Could 42nd Street Get a Light Rail and Go Car-Free?

light rail times square 42nd street new york image

Image: Mathieu Delorme for the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility

When a plan to extend New York's 42nd street-crossing no. 7 subway line to 10th avenue was recently scrapped due to a budget crisis, New Yorkers were reminded once again of how much of a schlep it can be to get crosstown. The collective sigh could not be heard over the din of traffic on 42nd street.

But other options exist, and the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility has recently dusted off one of them: closing 42nd Street to traffic from river to river and creating a $500 million, 2.5-mile street-level light-rail line that could whisk passengers across the entire width of Midtown in a mere 21 minutes. The plan would turn 42nd street from a chaotic parking lot into a lively pedestrian promenade.


Hold on to your straps
As the MTA prepares to implement a fare hike and service cuts -- and in a city where a more modest congestion pricing plan was quickly shot down -- the 25 year old trolley idea may not get much farther than it has previously.

But as the federal government prepares to offer infrastructure money to cities, and as New York seeks ways to stem congestion, the proponents of the idea, named Vision42, are more optimistic than usual. According to a discussion of a new report by the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility at City Room:

The new report by estimates that the light rail line would cost $411.3 million to $582.3 million in 2007 dollars, but generate $704.9 million in annual economic benefits, and yield $175.4 million a year in additional fiscal benefits to the city and state.

By speeding up crosstown travel time, the project would raise commercial property values by $1 billion — a result of ground-floor business revenue, rent and occupancy increases and reduction in accidents — and increase business in retail shops and restaurants by 35 percent, the study estimates.

To bring the street car back to New York -- where trolleys were common until 1946 -- the light rail line could draw power from fuel cells or other advanced technologies. (And perhaps new light rail-line systems in New York and elsewhere could be a boon for Detroit's retooled automakers.) The trip from one side of the city to the other would take only 21 minutes, even with speeds limited to 15 m.p.h. to keep pedestrians safe. That would be dramatically faster than the current bus line that makes the trip in traffic.


A second phase of the light-rail plan would create a loop, from 42nd st to 34th st.
Spin off
But there are reservations. Considering that 42nd st. already has a bus line and the 7 train, which runs at least part of the way across town, some have suggested Vision42 be applied instead to other areas in the city where no subways run, including in the outer boroughs. Others have simply demanded that the MTA reconsiders its plan to cut the 10th ave. station of the 7 line.

Or, given the potential economic and health benefits of an expansive pedestrian space and the costs of a light-rail at a time of frugality, another idea comes to mind: just taking cars off 42nd st.

Great Green Way
Imagine how tourists would flock there, in even greater numbers than they already do. The Great White Way could be met by the Great Green Way, and the "clean-up" of Times Square would finally be something to get excited about. (And for commuters, maybe we could keep a bus rapid transit lane, which could also mean twenty-minute cross-town trips.)

And it wouldn't just be for tourists -- New Yorkers would find new reasons to come to this over-commercialized boulevard, if not for the shopping for the great walks and views and people and nature-watching and just cleaner air.

Institute for Rational Urban Mobility and Vision42

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