With the dreaded L train shutdown now just one year away, the upheaval that awaits the city’s already afflicted subway riders is beginning to snap into focus—even as new circles of hell seem to open underground each day.
An estimated 225,000 daily L train riders between Brooklyn and Manhattan will be directly affected, many of them left without any comparably reliable source of transportation for 15 months, beginning sometime in April 2019 (no exact date has yet been announced). Displaced riders will stream into other parts of the transit system, with cascading effects across the city—commuters in Queens may find their primary route to Manhattan clogged beyond use, the bustling corridor of 14th Street could become a “bus parking lot,” and roving bands of “slugs” looking for rides might soon lay claim to the edges of the Williamsburg Bridge. A disruption of this scale seems to be without precedent in city history.
To mitigate the trauma, the MTA and the Department of Transportation released a five-page contingency plan in December, which calls for the creation of a new bus network, beefed up service on nearby subway lines, HOV restrictions on the Williamsburg Bridge (sometimes), and the transformation of 14th Street into an “exclusive busway” (sometimes). But the two agencies have repeatedly warned that it is “difficult to overstate” how painful the shutdown will be.
Below, we’ve tried our best to answer your questions—big, petty, practical and existential—about the chaos to come.
How do the agencies expect hundreds of thousands of L train riders to get around?
Other subway lines, mostly. Their plan estimates that 70 to 80 percent of ex-L train riders, or up to 180,000 people, will turn to nearby lines as a replacement. The influx of riders will see an unspecified amount of additional service on the J/M/Z and G lines, longer cars on the C and G lines, and improved turnstile and stair capacity at numerous stations. There will also be free MetroCard transfers between the Broadway G and Lorimer-Hewes J/M/Z, and between Junius Street 3 and the Livonia Avenue L. On nights and weekends, the M train will run to 96th Street/2nd Avenue.
Despite the planned improvements, it’s far from certain that the surrounding lines will be able to handle the coming swarm of riders. “There’s a real concern that the platforms will be saturated,” warns Annie Weinstock, a transportation planner and President of BRT Planning International. She notes that the aging J/M/Z tracks likely won’t be able to run trains more frequently, which could spell disaster for some L-adjacent stations that are already crowded. According to Weinstock’s modeling, around 800 passengers will be unable to access trains at the Marcy J/M/Z stop—by far the closest stop to Bedford Avenue—during the peak commuting hour due to platform bottleneck.
Streets around the Bedford Avenue L are already being transformed by the L-pocalypse.
Going north won’t be any better. At the Court Street Station, a crucial transfer point for those hoping to get to Manhattan via the G, Weinstock predicts that an estimated 1,200 would-be M and E train riders will be turned away at peak hours. Privately, the MTA is concerned that the situation could become dangerous: An internal MTA document obtained by the Village Voice’s Aaron Gordon warns that the passageway between the G and the E/M at Court Square “will be crush-loaded, and forcing a volume of passengers in either direction without assurance of clear reservoir space at the receiving end will create an unsafe condition.”
What is my best option for not being “crush-loaded”?
Commuting by bicycle is about to get a whole lot more attractive. Heeding the call of transit advocates, the DOT is planning to add protected bike lanes to the notoriously dangerous Grand Street corridor on the Brooklyn side of the Williamsburg Bridge, and on Delancey Street up to Allen Street in Manhattan. Assuming a parking-space related lawsuit brought by some West Village residents isn’t successful, Manhattan will also get its first two-way protected bike lane on 13th Street. “I would think that anybody who bikes, or is considering biking, could only be pleased by this plan,” transportation economist Charles Komanoff tells Gothamist.
Why is this happening, and whose fault is it?
During Hurricane Sandy, millions of gallons of corrosive seawater flooded into just about every single MTA tunnel under the East River, causing severe damage to circuits, tracks, switches, and signals. The 13-foot storm surge was particularly brutal for the aging Canarsie Tube, as the L train tunnel is called, and by 2016, it was clear that drastic measures would be necessary to repair it. Initially, the MTA considered a three-year partial closure, but ultimately decided on a full stoppage of service for 15 month between Eighth Avenue in Manhattan and Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn.
