Tunnel Vision

How Closing the L Train Could Save New York’s Mass Transit

Could a subway shutdown inspire an underground renaissance?

by John Surico
Apr 11 2017, 5:30pm

City Hall station sometime between 1900 and 1904, when the subways were a point of pride for New Yorkers

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 .

American cities are aging. They are also, according to census data, growing. This combination has put a lot of urban areas in a tight spot, forcing them to deal simultaneously with increasingly outdated infrastructure and a population boom. New York is not immune to this problem, and the upcoming closure of the L train between Brooklyn and Manhattan is indicative of how fragile our 100-plus-year-old subway system can be.

Earlier this year, a former MTA transportation commissioner told the New Yorker that the city would need to build a new subway line every ten years in order to keep up with its current population boom. This seems unlikely. The recently unveiled Second Avenue subway was first proposed in the 1920s. And only the first phase has been completed.

But what if all this talk about and planning for the L train closure has an upside? What if it reignites New Yorkers' appreciation for their long-neglected subways? If, after the unveiling, the trains run more frequently, on time, and in (possibly) upgraded stations? Could it spur a more vocal public interest for investing in city infrastructure?

To find out more, VICE spoke to Kate Slevin, VP of state programs and advocacy at the Regional Plan Association (RPA), an organization that has pushed for improved transit options since the birth of the subway system. Since the L train shutdown was announced, RPA has gathered community feedback and offered ambitious ideas (like closing off 14th Street in Manhattan, which the L runs underneath, to pedestrian traffic and buses) as to how the city can prevail through—and even prosper from—the impending shitstorm.

VICE: When you read the RPA proposal on L train alternatives, you sense optimism. But what is there to be hopeful about with something like this?
Kate Slevin: When it comes to the L train, we know that it's going to be hard for riders. We know that 400,000 riders use the L train; 225,000 people use it between Manhattan and Brooklyn every weekday. It's a really high volume of people, and if you've ever ridden the L, you know—the trains are crowded. But we see this as an opportunity on a couple of different fronts.

First, we see it as an opportunity for the MTA to show what a modern subway line could look like. So this means more accessible stations, lots of trains per hour, less crowding on platforms. We've called on the MTA to make more station improvements than they have currently planned and take advantage of the shutdown—make sure that when the train line reopens, it's not just the changes and improvements that it's done for the tunnels underneath the East River, although obviously those are vital, and we want to see those happen. We don't want to be stuck in a situation when we have to close down the tubes. But we do think that if you're doing that, you want to reopen the line in a way that riders see the differences, the change, and the benefits of the closure.

There's also going to be a lot of foot traffic pouring out onto the streets. What can be done above ground?
On the street side, we, as a city, have tested out pretty modest strategies to improve bus service, but we haven't done enough. Bus ridership is now declining, so we absolutely need to address this. The bus system needs to become more competitive. It's a wonderfully comprehensive system, but the bus lanes are often clogged with traffic, and in a lot of cases, there aren't dedicated bus lanes, where the buses just ran in mixed traffic with other cars and trucks. Riding a bus can be very, very slow. So that's one of the reasons you see a decline in bus ridership. And the buses play a really important part in our city, because they are more accessible to people—especially if you have a stroller, it's hard to get up and down the subway stairs. It's easier to ride the bus in a lot of cases than it is to take the subway.

So what we're saying is, show New York and its residents what a modern street design can look like for buses, that prioritizes buses, and gives them their own designated right of way, where they don't get stuck in traffic, where it is almost mimicking more of a rapid transit service on the street. The city has experimented with the Select Bus Service, with painted red bus lanes, and they've improved travel times. But we think it's time to take this a step further and design the street in such a way that really builds on that and gives them the space they need. If you have designated lanes that are protected by a physical separation, you can't double park in the bus lane. That's why it's so important, and that's where you'd really see the advancement in travel times. There are other potentials, like if you had a situation where you didn't have to dip your MetroCard when you got on the bus. That's another thing that slows buses down. So moving toward a more tap-and-go system, where you maybe have it on your cellphone, or some other faster system, to get people on and off the buses quicker.

So talking specifically about the L train shutdown, what could be done to stave off the impact of not having that crucial line?
It's the MTA, and it's also the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT). So the MTA controls the subways and the buses. But the DOT controls what the streets look like. So you really need a collaboration between the two agencies when it comes to some of the bus recommendations. We'd love to see all of the stations that will be closed to become Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-accessible, to have some of the closed entrances on the Brooklyn side reopened, to better connect some of the subway services. For example, better connecting the L to the A/C/E at 8th Avenue, at the western terminus of the line, and making improvements at the station, where they can extend the tracks so more trains can run per hour. We don't want the train line to reopen and just have the same crowding that it's experiencing now.

A lot of focus has been placed on North Brooklyn, like Williamsburg and Bushwick. But what can be done for areas further out, like Canarsie and Brownsville?
We've recommended a number of strategies overall. One thing we've suggested is that we have the Long Island Railroad (LIRR), which runs from Jamaica to Downtown Brooklyn, and we know that a lot of people commuting along the L are actually going to Downtown Brooklyn. There's a big employment center there. To the extent that you could use the LIRR's Atlantic Branch, and do a reduction in fares, you could better connect the whole area from Jamaica over to Downtown Brooklyn. And that would benefit some of the neighborhoods farther out in Brooklyn.

So that's absolutely something that we've been talking to the MTA about. And to the extent that you could provide better connections, and increase service on the J/M/Z, that would also certainly benefit some of the neighborhoods farther out. The existing system in Brooklyn will be intact, so there will still be all the transfer points farther east of Williamsburg.

When the L train reopens in 2020, the city will have grown in headcount. So how does this closure fit into the larger issues that New York faces with mobility and transportation?
Obviously we support additional subway capacity projects, but those take a long time. But if you can figure out a way to do more ambitious projects faster, when it comes to subways, you could move more people, and you can show riders how great our subway system can be. The system has seen increased delays, and one factor is that there are so many people that want to use the system. So we see it as a network, not just the subway and the buses; they all complement each other. That's where, I think, we could do better as a city: taking better advantage of the assets we already have, like our bus and subway systems, and making them better.

Another bigger issue we're seeing, too, is a growth in demand for outer-borough trips. So we can't rely on getting everyone in and out of Manhattan. Work trips and patterns are changing, so to the extent that we can improve connectivity between the boroughs, that's going to be a big benefit for our region. Also it's a positive thing when people want to be here—it's good for our economy, good for our neighborhoods, good for the environment overall; the more people living in the city, the fewer people living in co-dependent areas. It's all very positive, but we need to be able to provide the infrastructure, and the services, to go along with that population growth.

So what's next for the organization leading up until the shutdown? And what are the obstacles going forward?
We're gonna keep talking to the agencies, elected officials, and community groups. Build support for some of these ideas. We still have some time until this happens, but we're hoping to stay active, and just try to educate people and let them know that we can have a better, more accessible, and efficient transit system in New York than we do, and maybe some new ideas and approaches to our streets, and how we pursue capital projects, will help push those along.

Nothing happens in New York without a lot of debate. It's a city full of opinions. I think you'll have a lot of people engaged in this discussion, but really, to a certain extent, this is the management of a crisis, right? You have a hugely popular and well-used transit line that's not going to be in service for 15 months, and you have to manage that crisis. But hopefully out of that crisis will come better ways of thinking about these longer-term things that have held back our transit system.