Sooner or Later, the Brooklyn-Queens Waterfront Needs Better Transit

New condos in Long Island City are part of the first wave of changes sweeping the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront. Photo: Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons

The Brooklyn and Queens waterfront is in the midst of a grand transformation that’s only just begun. Newly built Brooklyn Bridge Park is already firmly established as one of the city’s most stunning public spaces. The Brooklyn Navy Yard now hosts glitzy fashion shows by international designers like Alexander Wang and Dior. Long Island City’s waterfront is a wall of glassy new condos. Many more changes are coming.

As this transformation takes place, new travel patterns are emerging, and for the better part of the last ten years, planners have floated the prospect of a new transit line along the waterfront to accommodate residential development and job growth. Most recently, architecture critic Michael Kimmelman suggested in the New York Times that the city build a streetcar along the waterfront, prompting Alicia Glen, the city’s deputy mayor for economic development, to Tweet: “Love big ideas.”

Others were critical, noting that a streetcar represents a huge investment that could be better spent on other transportation priorities: using buses to connect residents with the subway, or beefing up service on the city’s busiest bus routes. Writing for Next City, Stephen Smith noted: “You cannot effectively connect waterfront neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens to both each other and the subway.” Smith also pointed out that the waterfront neighborhoods, for all their development, have relatively low population and job densities.

To plan for the future of the waterfront, however, we have to give some thought to transit. I agree that the cost of a light rail line is unnecessary (and streetcars make little sense regardless of the expense), but the city will need to forge stronger transportation links to meet the area’s full potential. The rationale for transit improvements is about the waterfront’s ultimate potential for new housing and jobs, rather than the existing conditions.

The city should begin by strengthening bicycle connections and by improving bus service with the goal of a one-seat ride from Astoria to Downtown Brooklyn. Both modes could certainly connect new residents and workers with the subway: The F train at Jay Street and the 7 train at Vernon Boulevard-Jackson Avenue are both within reach.

But a subway connection is not the main point. A successful vision for the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront is necessarily oriented away from Manhattan and instead looks to stitch the waterfront communities together. Otherwise, new residential developments will be effectively cut off from each other and from new job centers in DUMBO, the Navy Yard, Williamsburg, and Long Island City.

The transformation of the waterfront witnessed up until now is really just the beginning. Several mega-projects are planned for the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront that will ultimately add up to 16,000 new housing units. More than 3,000 new units of housing are set to rise along the Astoria waterfront, on an isolated peninsula just south of the Triborough Bridge. Other mega developments are planned at Hunter’s Point South (up to 5,000 units), Greenpoint Landing (5,500 units), and the Domino Sugar factory at the base of the Williamsburg Bridge (2,300 units).

The Brooklyn-Queens waterfront also holds tremendous economic potential, and city leaders hope that it will continue to attract new employers in technology, design, and media. Over the past 10 years, employment in and around the Navy Yard has climbed by 2,000 jobs, or 21 percent, and by 9,000 in DUMBO and Downtown Brooklyn. Brooklyn’s economic boosters imagine this growth will accelerate. The borough’s “Tech Triangle” plan projects that employment in DUMBO, the Navy Yard, and Downtown Brooklyn will double over the next few years. The purchase of the former Watchtower buildings in DUMBO and the expansion of Etsy indicates that these predictions should be taken seriously.

In Queens, borough leaders hope that the new Cornell-Technion campus on Roosevelt Island will lead to new business growth in Long Island City, with Vernon Avenue and 21st Street among the potential corridors for new tech-related businesses. This vision is still in its infancy, but a waterfront transit line could serve to anchor new business growth.

Currently, there are few viable transit options for people who wish to travel along the waterfront. The G train has a role to play, but it won’t be sufficient. It is too far from the New Domino development, which will add 500,000 square feet of office space to the area, and from the Navy Yard. It misses the Long Island City and Astoria waterfront completely.

