There’s Got to Be More to the L Train Shutdown Plan Than What the MTA and DOT Have Shown So Far

Replacement service won't work without dedicated busways on surface streets.

The MTA and DOT did not indicate any plans for busways on surface streets in a presentation to elected officials last week about the L train shutdown. Image: MTA
The MTA and DOT did not indicate any plans for busways on surface streets in a presentation to elected officials last week about the L train shutdown. Image: MTA

Starting in January 2019, service on the L train west of Bedford Avenue will be suspended for 15 months to allow for Sandy-related repairs. The only way to keep hundreds of thousands of people moving is to dedicate significant street space to buses on both sides of the East River. But at a presentation to elected officials on Friday, the MTA and DOT did not indicate that bus lanes are part of their plan, except on the Williamsburg Bridge itself.

There’s still time for the agencies to flesh out more transit-priority treatments for the L train outage, but the signs so far are troubling. In the Friday presentation, the MTA forecast that about 70 percent of the 275,000 daily L train trips affected by the shutdown will be diverted to other subway lines, with the rest relying on buses, bikes, car services, or ferries, DNAinfo reports.

Where the MTA expects displaced L train riders to travel. The thicker the line, the more  for the L train shutdown. Graphic: MTA
Where the MTA expects displaced L train riders to travel. The thicker the line, the more projected trips. Graphic: MTA

For subway passengers throughout the city — not just L train riders — this should set off alarms. At a time when crowding-related train delays are reaching crisis levels, the MTA and DOT should be aiming to run fast, high-capacity bus services to attract displaced riders to the greatest extent possible and avoid placing unnecessary strain on the subways.

Several stations that L train riders would be expected to use instead are ill-equipped to handle an influx of riders, according to BRT Planning International’s Walter Hook. The 7 train advocacy group Access Queens has also noted that Long Island City’s Court Square station, where riders would be expected to transfer from the G to lines connecting to Manhattan, already suffers from bottlenecks and inadequate entryways [PDF].

The MTA and DOT presentation includes three shuttle bus routes: from Bedford Avenue to Bleecker Street, Grand Street to Bleecker Street, and Grand Street along First and Second Avenues to 14th Street. These routes are shorter than the ones advocates have proposed, but that could be for the best, since it will allow the MTA to run a given number of buses more frequently.

On the Williamsburg Bridge, one lane in each direction would be reserved for buses and trucks, and another two-way pair would be reserved for motor vehicles with at least three occupants. But the presentation did not mention any bus lanes elsewhere, according to Edward Baker, communications director for Assembly Member Joe Lentol, one of the elected officials briefed last week.

On-street busways are an essential part of any L train plan. Without dedicated, car-free space for buses on 14th Street and the streets approaching the Williamsburg Bridge, the new bus routes will get bogged down in traffic, speed and reliability will suffer, and fewer people will use them. Subways will get more crowded, traffic congestion will get worse, and people will end up making fewer trips.

That’s not lost on Lentol. “Assemblyman Lentol, throughout the planning process, has stressed the importance of having efficient shuttles, which would likely require dedicated bus lanes,” Baker said in an email to Streetsblog.

DOT and the MTA may still be working on the details of a plan for surface streets. A public proposal is expected this spring, followed by a final plan in the fall.

But given Mayor de Blasio’s tepid response to the L train situation so far (he’s emphasized ferries as a solution, but in a whole day the new ferry route linking Williamsburg to East 20th Street will carry about one train’s worth of passengers), as well as the MTA’s apparent hesitance to plan for high-capacity bus service, the omission of a transit-priority plan for surface streets in last week’s presentation is a distressing sign.

  • Kevin Love

    Application of high school mathematics demonstrates that the only feasible solution is to make 14th Street car-free. Needless to say, I am not the first to advocate for a car-free 14th Street. See:

    http://nyc.streetsblog.org/2016/05/24/brewer-to-dot-start-looking-into-a-bus-only-14th-street/

    But let’s run the numbers, and see what happens.

    During peak hours, the L train currently has approximately 21,500 passengers per hour. At an average standard load of 55 passengers, this is 391 buses. Which is a headway of less than 10 seconds!

    In reality, allowing cross-traffic will result in the buses platooning. But if 14th Street is not car-free, even platooning is not going to work.

    Some passengers will be able to take other subway lines. But any scheme involving a majority of current passengers using other lines must be regarded as a fantasy perpetrated by someone who is ignorant of the NYC subway system.

