There is a large class of transit supporters who think that every right-of-way that can be used for transit should be preserved for this purpose, even if it is not very useful. A few overzealous railfans on the message boards opposed the opening of the High Line park and wanted the viaducts to be used for an extension of the 7 train. This is extreme and nowadays the transit activists I know support the High Line while opposing schemes to recreate it in an inferior context. But even serious bloggers like Cap’n Transit, Ben Kabak, and John Morris are opposing plans to create a Low Line out of the abandoned trolley terminal at the Essex/Delancey subway stop, on the grounds that it could be useful for transit one day.
Now, it’s possible that the Low Line idea is bad because people would not want to go to an underground park. But it’s not a problem for transit; the Williamsburg Bridge doesn’t need trolleys since it has a subway running on (and because the bridge is high there is no way a bus could cross it without passing within two blocks of Marcy, the subway stop at the Brooklyn end of the bridge). The lines running on it are in fact underused: as can be seen on PDF-pages 65-73 of the latest Hub Bound Travel Data report, peak-hour traffic on the J/M/Z entering the Manhattan core was one of the lower in the system as of 2010 – higher than the bottom two track pairs (8th Avenue local and Montague) but in a near-tie for third lowest with several others. So there’s not much use for the trolley terminal as a modern Williamsburg Bridge bus (or trolley) terminal.
But what is more important than just the Low Line is place. To succeed, transit needs not only to exist, which it already does in the area in question, but also to have places to connect to. If for some reason the trolley terminal would need to be demolished to build room for foundations for several skyscrapers, it would be an unambiguous win for transit, since it would create more destinations for people to take the existing J/M/Z and F trains to. The surrounding neighborhood might disagree regarding the implications for urbanism, though I’d argue that Midtown-like skyscrapers would be better-integrated into the streetscape than the projects east and south of the station. If the Low Line succeeds as a park, it will be similar: not in the sense of providing jobs for tens of thousands of people, but in the sense of creating a place for people to go to. (In fact, a park has less peaky demand than offices, so it could be better for subway finances even at relatively low levels of usage.)
Last year, I brought up the question of the infrastructure’s highest value mainly as a way of deciding which kind of service (regional, intercity, etc.) should get first priority on any given rail line, but the same is true about transit versus place. In an area with enough transit and not enough place, it’s more important to create more development, for both good urbanism and more successful transit.
This does not mean every proposal to turn a rail right-of-way into a park is good. Despite my skepticism that the Rockaway Cutoff can be a successful rail line, I’m even more skeptical about its value as a park; it’s not in an area that can ever draw many people, since the density (of both residences and jobs) is not high by New York standards and it is far from other destinations that could draw people from outside the nearby neighborhoods. However, in areas that are lacking in good parks, or could use new development, it is better to concentrate on creating place.
For examples of this elsewhere, consider the railyards in Long Island City, Hoboken, and Sunnyside. Two of my earliest posts proposed to build a regional rail station in Sunnyside and then develop the area around it with air rights over the railyard; this is what should be done in an area that needs both transit and place. But in Hoboken and Long Island City, there’s ample transit, and the only use of the railyards is to park trains that can’t do to Manhattan because of lack of electrification or lack of capacity in the approach tunnels. Since parking trains is an inefficient use of space, and both areas have good connections to Manhattan by subway or PATH, there should be plans to remove the railyards and redevelop them to create more place, leaving just enough rail infrastructure to run through-trains, to be parked in lower-value areas. This development can be either parkland or buildings, depending on what is in demand in the area. Based purely on Google Earth tourism, I believe Hoboken does not need additional parks and so development there should be just a new secondary CBD on top of the PATH station, while Sunnyside and Long Island do, and so development there should include parks as well as high-density office and residential construction.
Instead of worrying about turning unused and for the most part unusable transit infrastructure into place, good transit activists should focus on preserving infrastructure that could potentially be used. In the New York area, probably the most useful piece of infrastructure that isn’t currently used is the Bergen Arches, allowing the Erie lines to enter Jersey City at Pavonia/Newport, a more central location than Hoboken; this is one of four options for a location for a new regional rail tunnel from New Jersey to Lower Manhattan, and is arguably the best option for an integrated regional rail network.
In the 1990s there were plans to reuse the Bergen Arches for a roadway, since modified to include both a road option and a rail option, and in 2011 the Christie administration allocated some money to further studies; an analysis from 2004 scored various road and transit options, not including a regional rail network, and gave the highest score to a roadway with a single high-occupancy vehicle and bus lane per direction. (A trail got the second lowest score, after no-build.) Since Jersey City (and the entire region) needs more transit from the north and west, while further formation of place will and should cluster around the waterfront, it’s important to fight any plan to give the Bergen Arches to a non-railroad use unless and until a regional rail plan is formulated that places the New Jersy-Lower Manhattan tunnel at another location.
In contrast, the Low Line should not be a priority. On the contrary, if the park plan is even partially sound, or the place could be reused as another place if the park idea fails, then good transit advocates should support the idea, since it’d be good urbanism. With a few exceptions, good transit requires good urbanism and vice versa.