Archive for L Train Shutdown

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A group of West Village residents has sued DOT and the MTA over the L train shutdown mitigation plans. Vehicle restrictions and a busway on 14th Street seem to be a central focus of their legal ire.

With just under a year to go until the much-heralded L train shutdown, Manhattanites are growing restless. They’re not, however, concerned with the transit apocalypse that may be headed 14th Street’s way, and they don’t seem to believe, as many transit advocates do, that DOT and the MTA’s mitigation plan isn’t robust enough. Rather, with a combination of trumped-up NIMBY-esque concerns over traffic, bike lanes and bus lanes and some last-minute seemingly bad-faith arguments over ADA compliance, a group of West Village residents has sued DOT, the MTA and the Federal Transit Administration over the shutdown.

Over the past few months, as DOT and the MTA increased the pace of public presentations regarding the looming 2019 L Train shutdown, it seemed clear that a lawsuit was in the offering. Led by attorney Arthur Schwartz, who has variously put himself out there as (and seeming blurred the lines among being) a lawyer for a group of block associations, a resident, a homeowner and even the Democratic District Leader for some of the areas affected by the L train shutdown, various residents started making your typical NIMBY noises against the two-way bike lane planned for 13th St. and the temporary busway planned for 14th St. They raised concerns, not backed by numbers, of increased traffic on side streets and business Armageddon brought on by delivery vehicles being restricted to avenues. It’s been the typical litany of complaints safe streets and bus lane advocates have heard for years, and it seemed practically provincial coming from a wealthy group of self-proclaimed progressives living in the uber-gentrified transit-rich West Village.

Last week, the controversy boiled over when Schwartz filed his suit. It’s a lengthy complaint that relies on the argument that the various parties are in violation of state and federal environmental review laws. Schwartz alleges that the scope of the planned mitigation — a shutdown of the tunnel coupled with vehicles restrictions, pedestrianized streets and a two-way bike lane — along with its geographic proximity to a landmarked neighborhood requires at least an environmental assessment and perhaps a full Environmental Impact Statement. In light of recent bad press the MTA has received over its alleged flouting of ADA requirements, the plaintiffs tacked on allegations that the shutdown work itself is in violation of the ADA. (The complaint is available here as a PDF if you wish to read it.)

The ADA concerns are seemingly the easiest to address. In fact, the L train mitigation plan includes significant ADA accessibility upgrades with both the 1st and Bedford Avenue stations set to become fully accessible with the addition of new elevators and with Union Square set for an escalator to the station mezzanine. (Access to the L at Union Square is already accessible except for the transfer between the L and 4/5/6, but that is a function of the track layout and IRT platform positioning.) No ADA work is scheduled for 6th Ave. or 3rd Ave., but 3rd Ave. will receive platform edge doors as part of a pilot. The complaint alleges that stairway renovations without accessibility upgrades violate the ADA, but even amidst what many feel are rampant MTA ADA violations, that is a tenuous argument at best and one made in bad faith to stack claims at worst. Refurbishing stairways by itself isn’t generally enough to trigger an ADA violation.

The meat of the complaint revolves around the contention, as I mentioned, that DOT and the MTA are in violation of local and federal environmental review laws and additionally that the FTA is in violation of federal law if it has not required the proper environmental assessments. Here, the suit strays onto slightly firmer ground, but only slightly and only very narrowly. The bike lanes are easy; they are specifically exempted from federal environmental review requirements. In subsequent comments, Schwartz tried to claim the bike lane is one piece in an overall mitigation plan, the totality of which is subject to environmental review requirements, but the complaint on its face makes no such allegation. (Considering how easy it is to dismiss the complaint over the bike lane, you would think Schwartz would be careful here, but he fell back on the tired anti-bike trope of calling the pro-bike planners at NYC DOT zealots” during his comments earlier this week. Been there; done that.)

So the key legal question is a narrow one: Is a prohibition on most vehicles in favor of bus lane on a non-24/7 basis that is designed to be a part of a comprehensive mitigation plan for a temporary shutdown of the L train subject to environmental review laws? The FTA’s website on the topic provides some guidance but no definitive answer. DOT and the MTA’s planned bus way is a reallocation of existing space and not what the FTA generally considers to be new construction. Furthermore, the FTA itself has indicated that an EA or an EIS isn’t required, and courts often give significant leeway to agencies in interpreting their own regulations.

