Thursday, August 7, 2008

Queens Boulevard Clarifications

Last week I used Alon Levy's comment to segue into my proposal for bringing trolleys back to Queens Boulevard - and then through the Steinway Tunnel, calming traffic and allowing the #7 train to run "B division" cars that can hold hundreds more passengers per train.

Alon didn't like my idea. I respect that; he's been a faithful reader and a reliable source of transit information and wisdom. However, I think there were a few things I wasn't clear about, and hopefully Alon will change his mind.

I've only now seen this idea... I can't say it looks good. Streetcars have lower capacity per track than rapid transit, which means that what you're proposing is a net reduction of transit capacity from Queens to Manhattan.

Not at all. All those B division trains that I'm talking about running on the Flushing line wouldn't be diverted from the W or R or anything; the idea is to supplement those lines by sending the trains through 60th Street tunnel. If there isn't enough room in the 60th Street tunnel, there should be room in the 63rd Street tunnel; they don't run that many F trains.

Even without entering Manhattan, there's little need for light rail on QB. There are corridors that make far more sense for light rail: 125th, Fordham (or Tremont), Ditmars (or Junction), the Brooklyn Bridge. For a given light rail investment, these all should give better returns than adding service to QB.

I wholeheartedly agree that the corridors you mention have a much more pressing need for light rail. If we could put light rail in a dedicated right-of-way on any of those corridors, it would serve deserving populations, shift trips from private cars and relieve some of the nearby subway lines.

I'm happy to concoct all kinds of what-if scenarios here. But I'm also willing to talk realpolitik, and putting dedicated transit right-of-ways on any of those corridors (let's set aside the Brooklyn Bridge for now) is a heavy lift. Okay, here we go:
  • 125th Street is seven lanes (including parking) from the Hudson to Morningside Drive, and then six (including parking) to Second Avenue, and then a block of six lanes without parking between Second Avenue and the Triboro Bridge.
  • Tremont Avenue is four lanes (including parking) from Sedgwick Avenue all the way to West Farms, then six lanes (including parking) the rest of the way to the Long Island Sound. In a few spots it's wide enough for a median.
  • Fordham Road is six lanes including parking for almost its entire length.
  • Ditmars is four lanes (including parking) from the East River to Hazen Street, and then six lanes (including parking) for the rest of the way.
  • Junction is four lanes its entire length.

A two-way dedicated transitway takes up about two lanes of space. On a four-lane road like Junction Boulevard, that means removing all parking. That should work fine on 34th Street in Manhattan, but could make lots of business owners upset. In fact, it was opposition to removing parking from a de facto four-lane Merrick Boulevard that convinced the DOT to give up on their "BRT" plans for that corridor.

For the six-lane roads, you would essentially be removing a passing lane. People would still be able to drive and park (assuming that you put the streetcars in the middle so as not to interfere with parking or standing), but they wouldn't be able to double-park, and they'd be stuck if there was a breakdown. Not a big deal to me, but the DOT still finds it necessary to open the Fordham BRT lane to deliveries during certain hours (PDF), and seems to have dropped 125th Street from the First/Second Avenue BRT (before PDF vs after PDF).

Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me like it would be easier to take two lanes from a boulevard that varies from eight to fourteen lanes wide, and that is acknowledged by large numbers of people to be dangerously overbuilt. Queens Boulevard may not be where trolleys are desperately needed in the city, but they'd be well-used and well-appreciated.

I'm all for building light rail or BRT on any of the corridors that Alon identified, if there's political support for them. But right now Queens Boulevard has the space, it has the connections and it has the constituency. Why not use it?


Alon Levy said...

I actually wanted to raise the issue of using the 60th and 63rd Street Tunnels in my comment, but ended up writing a more concise version.

Basically, the problem is that it's still a net reduction in capacity. You can't use 63rd Street too much, because there isn't enough demand for it; 53rd bisects Midtown and 60th touches it, but 63rd is too far away to be of much use.

In addition, the Astoria line, which needs about 14 tph, only connects to 60th. This leaves only about 16 tph for the 7, which is too little. It's currently packed at 24, and Division B conversion would only add about 10% to each train's capacity. (To any other line it would add 20%, but the 7 runs 11-car trains). Even light rail on QB won't help too much, since very little of the 7's ridership comes from its QB stations.

As for the other issue, other light rail corridors, you're right that there are technical problems with most of my alternatives. Not with all of them, though - for example, Fordham is fine; the only reason it has delivery hours is that the BRT lanes are on the sides of the street instead of in the center. The main reason I'm offering them is that light rail there will complement the subway, by offering connections that there isn't the political will yet to build underground.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks for your response, Alon. At Queensboro Plaza, lots of people transfer from the #7 to the inbound N or W; I think they're probably not all getting off at Lex or Fifth Avenue, so they'd be happy with a train that connects to the Broadway line through the 63rd Street tunnel. The tunnel will also someday connect to the Second Avenue Subway, giving people a one-seat ride to East Midtown.

I agree that the corridors you've suggested could use light rail, and if the political will can be mustered, light rail should be built there. I'm just suggesting that there might be less resistance along Queens Boulevard because of the traffic calming value.

Alon Levy said...

It still won't work. For one, the 63rd Street Tunnel doesn't connect to Queensboro Plaza. The only thing 63rd Street connects to is the QB line. The way the tracks are laid out, constructing a second connection from the IND to the BMT/IRT in Queens is at best a nightmare and at worst physically impossible. Track capacity constraints are such that even if the MTA stops using the 60th Street Connection, it's impossible to squeeze the Flushing and Astoria Lines together.

Cap'n Transit said...

I don't know, Alon. We're talking about building light rail the whole length of Queens Boulevard; I think we'd have enough money to build a portal on the north side of the Sunnyside Yards leading to the 63rd Street tunnel, and another one leading to the 60th Street tunnel. Yes, it would be expensive, but not impossible.

BruceMcF said...

Aerobus or similar technology would not take two lanes for the dedicated transitway ... it would take up space for the stops, but not the transitway.