How the BQX Streetcar Could Change the Face of Brooklyn

In Portland and the Twin Cities, new rail lines eased commutes, sparked real estate development, and stoked cultural life

Portland's streetcar system is credited with helping transform the city’s Pearl District from a rundown neighborhood into a lively streetscape (Photo credit: Steve Morgan/Wikipedia Commons)

While Manhattanites celebrated the Second Avenue Subway with champagne toasts and A-list stars when it opened on New Year’s Eve, Brooklyn’s own transit project may have an even greater impact. The Brooklyn-Queens Connector, a streetcar system dubbed BQX, is proposed to follow a 15-mile route from Sunset Park to Astoria. The streetcars would run in dedicated traffic lanes on surface streets, with stops about every half mile.

The premise behind the BQX is that the number of people and jobs has boomed along the waterfront, but the stretch is not well served by mass transit. By connecting these points, the BQX will alter not only the commutes and lifestyles of 400,000 prospective riders in its path, but also the face of their neighborhoods. Both the route and the worthiness of the project have been hotly debated. Initially, the influence of prominent real-estate developers in steering the project produced a backlash, but since then New York City officials have tried to focus more on community and transit needs. A panel of transit experts convened on Monday suggested that the city would be better off spending the $2.5 billion on more cost-effective transport for low-income residents.

In any event, the streetcar would bring a bonanza of further development along its path that businesses will need to anticipate. If approved, the BQX would take five years to build after construction starts in 2019. What can New York City learn from other cities? For a sneak preview of what life might be like along the BQX path, we looked at two places that have been transformed by streetcars and light rail: Portland, OR, and Minneapolis-St. Paul. In  cities as disparate as Dallas, St. Louis, Detroit and Tucson, rail transit has reduced auto traffic and lured suburbanites and new residents to areas of these cities they may have never seen before.

Light-rail Boom in the Twin Cities

In the Twin Cities, the Blue Line light-rail system originally ran only from Mall of America to downtown, sparking development along that corridor that had been mostly industrial businesses and grain elevators. When the system was extended to St. Paul in 2014, the Green Line was dubbed an almost immediate success, sparking $2.5 billion of investment in new and renovated commercial and residential projects. By 2015, the train cars were filled with 40,000 riders a day, exceeding projections the line was expected to reach only by the year 2030. And in a metro area dominated by car travel, suddenly a new lifestyle emerged.

Twin Cities light-rail line

The Green Line extension of the Twin Cities light-rail line, which initially faced opposition, soon was a popular success (Photo credit: Dan Callahan)

Development along the line has included apartments and the retail businesses ranging from bars and restaurants to fitness and shopping. The line runs through the University of Minnesota campus and has become a major commuting method for students and young workers. The area’s Metropolitan Council, which guides the region’s growth, reported that 15,245 apartments, condos and homes were constructed near the Green Line, most of them in areas that had empty spaces alongside lightly populated residential areas.

There was opposition to the Green Line extension, mainly out of concern that the tracks would interfere with car traffic. One St. Paul landlord, Jack McCann, rallied local businesses against the project when it was being planned. Now he uses it as a selling point for his apartments. “I feel a little two-faced on the whole thing,” he told Minnesota Public Radio.

Streetcar Revolution in Portland

No project has gotten more kudos than the Portland Max streetcar system, in which two lines carry 20,000 riders a day along 16 miles of track. The Max is credited with helping transform the city’s Pearl District from a rundown neighborhood mostly noted for its abandoned rail yard. Now Pearl offers a streetscape of artisan cafes and microbreweries, a thriving scene contributing to the city’s Portlandia image.

One of the Portland system’s benefits is that it serves a group of commuters who don’t have an alternative: 38% of riders don’t own a car and 23% don’t even have a driver’s license. Apartments and condos in the area get the region’s highest prices.

Orox Leather Co., a fourth-generation, family-run business making handmade leather goods, opened a new retail space and company headquarters in the Pearl District in 2013. “It’s got its own cachet now, ‘Made in Portland,’” co-owner Martin Martinez told Alaska Airlines’ Horizon Edition magazine.

Streetcar systems are often associated with tourism, especially in San Francisco, but that’s not the experience in Portland, where only 5% of riders were tourists.

Light Rail vs. Streetcars

There are differences between light rail and streetcar systems. Light rail tends to be more segregated from auto traffic and typically uses specially built island stations. As a result, light rail tends to be more expensive than streetcars and end up changing automobile traffic patterns along the streets where they run.

Streetcars can use dedicated lanes and run in traffic alongside cars. They are cheaper to build, but have led to criticisms that buses would provide similar service at a much cheaper cost and without the disruption to businesses and traffic. Urban planners debate the tradeoffs as well as the economic impact of the rail system.

“There is a lot of controversy,” says Yonah Freemark, an urbanist who studies transportation systems. “You could argue that the development you see would have taken place without the systems. They just might have been in other places of the cities.”

As the BQX moves through planning and completion, 2024 seems like a long way away. But businesses along the path will have to be ready for disruption and, potentially, more competition. To prepare for the Green line in St. Paul, a group of 14 local and national foundations launched a partnership called the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative. The group helped business owners plan 18 months in advance of the line’s opening, while the city offered loans of up to $20,000 to cover construction-related losses. Once the line was open, the Metropolitan Council spent $1.2 million on marketing the new line to prospective riders and shoppers.

Business owners say that line has brought new faces to their neighborhoods. Says Ron White, a co-owner of Big Daddy’s BBQ in St. Paul’s Frogtown district, “We had people who have never been to the restaurant come in because they saw the billboard or because they saw us on a bus side.”

Former Carroll Gardens resident Dan Callahan is a frequent visitor to Brooklyn, keeping up with his millennial son who in five years has had four different Brooklyn addresses.