A couple of months ago we sat down with Bob Diamond, Chairman of the Brooklyn Historical Railway Association, along with several members of BHRA and Bronxite Richard Garey of the West Bronx. For some time now, Richard and I had been discussing the poor transit options in the West Bronx and the vacuum left behind when the Third Avenue El was ripped, leaving a hole in Morrisania straight up to Fordham forcing millions to make do with buses and transfers leading to longer commutes.
When the Third Avenue El was dismantled, the Bronx had lost over 300,000 people during the burning years but its loss is probably being felt the greatest today now that the population is growing and we are very near our historic high of 1.45 million residents in 1950. Development is rampant in these areas with thousands of affordable housing units being constructed each year yet our transportation network has not kept up with the pace.
Our buses are more crowded than ever and slower, our subway lines have residents packed like sardines and sure the new SB express buses have been introduced in The Bronx and other boroughs but they are just but band-aids on a serious problem.
So the big question is, can the streetcar make a come back in our borough and across the city and make our lives better? After sitting down with the group and pouring over the data it certainly seems like it can, with the right amount of backing from city, state, and federally elected politicians.
Extensive research has been done by Bob Diamond and BHRA showing how cost effective the entire plan is and now, more than ever, there are federal funds to actually achieve these projects.
Check out some of the history and facts which support this endeavor including old images of the trolleys and streetcars which once ran along the streets of The Bronx. (Also, don’t forget to check out the slideshow presentation in pdf format)
On a typical rush hour morning in the Bronx, there are a few sounds that are so familiar that it is easy to drown them out. Whether it is the horn of the railroad trains, the rumbling of the elevated subways, or the revving of the buses, these stimuli seem like facts of daily life. However, as unremarkable as these images may seem there is something missing. Few people take the time to figure out what is missing or why. The missing link in our public transportation scene is the streetcar (also known as the trolley). At its apex it was the technological marvel of its time and omnipresent in the Bronx.
The tale of the streetcar begins in the 1830’s. As American cities began to expand, new forms of transportation were needed to transport citizens. Paved roads were a rarity and only heavily trafficked roads warranted the expense of pavement. The main forms of transportation were walking and horse drawn omnibus. Rough road conditions of the era limited horse pulled omnibuses to a pitiful 4 mph. They were also too expensive for most city dwellers.
Fortunately there were some improvements. Innovative thinkers realized that it would be cheaper to lay iron rails on the road instead of paving it over. In November of 1832, the New York and Harlem River Railroad built the world’s first horsecar railway from Prince Street to 14th Street along the Bowery. The horsecar resembled a stagecoach on train tracks pulled by a horse. It was more efficient because the metal wheels on metal rails reduced friction and the smooth rails allowed for 30% faster speeds. Consequently, this allowed residents to commute 2-3 miles away from the city center. New York mayor Walter Browne remarked that the horsecar was “the grandest achievement of man.” This represented an important advancement in the concept of street railways.
Despite the success of the horsecar, it was still limited by its animal power source. Eventually their usefulness declined as cities developed to maximum extent of horsecar lines as Manhattan did in 1870. The final blow to the horsecar came in 1872 with the Great Epizootic. This was a strain of horse flu, which killed thousands of horses severely limiting the horsecar as a form of transportation.
Frank J. Sprague discovered the answer to the propulsion dilemma: electricity. Sprague is a relatively unknown visionary who worked under the famed Thomas Edison. In 1884, Sprague attempted to bring electric technology to New York City. He set up an electric test track in an alley on E 24th street and asked to meet with Jay Gould who controlled the elevated lines. At the time, the els were run using steam locomotives. Gould arrived for the test run but Sprague, perhaps excited, applied power too early creating an electrical malfunction. There was a loud boom and a blinding flash, which severely frightened Gould. Consequently, the scared millionaire refused to use the technology forcing Sprague to find a new venue for his idea. Sprague got his opportunity in 1887 when he won a contract to build a streetcar network in Richmond, Virginia. A successful electric streetcar network had never been implemented anywhere else in the world In 1888 he successfully presented his masterpiece to the world ushering in the age of the electric streetcar. By 1902, street railways were almost all electrified, had over 22,500 miles of track, and carried 5.8 billion passengers.
