How New York’s Streets Are Changing for the L Train Shutdown
On April 27, 2019 the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months between Manhattan and Brooklyn 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.
Although it doesn't start until late April, the L train shutdown’s fallout has already been far-reaching. It has spurned serious concern among small businesses fearful of surviving with less foot traffic. It has launched a grenade of frustration among residents, who may not agree on official mitigation efforts, but are unified in recognizing that the shutdown could end up being a shitshow. And it has become an easy-to-digest symbol to the public of a larger transit crisis, which drags New York’s political actors into the mix.
But the Great Silver Lining of It All, optimists say, is that New York’s streets will be undergoing massive and much-needed changes to absorb that fallout. And those changes, coming in an age of mind-numbing congestion and heightened climate change worry, will benefit New Yorkers long after the L train shutdown is over. What New York will look like during the L train shutdown is a New York that hasn’t yet been seen before, with dedicated bus-only transit on major corridors for the first time, and a wholesale effort to prioritize mass transit and people over cars.
Nearly four months out from the shutdown’s start, VICE visited the streets in the three boroughs that will be hugely affected by the shutdown: Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. There, we checked in on the areas where those changes are taking place to see how things are shaping up. Here’s what we found:
Court Square. The terminal in Long Island City—where the E, M, G, and 7 trains meet—will be crucial during the shutdown. It’ll be a major point of transfer for Williamsburg and Greenpoint residents, who will look to head north into Queens to get across the East River. Yet concerns of current overcrowding and the arrival of Amazon’s HQ2 there paints a bleak portrait of what the shutdown will look like for the western Queens hub.
Expecting 26 percent of stranded L train commuters to come this way, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) structurally plans to widen staircases down to the G train, and enlarge control areas by adding two stairwells. The authority also announced that faulty moving walkways, or the “peoplemover,” would be removed, to allow for more space in the main passage.
On a recent visit during morning rush hour, those initiatives were largely completed. The only problem was that 7 trains were stalled above, and so a seemingly endless line formed to merely get onto the E/M platform to Manhattan.
Bedford Avenue. In 2017, nearly 9.6 million rang through the turnstiles of the Bedford Avenue station to hop onto just one line: the L. And starting in April 2019, train service will terminate here, meaning that this vital stop will be rendered into a dead end, where all west-bound passengers will have to disembark onto a slew of shuttle buses and ferries nearby. Once an instant portal to Manhattan, Bedford Avenue, for 15 months straight, will become just another piece in a much larger transit puzzle.
With that in mind, the MTA spent months adding two new staircases and ADA-compliant elevators to help usher the additional expected riders in a less disorderly fashion. That construction was the bane of local business, but it’s now largely complete, and the widened staircases are in heavy use. However, on a recent visit, side streets were still filled with construction materials and in some places closed entirely to traffic, where space will be needed for people to get onto alternate modes of transit.
Metropolitan Avenue/Lorimer Street. The Williamsburg station where the L and G trains meet is also another integral point during the shutdown; it allows for riders to head north to Court Square, or down south, to other train lines. To improve capacity, the MTA said it would add turnstiles and a new entrance. While the turnstiles were seen to be completed on a recent visit, the new entrance was still under construction.
Grand Street. Street safety advocates have said for years that Grand Street—a major east-west thoroughfare in North Brooklyn—needed a facelift after a string of fatal crashes. The shutdown appears to be that opportunity, with extensive plans by the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) for bus-only traffic, a dedicated drop-off lane for delivery trucks to park, and protected bike lanes for cyclists heading to and from the Williamsburg Bridge.
When VICE visited Grand Street in early December, the red paint for the bus-only lane was still being applied. The offloading area for deliveries and the green bike lane were, however, in place—yet a number of trucks and cars were still seen blocking the bike lane entirely. (To note: car traffic has not yet been diverted from Grand Street, which will occur closer to the shutdown.)
The J/M/Z Stops. When VICE profiled Alan Minor, a transit activist, he reiterated the need for the MTA to reopen a number of defunct staircases at stations along the J, M, and Z lines. These subways will carry the bulk of the L train expats, yet are regularly overwhelmed with passengers in the morning rush. (The staircases had been closed in the past due to decreased ridership and high crime rates.) The MTA listened to Minor and other critics, and committed to opening a partial number of the staircases in question to add more turnstiles.
As VICE traveled underneath the above-ground trains, we noted that the old staircases had been opened at the Flushing Avenue station (which occurred for a previous closure), partially opened at the Hewes Street station, and construction was very much underway at the Marcy Avenue station, where a popular staircase was completely ripped out, to make way for a newer, wider access point.
Delancey Street. Now, when all of those people—cyclists and bus riders, at least—come from Brooklyn, they will find themselves on Delancey Street, in Manhattan. The east-west corridor is never not busy, and often crawls at peak hours due to an onslaught of trucks, for-hire vehicles, and yellow taxis. That proves problematic for the shutdown, and so the DOT announced plans to create a two-way bike lane that connects to the Williamsburg Bridge, and a bus-only lane for the bevy of shuttles traveling over the key overpass, which will be HOV-3 only during the shutdown.
On a recent visit, the two-way bike lane was up and running, and red paint was being laid for the bus lane. (A bus was seen picking up riders, and then immediately halted by car traffic.)
Union Square. If any station has the most to lose from the shutdown, it is Union Square. The central L train hub is where a majority of riders transfer, and so it will lose that huge inflow when the L train no longer runs in Manhattan for 15 months. Yet the city is still planning to accommodate the Manhattan commuters who no longer catch a ride there, or at any L train stations along 14th Street, for that matter.
Union Square West between 14th and 15th Streets will no longer see car traffic, and neither will University Place, between 13th and 14th Street. One-way protected bike lanes were planned for 12th and 13th Street, to make way for the expected spike in cyclists. And perhaps the most ambitious experiment of them all is 14th Street itself, where Manhattan will see its first-ever “busway”: barring emergency vehicles and local pick-up/drop-off for local residents, the main crosstown road will be shut off from 5 AM to 10 PM to private cars, seven days a week.
While the busway will not go into effect until April, the red paint can be seen spanning 14th Street, from Ninth to Third Avenues. A DOT worker at Union Square West said that the pedestrian-only street there would be completed soon, and then work will commence on University Place. And on both 12th and 13th Street the protected bike lanes are in place and heavily used. Although, again, they were seen repeatedly blocked by trucks and cars during a recent visit.
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