Ferries will also play a role. The East River Ferry has been running for three years and has built up a modest ridership of residents and tourists. In response to the new development planned at Astoria Cove, the city commissioned a $500,000 study on the feasibility of extending service to Astoria. But the East River ferry runs only once every 20 minutes at rush hour and once an hour during non-peak hours. Plus, many questions remain about the ferry’s long-term viability. Information on ridership and the amount of city subsidy required to keep the ferries running is frustratingly obscure.

The Q103, running along the Astoria and Long Island City waterfront, runs only once an hour during the week and not at all during weekends. Photo: GojiMet86/nyctransitforums

Improving bus service is the logical first step. Currently you would have to take four buses to get from Astoria Cove to the Navy Yard. One of them, the Q103, runs only once an hour and not at all on the weekend. Another, the B32, runs only once every half hour. Infrequent service may be the reason that existing ridership on these lines is so low. The short-term goal should be a one-seat bus ride from Astoria to DUMBO and through to Downtown Brooklyn. Buses should arrive once every 10 minutes or less during peak hours. This represents a relatively minimal investment, but one that should be closely monitored to see if ridership is sufficient to upgrade service to bus rapid transit.

The city should also strengthen bicycle infrastructure along the corridor and extend plans for the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway into Queens. Bike lanes along Flushing Avenue, which runs past the Navy Yard, are already among the city’s most heavily-used. Expeditiously building out the greenway and projects like the Pulaski Bridge bike lane upgrade will fill gaps in the bike network, especially between Greenpoint and Long Island City. More bike-share stations along the length of the waterfront would also help fill the gap between a new transit line and points inland.

Residential development will most likely continue along the waterfront with or without a new transit line, but improving transportation options is important for several reasons. It may be necessary to foster economic growth on the scale that city leaders are hoping for. Linking growing job centers with a new transit connection can catalyze even more business growth. And a high-quality transit connection along the waterfront can shape the character of new development for the better. Without better transit and bicycle infrastructure, neighborhoods will suffer as more people opt to drive and clog streets with traffic.

  • DP

    Not to be a pain, but the Q train currently provides a one seat ride from Astoria to Downtown Brooklyn.

  • John Petro

    True, but both Q stops are far from the waterfront, which is the focus of this piece.

  • 1ifbyrain2ifbytrain

    Glad that ferries were mentioned. If we can connect the waterfront/ferries easily to our current subways then ferries become much more viable. I am thinking of the Brooklyn Army Terminal dock which comes with a 3 avenue slog after one gets off the ferry to the 59th St N/R station.

  • Alon Levy

    The problem with waterfront transit is that half the station radius is wasted on fish. The main population concentrations in the area are not quite along the waterfront, but instead follow the existing subway lines. So the important bit is not to have additional transit in Queens on 21st, but to improve connections to the existing subway system. I’d be interested in seeing the costs of slightly rerouting the G to provide transfers to Queensboro Plaza and Queens Plaza, and of constructing a transfer from the G to Atlantic/Pacific.

  • Alex

    But isn’t it better to get people to the subway stops at either end rather than provide a very slow bus ride between them?

  • Andrew

    I agree with your basic point.

    However, the cost of “slightly rerouting” the G at its north end would be monstrously high, since I doubt NYCT would be willing to sever the existing link to Queens Boulevard. The G already has a connection to the E/M and 7 at Court Square, which is quite adequate for most purposes – reaching Queens Boulevard local stations on weekends, and Astoria stations at all times, requires two transfers (one cross-platform), but I doubt the ridership between the G and those locations is high enough to warrant a direct transfer. I suspect that if the G had never run north of Court Square, nobody would be agitating for a connection now.

    (On weekends when the 7 is shut down between Queensboro Plaza and Manhattan, it would be nice if the G could be extended to Queens Plaza as a form of mitigation, but not if doing so would risk delaying R trains.)

    At the other end, the Fulton Street G station is far enough from the nearest end of the Atlantic complex that a transfer there would only be used as a last resort. Virtually anybody going to Manhattan already has a better alternative, so it would be primarily useful for trips within Brooklyn. And, of course, anybody with an unlimited can already make the transfer above ground. That said, given the sheer number of connections available at Atlantic, it might be worth considering.

