A Horsecar for Prospect Park
Following a link from Gotham Gazette, I found that the Center for an Urban Future has released a report on free outer borough tourist “trolleys” such as the Heart of Brooklyn trolley running around Prospect Park. The report can be found here http://www.nycfuture.org/images_pdfs/pdfs/ABumpyRide.pdf . Brooklyn’s trolley gets riders around the park and to the Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Prospect Park Zoo, Brooklyn Museum of Art and over to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. The report finds that the trolleys have added little to the attendance at these institutions, and blames infrequent service and poor marketing. The group is also concerned that the Brooklyn trolley rarely has more than a few passengers on board, and given that it only gets six miles per gallon, it is a poor environmental choice per passenger. The group suggests replacing the vehicles with more fuel efficient models, increasing signage and marketing, and running the service more frequently (even though it is currently underutilized). As a person who has trouble thinking inside the box, needless to say I have a more radical suggestion.
I have a longstanding interest in the history and future of infrastructure, especially mass transportation. If there is one topic certain to excite an outpouring of disdain from rail “foamers” and “busheads” alike, it is those buses disguised as fake trolleys. Railfans hate them because they are not what they are supposed to be – real light rail. And bus partisans don’t like them because they are lousy buses. They are inferior to each of the genuine articles. And that’s what we have running around Prospect Park.
Although it wouldn’t help the Children’s Museum, which might require a separate shuttle trolley, I have an alternative suggestion: a Prospect Park Horsecar. Horsecars -- streetcars pulled by horses -- were the original mass transit. In 1890, according to How We Got to Coney Island, Brooklyn’s largest transit company, the Brooklyn City Railroad, had 142 miles of track for horsecars, 18 for experimental steam streetcars, and 20 for the newfangled electric streetcars. The firm had 815 closed horsecars (for winter), 714 open horsecars (for summer), and 5,500 horses. Brooklyn’s first horsecar ran in 1854, and its last some 50 years later. Backward-looking newspapers led by the New York Times, according to this source, fought against the conversion from horses to electric streetcars. In any event, the horsecar era lasted as long as the electric trolley era, but is nowhere immortalized in our city or, for that matter, our country.
The re-creation of an electric trolley line would require expensive power and signal systems, and expensive-to-maintain electric cars. There are, moreover, electric trolley museums across the country, with the closest to New York in Branford, CT (and well worth a visit).
All a horsecar line would need, in contrast, is tracks set into the pavement and level with the road to allow automobiles to continue using the lane when the park was open tothem. The horses could be stored, and a car garage could be built, somewhere in or adjacent to the Prospect Park Zoo. The track could follow the innermost of the two park roadway lanes, as the trolley does. But it would exit the park in the Willink Entrance near the intersection of Flatbush, Ocean, and Empire, cross Flatbush Avenue, run up the east side of Washington Avenue in the bed of a little-used sidewalk adjacent to the Botanic Garden, run in barrier separate right of way on the south side of Eastern Parkway, and re-enter the park at Grand Army Plaza. It would thus serve all the destinations the trolley does save the Children's Museum -- Central Library, Art Museum, Botanic Garden, Zoo (a short walk up Flatbush), Picnic House, Bandshell, Skating Rink, Audubon Center, and Lefferts Homestead, along with the Brighton (B, Q), Culver (F, G?), and IRT (2, 3 museum stop) subway lines and frequent B41 and B68 buses.
The horsecar itself could be a visual reproduction of an original inside and out, but could use modern materials and equipment -- like a stainless steel undercarriage to save weight, and pneumatic fail-safe emergency brakes powered by charged canisters for safety. A ride on a horsecar in Prospect Park could be the poor man’s version of a carriage ride in Central Park. And to make the service financially feasible, I would charge for it, but at a mass transit rate, not the carriage rate. The fare could be the same as the subway and bus fare, complete with the use of unlimited ride cards and free transfers, and the service could be operated by the MTA via the Transit Museum. A solar panel on the car roof could be used to charge a battery that was used to operate a bus-style Metrocard reader that also took coins. There could be also frequent user discounts -- for ice skaters, for example.
A fellow transit fan who liked this idea pointed out that in the early 1980's the village of Northport, LI, NY had a horsecar drawn by two horses that went all the way down Main Street and turned around by Woodbine Ave. This was on pre-existing trolley tracks in the street and was designed as a "tourist attraction". It only lasted about 2-3 summers and failed due to lack of patronage. The density in and around Prospect Park, however, is far higher than the density in Northport, and Brooklyn has become an international tourist destination. Integrated into the transit system, present on every transit map, I believe that horsecar rides could probably cover their operating costs, and would not require additional subsidies, once the capital costs were absorbed. In any event, a horsecar line would almost certainly cost less per rider than the current fake trolley.
How could the capital costs be funded? This is the sort of thing that is typically funded by “pork,” by a Congressional earmark out of the state’s federal transportation money. Needless to say, that is not what I would want. The last thing we need, given our high takes, is something cutesy like this competing with basic needs and services. Heck, I’d feel bad about wasting Ben and Gur’s bandwidth with this whimsy, if it wasn’t Labor Day weekend.
Perhaps the city could pay to have the pavement stripped and replaced around the track. Perhaps New York City Transit could donate used track panels, with tracks too worn to support a subway train but still sufficient for a single horsecar. It may be possible to partner with the NYC Transit Museum and the Transit Workers Union to engineer and install the tracks and operate the car. Certainly laying track outside with plenty of clearance, no third rail power, and no train traffic is a “walk in the park” compared to what track-workers usually have to do. Perhaps the winner of the state’s politically-sensitive horse racing franchise, assuming that is ever resolved, the winner would show gratitude by building a small stable and donating four horses. Perhaps the horses could be kept by the zoo.
The system could also be built by local volunteers and donors, perhaps directed by volunteers from NYCT or related organizations and contactors. A heroic effort to re-create an electric trolley line in Brooklyn in this fashion has thus far fallen short, but as mentioned, a horsecar line would be a much simpler undertaking, particularly with institutional support.
And the car itself? If one didn’t mind it being red, and having “Bud” painted on the side, perhaps Anheuser Busch would pay to have it built. And leading the inaugural run? Why the Clydesdales of course, for a TV commercial! If not Budweiser, perhaps some other company would sponsor the car, if it would make sense to have it in their commercials. Perhaps others would pay to have subway-style ads placed along the roof inside the car.
In summary, if the Brooklyn institutions are committed to coming up with a better idea for the Heart of Brooklyn Trolley, as indicated in the report, then they have my suggestion. The Center for An Urban Future report says the Brooklyn Children’s Museum once had its own shuttle, and since it would be off the horsecar route, perhaps this would have to be re-created. Otherwise, however, I believe a horsecar line circling the park would be a destination in itself in a way that the tourist “trolley” never will be.
Post new comment