NYC’s Subway Gridlock Could Trigger a Transit Renaissance
The apocalypse is nigh. In 2019, New York City plans to shut down the portion of the L subway line that runs under the East River and across Manhattan, for a full 18 months of work to repair the damage wrought by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
Make no mistake: The shutdown is going to suck. The city and its Metropolitan Transportation Authority are already scrambling to figure out how to get L train riders from Brooklyn not just into Manhattan, but across the island, running under 14th Street. No combination of ferries, buses, bike lanes, and even gondolas can fully replace the L, which moves 300,000 people on a typical weekday.
But there’s light in this tunnel, and not just at the end. If New York makes the right moves, it could turn this pile of lemons into pure Beyoncé, giving its denizens a better way to move through its canyons.
Last week, the MTA a announced it would study the lemonade recipe: a plan to expel cars from Manhattan’s 14th Street, in favor of Bus Rapid Transit, pedestrians, and cyclist infrastructure. It’s a temporary fix that, if advocates get their way, could become permanent.
“We’re looking at [the shutdown] as an opportunity to prove that modern, 21st century street design really maximizes not only throughput but livability,” says Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives. The advocacy group, along with a New York City think tank, has been a major proponent of the pro-walker and -commuter 14th Street plan, which they call the “PeopleWay.”
If Transportation Alternatives gets its way, the 14th Street PeopleWay will have dedicated bus lanes, two-way protected bike lanes, and wider sidewalks. The group’s rough calculations show the reconfigured street could move twice the amount of people it currently does (assuming cars carry 1.4 riders on average). It hasn’t yet drummed up a cost estimate, but White points to a quickly-deployed Michigan Bus Rapid Transit project that cost $40 million.
This tempting, positively European vision—promoting healthier, safer transportation methods while increasing overall efficiency—raises other concerns. Before approving the plan, the city’s DOT must figure out how 14th Street businesses (and there are a lot of them) will get their deliveries, and guarantee that detouring drivers won’t just jam other thoroughfares.
The PeopleWay’s not the only ambitious L-train contingency plan in the works. Mayor Bill DeBlasio has talked a big ferry game, pledging to introduce East River service a year and a half before the public transit meltdown. (Never mind those boats could only carry about 12,000 riders per day, and can’t help them get across Manhattan.) An inventive competition hosted by the Van Alen Institute produced proposals for an unfortunately condom-like pedestrian bridge, and a water shuttle network.
Researchers at NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation recommend solutions like partnerships with rideshare companies, lots of high-speed bus service; more trains on complementary subway lines, ferries, gondolas, and even a scooter sharing network.
Even once the L train’s back in action, these ideas could help make New York a friendlier place for pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit riders. The city has shied away from solidifying temporary anti-congestion rules before, but should look to Paris as an example of turning transit pain to gain.
In 2002, the City of Lights converted a stretch of road along the River Seine to a temporary beach. “Paris-Plages” proved a popular hit, and from there the city grew the project to into a radical scheme to ban cars on a seemingly vital four-lane riverside highway—maybe forever.
So with less than two and half years until hell replaces the L, let the transportation ideas flow from the woodwork. Let the people talk loudly and have big, zealous opinions. The results may stick around long after Brooklyn commuters have their easy rides back, and European tourists regain their straight shot to Roberta’s.