As for where to place the blame, the root of the shutdown was legally classified as an “Act of God,” and thus one of the few recent disruptions for which #CuomosMTA may not directly apply. Still, you could make the case that years of siphoning money away from the transit authority has compromised the subway system’s ability to handle the impact of the shutdown. There’s also an argument that the failure of both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo to implement congestion pricing will make things significantly worse (more on that later). Additionally, anyone opposed to taking swift action on climate change can be considered complicit in the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, and the increasingly likely, equally devastating storms in the future.
What about the new bus network?
The two agencies expect that around 15 percent of current L train riders will switch to buses, working out to 3,800 new bus passengers per peak hour over the Williamsburg Bridge. To meet that demand, the MTA is planning to add 200 additional buses, and to create at least three new bus routes, running from Grand Street and Bedford Avenue to Lower Manhattan via the Williamsburg Bridge. During rush hour, seventy buses are expected to cross the Williamsburg Bridge every hour.
While transit planners and advocates hoped that this blitz of new bus traffic would gets its own designated lane on the bridge, the agency instead opted for HOV-3 lanes—meaning vehicles must have at least three passengers—“during rush hours at minimum.” But as the Riders Alliance’s Danny Pearlstein points out, “peak hours on the L train are not the same as peak hours on other trains.” Indeed, one study found that the Bedford Avenue station is just as packed at 1 a.m. on a weekend as it is during the traditional rush hour.
“The priority for buses has to exist 24 hours a day to convince L train riders to use the shuttle buses,” says Pearlstein. “Otherwise they’ll just call taxis and Ubers, which would make traffic even more of a nightmare.”
Those hoping to cross the bridge on a budget may also turn to “slugging,” or ad hoc carpooling, according to Komanoff. The practice, popular in Washington D.C., involves drivers picking up hitchhikers so that their vehicles meet the HOV restriction. While Komanoff emphasizes that “this is a beautiful and efficient instance of human cooperation,” he also worries that widespread slugging near the bridge’s approaches could “impede the more efficient rolling convoys of buses that we’re going to need to get through this crisis.”
Another way to avoid that nightmare traffic scenario? “Implementing congestion pricing [on the bridge] would be the single easiest way to mitigate this downward spiral,” says Komanoff. He maintains that under the state’s vehicle and traffic laws, de Blasio could easily implement a temporary or permanent toll on any of the East River bridges. But the mayor remains opposed to congestion pricing. Meanwhile, Cuomo appeared ready to back congestion pricing only a few months ago, after a panel of experts—that the governor himself had convened—recommendeda toll for drivers entering Manhattan below 60th Street. But the “idea whose time had come,” as Cuomo described it, will apparently not come in time: A budget deal unveiled earlier this month makes no mention of the experts’ recommendations.
“If we had transportation governance that was imaginative and daring, it could’ve been a godsend,” laments Komanoff.
What’s happening to 14th Street?
The core of 14th Street will serve as an “exclusive busway” during peak hours, meaning that cars will not be permitted between 3rd Avenue and 8th Avenue eastbound and between 3rd Avenue and 9th Avenue westbound. Exceptions will be made for Access-A-Ride vehicles, local deliveries, emergencies, and private cars accessing any of the six parking garages in the corridor. (Representatives from the DOT and the MTA did not respond to a question about how the garage exception would be enforced.)
Supplementing the existing M14A and M14D routes, the MTA will also be rolling out Select Bus Service on the street, accompanied by temporary bus bulbs, expanded sidewalks, and new pedestrian space along the west side of Union Square. The purpose of these enhancements, according to the MTA, is to ensure the buses can cross the corridor in 17 minutes—a 37 percent reduction from current average bus speeds on the block.
For the 50,000 or so displaced L train riders planning to rely on the 14th Street busway, the reality may be far less sanguine. “It’s possible to move buses across 14th that quickly, but what they’re currently proposing doesn’t get there,” Weinstock tells Gothamist. Without major changes to the current plan, she cautions that 14th Street could become a “bus parking lot,” with trips taking more than twice as long as the MTA is predicting. Her recommendations, laid out it in a BRT report prepared for TransAlt earlier this year, include banning cars from the busway at all hours, extending the busway past 3rd Avenue to the Ferry Terminal, redesigning bus stops to allow for a higher volume of passengers, and making all L-train-substitute buses free.
