Archive for L Train Shutdown
When the MTA Board met last week in an unscheduled session to approve a handful of procurement contracts, some good news emerged from the meeting: The looming L train shutdown has been shortened from 18 months to 15. The work will begin in earnest in April of 2019, two years from now, and will wrap before the summer of 2020, if all goes according to plan.
I call this good news, but it’s hardly a great development. For 15 months, over 200,000 daily commuters who rely on the L train to ferry them between Brooklyn and Manhattan will have to find alternate routes. Commutes will be markedly longer, and other train lines will bear the weight of increased crowding and capacity crunches. Streets will be jammed with people trying to find another way to travel, and neighborhoods will feel the effects, in all regards from increased automobile traffic to drastically reduced foot traffic.
I’ve written over the past few years about how the MTA and New York City’s Department of Transportation can weather this looming storm. By expanding subway service on connecting lines, prioritizing bus traffic on key corridors, expanding the bike network and ensuring frequent ferry service on the East Service, a holistic approach to demand management can ease, but not alleviate, the pain. Yet, the institutional silence from the key decision-makers has been deafening as public-facing planning sessions have been few and far between with little in the way of concrete proposals to show for it.
No one in power seems to be treating this with the urgency it warrants, but that’s not for lack of voices. Earlier this year, Streetsblog focused on the need for a car-free 14th Street and a car-free Grand Street during the 15-month shutdown. Similarly, two RPA officials, in a February piece in Crain’s New York, discussed how the city needs to think big on transportation to solve this problem with approaches that can alleviate the impact of the shutdown and then be exported elsewhere throughout the city to upgrade our transit infrastructure. This is, of course, a no-brainer approach but one DOT and the MTA have yet to embrace publicly.
Meanwhile, at the end of March, Transportation Alternatives unveiled the winner of its own contest to redesign 14th Street. The victors were a group of friends — Christopher Robbins of The Village Voice, architect Cricket Day, Becca Groban and Kellen Parker. They call the plan 14ST.OPS, and it would involve redesigning the corridor as a transitway/peopleway dedicated to only buses, pedestrians and cyclists. Their plan includes five pedestrian malls and numerous other SBS connectors on perpendicular avenues that will allow commuters to and from Brooklyn to access transit services that have priority over private automobiles. Loading zones on the avenues can compensate for the loss of direct access for deliveries, and wider sidewalks will accommodate the increased flow of people.
For transit access to and from Brooklyn, the 14ST.OPS plan includes a new route called the Brooklyn Shuttle that will get dedicated lanes and a turnaround point on the east side of Union Square. Here’s how the team described the Shuttle:
While the west side of the Union Square triangle will be converted into a pedestrian mall, the east side will act as a vital stop for L train riders connecting to the subway station. These riders will have traveled on our Brooklyn Shuttle via a dedicated bus lane over the Williamsburg Bridge to Delancey Street. After a stop at the Delancey/Essex subway station, the bus will continue west on Delancey to Lafayette Street, which will host two-way dedicated bus lanes that extend up 4th Avenue to Union Square. Another stop at Houston Street for riders to connect to the BDFM and 6 trains, and L train riders will arrive at Union Square, where they can transfer to one of the seven subway lines, or our 14th Street Shuttle, or jump on a Citi Bike.
You can read more about 14ST.OPS – and the runners-up in the contest – at TransAlt’s L-ternatives Vision website. These Peopleway proposals are the types of plans though that DOT should be embracing, both as a solution to the L train shutdown and a long-term approach to redesigning streets in Manhattan so that people and transit are appropriately prioritized. With two years to go, time will fly.
The MTA Board is gathering for something of an unusual meeting on Monday. Since a few Board members couldn’t make the last meeting in mid-March, the Board did not have a quorum to approve procurement contracts. So they’re getting the gang back together again for an early-April gathering, and the headline is the L train shutdown.
