The Efficient Past and Wasteful Present of the Brooklyn Bridge

Swapping transit for car lanes has led to an enormous decrease in capacity across the East River bridges. Image: Sam Schwartz at NYC DOT via ##http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/preservation/spie1.pdf##FHWA##

In the headlines this morning, we linked to a great historical photo of the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge on Brownstoner, and it’s taking a closer look at the full implications of the shot. Not for nostalgia’s sake, but to make a cool, calculated appraisal of the efficiency of this piece of transportation infrastructure, as currently configured.


The Brooklyn Bridge in 1903 carried far more people than it does now. Top photo: Shorpy.com via ##http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/2011/04/past_and_presen_3.php#more##Brownstoner##. Bottom photo: Google Maps via Brownstoner.

The 1903 image shows the bridge with only one lane in each direction for private vehicles, which at the time were drawn by horses. The rest of the space is given over to tracks for streetcars, elevated railroads, and pedestrians. Now, of course, there’s still a shared bike-ped path through the middle of the bridge, but the rest of it is all for cars, with three lanes of automobile traffic running on either side. No buses or trucks run over the bridge.

If the job of the Brooklyn Bridge is to move people between the two boroughs, the reallocation of space from transit to cars has been disastrous. In 1902, one year before the photograph was taken, the Brooklyn Bridge moved roughly 341,000 people a day across all its modes, according to the Federal Highway Administration. It hit its peak capacity a few years later, with 426,000 people using it each day in 1907.

Today, 125,000 motor vehicles cross the Brooklyn Bridge each day [PDF], as do roughly 4,000 pedestrians and 2,600 cyclists. For the bridge to carry as many people as it did at its peak, each of those cars would need to carry more than three people, but they do not. In 1989, when the city counted around 132,000 motor vehicles crossing, the FHWA estimated that 178,000 people crossed the bridge daily.

More than a century has passed since this photo was taken, and the Brooklyn Bridge’s capacity has declined by an enormous amount, thanks to the elimination of transit across it. You just can’t fit enough bulky and mostly empty cars on the bridge for it to add up.

There’s an interesting discussion on Brownstoner about which picture represents the more bustling and vital city: the old Brooklyn Bridge with transit, or the current one with lots of cars? The transit-friendly bridge may look less busy than the traffic-clogged bridge of today, but the numbers show that looks are deceiving: The less-full bridge was actually the more active and functional bridge.

The past and present of the Brooklyn Bridge embody the transportation capacity that NYC has given up by catering to the less efficient mode. Today, running streetcar tracks along the bridge wouldn’t do too much good, seeing as how the city’s entire streetcar network has been ripped out, and the same goes for the els. Where the dismantling of those two transit systems wasn’t replaced by equivalent subway or bus service, as on the Brooklyn Bridge, the result is a transportation system that simply moves fewer people.

  • Mark

    For more on this topic, Sam Schwartz has a very nice history of transportation in NYC. Check out: http://simcity.ea.com/about/inside_scoop/gridlocksam02.php

  • Driver

    Interesting article, but it ignores the addition of transit capacity via multiple East River tunnels dedicated exclusively to subways in the years before the bridge was converted to its current format. It’s kind of like saying bike ridership is down on 8th Ave without mentioning the new bike lane on PPW.

    “Where the dismantling of those two transit systems wasn’t replaced by equivalent subway or bus service, as on the Brooklyn Bridge, the result is a transportation system that simply moves fewer people.”
    A transportation system? Or is it just a bridge that moves fewer people?

  • Derrick

    Perhaps I’m wrong, but might this also be connected to subways and other bridges? Sure, the Brooklyn Bridge carried a lot of people, but it’s peak year was only a few years after the subway first opened in the city and only a few years after the Williamsburg Bridge was built (the Manhattan Bridge wasn’t finished yet either). I don’t know if I fully agree with the article in calling the bridge wasteful; between subways, tunnels, additional bridges, substantial decline in population (in Manhattan), etc. we’ve removed the bottleneck of what was then, the only option to crossing the East River.

  • Petrojoh

    Perhaps the point is this: we currently have a surface transportation system that is over capacity at peak hours. If we wish to increase the capacity of the system, we can move over twice as many people over the bridge by using a configuration that is over 100 years old.