Schwartz’s complaint restates significant portions of the city, state and federal laws at play, and he details the dialogue to date over the shutdown plans. He doesn’t convincingly argue why the FTA doesn’t deserve deference or why the temporary non-24/7 bus lane requires these environmental assessments. Instead, the complaint draws conclusions — “closing 14th Street to vehicular traffic will cause horrific traffic jams” on nearby side streets — that likely wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny in litigation, but it’s not clear DOT and the MTA can win on an outright motion to dismiss. Even though we know the busway is a watered down plan and even though we all know a mitigation plan that doesn’t further limit vehicular access to the affected area will be far far worse for Schwartz and his plaintiffs, the law may still require some level of environmental review. I’m still working on reaching out to environmental law lawyers I know in the hopes of a more definitive answer.

But legal considerations aren’t the only elements at play here. Schwartz’s law firm is called Advocates for Justice, but it’s not clearly whose justice he’s interested in. One element is, as always, who gets to make decisions on streets and transit that impact everyone. Schwartz claims he’s suing on behalf of “residents of Williamsburg and west-central Brooklyn” but none of them are named plaintiffs. They also have the most to lose when the L train is shut down, but as we saw years ago with the demise of the 34th St. Transitway, those constituents aren’t often asked to the table in high-stakes legal discussions over a project fate.

Furthermore, Schwartz’s comments last week betrayed certain prejudices. He claimed that the MTA and DOT should have chosen the longer shutdown options on the table. Completely ignoring the MTA’s concerns that dust from the construction would make train operations through the Canarsie Tunnel unsafe for passengers during a piecemeal shutdown, a five-year plan that knocks out service on nights and weekends would be far more disruptive to a line that sees heavy ridership late at night and during the weekends and is a key conduit for lower income workers who need to commute in off hours. A total shutdown will be bad enough for 15 months, but five years of these disruptions would hurt those who can least afford it (and need transit justice more than the West Village does).

My biggest fear, however, with this lawsuit isn’t its potential success but rather the potential for settlement. To make this go away before the project timeline is in jeopardy, DOT and the MTA could agree to drop certain elements of the plan. The residents made clear they want the bike lane to disappear and want mixed-use traffic on 14th St. I’m sure either of those would be enough of a carrot to get them to drop the suit, but eliminating any part of a plan that’s already been watered down based on the trumped-up concerns from the very same residents who are now suing would be extremely harmful to hundreds of thousands of transit riders who don’t have the luxury of living in one of Manhattan’s most exclusive ZIP codes.

For its part, DOT says the suit is without merit. The MTA, however, issued a more guarded statement. “We do not comment on pending litigation,” Jon Weinstein, agency spokesman, said to me. “The repairs to the Sandy-damaged Canarsie Tunnel are desperately needed to ensure the tunnel’s structural integrity so we can continue to provide safe and reliable subway service to hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who depend on the L train every day. We are working with our partners at NYC DOT to craft a thorough and robust mitigation plan.”

Meanwhile, over at Streetsblog, Ben Fried urges the agency and the MTA to fight hard on the transit elements of the plan and perhaps agree to additional ADA upgrades. Despite the protestations from residents that DOT has ignored their concerns, the plans aren’t as robust as transit advocates wanted, and any further movement in response to this lawsuit would set a bad precedent for future transit projects the city should implement. No retreat, baby, no surrender.

As I browsed the case file this weekend, though, pondering over how much this whole thing stinks, one filing from Schwartz caught my eye. In a subsequent letter to the court late last week when Schwartz and his clients erroneously believed that planned repaving of 13th St. meant that work on the bike lane was set to begin, Schwartz requested a conference in advance of potentially filing an injunction. The letter is impressive audacious as Schwartz seems to recognize the problems his suit may cause. “There is,” the lawyer writes, “clearly a need for expedited discovery in this case; although the shutdown is planned for April 2019, lengthy litigation, which could lead to a broad injunction and delays, is not in the public interest.” So I pose these questions: Who is in the “public” Schwartz refers to and what are their interests? Exactly what part of this suit is in the public interest after all?

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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An overview of the L train shutdown mitigation plan. (Click to enlarge)

One strange fact of New York City that we — the royal we of this city — never contemplate involves the logistics of moving a few hundred thousand people every day in between the borough of Brooklyn on the Island of Long and the borough of Manhattan on the island of, well, Manhattan. It’s just a thing that happens every day, but beginning in April of 2019, just over 15 months from now, the 225,000 people that use the L train’s Canarsie Tubes are going to have to find another way to travel under the East River. The L train shutdown, in the aftermath of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, is hardly a surprise, but the MTA and NYC DOT have been mum on mitigation plans. We heard about an initial proposal to implement HOV3 lanes on the Williamsburg Bridge in October, but Mayor Bill de Blasio did not want to release those in the lead-up to his reelection.

