The BQX has a decent elevator pitch.
The planned route for the proposed light rail/streetcar runs from Gowanus to Astoria, through Downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg, and Long Island City, connecting some of the city’s most rapidly developing neighborhoods. It would add another mass transit link between Brooklyn and Queens, currently connected by the G train, subway routes that first run through Manhattan, or buses that contend with traffic. Light rail fits within the 21st-century’s clean, quiet, quasi-futuristic aesthetic, where people increasingly commute within cities rather than from the suburbs. And the Regional Plan Association, a tri-state urban planning group, praised the proposal as “a forward-thinking model for how the city can start to take control of its transit destiny” rather than relying on, say, the state to fix the incorrigible MTA.
But the elevator pitch fizzles out with even a hint of scrutiny. An updated plan for the BQX—which was released last week after prolonged silence, like a patient coming out of a coma with a giant gasp—only weakens the case for the streetcar. In fact, the updated plan makes it even less clear what purpose the BQX would serve at all.
The original BQX plan, unveiled at the beginning of 2016, called for the light rail to essentially run along the Brooklyn/Queens side of the East River from Sunset Park to Astoria. Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC)—an organization, entirely separate from the MTA, which runs the NYC Ferry network and would also run the BQX—initially made the highly dubious assertion that the entire $2.5 billion light rail would be paid for by value capture, a tax mechanism that uses the increased land value of nearby real estate ventures to pay off the project.
The new plan has a few major changes and many smaller ones. First, the BQX’s route has been altered. It no longer runs to Sunset Park; now, it ends in Gowanus and passes through Downtown Brooklyn instead of Dumbo. Second, it now costs $2.7 billion, an increase of $200 million despite the shorter route. Third, and most importantly, NYCEDC has officially scrapped the idea that the BQX could pay for itself. The development organization and de Blasio now concede that it would need roughly $1 billion in federal funding to make the project a reality, a particularly noteworthy admission considering there’s zero evidence the current federal government would fund this.
That being said, the BQX would be a poor return on anyone’s investment. The updated plan projects 50,000 daily riders, with the heaviest ridership between Downtown Brooklyn and Greenpoint. For perspective, that’s about as many riders as the Bx12 Select Bus Service bus route, which runs across Fordham Road in the Bronx and costs 1.2 percent of the per-mile cost of a streetcar to implement.
Plus, those 50,000 riders will mostly travel along a parallel path to the G train:
NYCEDC acknowledges this, noting that the BQX will provide “additional transit capacity to an area currently served by the G subway line.” Perhaps if the G were yet another over-capacity subway line, this would be a tally in favor of the BQX. Instead, the G is the only subway line in the system with plenty of additional capacity, as evidenced by the fact that it will more than double its capacity during the L shutdown simply by running more and longer trains.
Which gets to the BQX’s fundamental flaw: It’s a transit option that won’t save anyone any time. Even by NYCEDC’s own travel time estimates, the BQX compares unfavorably to existing options. Although it claims the BQX will take 25 minutes to get from Greenpoint to Downtown Brooklyn, which it figures will save riders seven to 10 minutes, the G gets from Nassau Avenue to the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station (four blocks from downtown Brooklyn’s geographic center) in 16 minutes.
NYCEDC makes other specious claims about time savings: The agency claims Downtown Brooklyn to Astoria in 40 minutes will be two to five minutes faster than the subway, even though the N makes the journey through Manhattan from Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center to Astoria-Ditmars Boulevard in just over 40 minutes. Meanwhile, NYCEDC’s projections readily admit the BQX will take longer to get from Red Hook to Hunters Point South than the subway. To be fair, the short trip from Astoria to Long Island City would be slightly faster via BQX than the N to the 7, but compared to walking, the BQX would only save 15 minutes, and biking would take less than half the BQX’s projected journey time.
These paltry time savings—or, in some cases, time losses—stem from the fact that the BQX will travel 12 miles per hour, which is roughly equivalent to a cyclist (the average cycling speed in Copenhagen, for example, is between 9.8 and 12.8 miles per hour depending on the type of cycling lane). Further, if the BQX, for whatever reason, cannot attain that average speed and averages eight miles per hour instead—roughly the average speed of the city’s buses—NYCEDC projects a 40 percent decline in ridership, to 30,000 riders. And it’s far from certain that the BQX will attain even 12 miles per hour, given the fact that it does not have a dedicated right-of-way along the entire route, such as through Williamsburg along Berry Street, where just one one double-parked car could completely halt one direction of the BQX. Nor does the plan provide any details on how the BQX would navigate Downtown Brooklyn, the bane of any bus rider or cyclist.
The new plan acknowledges these challenges, conceding “signal prioritization and exclusive right-of-way for streetcar service is essential to the success of BQX as without these features, streetcars will be stuck in traffic and not be able to achieve the travel times needed to gain ridership.” As it happens, that sentence perfectly describes the city’s bus service, which would benefit just as much from exclusive rights-of-way and constant green lights as a $2.7 billion streetcar.
The fact that de Blasio considers this plan worth pursuing might be surprising if he weren’t the same mayor peddling low-capacity, low-frequency ferries as a solution to the city’s transit woes. The ferries, which had fewer than 10,000 riders per day last year and which NYCEDC itself described as a “premium,” rather than “mass transit,” option, are slated to receive $600 million in city subsidies. Combined, the best-case projected ridership of the mayor’s pet “mass” transit projects would be about 75,000 riders per day, a mere 16 percent of the number of cycling trips currently taken per day.
The only redeeming aspect of the BQX plan is that it calls for removing 2,000 parking spaces—vicious backlash typically ensues when DOT announces the removal of a few hundred for bike lanes—and pedestrianizing several thoroughfares. These would be lovely benefits. But such measures should be undertaken anyways on the grounds of better serving cyclists and pedestrians.
All shortcomings aside, the BQX—and the perfectly nice ferries that, again, move fewer people every day than the B52 bus—might be worthwhile if the city’s transit landscape were otherwise healthy. But it’s not. Instead of expediting signal priority and bus-only lanes, the city dithers about ferries and streetcars. As it stands, the BQX is a $2.7 billion answer in search of a question. Meanwhile, there are plenty of questions looking for answers.