Home L Train Shutdown Why ‘suck it up’ isn’t the right answer for the L train shutdown

Why ‘suck it up’ isn’t the right answer for the L train shutdown

by Benjamin Kabak
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.

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Stephen Smith August 16, 2016 - 12:40 am

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.

I bet that guy commuting from Rosedale would like the LIRR to be a frequent service he could actually afford to use on a daily basis. Buses are great for getting to the train if there’s no train near you, but in Rosedale, there already is a train.

Benjamin Kabak August 16, 2016 - 12:44 am

$10 peak one way, $218 for a monthly. I’m sure he wants frequent service and an affordable fare too.

Kevin Walsh August 17, 2016 - 2:12 pm

LIRR fares have been determined by psychotic money grubbers.

johndmuller August 16, 2016 - 5:57 am

No doubt people are aware that as currently constituted, the commuter RRs are basically for the people in the suburbs and the subways for the people in the city. It didn’t/doesn’t have to be that way, but as it stands now, if the MN & LIRR started charging subway fares for NYC trips, the people in the suburbs would be squeezed out to some extent, both figuratively and literally by the city folk and probably end up going (back to?) driving. The RRs’ revenue would plummet, maintenance and service would go to hell and eventually there would be a batch of long subway lines that would probably get cut back at the ends because no one wanted to spend 3 hours in a cattle car to get home.

Part of the problem is that there is there is not that much excess capacity in the commuter RR system; they have barely enough rolling stock for the current clientele, and even if there were more cars (or all the single level cars magically became double level), there is little or no spare terminal space for rush hour trains or the people getting on and off them as it is. Perhaps ESA will create some new space, but there is still the matter of track capacity which would need to be addressed.

Conceivably, a new service model could be started up. Some would likely be offended if it were called 2nd Class, so it could find another name (“Everyman® Class”?), but the idea, of course, is to run some kind of super local using Everyman® rolling stock and charging something resembling subway fares. This model could be run between Alantic Terminal and Jamaica, and to some extent on the other lines, but unless one could add Everyman® cars on otherwise regular (very local) trains, there wouldn’t be much Everyman® going into Manhattan until after ESA (maybe) or until someone figures out how to run more trains through the Park Avenue tunnels.

Otherwise, it’s a city versus suburbs thing. Perhaps one could say that it was a “higher use” to steal the commuter RRs from the suburbs, but the suburban “boss class” people might decide to take more of the jobs from the city in return and spread them around inefficiently far from any public transit.

Brandon August 16, 2016 - 6:51 am

Why would they be squeezed out? They’d still have their seat coming inbound and they could sit after getting out of the city outbound.

Driving into the area served by the city terminals would still not be any better an option than it is now.

eo August 16, 2016 - 8:25 am

While they will have the seats coming in, in many cases they would not get to sit until 20-25 minutes into the outbound trip. The bigger problem though is crowding. Adding 30-50% more passengers on each LIRR train would cause an already slow getting put of Penn to take 8-10 minutes from the train stopping at the platform to the passenger stepping onto the street. Furthermore on the way outbound you are not guaranteed to even be able to get onto the train (I have been left on the platform at Penn because you could not squeeze another body onto the train even now before adding intra-city passengers). After several such experiences many of the suburban commuters would not be taking the train any more.

The capacity is not there for most lines. Maybe between Atlantic and Jamaica, but I do not see how you could squeeze meaningfully more passengers at Penn.

John-2 August 16, 2016 - 11:29 am

It’s possible after ESA finally opens there will be more boarding capacity, as some of the LIRR traffic at Penn gets rerouted to Grand Central, while the MTA plans to redirect Flatbush trains to Penn. However, that would also require the purchase of additional rolling stock to provide longer trains out of both Manhattan terminals.

tacony August 16, 2016 - 12:16 pm

Do we have confirmation that the service plan will (roughly) double the number of trips on the LIRR post-ESA? I’ve heard people very casually imply either that this is true OR imply that they will instead be basically splitting the current level of service between the two terminals minus some tweaks here and there. It’s bizarre to me that this seems unresolved ’cause the latter possibility is a huge downgrade in service for a lot of people. If I rode LIRR regularly I’d be pretty livid about that.

People are obsessed with building new transit infrastructure but seemingly unconcerned with actually providing service to it. It’s the important part! E.g. SEPTA has had “through-running” across their three Center City rail stations for 30 years, yet they only run 1 train an hour on most lines outside of rush hour, so it’s not actually useful for making connections. It would have been nice if the plan for ESA included goals for something like “trains running on all LIRR main lines every 10 minutes from 7am to 9pm” or something, but instead we just get billions of dollars in concrete with no firm commitment to actually improving service.

John-2 August 16, 2016 - 2:40 pm

I’d guess capacity will be limited based on how many trains they can get between the split near the Harold interlocking in Sunnyside, where the trains will be diverted to Grand Central, and the points around Woodside where the tracks diverge to the Hell Gate and Port Washington lines.

If the MTA does plan to turn Flatbush into a mere Jamaica shuttle, can they reroute all of the Brooklyn-bound trains through that area? Can they get even more trains than what goes to Flatbush right now? Or will it turn out that they’ve just moved the bottleneck at boosting rail service to a different location and the TPH gains with two midtown stations is little more than what Penn’s handling right now?

Caelestor August 16, 2016 - 4:38 pm

ESA is expected to be as or more popular than Penn is today, so the max of 24 tph will be sent to GCT Day 1. Unless the Third Track is built, the extra capacity can only come by routing all Flatbush trains to the Main Line. Penn Station service will be reduced by roughly 10 tph, so MNR will be able to send New Haven Line trains there. That said, MNR can already run to Penn if some of the commuter trains were through-routed.

