Fun with history: The Brooklyn–Queens subway disconnect

Public transportation sucks between the two big boroughs—but it wasn’t always that way.

The Eighth Avenue trolley, New York City, 1904

The Eighth Avenue trolley, New York City, 1904 Photograph: National Archives

What Brooklynite hasn’t played the weekend shuffle with their Queens friends (and vice versa)? You say, “Let’s meet up in Prospect Heights!”; they say, “No, come meet us in Astoria!”.… One tense conversation and two grumbling commutes later, you end up splitting the difference and shoving in at an overcrowded bar in the East Village. Thanks a bunch, subway.

But it isn’t really the MTA’s fault that—with the exception of the much-maligned G train—there is no subcutaneous connective tissue between the counties of Kings and Queens. According to a recent piece in The Atlantic's Cities blog, the New York City subway was initially conceived as a commuter line; and in the early 1900s and well beyond, the jobs were all in Manhattan.

And besides, if you wanted to get directly from Brooklyn to Queens, you took the trolley. In the early 20th century, there used to be an extensive network of aboveground streetcars connecting outer parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens to population centers, and the boroughs to each other.

But by the 1940s, NYC’s trolleys had vanished, along with similar operations in cities across the country. The culprit? National City Lines, a creepy übercompany owned by General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California and Phillips Petroleum. It snatched up trolleys in 40 American metropolises and, in short order, turned them into bus systems.

The federal government eventually cracked down on what became known, awesomely, as the Great American Streetcar Scandal, but Gotham’s trolleys were gone for good, and the MTA never made up for the loss. We think it’s high time for a course correction, no?