The notion of streetcars on the streets of New York might seem like a foreign concept, as the sea of yellow taxi cabs that clog the broad avenues of Manhattan are more in sync with the mental image of traffic in the Big Apple. New York and New Yorkers are famous for theirs subways and their cabs, and these twin icons have remained central to its identity in popular culture for decades. Without them, there would be no Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, Manhattan, or Seinfeld, and nobody to yell, "Hey, I'm walkin' here! I'm walkin' here!," as a cab narrowly misses them on the street. However, there was once a time when the streetcar was king of New York, when Manhattan and the other boroughs were criss-crossed by more than 500 miles of electric street rail and New Yorkers were able to travel seamlessly from one borough to the next with a level of interconnectivity that has never since been replicated. This edition of Once Upon a Tram will take a look at the little-known history of streetcars in New York City, with an emphasis on the fate of surface rail in the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens.
Beginning in 1832 with a horse-car line that first operated along The Bowery in Lower Manhattan, the innovative transportation service was the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Able to pull more weight, and thus more paying customers, faster, further, and smoother, thanks to the use of rails, horse-cars soon became a popular mode of transportation as more and more miles of track were laid across the city.
While the horse-cars remained in operation until 1917, their network was gradually converted to cable car operation following the Civil War. Cable cars relied upon an underground cable that was pulled by a remote steam-powered engine that moved at a constant speed, with cable car operators able to either engage or disengage from the system in order to move forward or come to a stop. Though a vast improvement over horse-cars, cable cars came with their own issues, such as the continuously moving underground cable, which could prove a hazard should anything, or anybody, hinder its passage.
Before long, the already crowded streets of Manhattan were made even more chaotic thanks to the horse-cars, cable cars, and subsequent elevated rail lines that began to define city living towards the end of the nineteenth century. The arrival of these massive elevated rail lines, which ferried passengers and heavy rail locomotives to and fro around the city, shrouded New York's avenues in darkness. The regular rumble of trains shunting back and forth overhead quickly became part and parcel of life in the Big Apple.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the electric streetcar brought about yet another revolution in public transit. The much cleaner and simpler mode of powering the fleet of new modern streetcars allowed for their rapid expansion into every corner of New York City, kickstarting what would become by far the largest, most interconnected electric street rail network in the history of the United States.
By the early twentieth century, there were more than 300 miles of streetcar track in Manhattan, with an additional 200 miles of track spread across the boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island. Already connected by a series of sturdy rail bridges to all but Staten Island by the turn of the century, the broader New York City street rail network was able to cross the East River with relative ease. The Brooklyn and Williamsburg Bridges in particular became major hubs of commuter activity by the turn of the last century.
The 1919 image above captures the buzz of activity that would have greeted passengers upon arrival at the Williamsburg Bridge rail terminal, which connected Manhattan to Brooklyn. A similar scene below depicts the Brooklyn Bridge Terminal station, which was even grander and more elaborate than that found at the Williamsburg Bridge, with access to trains and trolleys granted via a grand, wrought iron staircase.
Crossing over to Brooklyn and Queens, the local street rail network that criss-crossed and connected the two adjacent boroughs was no less intricate than that found in Manhattan, with seemingly every other street featuring its own set of streetcar tracks. Accounting for the majority of the New York City street rail network outside of Manhattan, the Brooklyn and Queens street rail network was impressive by any standard, allowing one to reach every conceivable corner of either via a single fare.
Seen below, the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT) system map from the mid-1920s highlights the vast extent of its Brooklyn and Queens Transit System streetcar network, with trolley routes marked in solid red lines and bus routes marked in dotted red lines. Up until the decline of streetcars in the 1930s and 40s, the former were concentrated within central Brooklyn and Queens, while the latter were mostly relegated to the further reaches of southern Brooklyn, with the exception of the ever-popular Coney Island Line, which remained well served by street rail transit into the 1950s.
While Manhattan's streetcar era gradually gave way to the New York City subway network throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, which itself was expanded into Brooklyn and Queens over time, the more suburban makeup of the latter afforded the BMT streetcar network a considerably longer run. For decades after the street rails were pulled up in Manhattan, the sight and sound of trolleys zipping along Brooklyn streets was a familiar experience. It was so common in fact that the act of 'trolley dodging,' as its was called by locals, became the inspiration for the name of the Brooklyn Dodgers. There was a time when one could not walk more than two or three blocks, especially in central Brooklyn and Queens, before coming across yet another trolley line.
By the 1930s and continuing into the 40s and early 50s, not even the robust street rail network of the BMT was safe from the nationwide war on the streetcar being waged by the National City Lines corporation, working with General Motors and Firestone, which worked silently to, quite literally, derail the local streetcar and trolley networks operating in every town and city in the United States. A victim of its own success, the Brooklyn and Queens Transit System was replaced entirely by inferior bus service, with the last trolley to operate in Brooklyn riding the rails on October 31, 1956.
Today, 60 years after the last streetcar rolled down the streets of Brooklyn, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has pitched an ambitions light rail proposal that would see roughly 16 miles of LRT track laid along the Brooklyn and Queens side of the East River from Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to Astoria, Queens. Set to cost $2.5 billion, what is being called the Brooklyn Queens Connector, or BQX, will serve to reconnect the two boroughs with their first surface rail line in more than half a century.
Seen above, the BQX would cover a great distance, connecting south Brooklyn to an area just north of central Queens, along the waterfront. While nowhere near as extensive as the streetcar network that once criss-crossed the two boroughs, the BQX project could spark an LRT revival in New York, becoming the first in a series of similar projects to be developed in the near future. Below, a rendering of the proposed LRT in action gives an impression of how the line would fit into the surrounding urban context.
With help from recent hire Adam Giambrone, former Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) Chair and failed 2010 Toronto Mayoral candidate, the City of New York hopes to build their own burgeoning LRT network. While only time will tell if the project will be a success, its announcement in early 2016 is representative of an exciting time for light rail, not only in New York City, but across the whole of North America.
SkyriseCities will return soon with a new edition of Once Upon a Tram, which will take an in-depth look at the transit legacy of a city near you. In the meantime, feel free to join the conversation in the comments section below. Got an idea for this series? Let us know!