“Implementing these measures,” the report concludes, “will be the difference between a mild inconvenience and a stuck-on-the-bus-nightmare.”
When will “peak hours” be?
We’re still not sure what the agencies mean by “peak hours,” as it applies to the 14th Street busway, the Williamsburg Bridge restrictions, and other street changes in the plan. A spokesperson for the DOT tells Gothamist that the hours are “still being determined.” On its own site, the MTA has previously defined rush hours as “approximately 6:30 – 9:30 a.m., and approximately 3:30 – 8 p.m., Monday through Friday.”
It may not be enough to keep “peak hour” restrictions in line with rush hour standard. According to transit advocacy groups including the Riders Alliance, the Regional Plan Association, Transportation Alternatives, Straphangers Campaign, and Tri-State Transportation Campaign, only a 24/7 L Train plan can mitigate the potentially paralytic congestion caused by the shutdown. Streetsblog also notes that “toggling back and forth between different rules could create uncertainty that degrades the system even during times when transit priority is in effect.”
Will the new 14th Street SBS buses be integrated with the existing M14A and M14D buses?
It’s remains unclear how the two bus routes will interact with each other — specifically, whether the two lines will have a uniform system of off-board fare collection and at-level boarding, as some transit planners have recommended. “It makes a very big difference how they treat those buses, but we still don’t have an answer yet,” notes Weinstock.
Earlier this week, the MTA released a long-awaited plan to fix the city’s bus system, which calls for citywide all-door boarding by 2020, and a redesign of the entire bus network by 2021. While the plan was widely praised by transit advocates, the changes likely won’t be implemented in time for the shutdown.
How will HOV Lanes be enforced on the bridge?
The DOT and the NYPD are “exploring new technologies to support” a joint enforcement plan. A spokesperson for the DOT could not provide further details about that technology or the enforcement plan in general.
Will the new bus routes in Brooklyn receive additional street treatments?
We know that buses and bicycles will get some priority on Grand Street, but we don’t know how much priority, as the agency is still studying the corridor, along with Metropolitan Avenue and other adjacent cross streets. It’s also unclear whether the bus route on Berry Street and Roebling Street will get any additional street treatments. “Those are narrow streets, so if you’re relying on a bus route in mixed traffic there, it’s going to be really slow,” warns Weinstock.
How much additional service will run on the J/M/Z and G lines?
A spokesperson for the MTA could not provide information on how much additional subway service will be running on the tracks.
Who is most screwed?
Bragging rights for the worst post-shutdown transit options go to those poor souls living near the Graham Avenue L station, who will soon spend an extra 44 minutes getting to the east side of Manhattan, according to the BRT report. Consult the chart below to see how your pending misery stacks up.
Will the project be finished on time and on budget?
Skepticism is warranted here, and even some MTA leaders have concerns. Judlau Contracting, which received a $477 million contract for the repair work last year, “did a dreadful job on the Second Avenue subway” and was a “cause of delays for completion,” according to MTA board member Charles Moedler.
In hopes of avoiding another Second Avenue situation, the MTA has promised to fine Judlau $410,000 for each additional day of work after 15 months. The contract also comes with a $15 million bonus if the project is finished early.
“The old days of how these contracts got awarded and how projects went over budget and were late are over,” MTA finance committee chair Lawrence Schwartz said during a board meeting last year.
Are we ready?
Oh, almost certainly not. The consensus among experts seems to be that while the mitigation plan is a good start, it just doesn’t go far enough in implementing the sort of bold solutions demanded by a crisis of this severity. And if things do go wrong, they’re going to go really wrong: It’s not hard to imagine a self-reinforcing race to the bottom, in which critical junctures of the already crumbling subway system become unusable at peak hours, while unreliable bus service forces more people into cars, thereby worsening congestion at a time when the city’s streets are already dangerously clogged.
“What’s frustrating is that their plans don’t seem to match up with their understanding of how fragile and perilous the situation could be,” says Komanoff.
Optimists might point out that there is still (barely!) time to address some of the most glaring omissions in the plan. Further expanding bus routes, enacting permanent HOV restrictions, and a total integration of buses on 14th Street are just some of the things the city can still accomplish, should they so choose. And who knows—maybe they will!
As Pearlstein puts it, “Nobody wants L-pocalypse on their watch.”