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This article has been adapted from the July 1997 issue of the NY Streetcar News.

This page last updated:
Nov 28, 2016.

What's So Great About Streetcars?
By George Haikalis
Senior Editor, New York Streetcar News

Webmaster's note: Many things have changed in the NY metro region since 1997, when this article first appeared. We had a billionaire Mayor who ignored all trolley plans; the World Trade Center was destroyed, the city's economy ran down and only partially recovered, we paid for a trillion-dollar invasion of Iraq, and we now have a supposedly more egalitarian mayor, whose administration has actually managed to focus on streetcar proposals for more than a few minutes. But unfortunately, some things remain exactly the same. We're still stuck with car chaos and transportation stalemate, with little or no movement toward real solutions like light rail transit, as described below. This article has been slightly edited from its original text.

NEW YORK, July, 1997 -- THE PARALYSIS AT CITY HALL that delayed and then ended the long-planned 42nd Street crosstown trolley shows just how tough it can be to garner widespread support for measures that reduce automobile travel in the very heart of the city. Even well-traveled New Yorkers who have enjoyed riding streetcars in European cities, or in Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans, Portland, Minneapolis or San Diego, to name a few, have difficulty envisioning them here, amidst NYC's strict market censorship imposed by relentless propagandists for private cars both inside City Hall and throughout the local media.

But that's why the Committee for Better Transit, together with Auto-Free New York and other civic and environmental organizations, has promoted streetcars, as the modern solution to urban automobile chaos. For decades, NYC pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders have been pushed aside (and often run over!) by the private automobile.

Today, more and more New Yorkers are beginning to see what a poor and even cretinous use of urban public space the private car represents. Building on that understanding, we have called for the City to install a network of trolleys that will send a positive message: that public transit vehicles, as the cleanest and most efficient users of our city's limited space, are better than buses and more important than cars, especially for travel in Manhattan, the nation's (and perhaps the world's) most crowded business center.

Of course, we recognize that New Yorkers are often preoccupied with other key concerns like housing, jobs, education, discrimination, etc. Trolleys can get overlooked. And with virtually no public debate permitted in the local media about the best use of our streets, trolleys, so mundane in other cities, may seem almost exotic to some of our more provincial New Yorkers. So we answer here some of the most frequently asked questions about these unique vehicles:

1. Why bring back trolleys?

In the first decades of the twentieth century, NYC had the world's most extensive network of urban streetcar lines, with tracks laid on nearly ten percent of its 6,000 miles of streets. But by the 1920s, it had become clear to the city's well-to-do business and professional classes, seduced by newly available, exclusive private automobiles, that streetcars were getting in their way.

Elite groups like Manhattan's Fifth Avenue Association pressured City Hall to make more room for their private cars. They succeeded in getting sidewalks narrowed in many places, and were especially, even fanatically focused on getting rid of the trolleys, which they labeled slow and old-fashioned. In response, a trolley industry group formed to create a modern streetcar. The result was the PCC trolley, which began showing up on Brooklyn streets in 1936 to widespread acclaim and instant increases in ridership (Brooklyn trolleys were run by a separate company). Unfortunately, around the same time, then-Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, with highway builder Robert Moses breathing down his neck, quashed a citywide order for 500 more of the PCC's, and directed WPA work crews to tear up the tracks in Manhattan, sending New York's trolley systems into a death spiral. This momentous decision condemned millions of city residents and visitors to at least 80 years worth of cramped, noisy, exhaust-spewing city buses, as well as streets privatized for automobiles.

Although World War II delayed the scrapping of NY's trolley system, the job of destroying this huge amenity and public investment wasn't finished until 1956, when the NYC Transit Authority, cobbled together from the city's formerly private transit lines, was born. The era's primitive buses -- even more noisy, cramped and polluting than the ones today -- became the norm, obediently pulling to the curb and allowing cars to pass. Trolleys had been the ultimate "traffic calming" device, attracting riders, while inhibiting car travel. Today, with no trolleys around to blame, and with a minimal bus presence, some city elites and the politicians they control have even hatefully tried to scapegoat bicyclists and pedestrians for NYC's ever worsening traffic problems. Remember Mayor Koch's infamous attempt to ban bicycles on Fifth Avenue, or Mayor Giuliani's sidewalk-fencing rampage in midtown?

