Catesby Holmes is Global Affairs Editor at The Conversation, in New York. Her work has been published in CityLab, Wired, Travel + Leisure and Slate.
Over the the longer term, the city’s subway, bus, and bike commuters stand to benefit from the much-feared Brooklyn train disruption.
When parts of New York City’s L train shut down for 15 months in April 2019* for long-overdue tunnel repairs, an estimated 275,000 Brooklyn subway riders will have to find other ways to cross the river into Manhattan. The L-pocalypse has been dreaded since it was announced in 2016, but the need for the repairs dates back to Superstorm Sandy in 2012, when salt water flooded the Canarsie Tunnel under the East River. The long lead-up to the closure has given the authorities plenty of time to prepare. The city has a host of contingency plans, including expanding subway service on the J, M, Z, G, 7 and C lines. That, says the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), will keep roughly 80 percent of L train refugees moving.
But with New York’s subway system in an extended crisis after decades of deferred maintenance, many straphangers doubt these lines—already plagued by delays and overcrowding—can actually handle the influx. Instead, they expect the L shutdown to heap a whole new layer of mobility misery upon the lives of millions of Brooklyn and Manhattan commuters.
There’s plenty of evidence to support this unhappy conclusion. Even as the shutdown approaches, the MTA is planning on cutting some service and positions in an effort to trim costs, and the current performance of the subway has not improved markedly since last summer, with on-time rates remaining at around 65 percent.
It might be hard to see from here, but the optimistic commuter might see an upside to this shutdown, which could force the city to pay more attention to currently underutilized elements of its ailing transportation network, like buses and bikes. As it scrambles to help stranded Brooklynites, the MTA might come out of this crisis with some lasting improvements that save New Yorkers from bigger headaches going forward.
The bus’s big moment
“A modern, reliable, fast bus system is one of the best alternatives to the subway,” says Kate Slevin, senior vice president at the Regional Plan Association, a research and advocacy organization in New York and New Jersey.
But the MTA has long treated its bus network like the subway’s ugly stepsibling. New York City has the nation’s slowest buses, according to a 2017 City Comptroller report. In Manhattan they creep along at just over 5 miles per hour. Routes are long and meandering. Express buses run late 30 percent of the time. Ridership has dropped 21 percent since 2002. “Fast, reliable bus service is not possible under current traffic conditions,” the city admits.
Now that the city needs buses to rescue L train riders, it’s taking them more seriously. “We’ve listened to our riders’ concerns and are working tirelessly to create a world-class bus system that New Yorkers deserve,” new MTA chief Andy Byford said in April, when announcing the MTA’ s “NYC Transit Bus Plan.”
During the L shutdown, 80 new bus shuttles will run across the Williamsburg Bridge, serving an estimated 4,200 L riders an hour. To keep them moving, beginning in April 2019, all cars will be banned from 14th Street, which runs above the L line in Manhattan, turning the busy four-lane artery into a “busway.” And buses will zip across the bridge during rush hours thanks to an HOV rule limiting traffic to vehicles with three or more passengers. Both policies could dramatically increase bus speeds in the impacted area. In Manhattan, “select” buses that enjoy designated lanes and off-board fare payment now run at around 7.6 mph, 38 percent faster than your average local bus.
There’s also a private-sector effort to step into the L train void: A startup dubbed “the New L” plans to offer Brooklyn commuters morning rides to Manhattan in wifi-equipped “luxury shuttles,” for a monthly subscription of $155.
“The L train shutdown challenges the primacy of the automobile,” says Paul Steely White, executive director of the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. But having a fleet of private vans replace public transit would represent a “worst-case scenario”—he sees the subway crisis as an opportunity “to show what the surface network can do when it’s optimized to move people instead of cars.”
If the 14th Street busway succeeds in accelerating crosstown bus speeds, it’s “absolutely” possible that the concept could expand to congested arteries like 23rd, 34th and 57th streets, Steely White says—all crosstown streets that don’t have subways running beneath them. Many crosstown buses now traverse the island of Manhattan on these streets at the pace of a walking horse. Without cars to contend with, they might actually run like, well, a bus.
