Opinion: BQX streetcar could be the great transit equalizer
New York City’s transit system has long been designed to funnel people from surrounding boroughs into Manhattan, harkening back to a time when it was considered the economic heart of the city. But in the 50 years since the MTA took over control of the subway, the makeup of how people need to get around the city has changed dramatically. Brooklyn is set to outpace Chicago in population in the next few years and “outer borough” job hubs like Long Island City and the Brooklyn Navy Yard are booming. But our transportation network has yet to reflect those seismic shifts.
The proposed Brooklyn Queens Connector streetcar (BQX) that would run 11 miles from Red Hook to Astoria would finally start to change that. In an important new step forward for the project, the city is holding a series of community engagement sessions about the project. Last week’s meeting was held in Downtown Brooklyn, and we were there along with other supporters – from transit advocates to NYCHA residents and civic groups. The more the public learns about the project, the more they’ll come to realize its importance for the future equitable growth of the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront. We’re looking forward to another meeting tonight, in Red Hook.
The BQX is designed to boost inter-borough connectivity, while also serving to complement existing transit links. With no direct subway link connecting Astoria to nearby Long Island City, let alone Brooklyn, residents often have no choice but to take the subway from Queens, into Manhattan and back out to Brooklyn, or vice versa. That or wait for the bus, which has experienced a drop in ridership for six years in a row as its service continues to decline.
In the Downtown Brooklyn area, the argument for the BQX is a strong one. As residents of Ingersoll, Farragut and Whitman houses learn more about the benefits of the project, they are lining up to support it. For too long, many of those residents have been stranded by the bus while watching others enjoy rideshare services along the route. They’ve come to realize that quality transit can serve as an equalizer, and that the BQX could provide a convenient, ADA-accessible link to workforce and job opportunities, healthcare and parks, and schools and cultural activities. These meetings held by the city will provide more opportunities for NYCHA residents to learn directly from the city about the project.
We hope small business owners attend the meetings, too. The BQX would also serve as a benefit for many of them, including along Atlantic Avenue. Last spring, we convened small businesses along the route, and heard from some of their peers from different parts of the country who had experienced light rail or streetcar construction. The feedback was universal: while any construction of course comes with temporary disruption, the long-term benefits ultimately far outweigh those inconveniences. Whether in Minneapolis, Seattle, Kansas City or Portland, business owners said the transit system was a boon for business.
With good communication, construction mitigation and planning, this could be the case along Atlantic Avenue and other retail corridors. Although some customers do drive and park in front of some of those businesses, the loss of some of the already extremely limited parking could be offset by increased foot traffic produced as a result of a new mass transit system that would serve 60,000 riders per day on day one.
The BQX is far from a cure-all for the city’s transit woes and it is not a substitute for fixing the subways (and, remember, it wouldn’t take away funding from subways or buses, either). But there are critical gaps in our transit infrastructure that upgrades to our existing system will not address – and the BQX would help to fill those gaps, connecting to 13 subway lines, nine ferry landings and more than 100 Citi Bike stations.
At the same time, it’s clear that a bus is not the answer to moving people along the route either. Brooklyn and Queens’s complex, narrow and winding road networks, marred by frequent traffic signals and irregular loading – a far cry from Manhattan’s grid system – have rendered many SBS and local buses ineffective, inefficient and unreliable. A streetcar would enable passengers to bypass these predictable pitfalls, with only five to ten minutes between arrivals at peak times. Finally, the BQX would provide a viable model for future city-run streetcar lines in other transit deserts across the city.
The city’s meetings will continue in February and into March, with meetings scheduled for tonight in Red Hook, and later in Williamsburg/Greenpoint, Long Island City and Astoria. This all comes at the outset of a big year for the BQX, as its environmental review wraps up and the project heads toward its full public review. We encourage our neighbors to join us at these meetings to learn more about how the BQX will address a longstanding transportation need for communities along the corridor.
Darold Burgess (left) is the Resident Association President at Ingersoll Houses and has lived there for more than 50 years. Christopher Torres (right) is the Executive Director of Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector. Photos courtesy Friends of BQX.
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