The news is good for New Yorkers. After extensive negotiations with a variety of firms, the L train shutdown will be 15 months rather than 18 months, and work will begin in April of 2019 rather than in January. The news first came to light a few weeks ago, and the Board will vote to make it official in the morning when they approve a $477 million contract with a Judlau/TC Electric joint venture. Judlau has taken some flak for its failure to adhere to deadlines, but it has delivered Sandy repair projects on time or ahead of schedule so far.
The details of the shutdown remain substantially the same. The MTA will close the Canarsie Tube between Brooklyn and Manhattan for 15 months and will piggyback some ADA work and a new station entrances at Ave. A to the closure. The MTA does not appear to be using this shutdown to perform any other work on the L train’s Manhattan stations — which could include renovations or even an extension of the tail tracks west of 8th Ave. to allow for increase route capacity. Additionally, the MTA and New York City Department of Transportation have not yet released their traffic-mitigation plans, and the slow pace of discussions regarding alternate routing for a few hundred thousand riders a day has raised some concerned eyebrows. Transportation Alternatives recently held a design contest to solicit ideas for the so-called L-pocalypse, and I’ll profile the winning ideas later in the week. Whether 15 months or 18, though, the shutdown looms large, and the next two years will pass in a hurry.
MTA ends trash can-free pilot program
One of the MTA’s on-again, off-again pilots ended for good recently, and it died a death by neglect. With little fanfare, the MTA will soon restore trash cans to a handful of stations that had been part of the controversial trash can-free pilot program that begin in late 2011 and expanded throughout 2012, 2013 and 2014. As recently as 2015, the agency had claimed the program was working as trash collection costs were down and so, they said, were track fires.
But it’s over and done with. As NBC New York reported last week, the agency determined to pull the plug on this project late last year. An MTA spokesperson said, the project ultimately “wasn’t the most efficient way to clean the stations,” and critics of the effort celebrated. “It took the MTA five years, but we are gratified that it recognized the need to end this controversial experiment that showed little to no improvements in riders’ experience,” New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said.
I maintain this project could have been successful, but it would have required a system-wide commitment to removing trash cans and aggressive anti-litter enforcement. Ultimately, though, this isn’t a customer-friendly initiative, and antagonizing customers is something the MTA can ill-afford to do. So the trash cans, and trash collection, will return as another MTA pilot program that never had a path to success dies by the wayside.
MTA Official: Buses aren’t popular because subway service is too good
Even as advocacy groups continue to push for better bus service, the MTA keeps denying that bus service is bad or that steadily declining bus ridership is a concern. Anyone who has ridden a bus lately knows that they stop very frequently, are slow to board and are subject to the whims of New York’s congested streets. Still, MTA CFO Michael Chubak thinks that bus ridership is declining is because the subways are great again. During a recent City Council hearing, he let slip this missive: “One of the major reasons, we believe, is competition. Essentially the subway has improved over the last 20 or so years” and so riders are using subways instead of buses.
There may be some truth to this claim, but Chubak also said BusTime could spur on bus ridership. His seemed to be particularly half-hearted answers that showed a lack of familiarity with the city’s bus network. The problems would be evident if MTA officials spent a few weeks riding buses, but it seems for now they’re flailing about for answers as a key transit mode suffers through a steady decline in ridership.
My apologies for the silence this week. It’s tough to get back in the swing of regular posting while combating jetlag. There’s certainly a lot to talk about — most notably the AECOM discussion piece regarding the 1 train for Red Hook. I saw Chris Ward’s presentation at NYU earlier this week, and we’ll get to that soon enough. It’s not quite a fully-baked or even half-baked proposal, but it’s certainly sent Red Hook into a tizzy (and likely rightly so).
Meanwhile, we have some slight movement on the plan to turn 14th Street into a car-free Peopleway for buses, bikes and pedestrians during the L train shutdown. As the Daily News reported earlier this week, MTA officials say they will study a car-free 14th Street as part of its overall effort to model the traffic and transit impact of the L train’s looming outage. Results of the study will be released in the spring, Dan Rivoli reported.