    A car-free 14th Street will allow for a considerable load to be carried by cycling. But we will still need a lot of buses.

    The alternative is that people will simply be unable to get to jobs and wherever else they are going. That is the true alternative to a car-free 14th Street.

  • Vooch

    Please do not forget

    “solving the last mile transit challenge by adding PBLs and bike racks at transit stations”

  • Larry Littlefield

    Lots more people could ride bicycles if there were more bicycle parking on each end. Some would continue to do so after the L train is restored.

    After all, those farther out would have a a choice of riding the A/C, J or M. Many of those closer in are beyond a walk to these lines.

    In addition, the MTA could run some Canarsie Line trains south of Broadway Junction onto the Broadway Line straight to Manhattan.

  • Jeff

    Sure, but how much do PBLs cost?

  • Russell.FL

    This may seem trivial, but every little thing counts. At Court Square, on the Manhattan bound E/M platform, there is a bench that sticks out into the platform, creating a pinch point in the passenger flow, especially when a horde of G train passengers is arriving on the platform. This pinch point is even worse when an E/M train has arrived and there are passengers trying to go the other way. The bench only sticks out 1-2 feet, but if they could trim back this bench I believe it would make a difference in passenger flow.

    Another thing that could help with the L train shut down would be to reopen closed subway entrances, such as at Grand Street/Metropolitan on the G train.

  • AMH

    You should absolutely email the MTA about this.

  • Christie

    I’m also not sure why this shutdown is happening over a time period where the weather will be bad more often than it is good. Why not have repairs start in March ’19 and end in September ’20? This gives people more weather in which bicycling could be an option.

  • Vooch

    in nyc the rule of thumb is $500,000 /mile

  • Ken Dodd

    So is CitiBike rolling out a strategy to cope with the inevitable increase of people purchasing keys? Already, there aren’t enough bikes and anywhere that’s far from a subway station is usually cleared of bikes by around 8:30am. Bike stations near the L stops will no doubt be empty even faster than this once the L shuts down. Are they introducing new bikes into the system? What about more bike stations?

  • ahwr

    During peak hours, the L train currently has approximately 21,500 passengers per hour. At an average standard load of 55 passengers, this is 391 buses.

    The MTA plans for buses to be only a small part of the solution.

    The MTA will try to divert most straphangers to the G, J, M and Z lines, while a smaller number — around 30 percent of riders — will take buses, ferries, Citi Bikes or ride shares to and from Manhattan.

  • William Vasiladiotis

    This is absurd. As a regular L train rider, there is no other convenient way for me to get into Manhattan. This is a horrible solution that will make a lot of people angry.

  • Andrew

    The MTA plans for buses to be only a small part of the solution.

    To clarify, this is because buses simply won’t (and can’t) be an attractive alternative for most riders, who will have faster and more reliable options. Even the fastest and most frequent possible bus route – give it all the bus lanes and other special treatments you can think of – will take most riders longer to reach their destinations than other subway lines.

    The buses are needed to fill in the gaps where the subway alternatives are truly terrible and perhaps to slightly augment subway capacity where trains will be most overcrowded (namely, over the Williamsburg Bridge). And even a small fraction of diverted L ridership translates to a lot of buses. But it’s still a small fraction of diverted L ridership.

  • Andrew

    Perhaps you’ve been living under a bubble, but the L between Bedford Avenue and 8th Avenue will be shut down for 15 months. True, your other options may be far less convenient. Yes, it will make a lot of people angry. That doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen.

  • Andrew
  • Andrew

    The shutdown starts in April 2019, not January 2019. The Streetsblog article is in error. (The original plan had been an 18-month shutdown starting in January; when it was trimmed to 15 months, the start date shifted three months later.)

  • Andrew

    In addition, the MTA could run some Canarsie Line trains south of Broadway J unction onto the Broadway Line straight to Manhattan.

    Bad idea. The J/M/Z over the Williamsburg Bridge is already going to be oversubscribed with riders from closer in. Why encourage L riders from the Canarsie end of the line to occupy space on trains that will be competing for track capacity with the J/M/Z when many of them would otherwise opt for the A/C or 3, which will have much more room to spare? The bridge should be maxxed out with as many trains as possible from Jamaica and especially Middle Village. Canarsie riders who specifically want service over the Williamsburg Bridge can of course transfer to the J/Z at Broadway Junction, but the Williamsburg Bridge option shouldn’t be unnecessarily promoted over the other options.

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