In the Bronx, all streetcar lines were eventually consolidated under the Third Avenue Railway. It started as the Third Avenue Railroad Company in 1853 and originally operated a horsecar line between City Hall and 61st Street. In 1898 it acquired the Union Railway, which had controlled almost all of the streetcar lines in the Bronx and Lower Westchester. The Third Avenue Railroad went into receivership and for a time became part of the Metropolitan Street Railway. The Metropolitan Street Railway was the result of several large mergers instituted by Thomas Fortune Ryan. The company had 3000 streetcars and 300 miles of track. It was so busy it required 10 streetcars per mile! In 1908, it was reorganized and became the Third Avenue Railway. The new company now controlled all the streetcar lines in the Bronx and put 800 new streetcars into service. With this expansive network riders could potentially take the streetcar from Manhattan to Westchester. However, passengers typically used the streetcars for local trips. On long lines passenger loads would turn over several times. This indicated that the streetcar network supplemented faster rail transit such as subways, els, and railroads. The streetcar was one link in a transportation network that included all the major transportation modes of its time. In 1926 the street railway industry had peaked and ridership reached a high of 17.2 billion passengers. By the 1930’s these streetcars had been through both a World War and a depression and were in need of replacement. However, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia viewed the streetcars with disdain and believed buses were more “modern.” The mayor refused to renew Third Ave Railway’s operating franchise without the caveat that they convert their fleet of electric streetcars to diesel buses. Unfortunately, in August 1948 all streetcar lines were converted to buses.
The PCC was the premier model of streetcar and was developed in New York City. An association of 25 electric street railways from around the country formed an organization, Electric Railway Presidents Conference Committee, dedicated to developing the next generation of streetcar. They established a workshop in the 9th Ave trolley depot in Brooklyn with funding supplied by all 25 companies. In a mere 5 year period during the Great Depression, the organization was able to design a modern streamlined streetcar with an improved propulsion and braking system and other ride quality improvements. The first production streetcar PCC 1001 was tested on the streets of Brooklyn in 1936. Ironically, later that year Mayor LaGuardia cut the ceremonial ribbon inaugurating the PCC’s first day of service in Manhattan. Although the mayor disliked the streetcars, the general public loved them. The New York Times even called the PCC “ the greatest improvement in the streetcar since the elimination of the horse.” The PCC’s were so important at their time that government allowed them to be manufactured during World War II.
However, beginning in this period a consortium of fossil fuel interests created National City Lines, an organization whose goal was to replace streetcar lines with busses. The parties to this corporate scheme were not limited to Standard Oil, General Motors, and Firestone Tires. Their aim was to convert streetcar systems to motorized busses and reap the benefits of increased profits. The head of the Electric Railroaders Association, Edwin Quinby, began to sound the alarm as streetcars began to disappear from cities across the country. Following this expose the federal government brought antitrust proceedings against General Motors and others in the U.S v. National City Lines, which resulted in a guilty verdict and small fine of $5000. Bus troubles continued into the 1970’s when New York City led a class action lawsuit against General Motors for monopolizing the bus industry.
However, the growing demand for better public transit provided the foundation for the return of streetcars. A recent flurry of streetcar projects has been prompted by the availability of federal funds following the stimulus package and President Obama’s support. Opportunities are finally arriving in New York. The MTA’s own reinvention commission report recently recommended utilizing light rail to supplement traditional rail lines.
Streetcars have not only been used as a transportation tool but they have also been used as an economic development tool as well. Density and private investment have increased within 2 blocks of Portland’s streetcar route. Since it’s opening the city estimates $3.5 billion has been injected into the corridor . Even the talk that a streetcar line might be built has sparked a development rush. In Kansas City an estimated $500,000 has been injected in the communities along the proposed streetcar routes in various different development projects.
