We're Tracking the Upcoming Subway Shutdown That Will Change NYC
Lia Kantrowitz
Tunnel Vision

We're Tracking the Upcoming Subway Shutdown That Will Change NYC

Taking a peek under the hood of the old L camino.
Lia Kantrowitz
illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
April 6, 2017, 5:30pm

In April 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down between Manhattan and Brooklyn for 15 months. Among the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who ride under the East River on the L line every day, the upcoming closure is talked about in apocalyptic terms. The plans for alternate transit options—or in L train shutdown parlance, survival—during that year and a half of darkness are still being hashed out, by MTA officials in boardrooms and in community meetings across the city. The only certainty as of now is that there's a lot of uncertainty.


The reason behind the shutdown dates back to October 2012, when the Canarsie Tunnel, as the underwater route is known, was badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Now, years later, officials at the MTA say the tunnel needs a $477 million tune-up, or else disrepair could greatly threaten the vital piece of infrastructure in the near future.

According to a November 2016 report by the Regional Plan Association and Riders Alliance, 225,000 people now take the L between Brooklyn and Manhattan every weekday. Ridership has more than doubled since 1990, with Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, a central choke point, seeing a 373 percent increase. But it's in the communities farther out on the line, like Canarsie and Brownsville, where the L line is one of the only options to get to and from Manhattan quickly, that the shutdown is likely to be most harshly felt.

Superstorm Sandy aside, the L train shutdown has been a long time coming. When the line first started operating in 1924, New York City was booming. The population was somewhere around 5.6 million people, and Brooklyn already had more than 2 million denizens, making it, even then, larger than many major US cities today. That decade saw the greatest growth in city history, a rapid expansion that demanded a system that could support such an influx.

Now, nearly a hundred years later, the city is growing the fastest it has since that time. By 2040, it is projected that 9 million people will live in the five boroughs, cramming themselves like sardines onto a subway system that, by and large, hasn't truly expanded since the 1980s. Brooklyn itself did not see a huge population jump since the 1920s, until the recent 5.3 percent uptick between 2010 and 2015, the highest growth rate in the city.

The explanations for this sudden spurt, of course, vary—more people living, fewer people leaving—but really, New York's boom is just one of many happening across the globe. According to the UN, metropolitan areas will house 66 percent of the world's population by 2050, greatly accommodating the wave of globalization, and, as a result, putting a strain on urban infrastructure unlike anything we've seen before.

What's important for our conversation, though, is where this population growth in New York is happening. In the last decade alone, some pockets of North Brooklyn—like the waterfronts of Williamsburg, blocks in Bushwick, and the extended homes of East New York—have seen an increase in human bodies ranging from 10 to a whopping 126 percent. Through wide-scale rezoning efforts, and city-financed incentives to build high into the sky, developers have responded in kind, placing this section of Brooklyn under scaffolds, seemingly forever.

In the lead-up to the dark day in April 2019 when the Canarsie Tunnel shutters, VICE is launching a continuously updated blog called Tunnel Vision. Here you'll find regular news updates, profiles of longtime residents, new upstarts, and business owners along the L route who are unsure of what the future holds. We'll also publish Q&As with elected officials, urban planners, and transit advocates about what the closure means for infrastructure and urban mobility in the modern age. We're looking to hear from folks whose lives rely on this train; who have ambitious ideas and ways we can think differently about how we get around; and who have serious concerns about the standard of living in a borough that has seen such rapid change.

In short, over the coming months this space will serve as a one-stop-shop for New Yorkers—and anyone interested, for that matter—to find information related to the L train shutdown. Not only in the form of reporting on the bureaucratic maelstrom that is the MTA, but the more human side of the people and places whose lives and livelihoods will be significantly altered for over a year beginning in early 2019.