The L Train Shutdown Is a Crisis New York City Can’t Afford to Waste

A chance to retake the streets of New York from cars?

Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

As of Monday, New Yorkers can look the future in the face: The L train will stop running between Brooklyn and Manhattan for 18 months starting in January 2019.

Yes, we’re just talking one tunnel in one city. But this is still a very big deal. By itself, the L train has nearly the weekday ridership of all of Bay Area Rapid Transit. Its closure will produce one of the largest transportation shifts in New York history and has already set waves of panic sweeping across North Brooklyn.

The prognosis for its water-damaged Canarsie tunnel, which whisks 225,000 commuters under the East River each day, had been divided between two scenarios: a long period of heavily reduced, one-track service—or a shorter full shutdown. Option No. 2 was the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s pick.

“We think it is better to have a shorter duration of pain than a longer more unstable process,” said Ronnie Hakin, New York City Transit president, in a statement. That’s essentially the same conclusion that WMATA in Washington, D.C., has come to with respect to its own subway reliability problems, which have been building for decades.

This makes sense, because cutting transit service in half makes it a lot less than half as good. Long-term service disruptions make it more likely that people will reconsider big life choices: whether to own a car, whether to move away, whether send their kids to different schools. The “L’apocalypse” will be bad, but it will be fast. It’s a victory for technocracy over politics, and it could—in the end—have a great positive effect on New York.

That three-year, reduced-service option was no good anyway. Shutting down half a subway tunnel wouldn’t have cut service in half, anyway, but by about 70 to 80 percent. It would have required the MTA to split the train line in half—to provide a turnaround space for full service coming from the east—depriving all but waterfront Williamsburg residents of access to Manhattan. For businesses and commuters in East Williamsburg, Bushwick, and East New York, it would have been equivalent to a three-year shutdown.

This Band-Aid (and by Band-Aid, I mean a tunnel full of electrical equipment corroded by salt water) has to be ripped off, and fast. Once the L shuts down, service within Brooklyn will run largely as usual. Deep Brooklyn commuters have decent transfer options to trains bound for Lower Manhattan and Midtown. Those closer to Manhattan will wrangle with more complicated choices, and trains over the Williamsburg Bridge—especially the Midtown-bound M service—will grow very crowded.

What kind of blow is this for Brooklyn neighborhoods along the L line, which, stretching as it does from Williamsburg to Canarsie, has come to symbolize all that is loved and hated about Brooklyn in the 21st century? Most New Yorkers with strong ties in these neighborhoods (business owners, the tens of thousands of rent-stabilized households, families with children in local schools, people who are invested in community institutions) will find 18 months a fairly short time horizon in their decision-making.

New Yorkers with more tenuous connections may take this as an opportunity to try living somewhere else, which wouldn’t be the worst thing for them or for their old neighborhoods (East Williamsburg, for example) where rents might momentarily halt their rise.

Local businesses will suffer, especially those that depend on tourist traffic and visitors from Manhattan. The MTA and the city should work on finding a way to ensure they stay in business, and avoid inciting the small-business carnage that sometimes accompanies big transit construction projects.

All that said, finding alternate paths for more than 200,000 trips a day is an enormous challenge. And that’s where an 18-month full shutdown will really—bear with me here—have a net positive effect on New York City as a whole. (This is beyond the improvements to the L train itself, like better access at Bedford Avenue and a new entrance at Avenue A, which will be accomplished more quickly and cheaply under a full shutdown.)

Why is this? Because it will force an all-out reconsideration of the way that New York City uses its most transparently mismanaged asset: its streets.

To avoid a total travel crisis, the city, the MTA, and the state will need to throw all efforts into a Plan B that might include Citi Bike expansion in Bushwick and must include improved service on the G, A, C, J, M, Z, and 3 trains. New York’s expanded ferry network will have arrived by then to help waterfront commuters reach Manhattan. (As I wrote last year, “demand for ferries [is] an indicator of a deeply insufficient transportation system.” It will be an 18-month summer for this ancient mobility technology.)

The most important changes, though, will involve the prioritization of buses, bikes, and pedestrians over private cars. It is hard to imagine an L train shutdown plan that doesn’t include dedicating space on the Williamsburg Bridge to buses—it will take 19 fully packed articulated buses to equal the carrying capacity of one full subway train. We’d need a full double-length bus entering Manhattan every 12 seconds to approximate the subway’s carrying power.

The traffic congestion that will result should force state leaders to think seriously about what types of vehicles deserve priority access to the country’s largest business district, which is choked with traffic at all hours. Peer cities like London, Singapore, and Paris have all begun rationing vehicle access to their centers, but progress in New York has stalled. Taking cars off half of the Williamsburg Bridge should get the conversation going again.

That same reckoning will occur on both sides of the river, too. In Brooklyn, at least one planning firm specializing in Bus Rapid Transit has drawn up tentative plans (on spec) to dedicate street space to buses. Whatever the plan, there will be buses, and those buses will need space to pull over and turn around in Manhattan, if not run deeper into the city.

The decision to reallocate street space is up to the New York City Department of Transportation, and it has been, historically, subject to extreme political scrutiny. But there’s no opportunity like a crisis.

There are two truths to street politics in New York. First, taking space away from cars is difficult. Second, it’s good, and New Yorkers tend to be happy about it once it’s done. The city’s dedicated bus lanes, though only an imitation of true bus rapid transit as it’s built elsewhere in the world, have increased speeds by double-digit percentages on the city’s busiest routes. Pedestrian plazas all over the city, and particularly in Times Square, are busy. They are beloved. Initiatives like Summer Streets, which will close seven miles of Manhattan streets on Saturdays in August, show that reclaiming public space for people takes only political willpower. And here’s the key: Once automobile spaces are turned over to pedestrians, buses, and bikes, they won’t go back.

Which brings me to the biggest disruptive benefit of the L train shutdown: a redesigned “transit way” on 14th Street. Most of the attention has focused, rightly, on inconvenienced Brooklyn commuters. But under the MTA’s current plans, Manhattan will also suffer 18 months without its crosstown, 14th Street subway.

The Regional Plan Association has proposed a redesigned 14th Street Transitway, with separated bus lanes running from First Avenue to the Hudson River, and a three-block zone between 6th Avenue and Union Square open only to pedestrians, bikes, and buses. Traffic on either side of that zone would be reduced to one-way, except buses, running toward the rivers. Delivery vehicles would be permitted at night.

Closing three blocks of 14th Street to car traffic would be all but impossible in New York under normal circumstances. But the L train shutdown gives Mayor Bill de Blasio the opportunity to set that plan in motion. Like expanded pedestrian areas on Broadway, it should quickly become a beloved and indispensable feature of the city. And it would provide a template for similar improvements on 34th Street, which has no crosstown subway line, and 42nd Street, which connects the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Grand Central Terminal, and what’s supposed to be a ferry stop on the East River. A transit-first street policy in Manhattan would redeem the millions of minutes lost to the L train shutdown many times over.

The city can’t let this crisis go to waste.