  • 8104012

    I’m interested in the idea of straight up running the G into Manhattan. You could get here by connecting the north end to existing lines running into the city. Say the E&M line or the F line further north. This would provide relief for ALL lines in BK running into Manhattan. If you lived in Carroll Gardens, you could take the G train if you work in Midtown as an alt to the F. More importantly, the L train would see a big drop in ridership if all the riders along the G line could roll into Midtown on the G, instead of xfering to the L at Lorimer.

  • 8104012

    This line could actually be more of a ‘loop’ then a line depending how you deal with it in South Brooklyn.

  • Charles

    The key to anything happening is financing. It is reasonable, if a new mass transit line is being designed to serve newly valuable real estate, that a portion of the increase in real estate value should be captured to pay for the line. This could be done through a taxation mechanism, through direct contributions, and/or by other means.

    Otherwise, it would be mighty tough to reconcile spending money on any new facility here when there are so many unmet needs elsewhere.

  • OnTheNYCWaterfront

    Sorry, but every time I’m across the North River, the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail (HBLR) just makes SO much sense. Having observed this evolution over the past 20 yrs — it’s clear that bus service would never have contributed as strongly to the evolution of NJ’s decrepit waterfront. Yes, there are costs and challenges, but NYC needs to look to the next 50 yrs of evolution of western-most Brooklyn / Queens. Bus routes on open roadways do nothing to encourage the growth of local businesses, or overall improvement to an area. Instead, serious consideration should be given to an adaptive reuse of the HBLR model. Done properly, such could serve as a means of attracting significant business presence (incl. some corporate), in addition to increased residential.

    NJ’s Light-Rail was built with a significant Federal component ($$), and has proven an enormously healthy investment. And long-term, Western-most Qns-Bklyn will continue to grow, and deserves better than MTA and Private buses, crawling along in (ever more) car-clogged, street traffic.

    Buses are a cheap & quick answer, but by all accounts — not a highly desirable means of transit in more dense parts of the city. As NYers, we don’t generally like to admit such things, but NJ’s waterfront mix of ferries, light-rail and subway (PATH) offers a model that we can examine, and tailor to our own needs.

  • bolwerk

    Then back a few blocks away from the waterfront. Or maybe not. We’re still talking about large numbers of people who need transit, regardless of station radii, and much of the waterfront is inconvenient to the subway. And it’s not just residents; people like going to that area for recreation.

    I agree with your assessment about the subway, but providing suitable waterfront transit at this point just seems necessary. While I thought they were a bad idea when they were built, the glass penises that sprouted along the East River are here now and providing transit for them is far from a conflicting goal with bettering subway connections in other corridors.

  • bolwerk

    Buses have become the preferred mode when you’re selecting transit for other people. Sadly, anyone in NYC with actual authority over these decisions probably drives and would prefer to see money go to roads than rail. Only the riders suffer for it. Who cares about them?

    But there are serious problems with that idea of “adaptive reuse.” There is nothing to re-use in that area, unless you mean old streetcar tracks (which are buried under asphalt, if they still exist at all). Any new rail infrastructure will need to be built from scratch.

    Better light rail investments are probably made by replacing the most overburdened bus lines.

  • bolwerk

    Stephen Smith noted: “You cannot effectively connect waterfront
    neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens to both each other and the subway.”
    Smith also pointed out that the waterfront neighborhoods, for all their
    development, have relatively low population and job densities.

    Yes you can, quite easily. A trunk line connects the neighborhoods to each other and branch lines feed subway stations. This is, in fact, kind of how HBLR works. The Garvin proposal (see the map) preferred serpentine detours from a logical trunk line, which was silly.

    But then, Garvin imagined people making trips of distances not really suited for surface transit. I doubt Red Hook to Queens makes a lot of sense by any way other than subway.