Wil August 17, 2016 - 12:01 pm

Turn the Atlantic line to a subway with connection with the fulton IND

Gus August 17, 2016 - 11:31 pm

What service would you run along it though, and where from and to?

The thing about the Atlantic Branch is that for half its length it runs barely 500 feet from a parallel 4-track subway line that only sustains local service every 10 minutes (even at rush hour), and for another half of that again it parallels the J/Z with the same proximity.

It would create the city’s closest parallel subway lines in an area that already today has plenty of capacity. What problem are we solving?

Eric August 18, 2016 - 9:30 am

Nothing new should be built along the Atlantic line. But it should be fare-integrated with the subway. It would be the only Jamaica-downtown Brooklyn subway, which would significantly improve transit between Queens and Brooklyn (with connecting buses in Queens and subways in Brooklyn).

In numbers: The Atlantic line has a 20 minute run time, the same route on the A/J takes about 47 minutes. Right now the Atlantic line runs every 30 minutes; once isolated you could easily run a shorter train every 10 minutes for similar expense.

Larry Littlefield August 16, 2016 - 7:34 am

Subway ridership has also started to fall.

And some recent data, showing NY’s labor force is now falling rather than soaring, implies that many young workers have had enough of “sucking it up” in New York while being sucked dry.


Larry Littlefield August 16, 2016 - 9:38 am

I suggest taking a close look at year-over-year changes in monthly subway ridership over the next year or so. I think of it as a real time economic indicator.

Cars entering the CBD is not such an indicator. As the economy gets stronger traffic gets worse and drivers switch to transit, while the bridges and tunnels tend to stay full in recessions.

Eric Brasure August 16, 2016 - 11:05 am

I was one of those young (am I still considered young? I’m 35) people that left New York last year.

I’m coming back.

Anecdotal, of course.

Larry Littlefield August 16, 2016 - 11:54 am

Like I tell my daughter, who is in Chicago and may or may not return when her position is up next year, when the herd zigs you gotta zag.

Bolwerk August 16, 2016 - 11:28 am

Aren’t you jumping the gun a bit? Dropping subway ridership could be natural variation below our current capacity limit, and the employment data is a small enough change it could be mostly or entirely a normal cyclical burp.

Easy way to increase subway ridership: open more subway lines!

Larry Littlefield August 16, 2016 - 11:56 am

We’ll see. Real changes start somewhere, and this is a shift to down after a long period of up.

Moreover the MTA budget had assumed more up, and is thus now out of balance.

TomSchmidt August 18, 2016 - 11:24 pm

It has seemed less crowded recently. I have gotten seats when I stood previously around the same time. It’s either a drop off in usage, or August. Or both.

At some point, the fare raises will cost money. I stopped riding from GCT to Herald Square, instead walking, when the fare went to $2.50 a few years back.

AMH August 16, 2016 - 9:31 am

Excellent use of “nattering nabobs of negativism”!

Manuel August 16, 2016 - 1:33 pm

Can someone please explain to me why doesn’t the city invest in light rail like Nj has they cannot me that more adviced then us can they !

Ike August 16, 2016 - 10:51 pm

One of the reasons why NJ’s light rail lines work so well is because they mostly have their own rights-of-way and don’t run on roads with car traffic. If the Hudson-Bergen LRT were getting stuck in traffic in Hoboken, it would never get anywhere, but instead it has its own separated right-of-way for almost its entire route. The main branch of the Newark Light Rail (formerly the Newark City Subway) mostly runs in an old canal bed.

There just isn’t that kind of space to give up to a light rail in most parts of NYC. Very few (if any) unused freight train tracks or canal beds we can seize, etc.

22r August 16, 2016 - 2:18 pm

Much agreed that the L shutdown should be an opportunity to pursue radical new solutions like truly dedicated busways and a car/truck-free 14th street.

curious about people who complain about living in a transit desert. I don’t know the data off the top of my head but is it really that much more expensive to live within 1/2 mile of a subway station once you get way out to the ends of the lines? Some people are tethered to where they live currently but many could make the life choice to move somewhere more convenient to their priorities.

Jay August 16, 2016 - 3:25 pm

I don’t think “suck it up” is the right answer to paying customers. I see this as an opportunity to educate riders about the alternatives there are to getting and from their destination. Too many folks running around hysterical and acting very dramatic because of no service. The WORK has to get done.

I say get out get a bus map and learn the system. And as far as 14th street becoming a pedestrian/ bike/ pathway – yeah that’s not going to happen.

Bolwerk August 16, 2016 - 3:50 pm

It’s mean to say, but I don’t really see how you avoid sucking it up. Reality is most people who need to go to Manhattan will see their one-seat ride turned into a 2- or-3 seat subway ride. Buses and pedestrian improvements can have all the merit in the world and still not really do much to put a dent in the coming misery this will cause.

OTOH, that misery is exaggerated. Some people will find alternatives that will be convenient enough. Others can forego trips.

mister August 17, 2016 - 9:27 am

This comment pretty much sums up the issue. Articles on websites that cater to those who live and work in Williamsburg and along the 14th street corridor are making a huge to do about this (L-pocalypse!). It’s not; the day the L shuts down, people will wake up an realize they have to allow an extra 15 minutes to go to work and an extra 15 minutes to come home.

Rick September 13, 2016 - 11:30 pm

Bring the G train into Manhattan at 60th St!!! Don’t condemn northern Brooklyn to 18 months of commuter hell.

Grandpa July 17, 2017 - 6:01 am

I think the l train can start at Bedford avenue, go east to broadway junction, into train yard, and come out onto J line tracks
Then it could continue into Manhattan via williamsbugh bridge


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