This Startup Wants to Save L Train Riders with Fancy Vans and Breakfast Bars
For $155 a month you can ride to work in a Mercedes van with WiFi and snacks.
Image courtesy The New L
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.
A few days ago, I was followed by a Twitter account named “The New L.” Its thumbnail was a pink copy of the L train logo in New York City, and its bio asked, “Worried about the L train shutdown?” Below was a link to a flashy website, which outlined the elevator pitch: a $155-a-month “luxury shuttle driven by professional chauffeurs,” exclusively created to snag stranded L riders once it goes offline in April 2019.
Within days of launching, the pop-up startup had hit a nerve with New Yorkers, or at least its media, cooked with almost perfect ingredients to stir anger amongst already-angry commuters. One headline read, “Meet the Start-Up Vultures Eager to Gobble Up the Scraps of the MTA and DOT’s L Train Plans.” And it is indeed a sort of ultra-lux techtopic idea wading into a legitimately serious transit crisis, offering a commute option—which utilizes black Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans with WiFi, FWIW—that, at face value, would only appeal to a certain class of people. (Read: wealthy.) Since the shutdown was announced, the conversation of ‘what to do’ has been rife, rightfully so, with notions of who can afford what. The New L practically leaped into those crosshairs.
But as of Friday morning, nearly 500 North Brooklyn commuters had already signed up on their waitlist—a miniscule percentage of the 225,000 riders who need to figure out another commute, sure, but still something. And as a reporter who has heard pitches on gondolas, scooters, and pontoon bridges, I wanted to learn more, especially since it was something that was actually happening. (Sorry, gondoliers.)
In an interview with VICE, Jaime Getto, the 27-year-old president of The New L who has a background in fintech and acquisitions, described an app to me whose details sounded somewhat still in flux. The $155 monthly fee—$34 more than a monthly MetroCard—only gets you from point A in North Brooklyn to point B in Manhattan during the morning rush, but not home at night. “Work end time is a bit too inconsistent to be able to coordinate efficient group rides home,” Getto said, before adding shortly after, “We will eventually expand into that, just as we will for more affordable options.” And then, there’s the talk of a “breakfast bar” on board: In an interview with the New York Post , Getto said she hasn’t figured out what will be served, or how, but plans to work with local businesses to offer “scrumptious items.”
To find out more about how The New L will work, we heard from Getto herself. Here’s what she had to say:
VICE: How did The New L come about? And what is the service in your own words?
Jaime Getto: So basically the idea emerged after digging into the MTA's proposal to help mitigate transit during the shutdown. It became immediately clear, with just like simple math, that the solution just wasn't going to cut it. Of the 400,000 daily riders, 225,000 of those folks depend on getting through the tunnel, to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan. And then with the proposed alternatives, kind of the buckets of taking alternate subway lines, the additional buses that will be available, and then the ferries and bikes. Just the math doesn't add up when they're balking 75 to 85 percent of those riders into counting on them taking alternate subway lines.
Basically the idea emerged then for The New L, and really, the ultimate mission of The New L is to increase accessibility to transportation for all Brooklynites during the L train shutdown. Our first option is luxury shuttles. Think of it as our version of the Tesla Roadster: it's the quickest way to get started, and get operations going. Phase 2, which would start about 30 days after the L shutdown, will be focused on expanding micro-transit options, and providing affordable buses for people to get to other subways. So [that’s for] people who are off the L currently, and want to take an alternate subway, but maybe have about a 25-minute walk to that subway. We want to create the city infrastructure to those subways, and as we scale, we'll also be able to offer things like reduced fare programs.
It's exclusively focused on mitigating the shutdown—and when I say scale, I mean scaling the operations for those affected Brooklynites. This is intentionally not going to expand as a global operation; it's not like a regular start-up that just wants to cover all grounds.
How is it any different from those ride-sharing startups, specifically van services like Chariot or Via?
Comparing to like a Chariot or Via, yes, those rideshare options exist. But no one, to date, has come out with a plan specific to the L train shutdown. In terms of the operation, Chariot is a great example of, 'Okay, they've expanded into BK.' I've actually tried to plug in my address here in Bushwick, but they haven't quite expanded this far yet. So what they have to do is, pretty much, you can request a van here, and they have to then gauge, 'Okay, there's a certain threshold,' because they have to go out and buy the cars, and then once the cars are available, they can expand into that area when it becomes economically viable to them.