  • Ben

    Better idea is to split the G into two lines (one Brooklyn-Manhattan, one Queens-Manhattan), and run them both into Manhattan across 34th St (-ish). The Queens line could then be extended further out as well, or north in Astoria, or even up to the Bronx. Would be a huge boost for Bed-Stuy, Clinton Hill and Greenpoint, and also for Astoria and the South Bronx if that plan went forward (or the Queens G could go elsewhere–maybe even to LaGuardia–choices are pretty open).

  • lop

    Tracks are pointed the wrong way to get the G to Manhattan by 53rd street tunnel, though you could send the G further out into Queens along that line, say to Forest Hills.

    Same with the 63rd street tunnel, the G can’t get to it.

    The EM already peak at 24 trains per hour through 53rd. How many G trains do you think you would fit through, and where would they go once they get to Manhattan – which trunk line has capacity to take in all the G trains that run at peak today (7-10 or so?)

    I think 60th street tunnel is even more crowded, and the G literally would not fit in the steinway tunnel if you were thinking about those instead.

    And if sending the G to Manhattan was a big construction project (it would be) why would you want to miss the 3rd largest employment center in the country (downtown), or take such a roundabout way of getting there as the G would through the Queens tunnels?

    Get rid of Hewes and Lorimer on the JMZ and make a new station on Union with easy transfers to the G might help more if you want to reduce transfers to the L. Yes one is elevated, but you have a parking lot right there, you could build a mini station house to make it seem nicer.

    Why do you want to cut ridership on the L? They could squeeze in another two trains per hour at peak I think, and aren’t most of the capacity issues on the line off peak? The only reason they don’t run more trains off peak is because it’s expensive. It would, or should, be a lot simpler to get the unions to let the trains run with one employee instead of two than big construction projects to run the G into Manhattan. And at peak they can increase capacity another 50% with a few relatively small projects that collectively would be smaller than connecting the G to any Manhattan bound line.

  • klm

    21st is already a few blocks off the water. And would connect with the F, EM, G, and 7 without any diversions.

  • bolwerk

    Without any diversions? It almost seems like a diversion in and of itself. If I lived in that area, I’d probably sooner walk to any of those lines than hop on the G at 21st.

    Yet 21st is isolated enough to make a transfer to any of them difficult.

  • J

    An easy and cost-effective solution would be to have a single Select-Bus or better yet true BRT bus line connecting Astoria to South Williamsburg (and possibly on to downtown Brooklyn). It could run via 21st street in Queens (which is way too wide for the existing traffic and could easily accomodate bus-only lanes), across the Pulaski, and down along Franklin and Kent to Broadway.

    Speaking as an Astorian, it would be nice to have this bus running down 21st street which is a little more inland than Vernon so as to serve not just wealthy condo-dwellers but the already existing residents who have limited options for getting to Brooklyn.

  • klm

    Then which people do you think need transit, and where do they go? Running down 21st connects the waterfront areas in Astoria that are up to a mile from 31st and the NQ to the subways in LIC. Ridership doesn’t justify a new heavy rail line near the water, but the buses down 21st can really crawl, and off hours cars race down the street like maniacs. A bus lane, possibly parking protected, though it may be a hair too narrow to fit that in, could really help that. And for those heading to or coming from the QB line, not Manhattan, don’t have a connection to the Astoria line, but they would connect to a bus line on 21st.

    The existing waterfront bus would be the 103 down Vernon, and gets terrible ridership.

    Which buses in the area get better ridership, or where would a better waterfront line in the area get better ridership?

    How does 21st make a transfer to the subways difficult?

    The only one that isn’t right on the corner is the 7, and it’s just a couple buildings down from 21st.

  • Most people are far from the waterfront too. I’m not sure why this is being overlooked. The sliver of population more than 1/2 mile away from a subway stop along the entirety of the Brooklyn/Queens waterfront is very small. There are huge areas of the city with many more people and much worse transit where an investment in service would go much further than here.

