Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
And see where the looming L-train shutdown will hurt the most.
Endless train delays and calcifying surface traffic have lately painted the New York City transit experience a deep shade of red. Soon, commuters will unlock a fresh level of hell when the tunnel housing the L train closes for 18 months to address Hurricane Sandy damage. Starting as early as 2019, the shutdown of the tunnel—and all L train stations west of Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn—will directly impact the 250,000 riders who shuttle between Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan every day.
How bad will it be? Wonks by the dozen have offered their two cents on which neighborhoods will be hardest hit, and what to do about it. Sidewalk Labs, the Alphabet subsidiary that builds smart city technology, has partnered with Transportation Alternatives, a New York City transit advocacy group, to map how the coming service block will affect transit trips between any two points in the city. Users can drop pins from start- and end-points and toggle with a range of trip settings—commute time, mode preference, maximum willingness to walk and transfer—and compare how the lack of an L train will screw things up, based on up-to-date GTFS feeds for all MTA bus and subway lines, plus local ferries.
Check out this joyless trip transformation from the L-train-dependent Brooklyn neighborhood of East Williamsburg into Manhattan’s East Village. What’s normally a 15-minute east-west jaunt turns into a 93-minute south-west-north runaround. (Yup, apparently even a Queens-Manhattan express bus through the Midtown tunnel wouldn’t help.)
An important caveat to the map: it doesn’t reflect the ripple effects that will follow the added passenger volumes other subway and bus lines. So consider these estimates as even less accurate—as in, overly fast—than the transit time estimates you’d normally get on, say, Google Maps.
Maybe East Williamsburg residents can walk a little farther to another train? Well, if a person is willing to walk a full mile (twice the distance most transportation planners consider good access) she could whittle her travel times down to 50 minutes. If she can’t walk much farther than a quarter-mile, she could still get there in about the same time—it would just require two transfers, above and below ground.
The map isn’t only great for arguing about whose commute is about to suck the most. You can also debate how travel options compare, for better and for worse, as they presently are. Dropping a single pinpoint onto the map reveals, in shaded color, relative access by train and bus from that location to everywhere else in the city. Bed-Stuy is a transit-friendly place to live, with lots of places easily accessible:
...but less so if you’re an avowed bus-hater, and insist on sticking to the subway:
You can also compare how cutting out the East River tunnel slashes citywide transit access from one neighborhood or another, and how adding other kinds of service can improve it. Upper East Siders will have a harder time getting into a broad swath of Brooklyn and Queens once the L is out of service, but the new Second Avenue subway (which you can toggle on and off) opened up huge sections of the city to them:
The configurations are limitless. Forgetting about how the L train or Second Avenue factor into commutes, you can use the map to look at general access to the city, via transit, from one neighborhood to another. Maybe you’re weighing apartment options in Long Island City and Jackson Heights. Settling in the first neighborhood unlocks a much greater spread of the city than the second one. Same borough, vastly different experience:
Advocates pressing to improve transit option will find this tool useful in the Big Apple and perhaps in other cities, if Sidewalk Labs eventually expands the data sets to cover transit agencies in other parts of the country. Certainly, it drives home the effects of the L train outage—which will be felt by the local economy—to startling effect. To pick up the slack, Transportation Alternatives has called on the city to drastically limit car access on 14th Street and reconfigure the corridor into bus lanes, protected bike paths, and wider sidewalks. Other groups have suggested shuttle buses, a BRT line, more ferries, special carpool services, and, naturally, a gondola between Williamsburg and the Lower East Side. Stay sane out there.