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​This Is What Will Happen to Williamsburg Without the L Train

An urban planner explains the future of Williamsburg if it’s cut off from its main subway route.

by Brian Merchant
Jan 15 2016, 4:30pm

Damage to the Canarsie Tunnel. Photo: MTA

The tunnel that allows the L train to shuttle European tourists and junior advertising executives between Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Manhattan will soon be shut down for repairs, according to recent reports. The Canarsie Tube was flooded with corrosive saltwater during Hurricane Sandy, and fixing the damage could take anywhere between one to four years, depending on which plan the MTA decides to undertake.

This will, in effect, isolate much of Williamsburg from an easily accessible subway route into Manhattan. For those unaware of why this matters, Williamsburg, according to Wikipedia, "is an influential hub of contemporary music like indie rock, it is attributed to be the place of origin of electroclash, and has a large local hipster culture, a momentous art community and vibrant nightlife."

The MTA is considering two major options, reportedly: Shutting down the entire tunnel, working nonstop on repairs, and finishing in just over a year. Or, because there are really two separate tunnels—one covering tracks going each direction—reducing traffic to half-volume and repairing each of the tunnels one at a time, and finishing in three to four years.

Either way, Williamsburg will be left without, gasp, an obvious, super-convenient transit path into Manhattan (much like the rest of the city!) for a significant chunk of time, a prospect to which people reacted totally reasonably. Even if one tunnel was kept open, the delays would make the commute across the river a crowded, logistical nightmare. The train is already running at maximum throughput as is. It really is a fascinating engineering problem—there are 350,000 riders who travel through the Canarsie Tunnel every day.

Video: Gothamist

So, I asked an urban planner and transit expert to parse out what this will mean for the future of the birthplace of electroclash. (Full disclosure, I recently lived in Williamsburg, until I felt the blow of an ill wind on the nape of my neck and hastily moved to LA, just in time to escape the Ltrainpocolypse.) Adam Davidson is a former MTA budget analyst, he holds a Master's in City and Regional Planning from the University of Pennsylvania, and is currently researching how GPS and smartphone data are impacting the urban environment at CUNY.

"It's just one year," he begins by emphasizing. "In that year, it will suck for a lot of people. I'm sure rents won't be going up that year, or they might even go down a little bit."

"But when the L train comes back, it will be better than ever. It's going to have more throughput. One thing about the L train is that it's awesome except when it isn't. It works really well, but there's no alternative when it shuts down. So that year will suck. Or the three years will suck. It's going to dampen an area that's just been hot."

Screenshot: MTA

The Commute

"I just don't know how it will handle the morning commute," Davidson tells me. "Right now it's at the maximum throughput. To me, the three-year option sounds worse in some ways. I don't think they'd be able to meet half the demand. Or even a quarter of the demand."

Instead, Davidson says, he thinks the Department of Transportation may get creative.

"It really gives the DOT the option to rethink the surface transit options." He thinks they may look to expand Select Bus Service, and to more fully adopt the Bus Rapid Transit model that's risen in popularity in cities around the world. Basically, buses that get dedicated lanes, are exempt from certain traffic stops, and move faster than other city traffic. Davidson says that if the L tunnel shuts down, we can expect to see more BRT-like solutions, and perhaps a move closer to true bus rapid transit.

"During Sandy, they basically closed down sections of the bridges to all but buses—the Manhattan bridge, one deck was exclusively for buses, and something similar happened for the Williamsburg bridge."

"What we call the SBS is just the bus in Europe," he says. "Payment just like the subway. It's a little more cumbersome in New York. It's not as quick as going through the turnstyle. They have a system where they check the fare payment. But the driver doesn't deal with that. You have a card that you flash to an inspector if they're checking."

The Radio Motherboard podcast talked about what the L train means to Brooklyn late last year. The podcast is also available on your favorite podcasting app.

"Not that this can totally solve the 350,000 person demand. But I think that you can re-envision ways to get buses across the Williamsburg bridge or the Queens-Midtown tunnel."

"I think they're going to have to consider this BRT concept, and getting more surface transit than they've been offering. The city will have a lot more latitude in how they approach the situation, so they might be able to get more acceptance of the SBS, and say 'we can find a way to dedicate some loadspace so we can get bus after bus after bus over the Williamsburg bridge.'"

Working from home

"People are going to reconsider the trips that they're making," Davidson says. "The work trip, which is the most valued trip, that is where we're going to see the most creativity in terms of how people figure that out."

"I would expect people to stay home, or stay in the neighborhood, or hold meetings—Brooklyn is becoming a work destination in and of itself; I've seen offices where everyone is commuting to Brooklyn from Manhattan. People will be looking for ways to not go into Manhattan all the time."

Changes to the neighborhood

"There are going to be some winners, going to be some losers," Davidson says. "Some places are going to see an opportunity catering to people who find it harder to get out of the neighborhood. The weekday lunch crowd may be bigger, but the night time dinner crowd may be smaller, obviously."

Davidson says that those who stand to be most affected are small business owners whose month-to-month earnings are dependent on the influx of riders. "Bedford Avenue might be hurt because it relies more on tourism."

"Saturday night might be a little bit different"

Real estate, he says, will take a brief hit, but it will likely amount to just a tiny delay in recouping expenses.

"The ones with deep pockets are totally going to survive this. And it will be better on the other side. The people you should be concerned for are the more marginal players. The businesses who, with a couple bad months could destabilize their finances, your smaller businesses, your storefronts, who don't have international financing. The businesses I'm most worried about are those who signed those 5-10 year leases without this being a reality."

"I expect those big developers, they have the long term in mind, they have the finance in mind to be able to do that. The Edge [a giant condominium complex on the Waterfront] has its own ferry, they've got transportation."

Furthermore, it's possible that squeezed businesses could be exploited by their landlords.

"If they're thinking they can use this to incentivize someone to leave and get an even more lucrative deal, that's certainly an option there. I think that the concern in this is those marginal populations. And I think that's why I was talking about BRT, the city needs to come up with a solution that's outside their normal operations here.

"The extent that people feel they can get into and out of Williamsburg, that's the extent that it's really going to hurt people. Those people on the edge are going to feel the pain a bit more."

"It does suggest that the M and the J will become a lot more attractive to people in that area. Also the 7 in Long Island City. So the people who aren't going to be harmed are the people who have yet to move there."

A place to go to complain about it

The city will likely set up a center to deal with complaints, much like it has for its nigh-eternal 2nd Avenue subway line project.

"Look to what they're doing on 2nd Avenue. The mitigation they're willing to take for people disrupted by the building of the 2nd avenue subway. In some cases, they dealt with potentially lost revenue—I know that the city and the MTA wanted to mitigate the issues they were causing as much as they could, and they have community outreach programs, a center to go and talk about the project. If the project was hitting you in an unanticipated way, there are people you can go and speak to about it."

Don't hold your breath for compensation for lost artisanal cheese sales, but the city will take the disruption seriously.

But will Williamsburg still be hip

"I don't think it's going to ruin Williamsburg. I think a lot of people are going to be inconvenienced, and some real estate investments are going to have a delay on their returns," Davidson says.

"I think some people will be happy, they'll see it as a reprieve—other people will be worried about money that they might be losing. For everyone who's tired of seeing all these hipsters coming across—I could imagine it would be a calmer year on that front."

"Maybe one way of talking about it is that the people of Williamsburg are getting a break, culturally, when they're not getting a break. When they're not going to work. It's going to need some real innovative alternatives on the part of the city to mitigate that. Saturday night might be a little bit different."

"It will be really bad, but the other side of this is that it will be pulling off a band aid and the service will be much much better."