  • John Petro

    “The rationale for transit improvements is about the waterfront’s
    ultimate potential for new housing and jobs, rather than the existing
    conditions.”

  • bolwerk

    Oh, I thought you meant the G Train stop at 21st. It’s exactly as you described: a few blocks from the water. The only seemingly reasonable connection there is to the 7.

    I agree ridership doesn’t favor heavy rail. Neither do geology or climate change. But light rail near the waterfront probably has some merit if done carefully.

  • DP

    I actually live on 21st Street. It’s not a bad walk to the N/Q and the bus lines that currently exist are quite good up to Queensboro Plaza. The Q69 is not reliable because it makes an inordinate number of stops (sometimes twice on the same block). The Q100 is wonderful. The emergence of MTA bus time has actually caused me to take the bus much more often and the Q100 provides a surprisingly quick ride to the trains at Queensboro Plaza. A quick and cheap improvement would be to (a) remove all parking from 21st street (I say this as someone who also owns a car), (b) add a dedicated bus lane to 21st street (there is plenty of room), (c) turn the Q100 into BRT, extend it all the way over the Pulaski Bridge and into Brooklyn and (d) rationalize the stops made by the Q69.

    Of course in a perfect world, 21st street would have a subway line that extends to Laguardia Airport, and the neighborhood west of 21st street would be a vital, thriving neighborhood already.

  • klm

    Yea I just meant I want a bus lane down 21st street.

    Light rail sounds nice, but it’s a lot more expensive to put in, especially for the first line in an area. Better to just reserve more road space for transit with bus lanes than put in rail now. If you have dedicated road space on a few roads in an area it starts to make sense to put in tracks and LRV, since some of the fixed costs like maintenance yards, vehicle acquisition, training operators etc…can get spread out over several lines.. In this part of Queens, maybe 21st, Ditmars, Astoria Blvd, Northern, Queens, and Woodhaven to have a nice network of connected routes to upgrade to better surface transit.

  • bolwerk

    It’s more expensive to put in, but cheaper over the long run as it reduces labor expenses.

    Well, assuming the ridership is there. It really may not be. But, since we need it elsewhere anyway, there is one other compelling detail: the waterfront in various places between Southern LIC and the Navy Yard may have some of the few viable storage spaces for the vehicles in the denser regions of the city.

  • JK

    Take a look at the NYC evacuation map.* Most of this waterfront is in the red zone based on current water levels. There were headlines just this week about the Antarctic ice melting much faster than previously thought. Hard to get excited about spending capital dollars for underwater light rail. BRT on 21st St in LIC/Astoria and over the Pulaski would be a lot cheaper and go through an area that is upzoned and gaining lots of people. That will have to wait for East River Bridge tolls because otherwise peak-hour traffic volume is great to allow taking lanes for BRT. * http://maps.nyc.gov/hurricane/

  • klm

    Yea and until money is there for a new vehicle fleet, for major road construction to install tracks, to acquire land for and to construct a maintenance yard, to train employees to maintain and operate the fleet etc…I’ll be happy if all that happens is road space is set aside for transit vehicles, even if only buses use them for the next decade or two, as a step towards possible surface rail in the future, or at the very least better bus service, and possibly safer streets today.

  • bolwerk

    Conceptually, the vehicle fleet isn’t a big deal. Buses have lifespans of about 15 years, so the vehicles always need to be replaced soon anyway. That’s why improvements like articulated buses aren’t so expensive; TAs buy them during the course of normal replacement. Maintenance facilities and storage can largely use existing space. (Rail fleets turn over completely in 30-40 years. And NYCTA seems to be stretching it to 50.)

    I don’t really see a huge problem with storage or maintenance either. Certainly storage space is probably free all over the city.

  • bess

    Environmental Reviews have been inconclusive on the transportation front and yet the rezoning has been allowed to move forward regardless.

    http://song-online.tumblr.com/post/86415845517/look-at-where-the-projected-development-locations

  • GojiMet86

    Huh, my photo made a blog.

    – GojiMet86

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