Brooklyn, the pioneer of electric bus service since the 1950s
In early January, the Brooklyn Eagle ran an article announcing that the city plans to introduce 10 new, all-electric buses as part of a pilot program.
Five of these buses would operate on the B32 in Brooklyn and Queens, and the remaining five would run on Midtown Manhattan bus routes. The plan would also include an overnight charging station for electric buses in Queens as well as an en-route power-charging station at Williamsburg Bridge Plaza.
Many observers feel the number of these buses should be increased because of their projected cost savings and their environmental benefit, and that the city was wrong to consider adding 200 diesel buses to transport Brooklyn commuters during the upcoming L-train shutdown.
Not many people know, however, that Brooklyn was a stronghold for another type of electric bus — known as a trolley bus or a trackless trolley — back in the 1950s. The electric buses that have been ordered are powered by powerful electric motors that only need occasional recharging.
This technology wasn’t available in the ’40s or ’50s, so Brooklyn’s original electric buses were powered off trolley-like overhead wires while having the flexibility of “regular” motor vehicle wheels that don’t have to ride on tracks. Thus, these buses were a true hybrid between buses and trolleys.
The first Brooklyn electric bus route was put into service in 1932 along Cortelyou Road in Flatbush. A brochure from the Brooklyn and Queens Transit Corporation touted its benefits: Quiet, smooth and safe operations; comfortable and convenient with a roomy interior; graceful, streamlined appearance; no exhaust fumes or gases; adequate lighting and heating, reliability and flexibility.
The brochure described the trolley bus service as being experimental. The electric buses were kept in operation because they were popular and successful, but no further routes were established until the late 1940s. We don’t know exactly why, but it’s probable that the Great Depression and World War II had something to do with it.
Once the war was over, the city’s Board of Transportation (one of the forerunners of today’s MTA) got into the trolley bus business in a big way. In 1948, it ordered 100 new electric buses from the St. Louis Car company. These buses looked basically like the diesel-powered buses of that era except for the two long trolley poles extending from their roofs.
Five more routes were established — the St. John’s Place route, from Borough Hall through Crown Heights to Pennsylvania Avenue; the Tompkins Avenue route in Bedford-Stuyvesant; the Lorimer Street line in Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant; the Flushing Avenue line in Williamsburg and Bushwick; the Graham Avenue line in Greenpoint and Williamsburg; and the Bergen Street line, which traveled from the Columbia Street district through Carroll Gardens, Boreum Hill and Bedford-Stuyvesant. All of these were former streetcar routes; the city was in the process of eliminating trolleys, little by little.
Observers will note that the electric bus routes, except for the Cortelyou Road line, were all in central or northern Brooklyn. That’s because it was more efficient to service all the electric buses at the same garages. Two garages were set up for this purpose, the Bergen Street garage in Bedford-Stuyvesant and the Crosstown depot in Greenpoint. The Board of Transportation also planned to extend the trolley-bus concept to other lines in Brooklyn (including some extending into southern Brooklyn) and western Queens.
A friend of this author remembers the last years of the trolley buses in Crown Heights. What he recalls, however, is that the buses had more of a square design in the rear with a much bigger bumper — making it easier for kids to hop on and off.
Unfortunately, not only was the trolley bus system never expanded, it only lasted a little more than a decade. Several things got in the way, most of them cost-related. The cost of maintaining the overhead wires zoomed upward. A fire in 1952 damaged the overhead wires leading to the Crosstown depot, meaning that all electric buses now had to run out of the Bergen Street garage.
The demise of the Brooklyn streetcars in 1956 meant that it now would be even more expensive to maintain and buy power for the electric bus routes, since, as everyone knows, if you buy something in small quantities, it’s more expensive than if you but the same commodity in larger quantities. Also, it’s possible that the Transit Authority (as the Board of Transportation was now known) might have been vulnerable to pressure from diesel-bus manufacturers.
The first line to go was the Cortelyou Road line, which converted to diesel buses in 1956. In 1959, a few more lines were converted, and the remainder were converted in 1960. The trolley bus era in Brooklyn was no more.
Yes, the new electric buses that Brooklyn is scheduled to receive are a totally different technology from the old electric buses, or trolley buses. However, there are still places in the U.S. where trolley buses can be seen in daily service. Among them are San Francisco; Cambridge, Mass.; and Dayton, Ohio. Brooklyn was definitely a pioneer of trolley buses, but unfortunately, they never had a chance to grow to maturity in our borough.
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