On Wednesday, after months of waiting and New Yorkers growing increasingly frustrated by the silence, DOT and the MTA finally unveiled their mitigation proposal. The plans involve that HOV3+ restriction on only the Williamsburg Bridge; new inter-borough bus routes between Brooklyn and Manhattan; a core busway for 14th St. in Manhattan with a two-way bike lane on 13th St.; and increased subway service on nearby and connecting lines. I have seen the public release DOT has put out regarding these plans and a presentation with more detail regarding the mitigation efforts. Today’s announcement “identified specific corridors and related transportation modes” targeted for mitigation, per the DOT release, and the agencies will next assess the “timing and scope” of various vehicular restrictions and transportation improvements. While these plans are not horrible, they’re also not great, and DOT seems to be afraid to tell single-occupancy car drivers that they’re banned from certain streets during the L train shutdown. Furthermore, that DOT and the MTA aren’t considering HOV3+ restrictions and a busway as 24/7 requirements off the bat is already concerning.

The images in this post are from the internal presentation. DOT’s release provides more context, and I’ll offer up some of that context as I discuss the images. Ultimately, this plan will be subject to public comment, and DOT and the MTA have vowed to revise it. It is also premised on the hope that at least 70 and perhaps as much as 80 percent of the L train riders will use alternative subway service to travel between Manhattan and Brooklyn. To that end, the two agencies believe that anywhere from 5-15 percent will utilize buses, and they are planning for 3800 bus riders per peak hour across the Williamsburg Bridge. Meanwhile, 3-5 percent are expected to use expanded East River ferries, but how the remaining 10-20 percent get around could be the difference between crushing congestion and a successful mitigation plan.

Click to enlarge.

For better or worse, the underlying theory of mitigation divides the Canarsie Line into zones. Unavoidably, this division raises concerns about class and the socioeconomics of the L train that DOT and the MTA haven’t sufficiently addressed. Essentially, though, L train riders in zone 3 – and particularly those south of Broadway Junction who make up only 11% of Manhattan-bound riders — have numerous other subway options for access across the East River. Those in Zones 1 and 2 make up just shy of 50% of the L train’s Manhattan bound ridership during the A.M. peak hours, and they have worse access to Manhattan-bound alternatives. With 57 percent of the morning commute bound for north of 14th St., DOT and the MTA need to transport a lot of people across the East River in some way, shape or form that does not grind the city to a halt.

So what’s the plan for Zones 1 and 2? That HOV3+ lane on the Williamsburg Bridge and added bus shuttle routes. Take a look:

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

The bad news: As Polly Trottenberg stressed to reporters on Wednesday afternoon and as DOT’s document mentions, DOT is considered these lane restrictions “during rush hour at a minimum.” Based on L train ridership patterns and the impact of this shutdown, the HOV3+ lane should probably be a bus-only lane and should definitely be in place on a 24/7 basis for the duration of the shutdown. But here’s the story: The lanes will run from Grand St. in Brooklyn to Spring St. in Manhattan with bus service to the Essex/Delancey, Spring St. and Broadway/Lafayette-Bleecker St. subway stations. Additional bus priority lanes will be in place on both ends of the Williamsburg Bridge, and three new bus routes will provide inter-borough connections — including one that deliver riders to the 14th St. corridor. It’s not yet clear how HOV3+ enforcement will be implemented on the bridge, but enforcement will be key to ensuring buses can move freely. As to the other free East River crossings, DOT says they will “continue to analyze” how this plan will impact traffic on the other crossings.

But what happens when you get across the bridge? Right now, the focus is on the 14th Street corridor — a stretch of the L train that sees 50,000 passengers a day. That’s more than the busiest bus route and a ridership 66% higher than on the current M14 route. (Brooklyn-only travelers account for 125,000 trips per day on the L, and they’ll have service between Bedford Ave. and Canarsie at six-minute headways during the shutdown.)

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

The MTA and DOT did not embrace calls for a full Peopleway and have instead opted for what they are calling a “Core Busway” between 3rd Ave. and either 9th Ave. heading east or 8th Ave. heading west. Only buses and local deliveries will be permitted on those blocks with a major wrinkle — for now DOT says these restrictions will be “rush hour restrictions.” This is, in my view, a big mistake, and as I mentioned, any plan that isn’t 24/7 is doomed to lead to confusion and, worse, congestion. But again, this is a pattern of DOT shying away from inconveniencing drivers at the expense of pedestrians and transit riders.

