A trolley-styled shuttle bus that was conceived as a way of bringing tourists to Brooklyn’s cultural destinations is actually being mostly used by locals hitching a free ride, a new study has found — yet Borough President Markowitz is about to sink nearly half a million taxpayer dollars into keeping the “disappointing” system going.
Markowitz has allocated $475,000 to buy a new, fuel-efficient fake trolley to run its circular route, despite a report by the Center for the Urban Future that said the service functions mostly as “free transportation to go shopping or save [local residents] a walk across the park.”
Even the executive director of the agency that runs the trolley admits they’re a failure.
“If you talk to the trolley drivers, it’s the same lady and her three kids every Saturday at 3 pm and they’re going from ballet on the west side of the park to something else on the east side of the park,” said Ellen Salpeter, who runs Heart of Brooklyn, the privately and publicly funded community development group that operates the trolley.
The Markowitz-funded new vehicle will be greener, but critics say it’ll be a waste of another kind of green unless there are major changes to the way the service is promoted to tourists.
The fake trolley connects several stops inside Prospect Park with the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza, the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
In 2006, the weekends-only shuttle attracted only 18,000 people — and the report’s author, Tara Colton, said the ridership breakdown probably mimicked the results of a 2006 Heart of Brooklyn study that revealed that 78 percent of visitors to local institutions come from Brooklyn — 17 percent from Park Slope.
“The problem is people [from outside the area] don’t know about [the tourist trolley],” Colton said, adding that she could not evaluate the wisdom of Markowitz’s investment in a new trolley without knowing what other changes are in store for the program.
“Is it worth spending valuable resources on something like this?” she asked. “It can be, but only if investment [in the vehicle] is matched with a serious marketing push, otherwise no one will know about it.”
Markowitz declined to comment on the report. Salpeter said this week that she hopes the Borough President will help promote the trolley more broadly through his Borough Hall-based tourism organization.
“[The trolley] clearly needs to be marketed in a more targeted fashion,” she said, adding that she had hoped the report, which Heart of Brooklyn commissioned, would focus less on the weaknesses of our trolley and more on how successful tourist shuttles operate in other cities.
“We were hoping to learn who was doing something innovative,” she said.
Indeed, New York lags behind other cities in using trolleys — even fake ones — as a tourism-generating attraction. In Philadelphia, more than 29,000 people ride the city’s purple “Phlash” shuttles in its busiest month. The Phlash runs every eight to 12 minutes every day from March until November. Riders pay a buck for each ride.
Unlike in New York, Philly’s government invested in marketing and designing the vehicles to be recognizable to tourists. In Chicago, the city operates trolley buses along four routes. The free and widely publicized shuttles run three times an hour on Saturdays and Sundays year-round. The investment in promoting and operating the trolley shows up in its packed cars.
Heart of Brooklyn got its old-fashioned streetcar from former Borough President Howard Golden. Its $30,000-a-year operating budget is covered by a grant from Deutsche Bank and funding from the four institutions where the trolley stops.
Heart of Brooklyn is not the only local organization feeling let down by its trolley shuttle. The Brooklyn Children’s Museum ran a similar bus from Grand Army Plaza to its Crown Heights center until 2006, when museum leaders concluded that it wasn’t worth it.
Like the Heart of Brooklyn trolley, the museum’s shuttle had turned into a urban station wagon, used by families to travel to the park and nearby shops.
“The greatest benefit seems to have gone to Crown Heights residents who used the trolley to get to Grand Army Plaza and back,” Colton wrote.