This is all well and good, and looking at ways to prioritize transit over private automobiles, especially during the L train shutdown, should be part of the MTA’s general planning approach. But there’s a rub: The ultimate decision to shut 14th St. to cars will rest with NYC DOT, and this agency has not been particularly forthcoming with its plans or aggressive in its actions of late. Of course, we still have 27 months before the L train shutdown begins, but DOT, and not the MTA, will hold the keys to the future of the 14th St. Peopleway. Whether the DOT head is Polly Trottenberg (also currently an MTA Board member) or someone else, that person will be integral in the MTA’s plans to alleviate the impact of the lack of L train.
What if gondolas actually are part of the answer? What if, to solve the L train’s looming transit crisis that will arise out of the 2019 shutdown, we need to think so far outside of the box that ideas that seem laughably overwrought and particularly overpromised are part of the answer? That is one recommendation in the latest report on the L train shutdown from NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation.
As everyone jockeys for a say in how best to address this incoming transit crisis, the Rudin Center unveiled its own mitigation report last night. Penned by Mitchell Moss, Sarah Kaufman, Jorge Hernandez and Sam Levy, the report gives a nod to “entirely new forms of transportation,” including the so-called East River Skyway and Scooter-share, a motorized bike share system popular in San Francisco. Picking up on the Skyway’s promise of 5000 peak-hour passengers, the Rudin Center report notes that “this is the right time to consider a New York city gondola between the Lower East Side and Williamsburg to vastly reduce the city’s reliance on climate-vulnerable tunnels.” (Of course, the time to start building a gondola so it is ready for early 2019 is approximately now, but that’s the least of it.)
The report, of course, doesn’t dwell only on alternatives. It is, in fact, one of the more common-sense efforts to propose a solution to the L train woes, and more importantly, it urges all involved to pay attention to more than just Williamsburg and Bushwick. “The concentration of higher-level formal education degrees affects a potentially disproportionate influence by these neighborhoods on the political process,” the report notes. “The initial news that the MTA was planning to shut down the Canarsie Tube led to an uproar by residents and business owners in Williamsburg. While service disruptions will affect the L’s various users differently, the concerns of residents in less influential neighborhoods, such as Brownsville and East New York, should be considered equally.”
And yet, those areas closest to Manhattan have seemingly more to lose. Although the L train overall seems to ferry upwards of 65,000 people to and from their primary places of employment each day, these neighborhoods along the L train’s western Brooklyn leg have shorter commutes and more restaurants, bars and overall economic activity. That doesn’t give them a right to have a louder voice, but it means that mitigation needs to be attuned to the areas with fewer options. After all, a L rider in Canarsie can take the 3 train and anyone east of Broadway Junction can transfer to the A, C, J or Z.
Still, over 225,000 daily riders have to get to where the L train takes them, and to that end, the Rudin Center offers up a seven-prong approach similar to mine. In addition to those gondolas and scooters, the Rudin Centers call for more service along all connecting subway lines, high speed bus service with a dedicated lane over the Williamsburg Bridge, partnerships with ride-sharing companies, increased East River ferry service, bike and car shares services (though I’m less convinced the latter is part of the solution rather than a potential problem), and cooperation with local businesses. “The long-term closure,” the report says, “will give the MTA and city agencies an opportunity to work together and increase city’s transportation options in the long run.” Notably, the report is silent on the proposed 14th St. Peopleway, a key element of the mitigation efforts with L service completely shuttered on the Manhattan side of the river.
Ultimately, as the Rudin Center noted, the L train shutdown provides a great crisis that the city and MTA shouldn’t let go to waste. The challenges of moving hundreds of thousands of people every day should permit us to be flexible with street space and transit prioritization while understanding just how people move around the city and how important the subways are. Both the MTA and DOT have been rather silent lately on plans, but the lull of summer is hardly a peak time for transit planning. As advocates put more pressure on these agencies for a response, hopefully mitigation pictures will emerge soon, and if they happen to include gondolas, well, there’s a first time for everything.