Anyway, the agencies have adopted this “Core Busway” approach rather than a full busway because they feel it has less impact on bottlenecks, particularly near Alphabet City and a more distributed effect on traffic on nearby local streets. A block to the south, DOT plans to create a two-way protected bike lane down 13th Street, and Trottenberg did mention they hope to maintain these bike lanes after the shutdown. Again, enforcement on 14th St. remains an open question.

And what of the subway improvement plans? So glad you asked.

As the MTA and DOT anticipate that “alternative subway routes will carry the large majority of L riders,” the MTA plans to implement service increases throughout the subway system. I have been told that 480-foot G trains may run as frequently as every 4 minutes, and the MTA will implement MetroCard transfers between the L and 3 at Livonia/Junius, between the G at Broadway and J/M/Z at both Lorimer and Hewes Sts., and between the G at 21st St. and 7 at Hunters Point Ave. The M will run to 96th St. and 2nd Ave. during weekends and late nights.

The MTA also plans a series of passenger flow improvement efforts along the J/M/Z lines and at certain G train stations, and station entrances at three stops will be reopened. It’s not clear though how these subways lines will handle the increased capacity as it may be challenging to fit another 160,000 riders per day on trains that are very crowded as they cross the East River. This plan does not yet seem to add capacity to the A/C trains, the 3 train or, more importantly, the Queens trains, and riders of the 7 and E trains in particular are very concerned that the L train shutdown will completely overburden lines that simply cannot hold more passengers.

The shutdown, as I’ve discussed in the past, will include some system improvements to the L train stations, and I’ve heard rumors of a new escalator down to the L train platform from the mezzanine above the IRT at Union Square.

In addition to these specific improvements, DOT and the MTA are going to explore “major changes” to Grand Street in Brooklyn that could turn that road into a bus and bicycle corridor, and DOT is hoping to increase Citi Bike capacity throughout the impacted areas. So that’s the plan for now, and it’s going to evolve with more detail and more public input. But the lack of 24/7 commitment and, for example, the fact that DOT hasn’t acknowledged the impact for-hire vehicle services will have on surface congestion still make me worried that DOT in particular is underestimating the impact of the L train shutdown on the city at large. Those 225,000 rides per day aren’t just going to end up on an overburdened J train without significant work toward making rides tolerable.

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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A 14th Street PeopleWay could be a model for other major crosstown thoroughfares in Manhattan. (14ST.OPS)

Based on planning documents, a Peopleway may not be quite in the cards for 14th Street during the L train shutdown. (14ST.OPS)

At Transportation Camp over the weekend, I led an impromptu discussion session on the challenges we face and lessons we could learn from the looming L train shutdown. (You haven’t forgotten about the L train shutdown in my absence, right?) A room full of biased transportation policy wonks came to the general conclusion that the city should implement bus-only restrictions over the Williamsburg Bridge and the 14th St. Peopleway, prioritizing buses, bikes and pedestrians throughout the 15-month shutdown. This complete street could serve as a model for other busy NYC corridors, and the alternative is a transportation hell in which personal autos, for-hire vehicles, privately-operated jitneys and buses all compete for the limited space on the city’s limited access points into Manhattan.

Well, don’t hold your breath. A source provided me with a glimpse of some planning documents this week, and while NYC DOT is leaning toward certain restrictions across East River Bridge and some bus prioritization along certain Manhattan corridors, a full-fledged Peopleway may not be in the cards. The plans aren’t public yet and diagrams are labeled for discussion purposes only. DOT, I’ve been told, has been instructed to hold back on public announcements until after the mayoral election in November. But they tell the story of an agency both unaware of what it faces when a subway tunnel that carries over 260,000 people shuts down for an extended period and unwilling to lay down the gauntlet when it comes to restricting private automobile access to Manhattan.

According to the documents, New York City Transit and NYC DOT may not be on quite the same page when it comes to mitigating the impact of the shutdown. The MTA had drawn up a plan to run 60 buses over the Williamsburg Bridge during peak hours in both directions. The MTA had identified three potential bus corridors: Grand St. to 1st Ave. and 15th, Grand St. to the Broadway/Lafayette subway stop, and a Bedford Ave.-Broadway/Lafayette route. To do this, the MTA determined it would need bus priority across the bridge and on the approaches and exits at either end.

