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Tunnel Vision

What Will Happen to 14th Street When the L Train Shuts Down?

Could one of New York's busiest streets be turned into a 'People's Way'?

by John Surico
May 5 2017, 4:40pm

Photo of a wet 14th Street from the High Line via Andrew Malone

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 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.

In Manhattan, the L train's home lies solely underneath 14th Street—a bustling crosstown corridor home to one of the city's busiest transit hubs, Union Square. Coming in from under the East River, it is the only train to traverse an entire horizontal street in New York City's grid, making stops at every other avenue. And so, unsurprisingly, it's packed: About 225,000 enter from Brooklyn daily, and another 50,000 commuters get on the train in Manhattan.

When the Canarsie Tube, the tunnel linking the two boroughs, closes in April 2019, L train service will remain strictly inside of Brooklyn, rendering the five L stops on 14th Street virtually useless. The countless commuters who transfer there will have to reroute, either on other subway lines or buses.

How this corridor will fare has been a main point of contention in community talks surrounding the shutdown. Folks at the farthest corners of the line in Manhattan—from the galleries of lower Chelsea, to the public housing projects of Avenue C—argue that the L train is all they have, as bus service on the street is notoriously slow. Doing nothing to stave off the impact that the shutdown will cause there is simply not an option.

Since the shutdown was announced, there has been a brainstorming rush to redesign 14th Street in a way that maximizes options and minimizes transit times, so the street doesn't become a total wasteland when the L train goes out. The MTA has called for more frequent bus service on the block, and an overhaul of the 1st Avenue station, which will occur during the shutdown. But independently, a design competition was held last year by local news outlet Gothamist and advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, and the finalists all had one theme in common: Make 14th Street a car-free "People's Way."

The winning proposal, entitled Fourteenth Street Stops, reimagines 14th Street with dedicated lanes for Select Bus Service (express buses that already exist); a crosstown shuttle that runs every four minutes during rush hour; and a two-directional bike lane squeezed in between. It would also turn Lafayette Street into a car-free bus highway, bringing the traffic that will pour in from the Williamsburg Bridge up north to Union Square. And, yes, on 14th Street there will be no private automobiles or cabs allowed (save for intersections at certain avenues).

The second place proposal, from PAU Studio, is a bit more ambitious: It calls for an above-ground, solar-powered tram, with raised pavilions as stops, that rides along 14th Street, similar to the BQX project that Mayor Bill de Blasio has imagined for the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront. And the bronze design from James Wagman Architect mirrors that of Barcelona's famed "superblock," blocking off private traffic only on certain sections of 14th Street (namely, the middle) where traffic is highest, save for neighbors with permits. "We didn't want to be a little too greedy, and we wanted to be as practical as we could," Wagman told Gothamist in April.

When I spoke to Thomas DeVito, the director of organizing at Transportation Alternatives, he noted that the population left stranded by the L train shutdown amounts to that of nearby Jersey City. So what the MTA has proposed so far—increased subway service, beefed-up bus routes—may not be sufficient.

"Moving people to other subway lines is definitely possible, and necessary, to a large degree," he told me. "But without dramatically repurposing all the surface level space that is available to maximize the second-most efficient mode of transportation that we have, which is buses, you're just not gonna be able to move people that are gonna need to be moved, without dramatically impacting people's quality of life and their ability to [go] about their daily business.

"High-capacity efficient transit corridors are definitely the most efficient way to use that surface-level space," he added. This translates to thoroughfares partially or wholly dedicated to non-automobile transit, or some hybrid of public transportation, bicycles, and foot traffic. Whether or not those speeds would ever match the L train is up for debate, but what exists above the ground now sets a low bar.

Known for being a road that nobody in New York likes to drive down, 14th Street has a proclivity for prolonged commutes. The M14 bus, which is known to seriously snail, carries some 32,000 people every day from the Williamsburg Bridge to 14th Street. Meanwhile, according to the New York State Department of Transportation's (DOT) own traffic data, between 600 and 700 cars slug down 14th Street every hour, in each direction.

Due to short traffic lights between avenues and narrow lanes, the corridor is a congestion problem already, so do nothing, DeVito said, and the problem grows exponentially worse: "You're gonna see a huge influx of Ubers and Lyfts and taxi service, which will flood most of Lower Manhattan in a way that is not very pleasant to imagine." This could make the transition to car-free easier, or at least more appealing—but whatever the outcome, a lot of drivers, whose traffic would either intensify, or spill out elsewhere, are guaranteed to be pissed.

DeVito then pointed out that this is not a new idea in New York. In fact, one of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's transit legacies was flipping the exhaust-heavy nightmare that was once Times Square into a pedestrian-friendly zone for tourists and Elmo impersonators. "Everything that would be required to make a 'People Way' possible, these are all elements of a tool kit that already exists with DOT and the MTA," he said. The big difference here, however, is the focus on getting around; what 14th Street needs is faster transit, not necessarily more people.

In an email, a Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) spokesperson said, "We are working with DOT on mitigation plans and will continue to solicit input from the public." And it's clear the agency has, at least, heard the community's concerns: In September, at the urging of State Senator Brad Hoylman, the MTA announced that a traffic study would be done on the idea of a car-free 14th Street. The agency will release their full mitigation plan this fall.

However, as Kate Slevin at the Regional Planning Association—another NYC-based transit advocacy organization—mentioned to me, the ability to pull something like this off doesn't necessarily lie just with the MTA. "The MTA controls the subways and the buses," she said. "But DOT controls what the streets look like."

VICE has reached out to the city DOT about the feasibility of a project like this but has yet to hear back. DeVito, however, said that the response has been the same as the MTA's—a sort of, "We'll let you guys know soon!" In the meantime, the winners of the design competition are slated to meet with planners from MTA, DOT, and the city's Department of Planning soon to discuss their design and potential next steps.

Since the shutdown was first announced, DeVito said his organization has received endorsements for a People's Way from more than 140 businesses on 14th Street, which, he added, are deeply worried about the loss of foot traffic that a L-less reality will wrought. They will continue to organize and build support, in hopes of a concrete response from the powers that be. But time is running out—which, in New York City, means that its likelihood is waning, too.

"If you want to see changes by 2019, you have to have shovels in the ground by 2018, which means you need to have planning pretty much done in the first half of 2017, and that's where we are right now. That hasn't happened," DeVito told me. "We're pretty much right on the cusp of it, and there's the livelihood of tens of thousands of New Yorkers that really relies on getting this right."