrone, BQX director, told the audience. He went on to describe a contemporary transit system that is still based on moving people from Brooklyn and the other boroughs into Manhattan: “We know that there are new employment centers that are being created … that aren’t necessarily being served by a transportation system that was defined by needs of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century.”
The desirability of Brooklyn (or Queens) “centric” transit has been a recurrent theme for BQX advocates. Brooklyn, they remind listeners, boasted one of the nation’s largest and most advanced streetcar networks, interwoven sufficiently into the life of the city-cum-borough that it provided a name for the hometown baseball team: the Brooklyn “Trolley” Dodgers.
For many of its advocates, the BQX symbolizes Brooklyn’s “re-emergence” from the consolidation of 1898.