Mr. de Blasio said on Thursday that he planned to build a new streetcar line along the waterfront from Brooklyn to Queens, a stretch of real estate that now commands stupefying prices but offers almost no public transit options. “Not everybody rides bicycles,” observed Richard Ravitch, the former lieutenant governor.
Of course, streetcars would aid and abet the rampage of gentrification.
But they would also provide a chance at decent transit for more than 40,000 people who live in New York City housing projects that were built along the waterfront in the 1940s and ’50s, when the area was an industrial zone that was about to die. “There were many streetcar lines around there that got torn up around the time to be replaced by buses,” said Harris Schechtman, who for many years was the general manager of the city bus system.
So many trolleys ran through the streets of Brooklyn that the nimble natives who became adept at getting out of their way, the dodgers of Brooklyn, inspired the name of a certain baseball team.
Until the late 1940s, trains and trolleys carried 400,000 people a day across the Brooklyn Bridge. Then a master plan was carried out: Tear up the tracks and make more room on the bridge for cars.
The 400,000 people in trains and trolleys became 170,000 in cars, according to Sam Schwartz, a transportation planner and the author of “Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars.”
“That was such a stupid thing to do,” Mr. Schwartz said.
It was stupid by design, a plank in the 1942 Regional Plan issued by the Regional Plan Association. The streetcar industry was killed off in most cities in the country by the middle of the 20th century, unable to survive a hostile economic climate, including the emergence of suburbs, or a criminal conspiracy by manufacturers of buses, tires and petroleum products to encourage 45 cities in 16 states to remove older street transit systems and replace them with their products.
The last streetcar in New York City ran across the Queensboro Bridge on April 7, 1957.
Nearly 59 years later, the city and times have changed so drastically that Mr. de Blasio is prepared to build a 16-mile route from Sunset Park in Brooklyn to Astoria in Queens. A feasibility study, which both Mr. Schwartz and Mr. Schechtman worked on, was paid for by real estate interests, including the Durst family, which has property in Astoria, and the Walentas family, which has developments in Brooklyn.