  • Mark

    For those interested in the broader history that earlier comments touch upon, once again, I recommend Sam Schwartz’s history. He covers a fuller picture than this blog post. Here is the link again: http://simcity.ea.com/about/inside_scoop/gridlocksam02.php

  • Ty

    I think the key question is not how did additional bridges/tunnels, shifts in population, etc. redistribute traffic… The question is why did a huge city do just fine with ONE lane for automobiles?

    In other words, what is *wrong* with our transit system that makes the 125,000 motor vehicles everyday, on the Brooklyn Bridge alone, necessary?!

  • I would like to see updated numbers for the Manhattan Bridge, now that it’s back to four tracks and seven car lanes.

  • I would like to see updated numbers for the Manhattan Bridge, now that it’s back to four tracks and seven car lanes.

  • Curious Bystander

    The problem is that this problem isn’t easily reversible. When the Brooklyn Bridge tracks still existed, the tracks led to the els and the streetcars. No els or streetcars exist anymore in manhattan (except for that short part on the 1 in harlem)

  • Ty

    But even if you don’t lay tracks… which would be great… lanes of the bridge could be designated for bus routes (BRT even).

  • Mark Walker

    I posted a link to this story on Facebook and got the following response from a friend, which I pass on without endorsement or condemnation: “Despite what it says in the article, the lost streetcar tracks were replaced by four subway tunnels under the East River in the vicinity of the Brooklyn Bridge. Joralemon St Tunnel 1908, Montague St Tunnel 1920, Clark St Tunnel 1919, and the Cranberry St Tunnel 1932. I don’t think anyone would argue that cars are a less efficient way to move people than streetcars.” I duly disagreed with him on the last part.

  • capt subway

    Much the same could be said for the QUEENSBOROUGH BRIDGE (I absolutely refuse to call it the Ed Koch Bridge – BTW nothing against the former mayor). It originally had five traffic lanes (the inner lower roadway) two trolley tracks (the outer roadways) two rapid transit tracks on the upper level, and two pedestrian walks (like the WB Br) on the upper level. All the tracks and walkways are gone now. All you have are nine vehicular lanes and the pedestrians and cyclists must share the northern outer roadway. Total BS!

  • The subway tunnels are far more efficient than the bridge streetcars were because the subway offers through trips all the way to the Bronx. The bridge streetcars were part of a complicated system that involved transfers at the Manhattan end of the bridge.

  • capt subway

    If your comment is in reference to the QUEENSBOROUGH BR this is quite true, as the streetcars in those days were a hodge-podgeof often competing private operators. Certainly a more coordinated and connective LRV system could be envisioned using the QB Br outer roadways. The Q32 and Q60 buses – the latter once a streetcar line running on mostly PROW on Queens Blvd – rot in traffic along with everyone else. Not good.

    And the rapid transit tracks (up and running along with BMT 60th tunnel and IRT Steinway tunnel) ran down the 2nd Ave el to SF. So capacity there was definitely lost. 2nd Ave subway anyone?

    And of course the pedestrians and cyclists get screwed, being forced to share the single northern outer roadway.

    If this is in reference to the BK BR there capacity, too, was lost, as many of those trips were probably terminating in lower Manhattan. And all the subway lines, especially the IRT, are crowded well beyond capacity in the peak period, probably as so many people were forced onto them. For starts, an LRV line from the LIRR at Flat, on dedicated lanes in Flat Ave, Schermerhorn St, Adams St, the BB, Park Row & Bway/Trinity Pl to SF could offer LIRR passengers an alternative way to lower Man and, at the same time, take pressure off the IRT & BMT lines at Atl Ave/Pacific St.

  • capt subway

    If your comment is in reference to the QUEENSBOROUGH BR this is quite true, as the streetcars in those days were a hodge-podgeof often competing private operators. Certainly a more coordinated and connective LRV system could be envisioned using the QB Br outer roadways. The Q32 and Q60 buses – the latter once a streetcar line running on mostly PROW on Queens Blvd – rot in traffic along with everyone else. Not good.

    And the rapid transit tracks (up and running along with BMT 60th tunnel and IRT Steinway tunnel) ran down the 2nd Ave el to SF. So capacity there was definitely lost. 2nd Ave subway anyone?

    And of course the pedestrians and cyclists get screwed, being forced to share the single northern outer roadway.