A bike-friendlier city
Bicycles are already booming in New York City. Last year, New Yorkers logged 450,000 bike trips a day, up from 170,000 in 2005. Cycling commutes rose 80 percent from 2012 to 2017 alone, thanks in large part to the installation of 300 miles of new bike lanes across the city. Bike advocates are hoping that the L shutdown will help nudge more new riders into the streets and increase their ranks.
“We believe that a substantial group of people will choose to bike” during the L train shutdown, says a New York City Department of Transportation spokesperson, calling cycling a “safe, comfortable, and environmentally efficient mode of transportation.”
To make a two-wheel commute easier, Citibike, New York’s public bikeshare, is adding 1,250 bikes and 2,500 bike docks in affected neighborhoods. Valets will be on hand to park bikes when docking stations are full. Lower Manhattan, particularly the West Villlage neighborhood, is getting 3.5 miles of fresh bike lanes to accomodate all those new cyclists.
Citibike is also bolstering its fleet with battery-boosted electric bikes, launching the first 40 of a planned 1,000 e-bikes this week. Until recently, electric bikes were technically illegal (though omnipresent) in New York City, with Mayor Bill de Blasio insisting that boosted bicycles represented a a hazard on city streets. The L train shutdown seems to have encouraged the city to change its tune on this issue. In April, transportation commissioner Polly Trottenberg announced that “pedal assist” e-bikes (though not cycles with a throttle) would be legalized. “With challenges like the L train tunnel closure on the horizon,” she said, “our aim is to balance moving even more New Yorkers on two wheels.”
Four bikeshare companies that offer rentable e-bikes are also launching in New York boroughs soon, giving thousands more New Yorkers—not just those stranded by the L train—the option of a low-exertion bike commute.
Most L riders-turned-cyclists will go back to the subway when it reopens. But the DOT believes “it is likely that ridership will continue to increase post L train construction.” Even if only a small percentage of first-time cyclists decide they prefer a breezy bike ride to a crowded subway trip, their fellow L train riders will feel the difference.
A more accessible L
New York State assemblyman Harvey Epstein says that “the L train shutdown will cause a lot of heartache. But there are some upsides, including station improvements. We’re going to have more accessible stations in two years.”
That’s huge for older riders, wheelchair users, parents with strollers, and other New Yorkers who don’t do stairs. Epstein notes that less than a quarter of New York City’s 472 subway stations comply with federal accessibility standards. That makes it one of the least accessible public transit systems in the United States.
Originally, the MTA planned to add elevators to two L train subway stations while they were closed for repairs. People with mobility impairments insisted that wasn’t enough. They convinced the agency to add additional elevators to a third subway station that L shuttle bus riders must use to access other lines.
Communication is a famously weak spot for the MTA, from its garbled announcements about service changes to the lack of information about protracted train delays. Often, train conductors themselves don’t seem to know what’s going on.
The same problem exists within the agency, one MTA staffer tells CityLab. When he joined the agency, he was surprised to find that one department could work on a project for months only to learn that similar research is underway in a different department, leading to wasted efforts and missed opportunities for innovation and collaboration. But as the L shutdown looms, some of those barriers seem to be coming down: “The contingency plan for the L train shutdown has required departments that don’t normally talk much to work closely together,” the employee says. “That’s laying the groundwork for better communication in the future."
The MTA and NYC’s DOT have also had to increase their cooperation in preparing for the L’s closure, he notes. Collaboration and cooperation seen between the two agencies is “encouraging,” says Slevin of the Regional Plan Association.
“When they announced the closure, the explanation was clear, both on the challenges riders would face and on the need to do it,” Slevin says. “People got it.” Both agencies have also been “pretty responsive” to feedback on the alternative transportation plan, she adds.
They’ve had to be: If these L train contingency plans fall short, parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan could be paralyzed. And with many more subway shutdowns coming down the pike, this crisis may be only the beginning. Rescuing New York’s transit system from its system-wide state of emergency will require a massive modernization effort dubbed “Fast Forward” that’s estimated to cost $37 billion and will involve several years worth of prolonged subway closures to update the system’s signal system, fare payments, and more. “Getting there will require short-term sacrifices for long-term gains,” the MTA says. Hopefully, fixing the L will be the learning experience the city needs.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story used an incorrect date.