Yale Students Are Trying to Solve New York’s Subway Shutdown

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The capstone studio project introduced dozens of new ideas that the MTA might do well to consider.

In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and policy proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we’re calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here.

Rerouting 275,000 daily passengers through the streets, sidewalks, and waterways of New York City has presented itself as a sort of once-in-a-lifetime challenge to those willing to face it head on.

As this site has documented, designers, architects, and urban thinkers alike have proposed everything from gondolas and pontoon bridges, to scooter shares and a floating condom-like tunnel, in an effort to accommodate the masses during the impending L train shutdown. Transit advocates and activists have encouraged a total overhaul of pedestrian and bus space along Manhattan and Brooklyn’s most impacted corridors, and beyond—calling upon the city and state to tweak their intended mitigation plan. And even an hour and a half north from the city, another state away, the shutdown is being taken up as a dare for New York to do more.

On Monday, VICE was invited to New Haven, Connecticut, by the Yale School of Architecture for its second-year architectural review, where dozens of graduate students pitched their capstone studio project: proposals—both temporary and permanent—to mitigate the L train shutdown’s many challenges.

The second-year graduate design studio syllabus listed the L train shutdown in 2019 as a “disruptive event,” analogous to the 2003 blackout, and Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 storm and a primary reason for the L train’s shutdown. “Unlike previous semesters in which students were given a common physical site and program, this term the studio will revolve around a common set of themes,” it reads. “Order and disruption; anomaly and routine; conflict and consensus—as they relate specifically to the shutdown of the L-train as well as more broadly to larger urban systems—will be the driving conceptual force.” In introducing the review, Aniket Shahane, the studio head, described the shutdown, and its resulting dysfunction, as a “microcosm of the city at large.”

Divided into six studios and then teams of two or three, the students were subject to feedback by a host of designers, architects, and professors from New York. The following is just a sampling of the 24 expansive proposals, and what they had to offer.

One of the main focuses of several proposals was water infrastructure—or whether it is possible to build over, and even take advantage of, the shutdown’s biggest obstacle: the East River. Somewhat akin to the pontoon bridge idea by Parker Shinn, two students, Dan Whitcombe and Gwyneth Bacon-Shone, proposed a set of low barge bridges, solely for pedestrians and bikes, that would sit at the ends of 14th Street and Houston and connect to respective nodes in Williamsburg. The students hope that 36,800 pedestrians would make the 10-minute walk across the bridge every hour, and that after the shutdown the barges would develop into commercial islands almost, creating a destination onto itself. “It’s really just understanding the river not as a barrier,” said Whitcombe.

Another proposal, entitled LINK, would build upon the city’s NYC Ferry system, which has seen record ridership since launching in 2017. The students, Orli Hakanoglu and Vivian Tsai, characterized the temporary ferry service during the L train shutdown as limited, only able to service commuters who live at the far-end of the impacted zone, in Williamsburg. Instead, theirs would add an NYC Ferry terminal to the notoriously toxic Newtown Creek, an EPA Superfund site which sits only a few blocks from the Morgan Avenue L. Along the route, environmental remediation efforts would come in the form of bioswales, bike lanes, and a massive eco-friendly food hall and community space.

The second key theme of the proposals was connectivity, which sought to make the nodes that do exist in the city’s transit system to more seamlessly fit into the larger urban fabric. Utilizing parks, playgrounds, pedestrian walkways, and a number of buildings’ lobby spaces, one such proposal, by Katrina Yin and Abigail Smith, imagined a direct walking route between the 6 train station at Astor Place, and the 1st Avenue L train station, which would be defunct during the shutdown. “A subway shutdown is really a pedestrian problem,” said Yin.

In that same category, a number of the ideas focused on challenges along the L train’s eastern vector—a vulnerable section of Brooklyn that would be, perhaps, the most adversely affected during the shutdown. However, not all were entirely based on improving transit there, but rather, the stations’ structures themselves for the long term.

For example, the above-ground station at Sutter Avenue creates a sort of physical barrier between Brownsville and East New York; one such proposal, by Kate Fisher and David Bransfield, would tear it down with greenery, adding areas set aside for incubators, markets, and other community-driven spaces. “We thought that the $477 million for the shutdown was mostly going to the other side, in Williamsburg and Manhattan, and ignoring this end,” said Bransfield. Another proposal in that same sphere, by Diego Arango and Martin Man, seeks to open the Wilson Avenue L station, in Bushwick, to the host of cemeteries and parks nearby, of which it’s currently shut off from.

Other ideas were sometimes too difficult to categorize, blending issues of mobility, equity, and improving already-existing infrastructure. One such proposal by Melissa Russell and Kerry Garikes, entitled “L-oop Connectivity”—which had echoes of the system’s closed-entry problem (an issue VICE has reported on in this space)—would add pedestrian-friendly transfers between unconnected stops that were built historically separate. Many of these stations are set to become major choke points during the shutdown, given that the city and state agencies expect up to 70 to 80 percent of affected riders to switch to alternate train lines.

A separate proposal, by Ethan Zisson and Luke Studebaker, offers scaffolding companies a tax credit for donated scaffolding in order to build temporary art installations that would function as transfer points between similarly disjointed stations. Another, which students Kola Ofoman, Millie Yoshida, and Ryan Hughes called the “Department of Triangles,” would add ADA-friendly bus service to underutilized public triangles and plazas throughout Manhattan, and Brooklyn.

“Proposal for the renovation of an existing structure at McDonald Ave and 47th street in Brooklyn – a new bus station for an expanded Select Bus Service” – Ryan Hughes, Kola Ofoman, and Millie Yoshida

And finally, one of the ideas was a major “What if?” in a system now synonymous with delay and dysfunction. Entitled “Culture of Maintenance,” the proposal, by Mengi Li and Ben Olsen, differed from others in that it looked to reimagine the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and how the unpopular agency could look to re-engage with a frustrated public. It sought inspiration from the news that, between 2001 and 2011, the agency dropped some 2,500 old subway cars into the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean—which sounds insane until you realize that they actually functioned as artificial reefs and were immensely successful in bringing back local marine life.

Li and Olsen mentioned that most subway cars in use have outlived their lifespans by 10 years, and suggested, instead, to refashion the cars into Airbnb lodging for tourists, or MTA employees working overnight. Along with construction workers and conductors, the system’s new Customer Service Ambassadors—employees re-trained to be “professionally nice” after losing their jobs to automation, said Olsen—would get new, more welcoming apparel. And citing VICE’s article on students who will be affected by the shutdown, the proposal imagined train cars installed with desks for working or telecommuting, and special service purposely dedicated to seeing blizzards, storms, and the city’s golden hour, with seats facing the windows.

The students said the proposal would inadvertently address the issue of actual maintenance by raising the public’s stake in their subway system. The definition of maintenance would be expanded to include the “cultivation of cultural assets,” in addition to the physical. “We asked ourselves,” said Li. “‘How else can we reimagine the city’s subway system?’”

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