In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down between Manhattan and Brooklyn 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.
When the L train goes offline in April, the respective transit agencies have put forth an expected breakdown of just where those 275,000 daily commuters will end up. Up to 80 percent (220,000 riders) will take alternate subway routes. Fifteen percent (41,250) will hop onto the cavalcade of new shuttle bus routes; five percent (13,750) will use temporary ferries; and one to two percent (2,750) will ride bikes. There is also an X factor: the number of passengers who can afford to hail Ubers every day.
All of that stands to change, of course. Buses could get stuck in traffic, and the subway system, which only saw one morning rush hour without delay in August, could descend into overcrowded chaos. (Both seem likely.) But one figure that is certain? As of mid-September, at least 1,500 of those passengers in question, or half a percentage point, have signed on to take The New L, an ultra-lux shuttle that promises breakfast bars, free WiFi, and phone chargers, as it carries L expats through the street-level mess that the shutdown will unleash.
As VICE reported, The New L was met with instant criticism when it was first announced in late July. Transit reporters argued that the shuttles, like Ubers, would only add to traffic on streets and on the Williamsburg Bridge. Costing $155 a month for a one-way ticket, they added, it served as an apt symbol of the shutdown’s socioeconomic undertones. In response, Jaime Getto, its founder, said that the shuttle would take private cars off the road by compressing the single rides that would otherwise be taken in an Uber into a large Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van that fits up to 15 people.
Last week, VICE got a glimpse of what that would look like.
I was told to meet in the Lower East Side around 6:45 PM for the New L’s inaugural ride. The area of downtown Manhattan will likely be where a number of vans deposit riders in the morning, yet it will also serve as a major crossroads of shuttle buses and cars during the shutdown—two scenarios that appear counterintuitive to one another.
There was only one other reporter who showed, but the timing wasn’t ideal: it was the night of New York’s consequential Democratic primaries, and all eyes were elsewhere. We were met by Getto, her team, and a photographer who circulated us, snapping photos. It had the auspices of a pseudo-event: something that felt created, almost forcefully pushed into existence. Next to us was one of the Sprinter vans, its doors wide open for everyone to see.
On each seat sat the notorious breakfast bars—which meant a nut bar from a local bakery in East Williamsburg; Getto said the menu will rotate, and account for allergies—and a fan with The New L’s pink insignia. The van, Getto pointed out, had undergone a “slight modification” for the inauguration: pink lights were on, like a prom bus, and one row faced the trunk, which will both not be the case come April. Charging cables for smartphones were attached to each seat, and WiFi was available for us to log onto.
We left Manhattan just after 6:45 PM and hit some traffic crossing the Williamsburg Bridge. When I asked Getto if she was worried about what, in my mind, is The New L’s biggest hurdle—congestion snarling rides indefinitely—she explained that this wasn’t the most realistic demo. For one, it was evening rush hour, headed Brooklyn-bound; The New L, as it stands, is a one-way service, going Manhattan-bound in the morning. And, secondly, the shuttles would take advantage of HOV-3 lanes on the bridge, which will exist during the shutdown. “But of course it’s a concern,” she admitted. “It’s sad to see everything crumble from an infrastructure issue like this.”
In December, Getto and her team said that location data will be calibrated to come up with the best drop-off points. Pick-up points may also be considered, she said, to optimize the routes. “Maybe they’re in front of a business that lost foot traffic, or a subway stop that’s no longer operational,” she mused. (As told to VICE in July, Getto plans to launch a subway shuttle service a few months into the shutdown, and is looking into an evening service as well.)
It took us a little over a half hour to get to Bushwick, where a party was awaiting us at the Brooklyn Cider House. The route took us down Broadway and Montrose Avenue, passing subway stops that will receive thousands of stranded commuters, in addition to the thousands they already serve each day. What the streets will look like then is anyone’s guess, but even now they follow the same citywide trends. (Read: slow.) Still, a half hour doesn’t seem too bad—not accounting for delays, getting from Bushwick to the Lower East Side would take around the same time. Yet, again, that’s before a transit-crippling event.
We stepped out of the van at the Brooklyn Cider House to a photo backdrop, marked by the pink insignia again. Members who had signed up were invited to free drinks and hors d'oeuvres. At first, the crowd was thin, but the numbers gradually grew as the night went on. The Sprinter van sat in the parking lot, on display for its future passengers to snap photos of.
Living in Williamsburg, Alexa Berube, 29, said she relied on the L every day to get to her job in the Flatiron District. Normally, that commute is about 20 minutes. So when she heard about the shutdown, which cut off that inter-borough connection, Berube and her roommates had to step back for a second. “We decided that we were committed, and gonna stay,” she said.
But she had to weigh her options. She could walk 15 minutes to the J/M/Z, but it’s destined to be packed, she thought out loud, and she would still need to transfer to another train. The ferries, which were close to her, will terminate on Manhattan’s East River, which is still a 20-minute walk from where she needed to go. And daily Ubers? “That cost would just rack up so fast.”
That led her to The New L: “It’s a little bit more money a month, but it’s worth the time I’d lose otherwise,” she said.
Zachary Pustejovsky, 28, said the official mitigation plan offered little respite for commuters. Headed down to the Financial District, where he worked, he didn’t want to take three transit options—a ferry, to a bus, to a subway—in the morning and evening rush. He was drawn to the flashy shuttle for convenience. “On my way to work, I’ll be able to put in my headphones, send emails, and get some work done,” he said. “I won’t be shuffling back and forth.”
And that really is The New L’s strongest selling point: it assumes, perhaps not incorrectly, that the shutdown will be a mess for mass transit, and appeals to populations who are exasperated just thinking about it. But that, aside from the cost, is also its greatest vulnerability. Should the shutdown end up being the mess the service is banking on, that threatens the ease and comfort that passengers are actively seeking out.
Before I left to cover the primaries, I spoke with Antonio, a Brooklyn native and one of the 300-plus drivers the service will employ. He wore a finely tailored suit for tonight’s occasion. “We’re confident that we’re going to deliver a really good ride,” he told me.
When I asked him how he’d navigate through expected congestion, he replied, comfortably, “Traffic is always bad. This is New York.”
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