The streetcar can also function as a tourist attraction. It has been immortalized in American pop culture thanks to the entertainment industry in films such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. This has helped to make the streetcar an entertaining form of transportation, especially in cities that run vintage streetcars. In this way the streetcar is analogous to the famed monorail in Disney World. This can help draw visitors into parts of the city that the usually would not go to. San Francisco utilized this approach to revitalize its waterfront. After an earthquake in 1989, the city tore down the Embarcadero freeway and built a new boulevard complete with vintage streetcars. The line doubled as a tourist attraction and a new commuter resource.
Streetcars also present another advantage over buses, they energy efficient and non-polluting. The contact of the metal wheels on metal rails allows the streetcar to move more efficiently than any bus possibly could.  This reduces their operating costs in comparison with busses. Since they run on electricity, they are non-polluting. Historically, residents of New York City have struggled with the effects of harmful diesel emissions, which have caused spikes in asthma rates and other harmful health issues. The replacement of busses with streetcars will remove these emitters from our streets. Streetcars will increase the quality of life for all residents of the Bronx and will continue to make local neighborhoods a better place to live.
Streetcars represent a physical investment in a neighborhood. They have the effect of attract choice riders, those who have cars and don’t need to ride public transportation. Attracting choice riders will help take cars off the road reducing automotive pollution and taking cars off the road. Streetcars give commuters a more pleasant ride than the bus. They have a certain romantic allure that buses do not have.
A more robust public transit will allow our citizens to save money that otherwise would have been spent on automobile maintenance. According to the American Public Transportation Association New Yorkers can save $14,835 annually by switching to public transportation. The streetcar is a vital link in the transportation network.
Despite the benefits of streetcars, New York City has not jumped onto the streetcar bandwagon. Plans for streetcars have been floating around for decades. So far there have been attempts in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island but none have proved successful so far. In Manhattan, the group Vision 42 has pushed to transform 42nd Street into a car free boulevard to speed up crosstown transit. The 42nd Street crosstown initially had some momentum and was approved by the city council in 1994 but lack of funds derailed the project.  In Staten Island, the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation has been promoting light rail as the key to facilitate growth in the borough for over a decade. However, the MTA’s recent capital budget did not include any funding for this project. Finally in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association developed a plan to link the transit-starved community of Red Hook with Downtown Brooklyn. However, a DOT study conducted in 2011 stalled the project citing high costs and potentially low ridership. 
The common thread in all of these projects is the prohibitive costs. Even this should not stand in the way of streetcar development. Over the years enterprising streetcar groups have developed ways to lower costs and attract more private investment reducing the financial burden on municipal governments and making streetcars cost competitive with their rival Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Detroit, which has made headlines recently for its financial troubles, is currently building a streetcar line of its own. The streetcar in Detroit is a product of a non-profit organization, M1 Rail, and is the first effort of its kind. The Detroit streetcar will be built and operated by this non-profit. M1 has been successful in leveraging federal funding and private investment to pay for their project. This funding scheme debunks the notion that streetcar lines are too expensive for cities to construct. In addition, the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association has developed a new construction paradigm that has promised to dramatically reduce construction costs. Using this paradigm, a mile of double track streetcar line will only cost $13 million, a fraction of the cost other cities have been paying for the same length. With reduction in costs and the multiple benefits streetcars present an obvious solution to many of the cities transportation woes.
The Brooklyn Historic Railway Association has developed a preliminary streetcar system for the Bronx that will alleviate crowding on public transit and connect the boroughs various landmarks. We have laid out a North – South Route that will connect places like Yankee Stadium to the planned Ice Center at the Kingsbridge armory. It will also serve the West Bronx and Third Avenue Corridor, which currently are only served by a few lonely Metro-North stops. This line will reinvigorate the heart of the Bronx, bringing life back to the neighborhoods surrounding the old courthouse. It will fill a gap left by the Third Ave el. Our East-West route will run along Tremont Ave and link the East Bronx to existing subway lines and provide a link to an underserved community. We believe that we can develop a modern and innovative streetcar at a price that will make it hard to ignore. We believe that the streetcar should be returned to the Bronx
Electric Streetcars on the Bronx- Then And Now Scenes
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