A log about land use and transportation that is updated . . . from time to time
Other Webspaces -
N.Y. Metro Transportation Advocacy
Auto-Free New York
Bridge Tolls Advocacy Project
Car Free Bedford Avenue
Citywide Coalition for Traffic Relief
"Mobilizing the Region"
Move NY & NJ
New York Public Transit Association
Right of Way
Save Mass Transit Coalition
Straphangers' Campaign
Time's Up!
Transportation Alternatives
Tri-State Transportation Campaign
Vision 42

National Transportation Advocacy
American Passenger Rail Coalition
American Public Transportation Assoc.
Coalition for Appropriate Transportation
Daily rail news clippings from UTU
League of American Bicyclists
National Assoc. of Railroad Passengers

Academia & Smart Growth
Center for an Urban Future
Center for Urban Policy Research
Columbia University Urban Planning
Congress for the New Urbanism
Initiative for a Competitive Inner City
Planners Network
Professor Donald Shoup
Professor Vukan R. Vuchic
Regional Plan Association
Rudin Center
Smart Growth Online

Access for All
Asphalt Nation
The Death & Life of Great American Cities
Downtown: It's Rise and Fall: 1880-1950
The Geography of Nowhere
Suburban Nation
Transportation for Livable Cities

NYC Planning & Development
Bronx Overall E.D.C.
Dept. of City Planning
Citizen's Housing & Planning Council
Empire State Development Corp.
Enterprise Foundation
LISC-New York
Lower Manhattan Development Corp.
NYC Dept. of City Planning
NYC Dept. of Parks & Rec.
NYC Economic Development Corp.
NYC Housing Development Corp.
NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission
N.Y. Industrial Retention Network
N.Y. Metro Transportation Council
Partnership for New York
Project for Public Spaces
Sustainable South Bronx
United Nations Development Corp.
Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone

U.S. Rail Service Providers
American Orient Express

Alaska Railroad
Altamont Commuter Express
The Coaster
Long Island Rail Road
MBTA Commuter Rail
Metro-North Railroad
New Jersey Transit
Shore Line East
South Shore Line
Syracuse OnTrack
Trinity Railway Express
Virginia Railway Express

Web www.startsandfits.com
Sunday, September 18, 2005
Retrofitting Bridges for Inefficiency

Every night, through a gap between the towers across the street, I see a red flow of tail lights streaming away across the Brooklyn Bridge. I think about all the gasoline those cars are burning, and the plume of fumes coming up off the bridge, tendrils caught in the wind, fouling the air above the river. Despite the disruption caused by all that traffic, the bridge carries far fewer people these days than it was designed to. A friend pointed out a paper (pdf warning) that describes the engineering challenges of maintaining the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro Bridges. This paper includes an important graphic (on p. 4) that shows changing transportation modes side by side with the number of trips made over the bridges each day. Here's a detail for the Brooklyn Bridge:

Despite a wondrous century of technological marvels, the Brooklyn Bridge has declined substantially in efficiency. In 1907, 426,000 trips were made each day across the bridge via two tracks of streetcar lines, two tracks of elevated subway trains, on foot, and on two lanes for vehicular traffic — in those days horses, carriages and horseless carriages. By 1989, only 178,000 trips were made across the bridge, a 42 percent decline in usefulness since 1907, even though there were now six modern lanes carrying speedy, powerful cars. The statistics and layout diagrams for the other bridges tell similar stories. The Williamsburg Bridge, which once had six tracks for trolleys and subways and four lanes for vehicles, carried 505,000 daily trips in 1924. By 1989, with only two tracks remaining for the J, M and Z trains, the bridge's space devoted to cars had doubled but its usefulness had fallen by half to just 240,000 trips per day.

Even though vehicular traffic has increased, people moving across the bridges has decreased. How did this happen? After World War II people began anew with the thought that the automobile would be the ultimate form of human transportation, the be-all and end-all of personal, private mobility. The trolleys and elevated subways were destroyed and every square inch that could be was put into service for the movement and storage of the automobile. The city paved over the streetcar lines and demolished as many elevated subway tracks as it could. Only a fraction of the many elevated lines remain as part of today's subway system. Here is a partial map of the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation's system in 1924.

Note the elevated lines over lower Myrtle, Lexington, Fifth and Third Avenues. These are all gone, as is rail service over the Brooklyn Bridge. It was once possible to hop on a train at Park Row and travel to the middle of Bedford-Stuyvesant without a transfer. That's impossible now, but there are still many neighborhoods where elevated subways travel. The demolition of the trolleys was total. Nothing remains of the dense grid of streetcar lines that fed the Brooklyn Bridge for decades.

When the streetcar lines and the elevated subways were demolished, the people were decanted out into the green spaces surrounding the city, and the suburbs of the modern sprawling metropolis were born. Meanwhile, the city had to deal with a host of urban ills, including abandonment, crime, poverty, arson and urban decay. Thankfully, this has been changing recently.

The East River Briges have stood through all of it, but today serve at half capacity, like gifts handed down to us from prior generations that we're not really sure how to use. Some people call the years after World War II the start of the Cheap Oil Bonanza, and believe that the end of this bonanza may now be beginning. If cheap oil becomes a thing of the past, there may be decades that lie ahead when things like trolleys or elevated subways return to the Brooklyn Bridge.

- Managing the East River Bridges in New York City [PDF] [Federal Highway Administration]
- Hubbert peak theory [Wikipedia]
- Posted at 2:39 AM | Permalink | Comments: 3 | Post a Comment |  

Awesome analysis. Thanks so much for putting this together. I'd trade brooklyn's traffic nightmare today for a dense network of trolley cars above ground!

By peakguy, at 9/18/2005 9:58 PM  

That is really interesting. Great post, AD!

By aaron, at 9/19/2005 11:26 AM  

Thank God someone is thinking about this and posting on the web!

By Anonymous, at 10/24/2005 10:36 AM  

About S&F

  • Lively neighborhoods.
  • Infill development.
  • Auto independence.
    Starts and Fits is published in New York City by Aaron Donovan. For more information or to obtain an rss feed, see About.

    S&F Special Feature
    "; ?>
    Hardenbergh Tribute

    Favorite Posts On …
    Charlotte Street
    St. John the Divine
    East 96th Street
    Gramercy Park
    70 Pine Street
    The Brooklyn Bridge
    My Bike
    20 West 40th Street
    DUMBO Gentrification
    Manhattan Gas Stations
    Yankee Stadium
    Bronx Housing Boom

    S&F Archives
    December 2004
    January 2005
    February 2005
    March 2005
    April 2005
    May 2005
    June 2005
    July 2005
    August 2005
    September 2005
    October 2005
    November 2005
    December 2005
    January 2006
    February 2006
    March 2006
    April 2006
    May 2006
    June 2006
    July 2006
    August 2006
    September 2006
    November 2006
    December 2006
    January 2007
    May 2007

    Planning & Urbanism
    City Journal
    City Limits
    Gotham Gazette
    Municipal Art Society
    The Next American City

    Aaron Naparstek
    Bagel in Harlem
    Big Cities Big Boxes
    Bird to the North
    The Box Tank
    Hot in Harlem
    J. H. Kunstler
    J. P. Reardon
    Land + Living
    Metro-North Commuter Miss Representation
    The Oil Drum (NYC)
    On NY Turf
    Save Our Parks
    Transit Talk
    Triple Mint
    Urban Cartography
    Veritas et Venustas

    A Great Place