Tunnel Vision

Riders on the L: Councilman Rafael L. Espinal

For Espinal, the L train shutdown could be a 15-month window of opportunity for the city and state to finally address issues that his 37th district has long faced.
May 11, 2018, 4:20pm

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 .

Broadway Junction is the third busiest subway station in Brooklyn. Every weekday, an average of 100,000 commuters navigate this hellish maze of a hub, running up and down steep stairs to catch buses and five different subway lines: the A/C, J/Z, and L. Maneuvering through it at rush hour is kind of an “every rider for themselves” bundle of claustrophobia that actually ushers you to the next train or exit faster because you want to get out as soon as possible.


According to Councilman Rafael L. Espinal, Jr., whose district office is just downstairs, the majority of riders who take the L at Broadway Junction are headed into central Manhattan. And come April 2019, when that train goes offline between Bedford Avenue and Manhattan, those riders will have to reroute (and extend) their entire routines; a transit adjustment that could hold serious economic implications for the surrounding area’s mobility.

But for Espinal, a Brooklyn native who represents District 37, the shutdown could also be a 15-month window of opportunity for the city and state to finally address issues that these neighborhoods have long faced, and suffered from. “There are a lot of little things that could amount to a big thing,” he told VICE during an interview at his open-air office, “with a positive impact on how riders are able to get around once the train's shut down.”

Espinal’s district is vast. From west to east, it stretches across sections of Bushwick, Brownsville, East New York, and Cypress Hills. And many of the clubs, DIY spaces, and bars that VICE has reported on in this space find themselves in this district. Espinal, who was elected to the City Council in 2013 at age 29, is no stranger to them: the Councilman was instrumental in repealing New York’s longstanding cabaret law, and creating the city’s first-ever Office of Nightlife, which recently appointed a ‘nightlife mayor.’


The shutdown, he said, could have a drastic impact on nightlife’s bottom line—a loss of business that could prove fatal in a time of sky-high rents citywide—and those needs should be addressed accordingly. “These venues that we've grown to love over the past few years, these venues that have provided these great spaces for New Yorkers to go to,” Espinal argued, “they really should be speaking up, and figuring out ways that the city can partner with them to make sure that their businesses don't take such a big hit that they'll have to shut their doors.”

But if you look at the official mitigation plan put forth by the respective city and state agencies, there’s a lot of empty space around Espinal’s district. Most of the noted alternatives in place—the new bus routes; the temporary ferry services; the redesigned street space—are happening in lower Manhattan and Williamsburg. Not over here.

That’s largely because the MTA expects up to 80 percent of riders affected by the L train shutdown to switch onto alternative subway lines; a feat that, in Espinal’s district, is easier to pull off than in others, with the proximity of the J/Z, A/C, and M lines. As it stands, the MTA plans to run more trains and open up closed entryways at stations along the J/Z and M lines to accommodate the thousands of new riders. (The agency will also install two new stairways at Broadway Junction.)

But Espinal, like most riders VICE has spoken with, has his concerns. The walk to the J stations could tack on significant time to many L train riders’ commutes, and, in recent years, the line has slipped in performance according to report cards by the New York City Straphangers Campaign.


“I hope the MTA is taking into consideration any sort of malfunctions or breakdowns they might have in signaling, or anything that can come with this increased ridership,” said Espinal, adding later, “It's important that the MTA and the riders do not just rely on the subway system.”

That’s where buses come in. Since the L train shutdown was announced, Councilman Espinal, along with the Sierra Club, has been one of the most vocal proponents of the city and state adopting an all-electric bus fleet going forward. The MTA will add 200 diesel-fueled buses to the streets during the shutdown, he said, yet north Brooklyn has some of the worst air quality and highest asthma-related ER visits in the city. Rather than worsening a problem in an industry- and exhaust-heavy area, he argued, the shutdown could be a chance to turn the tide.

“I think there's a whole sustainability argument that's not being made,” he told VICE. “If we're going to invest this much money and shut down the train for this long, I think it's the perfect, opportune time to look at how we can do better in making sure we create a greener city.”

More recently, it seems as if the MTA has started to listen. In January, the agency announced a three-year pilot program, which will test ten electric buses along three routes. Should the pilot be successful, the agency has stated publicly that it would order another 60 electric buses. Espinal called the commitment “monumental,” but added that he hoped an exact timeline for an all-electric fleet will soon become clear, and that the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) needs to do more to prioritize bus travel during the shutdown.


When asked for comment, an MTA spokesperson pointed to remarks made by New York City Transit President Andy Byford in late April, when the agency announced its ‘NYC Transit Bus Plan,’ a wholesale overhaul of the city’s bus service, which is now the slowest amongst major cities worldwide. The agency has set a new goal of operating an all-electric bus fleet by 2040. "It does depend on the maturity of the technology—both the bus technology and the charging technology—but we are deadly serious about moving to an all-electric fleet," Byford said then.

It’s worth noting that MTA is largely controlled by Albany (where Espinal once served as State Assemblyman), and the New York City Council itself holds less influence. But with the city’s DOT—which controls the design of New York’s streets—the Council is in charge of budgeting, legislation, and oversight. It holds far more power in that realm, and could act as a sounding board for constituents’ concerns. Particularly with bikes.

As VICE has reported, bike traffic is expected to soar during the shutdown, especially over the Williamsburg Bridge. But that alternative is limited for populations in Bushwick, Brownsville, and East New York, Espinal said. His district is cut off from Citi Bike, the immensely popular bike share program that is set to play a major part during the shutdown. And even if there were docks, the challenge of crossing miles of Brooklyn—and, eventually, the bridge—isn’t exactly appealing to many of his constituents, he said.

That is why Espinal, along with other transit advocates, is calling for pedal-assist e-bikes, which were legally recognized by the city in April after a months-long crackdown. “[My constituents] normally probably wouldn't want to bike, because they wouldn't want to break a sweat,” he said. “But if people living out further east have access to a pedal-assist bike, they can go out on those bikes, and ride out to Manhattan from here. I know I'd be more attracted in doing that.”

[A spokesperson for Motivate, the company that operates Citi Bike, told VICE the company is working with the DOT to ensure that Citi Bike is part of the L train shutdown.]

The idea of these proposals, Espinal said, is that the city should leave the L train shutdown in 2020 with a more sustainable transit system, not just a rehash of what already exists, and isn’t working. For Espinal, his district is at the precipice of major change—in the coming years, the Broadway Junction terminal will see massive reinvestment from both the city, and state; an effort that will effectively change the face of what this far-flung part of Brooklyn looks like.

The goal, Espinal said, is to turn what is currently a less-developed part of Brooklyn, aside from its transit hub, into a bustling job center and incubator, akin to Brooklyn Navy Yard, that could attract new industries and businesses to neighborhoods that need it. But that’s years from now. In the meantime, the city and state have to work together with what they have, he said, and fix what actually can be fixed in the eleven months left before the shutdown commences.

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