DOT, meanwhile, based on its modeling has other ideas. Per the documents, a bus-only plan for the Williamsburg Bridge failed due to expected congestion on surrounding streets, but the model may not have accounted for longer bus corridors (e.g., from the Williamsburg Bridge, north to 14th St and west to 10th Avenue). While the plan is not set in stone, the city agency is leaning toward a HOV3 set-up in which the Williamsburg Bridge would be a HOV3-only bridge from around 5 a.m. through at least the evening rush while the other three East River Bridges would be HOV3 only in the Manhattan-bound direction from 5 a.m. until 11 a.m. DOT still plans to study the approaches and exits of these bridges in detail, but it’s not clear when those studies will be initiated. The L train shutdown, meanwhile, starts in less than 18 months.

To make matters worse, the planning documents raise some “political” concerns that this modest HOV3 plan won’t pass muster, and a bus-only lane could run up against enforcement issues. The fallback is a HOV3 policy on only the Williamsburg Bridge without a dedicated bus/truck lane as DOT claims enforcement of a mile-long bus lane is impractical. However, HOV3 enforcement on both Staten Island and the LIE is severely lacking, and I’m taking DOT’s word with a huge grain of salt. Even still, any plan that permits modest high-occupancy vehicles without prioritizing buses or truly high-occupancy transit options makes me worried about the traffic impact.

The plans for 14th St. are a bit better. The MTA plans to operate over 30 M14 SBS trips in each direction during peak hours, and DOT is amenable to prioritizing access over certain corridors to ensure this bus brigade can move through the city. The mayor hasn’t yet signed off on this plan internally, but DOT supports an eastbound busway from 9th to 3rd Aves., a westbound busway from 3rd to 8th Aves. and dedicated bus lanes in both directions between 3rd and 1st Aves. and westbound from 8th to 9th Aves. Access to other vehicles will be limited only to those making deliveries and accessing garages and only if vehicles turn from the avenue nearest their destinations. Sidewalks could be widened throughout some of the busway area, but either DOT or the MTA (or perhaps both) seem to feel adding a bike lane would both reduce space and “complicated” bus operations.

Clearly, the best part of this plan is the city’s treatment of 14th St., and even this limited busway could serve as a model for future corridors. But overall, this talk of HOV3 lanes is nothing but disappointing. The city doesn’t seem willing to take a politically risky step of re-envisioning travel corridors from the Williamsburg Bridge to the west side of Manhattan at 14th St. and can’t wrap its head around telling drivers they have to take a back seat to buses for 15 months. It also seems as the city doesn’t understand who’s traveling along the L train or where they are going as this plan heavily favors those who can access the bridges. Further, even with HOV3 restrictions across the East River crossings, Manhattan will be inundated with private automobiles and for-hire vehicles. It will be our own version of Carmageddon.

It’s obvious why DOT and the Mayor’s Office aren’t keen for this plan to see the light of day before election day. Drivers won’t like it, and a transit community already skeptical of Bill de Blasio’s approach to policy won’t either. In that sense, it’s the worst of any world, and I’m skeptical it will truly solve the transit crisis for those who rely on the Canarsie Line. With just over 17 months to go before the shutdown, it’s looking dicey indeed that anyone planning for it is truly ready for what’s coming.

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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A 14th Street PeopleWay could be a model for other major crosstown thoroughfares in Manhattan. (14ST.OPS)

A 14th Street PeopleWay could be a model for other major crosstown thoroughfares in Manhattan. (14ST.OPS)

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.

A redesigned 14th St. for people, buses and bikes could help solve the problems posed by the L train shutdown. (14ST.OPS)

A redesigned 14th St. for people, buses and bikes could help solve the problems posed by the L train shutdown. (14ST.OPS)

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.

The Brooklyn Shuttle could connect to the 14th St. corridor via a turnaround on the east side of Union Square. (14ST.OPS)

The Brooklyn Shuttle could connect to the 14th St. corridor via a turnaround on the east side of Union Square. (14ST.OPS)

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.

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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The L train shutdown is now scheduled for 15 months, down from the original estimate of 18.

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.

Categories : Buses, L Train Shutdown
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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.

Categories : Asides, L Train Shutdown
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A new report from NYU's Rudin Center highlights a comprehensive mitigation plan for the L train shutdown.

A new report from NYU’s Rudin Center highlights a comprehensive mitigation plan for the L train shutdown.

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.

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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The MTA's mitigation plan involves city cooperation, but will the mayor collaborate ahead of the L train shutdown? (Click to enlarge)

The L train shutdown gives the city a chance to right some transit wrongs, if it so chooses. (Click to enlarge)

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.

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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