Meanwhile, with City Hall strangling the alternatives, turning NYC's streets over to private automobiles, particularly in core-area travel, has been a disaster. Over 30,000 pedestrians have been slaughtered by motor vehicles on NYC streets since 1899, when Henry Bliss, the city's (and the nation's) first pedestrian casualty, was run over and killed by a car. Today, on average, one pedestrian is slain by car every couple days. Thousands more are injured annually, and car occupants are sometimes not spared, either. The cost in terms of medical, legal, police and insurance expenses, and wages lost, must run into the millions of dollars. The relentless noise from car and truck engines, tires, horns, alarms, radios and ultra-loud sirens is a major deterrent to living in this city, and undoubtedly contributes to stress and mental illness among city-dwellers. City and regionwide air pollution continues to exceed Federal health standards - in fact NYC continues to boast the nation's second-worst air quality, after Los Angeles. Public open space, trees, grass and playgrounds for our kids are sacrificed everywhere for private car storage.

By cutting car use and offering a substantive alternative, streetcars offer the opportunity to reduce this burden. Not only are they faster, and more comfortable to ride, they are fun, too.

2. Why not electric buses?

Electric-powered buses in special lanes have often been suggested as a way to avoid the serious investment in streetcar tracks for real trolleys. San Francisco, for example, makes fairly good use of these quiet, clean vehicles in conjunction with its sophisticated trolley and cable car systems. But electric buses would require two sets of overhead wires, and are still saddled with buses' poor public image, under continuous assault by the car-oriented propagandists in the local corporate media.

In other cities, experience has shown that while motorists generally disregard staying out of bus-only lanes, they will respect well-designed trolley lanes. More so than just overhead wires, tracks in the street make route patterns easier to grasp for travelers. At station stops, new low-floor streetcar designs with wide, subway-like multiple doors make boarding much faster than buses. Innovative proof-of-purchase fare systems (similar to parking meters for motorists) make the trolley "nearly free" for holders of monthly, weekly or one-day passes. The trolley becomes a moving sidewalk, dramatically enhancing short distance travel.

Futuristic surface-vehicle technologies like guided buses, maglev, air-cushions, etc. may someday match the features of today's standardized, cost-effective, modern trolleys, now in daily use the world over. The potential for innovative new transit vehicle types exists and should be pursued, but such expansive (and expensive!) dreams should never be used to delay the introduction of much-needed trolleys in our traffic-plagued city. New York can benefit greatly by studying closely the experiences of other more sophisticated American cities with recent trolley installations or expansions.

3. Where will all the cars go?

When asked this question, traffic-pained New Yorkers often suggest some rather colorful answers. Seriously, conventional-wisdom transportation planning employs a fixed "trip table" of travellers' origins and destinations. Yet on the average, workers change jobs and residents move about every five years. Travel is very malleable. People choose logically among the options offered to them. For example, when it rains, cabs become scarce; and taxi riders switch to subway or bus. Travel on Manhattan streets is even more discretionary because of the sizeable portion of travelers who are visitors, not commuters.

The city's current environmental analyses for traffic plans are based on the "worst-case" scenario: current travel patterns (i.e. lots of cars) will remain fixed and incremental trips generated by new buildings will simply be added to existing travel streams. Then "mitigation" measures are devised to prevent travel conditions from worsening. Rather than this "worst-case" model, the City should embrace a more sophisticated "best-case" approach that allows the city to manage travel demand so that the city's attractiveness for business activity and its livability are enhanced.

4. What about deliveries on streets with trolleys?

Trolleys often operate along a curb lane or on pedestrianized auto-free streets. In such streetscapes, deliveries must be skillfully managed. But it's not rocket science. Usually, deliveries are made through side doors on less busy streets. Lighter loads can be handcarted from reserved side street truck parking areas onto the mall. Only for heavy loads, where front-door delivery is essential, are trucks permitted to drive over paved trolley tracks to get to designated loading spaces, and only during very limited off-hours. This set-up, with built-in flexibility, has proven to work on the many trolley and pedestrian malls installed in the U.S.

Most of NYC's busiest shopping thoroughfares, particularly in Manhattan, are great candidates for completely auto-free streets with trolleys. Fulton Mall in downtown Brooklyn is already auto-free, but with buses rather than streetcars. As in European cities, within pedestrian-only zones, trucks could be allowed in, but at walking speed only, for delivery purposes.

Streetcars running in landscaped medians down the center of broad arterial streets, like Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, pose few problems for truck deliveries. In narrower streets with trolleys in reserved lanes, trucks are given priority over private cars for curb access to avoid double parking. At trolley stops with boarding islands, "no standing" zones may be needed in adjacent curb lanes. While a few cities have retained streetcars operating in mixed traffic on narrow crowded streets, new installations should be in reserved lanes.

