Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What to Do with the Steinway Tunnel

I'll admit it: my last post was a setup. Thanks - and apologies - go to faithful reader Alon Levy, who proved the perfect foil for my strategy. When I proposed running 9.75 foot wide B Division cars on the Flushing Line, he wrote, "Widening the Steinway Tunnels for this to be feasible is even harder than converting the Contract 1-2 IRT to Division B specs." He's absolutely right. As was discussed in detail in the SubChat thread I linked to, the Steinway Tunnels were built of cast iron between 1886 and 1907 for streetcars, and can't easily be widened to accommodate the B Division cars.

What's that you say? The Steinway Tunnels were built for streetcars? Well, it's been said that good streets include streetcars, and we've got a bad street on our hands. Queens Boulevard has killed too many people, and despite the best efforts of the DOT to change it without really changing it, it's still killing people.

The family of Asif Rahman has called for part of Queens Boulevard to be converted into a bike lane. That call has been taken up by Transportation Alternatives, Councilmember Gennaro and others. One potential criticism of that plan is that unless the new bike lane is full of cyclists from day one, it will represent a reduction in capacity.

That capacity could be maintained by adding a streetcar line to the Boulevard. In other parts of the world it is recognized that adding streetcars can calm dangerous boulevards at the same time as they increase mobility.

It's true that Queens Boulevard is served by several subway lines, but there is no subway service between 49th Street and Broadway, two miles out of the Boulevard's seven mile length. That section has recently been upzoned to encourage density, but it's not as near transit as it should be. Some of that section is walking distance from the subway, but in many parts it's a long walk. For several years the Boulevard had both trolleys and subways, and the demise of the trolley company can't necessarily be taken as an indication that the trolleys didn't work.

Also, the #7 train and the Queens Boulevard subway line are some of the most crowded trains in the city. There are a lot of people who want to go short distances along the Boulevard, and the Q60 bus is often slow and unreliable. If you're going from Forest Hills to Rego Park, or LIC to Sunnyside, it's quicker to hop on a trolley than to go down into the subway and back up again. If you're going from Sunnyside to Elmhurst, it's a lot quicker to take one trolley than two subways.

Even better, the streetcar can serve a lot of people who now take the #7 to Manhattan from Sunnyside and Woodside. Instead, they can get on the streetcar. The tracks can run down Queens Boulevard (in a dedicated right-of-way, naturally) to the Sunnyside Yards, and then go either over or under the LIRR tracks to the portal at Hunterspoint Avenue. From there it's a quick shot through the tunnel to Grand Central, Fifth Avenue and Times Square. That means a lot less people trying to squeeze onto the former #7 train at 46th Street.

If trolleys are too outlandish for the alternative-transportation crowd in New York to get behind, you could do it with Bus Rapid Transit too. It would cost almost as much and look shitty, but it would have a similar traffic calming effect.


Anonymous said...

wow, thats an awesome suggestion, heck you could even roll it into the vision42 proposal (http://www.vision42.org/) and have a streetcar that goes down Queens Boulevard, rolls into Manhattan and rolls through 42nd street and 34th and then back to queens.

J said...

Cap'n, it's not true a bike lane would represent a loss of motor vehicle capacity on Qns Blvd. On many sections, the Blvd has three parking lanes in each direction. The parking on the left side of the service road was added in 2001. That could be converted to a separated bike lane with no loss of through vehicle capacity.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks, Joby! The problem is that the Steinway Tunnel connects to 42nd Street deep underground, and already goes to Times Square under 41st Street. To hook it into the Vision42 line, you'd need to build a portal somewhere. As I've written before, I think 34th Street would be better for a dedicated busway, just because you could divert a number of the buses coming through the Lincoln and Queens-Midtown Tunnels.

J, you're right that you probably wouldn't need to take a car lane for bikes on most of the Boulevard - although people would probably complain about the lost parking, even if they only got it a few years ago. But there are some sections where additional parking lanes weren't added.

Alon Levy said...

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.

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.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks for your comments, Alon. I've responded in a new post.

Arty said...

Instead of going through the Steinway tunnel, why not go over the 59thst/Queensboro bridge? For many years there was a trolly line on the bridge ( it was the only non-ferry way to get to Blackwell/ Welfare/Roosevelt Island

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks, Arty! Yes, I did suggest that later.

BruceMcF said...

Is BRT and a rapid streetcar either/or? BRT is the type of traffic which can mix most effectively with streetcars with the least disruption ... abd a BRT line on a part of the streetcar route could hydro out to collect people for both the rapid streetcar and the subway.