    If this is in reference to the BK BR there capacity, too, was lost, as many of those trips were probably terminating in lower Manhattan. And all the subway lines, especially the IRT, are crowded well beyond capacity in the peak period, probably as so many people were forced onto them. For starts, an LRV line from the LIRR at Flat, on dedicated lanes in Flat Ave, Schermerhorn St, Adams St, the BB, Park Row & Bway/Trinity Pl to SF could offer LIRR passengers an alternative way to lower Man and, at the same time, take pressure off the IRT & BMT lines at Atl Ave/Pacific St.

  • capt subway

    PS: when you make transit more inconvenient for the riders you simply loose riders (surprise!). So by cutting back the els and streetcars on the BB (later replaced by buses) and forcing the passengers to transfer to the subway at High St-BB, as was the case, you drive people from the system. And those with discretionary income maybe get cars and leave the city altogether, thus contributing to inner city decay, suburban and exurban sprawl, etc, etc.

    So yes, reducing the capacity of the bridge probably had far reaching and unforeseen consequences and, no, the existing subways could not handle adequately all the added riders that were dumped into them. This is why an LIRR tunnel from Bklyn/Flat Term to lower Man has been proposed.

  • Alon Levy

    I’m surprised nobody’s yet mentioned that half of the Manhattan Bridge was closed in 1989 for long-term repairs.

  • The subway tunnels (with different endpoints) opening didn’t change the fact that useful surface transit was converted to wasteful auto-only lanes that most of us can’t use at all. And as usual autos benefited from a double-standard; when the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel opened it would have “replaced” the Brooklyn Bridge auto lanes, yet we’re still stuck with their noisy stinking dysfunction.

    I’ve been stranded on the Manhattan side of the bridge more than one late weekend night, not knowing when the next subway would come and being turned down by more than one cab driver who is too good to take a fare to Brooklyn. Multitudes of us would benefit from a streetcar–or even a bus–that regularly traversed the bridge. The subway is a great thing but it is a very different thing.

  • The subway tunnels (with different endpoints) opening didn’t change the fact that useful surface transit was converted to wasteful auto-only lanes that most of us can’t use at all. And as usual autos benefited from a double-standard; when the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel opened it would have “replaced” the Brooklyn Bridge auto lanes, yet we’re still stuck with their noisy stinking dysfunction.

    I’ve been stranded on the Manhattan side of the bridge more than one late weekend night, not knowing when the next subway would come and being turned down by more than one cab driver who is too good to take a fare to Brooklyn. Multitudes of us would benefit from a streetcar–or even a bus–that regularly traversed the bridge. The subway is a great thing but it is a very different thing.

  • capt subway

    Exactly right. And you could loose it at any moment again, which means loosing up to 1/3 the capacity of the BMT south. And don’t think you couldn’t loose both sides of the Man Br, which would cut your through-put by two thirds. And you could loose the WB at any moment too – not a cheerful thought. This is why you need redundancy. Redundancy is the key to a smoothly functioning system. Proper rail transport on the BB makes sense not only in carrying capacity but also in its ability to absorb passengers displaced from other curtailed lines/services. NYC transit expansion is woefully behind the curve, and has been so for 60 years. SAS, the bulk of the IND second system, etc, etc: it all should have been built and up and running by now. Instead we’ve invested billions in roads and have accomplished nothing – just made matters worse, made it harder rather than easier to get around actually.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Actually, the current generation’s plan for the MTA is to have entire lines shut down due to system failure for years, as money is sought for a fix.

  • capt subway

    Yes Larry, I’m well aware of the way they do their maintenance work, which they now cloak as capital work so they can use capital money, e.g. taking out both halves of a switch at the same time so they can put in long instead laced timbers and then putting the switch in concrete. Totally unnecessary: the NY subway is not a high speed rail line with trains taking diverging routes at switches at 70 – 80 MPH.

    I was with NYCTA for almost 37 years. I never liked these huge shut downs. And don’t think this doesn’t drive people away from the system. Rather than take the subway to a city destination those with discretionary income and a car will drive somewhere else, maybe to a mall in the ‘burbs.

    All are more reasons why more redundancy is needed in the system – not less.

  • Thanks, Derrick! You said what I was thinking! -danny

  • Thanks, Derrick! You said what I was thinking! -danny

  • Thanks, Derrick! You said what I was thinking! -danny

  • Alon Levy

    The advantage of concrete over wooden ties isn’t really speed. It’s comfort and maintenance costs. They’re absolutely necessary at high speed if you want the ride to not feel like a bus and the maintenance costs to be manageable, but the same benefits also occur on subways.