The approach we're taking is actually partnering with existing taxi and limo fleets, and being able to aggregate that all through one interface. So that when someone signs up, it's a very dynamic model where we can scale up or down. These vehicles already exist; it's actually helping a lot of these existing taxi and limo companies who are struggling to compete with the Ubers and Lyfts and Chariots of the world. Their vehicles are sort of just sitting there, especially at that time of day. They probably get rented out for one-off charters and things like that. But we're actually enabling these guys to really have a much more active business for their fleets. And again, we can scale up and down with demand, and without having to wait to see if it's economically viable for us to have to buy the cars, and things like that, and worry about expansion plans, because we're so hyper-focused.
Who can register for a pick-up? Anyone in North Brooklyn?
Anyone in the area who is affected by the shutdown. So all the way down by Canarsie, those folks certainly are not going to have as easy a time getting to some of the alternate options, like the ferry. That's quite difficult to work into their schedules and options. So the way we've opened up registration, we're at the point where we're collecting pick-up and drop-off points, so we can actually spend the next couple of months building these groups. And we're not shutting it out or limiting it to a certain area, like just Williamsburg or a part of Bushwick. If there's demand, and we see riders signing up in any area along the L, we'll be able to build those routes and service, no problem.
Are routes specifically built around where the clusters of users are?
Exactly. And the way it'll work is that they'll be able to get picked up at their home. And then the route will get them to Manhattan, and we'll be calculating optimal drop-off points. So you won't be getting dropped off right by your office. We're collecting that information right now, like your work address, so we can build the optimal route. So rather than just sticking with, 'Okay, we'll go somewhere near the existing L train stops in Manhattan,' even though 14th Street will be shut down, we can try to be parallel to that. Those drop-off points are based on information that's decades-old; we'd rather recreate that based on the actual demand.
Have you been in touch with the city, or MTA?
So basically, the company is acting as a broker, and it sends the rides to registered fleets. So they're already registered fleets. But we haven't gotten any reach out from the city. If anything, it supplements their plan.
Speaking of the mitigation plan, it's something that has concerns amongst riders, transportation advocates, planners, and yourself, as you mentioned before, in terms of where all of these people are going to go. And one of those concerns is the traffic over the bridge getting worse with everyone hopping into private cars. How does this not add to that gridlock, and thereby make everyone's commute even worse in the end?
That's the backlash I've seen on Twitter since we've launched. But something that we're able to do is that the most likely riders are the people who would've otherwise taken an Uber or taxi during the shutdown, with, let's say, two people in the back of a car. We're packing 12 into shuttles. So it's going to make a positive impact on traffic on day one, right? Because those people would've been able to qualify for HOV lanes, but they would've had significantly less folks in the cars. We'll actually be compacting that.
And then, as I mentioned earlier, with Phase 2, we'll be focused on expanding that micro-transit option. So actually just shuttling people to the next closest subway.
What's the response been so far?
It's been positive so far. We literally just opened up the website—Thursday was the first full day and we opened it the night before. When we opened up the Twitter and Instagram accounts then, I had already seen around 300 sign-ups. As of this morning, we're at 450... And this is completely untouched, purely organic traffic so far. I've kind of dug into the sign-ups and taken a look at, 'OK, has anyone signed up in there who misread some of the headlines out there, and they are plugging in Manhattan to Manhattan?' But it's all pretty valid sign-ups so far, with Brooklyn starting points and Manhattan drop-offs. So what we're going to start doing pretty soon is to actually build out those routes, and seeing where the demand is serving.
How did you get interested in something like this?
It came down to not being able to answer the question of 'What are you going to do when the L train shuts down?' Not just the cocktail party question, but more serious matters: I love my apartment, I love my neighborhood, and it's going to affect so many people. This is not just an anecdotal issue. I don't want to give up this neighborhood. And beyond that, a lot of the folks who are going to be affected by this, it's not that easy to just up and move, and potentially have to think about, Do I have to change jobs? There are so many unfortunate factors that come with this shutdown.
What's your personal experience been with the L train?
I live in Bushwick and I've been taking the L train for several years to get into work every single day. It's already packed. I'm on the shorter side, so I often spend my time kind of lodged in the train underneath someone's armpit. I do enjoy the grit of it, obviously. But the trains are already notoriously overcrowded. With that being said, it is funny to look at the data, and the metric of, 'Okay, of all the overcrowded trains, the L is the only one with an over 80 percent on-time rate that exists.' And that's on its way out.
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