As a seemingly endless heatwave bathes New York City in the ennui of August and the mercury underground continues to climb, a haze of nothingness has settled over the Big Apple. The trains are running, but the MTA is on vacation. With no board meetings this month, we’re waiting until September for an update on the Second Ave. Subway, and instead of immediate concerns, we have pieces on the long-term issue casting a pall over Brooklyn. Despite the apocalypse still 29 months off, it has been the summer of the L train’s discontent.
On Monday, The Times ran an Emma Fitzsimmons’ piece with an incendiary headline aimed at the nattering nabobs of L train negativism. Those New Yorkers who live in transit deserts have no sympathy for L train riders. “Suck it up!” Philippe Pierre, a resident of Rosedale, Queens, said at first. After months of hearing L train riders complain, you can understand why New Yorkers who have to take dollar vans to a two-seat subway ride may not be so sympathetic to the L train riders’ 18-month plight.
But to be fair to Pierre, that’s not really what Fitzsimmons’ piece was about. Rather, it was about the alternate ways upon which New Yorkers without easy subway access rely to get around, and it’s instructive as the MTA and, hopefully, the city look to solve the problems the L train shutdown will cause. Mostly, these alternate routes and so-called transit deserts involve the bus, a perfectly valid mode of transit often accorded second-class status exactly because people seem to equate areas with bus service with transit deserts. Still, the buses are open, as Fitzsimmons notes:
Many New Yorkers who do not live near the subway use the bus, even though bus ridership is declining — a trend transit advocates attribute to poor service. Complaints abound: Buses move slowly in traffic; riders are not familiar with the routes; buses are not spaced evenly. A report released last month by several transit groups offered recommendations to improve the bus system, such as installing additional dedicated bus lanes and redesigning routes.
The ability to move around efficiently often plays an important role in economic well-being: New Yorkers with poor transit access tend to have lower incomes and higher rates of unemployment, according to a recent report by the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University. Residents who could economically benefit from a shorter commute are often unable to afford to live in places with good transit access because housing costs are usually higher. “It is a perpetuating cycle because rents are closely correlated to transit access,” said Sarah M. Kaufman, the assistant director for technology programming at the center, adding that people with long commutes often face hardships like higher child care costs because they get home later…
Many New Yorkers who rely on buses have plenty of advice for L train commuters about what lies ahead. “You never know what’s going to happen with the bus; I suggest leaving early,” said Harvinder Singh, 19, a finance student at Queens College, who takes two buses to the Flushing campus from his home in South Ozone Park, Queens.
Mr. Singh, whose commute is about an hour each way, did offer praise for the dedicated bus lanes that have been expanded as a way to improve service. “That’s a great way to make them faster during rush hour,” Mr. Singh said as he rode a campus shuttle on a recent weekday, pointing out the window at a Q44 bus lane.
It seems abundantly clear then from Fitzsimmons’ article and the people she spoke with that, while “suck it up” sounds good, most people without access to the subway simply want better bus service. They want better, more frequent bus service with vehicles that are prioritized accordingly in dedicated lanes so that they operate faster and can cut costly commute times. They want to be afford first class status.
Along the L train, “suck it up” is a particularly bad piece of advice. New Yorkers from Williamsburg to Canarsie pay a premium to live along the L train because it’s a fast route into Manhattan. They don’t have to sit through multiple transfers on unreliable modes of transit. Commuters, family members, children going to school, New Yorkers from other neighborhoods, visitors and tourists all use the L train to get around, and the shutdown will have a negative impact on New Yorkers across income levels, professions and socioeconomic statuses. They can’t just suck it up; life in a city in which an island holds our focus economically doesn’t work like that.
The L train shutdown is a unique opportunity for the city to reprioritize public space. Those most affected by the 18-month L train outage are often the loudest online and in the media, and the complaints will be heard. It will give the city the opportunity, if it opts to take it, to reimagine 14th Street into a bus/bike/pedestrian space. It will allow buses to pick up some of slack. It will legitimize a form of transit that’s been struggling. And that’s the right answer to this problem. No one should have to suck it up; rather, the city and the MTA should design infrastructure that moves people on public transit faster and more efficiently than our network does today, L train shutdown or not.