    If I were in charge of the NYCT capital program, the first priority would probably be installing switches at strategic locations to allow trains to run on single-track at night, so that tracks could be shut down for timely maintenance. This way the Copenhagen Metro runs 24/7 without express tracks or weekend shutdowns.

  • capt subway

    Alon – I wasn’t talking about concrete ties. Was talking about the installation of extra long timbers (i.e. wood) at switch replacements instead of laced timbers, which used to be used at switches. Also now setting the switch in concrete instead of in ballast, as had formerly been the case. Doing it this way requires taking out the two tracks involved at the same time, often requiring a total shut down. This is what I’m objecting to, and what I did object to while still at NYCTA.

    Most of the system has strategically placed switches which allow single tracking, e.g through all the river tubes. Most locations have traffic signaling so the against normal traffic move is fully protected. There ares still some places without traffic where an absolute block and baton and/or pilot are required.

    BTW there are no concrete ties anywhere in the subway to my knowledge. It’s all timber, mostly set in concrete.

  • Alon Levy

    There are parts of the subway that use concrete slab track and no ties. It was referred to as high-speed rail on SAS, because it’s used on most high-speed rail networks to minimize maintenance costs as well as tunnel cross-sections (though ballast is cheaper upfront and quieter, as a result of which some network prefer it to slab). It’s useful on subways independently of speed, because of the lower maintenance costs, but it was still confused with HSR technology.

    Fair enough about the practice of shutting down both tracks. Though, there are independent reasons to upgrade switches – for one, they’re much more maintenance-intensive than ordinary track, so lower-maintenance materials are especially useful.

    The infrastructure for single-tracking in New York constrains headways too severely. That’s why we get GOs about 24-minute headways. The absolute maximum should be 20, and if the maintenance regime is such that it’s ever necessary to shut down during the day, nothing above 10 or on some branch lines 12-15 should be acceptable.

  • Leonard

    What I don’t understand is that the bridge has a 3 ton weight limit, yet it used to carry heavy trains and streetcars. Has the condition of the bridge deteriorated that much over the years?

  • Anon256

    For anyone interested, http://www.nymtc.org/data_services/HBT.html has more recent data on total use of all of the river crossings on an average business day.  For 2009 (the most recent year available), the grand totals for the bridges are:
    Brooklyn Bridge: 160,000
    Manhattan Bridge: 463,000
    Williamsburg Bridge: 251,000
    Queensboro Bridge: 235,000
    These figures include auto, transit and bicycle users (but not pedestrians), both inbound and outbound crossings.  They seem surprisingly low, compared both to subway entry figures on the relevant lines and to the 1989 figures in the chart, but I don’t know of any particular reason to doubt their methodology.

  • Anon256

    Also note that the pictures in the chart exaggerate somewhat the transit options available on the bridges in their “peak” years.
    – In 1940, the only trolley service on the Queensboro Bridge was a shuttle from 2nd Ave to Queensboro Plaza, primarily serving the Welare Island elevator.
    – In 1924, the only trolley service on the southern track-pair of the Williamsburg Bridge was likewise a shuttle between terminals at either end (streetcars on the north side at that time ran from a terminal at the Brooklyn end either via Grand St to the Hudson or via Bowery to Park Row).
    – In 1939, the southern Manhattan Bridge subway tracks were used only during rush hours ; off-peak the BMT confined its operations to the north side tracks and Montague St tunnel.
    Even in years with more service, the bridge trolleys almost never ran through between boroughs, instead terminating and turning back as soon as they got to the far end of the bridge from the borough they primarily served.
    The Chrystie St connection arguably increased the usefulness of the remaining subway-carrying bridges, but still their use fell; neither is currently near capacity.  The decreased usage had a lot more to do with the increased alternatives (20 subway tracks, 4 regional rail tracks and 8 traffic lanes opened in tunnels since 1908) than with a decrease in transit options or capacity on the bridges themselves.
    (This is not to say that a Red Hook Streetcar over the Brooklyn Bridge or a Northern Blvd SBS over the Queensboro wouldn’t be a good idea!)

  • bbqr0ast

    3 tons per vehicle?

    Probably the issue of a number of vehicles sitting in traffic next to each other (ie similar weight of a old train I’d guess), or hitting the structure at high speed.

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