5. Won't trolley wires make the streets look ugly?

NYC's catastrophic blizzard of 1888 brought a call to eliminate the clutter of overhead telephone, telegraph and electric power lines that served the fast-growing city. Back then, most street railways were horse-drawn, though the busiest routes were being converted to cable cars (like San Francisco's). When electric traction technology for streetcars became practical only a few years later, Manhattan's existing cable car lines were rapidly converted, using their underground cable conduits for electric power transmission. New underground conduit was installed on other busy routes, in Manhattan. Elsewhere in the city, and for all U.S. installations except Washington, DC, overhead trolley wires were the norm.

Today, all new trolley lines located on city streets in the US use overhead wires. By keeping the wiring simple, burying power cables, and where feasible attaching supporting wires to existing buildings, trolley wires become unobtrusive. In business areas, incorporating new paving, trees and ornate vintage light and trolley poles as the tracks are installed can result in very attractive streetscapes. Finally, most reasonable people would gladly trade poisonous exhaust fumes and the roar of diesel engine noise from buses for a few overhead wires and quiet trolleys.

6. Can trolleys run off-street on regular railroad tracks?

Many recent streetcar installations in the US operate on lightly used or abandoned railroad tracks as well as on city streets, showing the versatility of "light rail transit," the term for this technology used by the transit industry. For example, NJ Transit's Hudson-Bergen LRT line makes extensive use of railway trackage before reaching city streets in Jersey City (please visit this line, just across the Hudson River, and take a ride to see for yourself!).

Many of the proposals featured in the New York Streetcar News in the past call for running trains on low-density rail freight lines in NYC. To succeed, planning for rail freight and rail transit must be closely coordinated. Fortunately, in our area, Metro-North and the LIRR already do this.

The German city of Karlsruhe, near the French border, has begun routine operation of its tramway lines on regular mainline railroads, used by regional and high speed trains as well. In America, substantial institutional barriers across various jealously guarded transit fiefdoms will have to be overcome before this practice becomes acceptable. Here's where a strong governor, senator or even President could shake up or remove obstructive bureaucrats.

7. What about NYC's poor record for street maintenance?

Drivers, bus riders, cyclists and pedestrians often complain about the poor quality of NYC's street pavements. Streets here are pounded to pieces by oversize trucks, frequently ripped up for utility work and then shoddily patched. Even when the city has completed costly and time-consuming rebuilding of streets, new utility work is occasionally necessary. Installing new streetcar tracks in this harsh environment will require careful coordination with providers of sub-surface utilities. Also, planning should also anticipate reconfiguring streetspace to allow not just for trolleys but for greater pedestrian space and for bikeways.

In the long run, deliberate under-investing in our streets is foolish economics, because it raises vehicle repair costs, increases claims against the city for the pain, suffering and medical costs of pedestrians and cyclists and leads to increased noise, pollution and stress.

8. How will we pay for trolleys in NYC?

Over the past two decades, NYC's transit funds have been focused on bringing its existing subway system back from the brink of collapse in the 1970s to its current good state of repair. Now, with new Federal monies becoming available, city and state agencies are slowly looking at major additions to the transit system. In order to qualify for these Federal funds, the city and state are often forced to broaden the range of potential traffic solutions wide enough to include LRT as an option in their studies. As a result, some studies contain serious LRT proposals; others come across as jokes. The fact remains that street-running LRT can avoid the extraordinarily high cost of new subway construction in the city, often costing as little as one tenth as much per mile as a new subway. It can also rejuvenate the city's bus-only surface transit system.

Planning for new surface LRT lines must be seen as just one key part of a complete package of overall surface traffic measures involving pedestrians, buses and cyclists. But City Hall seems unable to think in a comprehensive way about these planning issues. The great economic advantages of LRT can only be achieved if the city is willing to moderate its current car-oriented policies. Inevitably, some street space must be reserved for new trolley lines and for drastically better pedestrian amenities. A commitment to reduce overall auto use would logically also include road pricing strategies on congested river crossings and at other locations, and restrictions on parking and land use policies that currently are encouraging suburban-style strip malls and parking garages throughout the city.

These are tough political questions and NYC's elected officials have traditionally been reluctant to face them. With your support, the New York Streetcar News hopes to provide the information needed for the city to create the technical tools and the political spine to save itself from auto-obliteration.

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