Keep L Train Passengers Moving With Great BRT

Claiming street space for full-fledged BRT can help L train riders weather the impending Canarsie Tube closure and meet the long-term transit needs of northern Brooklyn better than a waterfront streetcar. Click to enlarge. Map: Sahra Mirbabaee/BRT Planning International

The news that Sandy-related repairs will require closing one or both directions of the L train under the East River (the “Canarsie Tube”) for one to three years has understandably caused panic among the estimated 230,000 daily passengers who rely on it. Businesses in Williamsburg that count on customers from Manhattan are also concerned about a significant downturn in sales. When the Canarsie Tube was shut down on weekends only last spring, it was bad enough for their bottom line, and this will be much worse.

Fixing the Canarsie Tube is imperative, but it doesn’t have to result in a massive disruption that threatens people’s livelihoods. The key to keeping L train passengers moving is to create new, high-capacity bus rapid transit on the streets.

Since the potential closure went public, several ideas have been floated to mitigate the impact. None of them do enough to provide viable transit options for L train riders. Only setting aside street space for high-capacity BRT can give riders a good substitute for the train. This can be done in time for the impending subway closure while also creating long-term improvements that address surface transit needs in northern Brooklyn much better than a waterfront streetcar ever could.

The Inadequacy of Current Proposals

While some L passengers will be able to switch to other subway lines, a huge number will face significant inconveniences. Passengers from Bedford Avenue to Union Square, for example, will face up to three new transfers.

For these passengers, a few ideas have been suggested: The MTA could provide shuttle buses to the J/M/Z, as was done during last year’s temporary closing. Or there could be shuttle buses over the Williamsburg Bridge, perhaps in dedicated lanes.

Providing enough shuttle buses to serve such a massive number of people is a grim prospect. The shuttle to the J/M/Z last spring was very inconvenient, and even if there were a shuttle with dedicated bus lanes over the Williamsburg Bridge, the streets between the L train and the bridge will still be jammed with slow-moving buses. Upwards of a hundred thousand daily passengers who used to zip between northern Brooklyn and Manhattan will suddenly face a chaotic transfer and a torturous bus ride. Many commuters who have the option of driving will simply get into their cars.

What Should We Do Instead?

The closure of the Canarsie Tube could be addressed by a temporary solution, but the problems on the L are not temporary. Sandy is unlikely to be the last major storm to damage our tunnels. And as more and more development comes online, the crush loads on the L will get worse and some people will start opting to drive.

Indeed, before the big L train news, the developers at Two Trees were already looking into a Brooklyn-Queens waterfront streetcar to provide additional transit access for the massive influx of residents and jobs. That proposed streetcar would travel up and down the waterfront at speeds slower than the existing B32 bus, which carries only 600 daily passengers. It wouldn’t provide a connection into Manhattan where far more people want to go.

The city and the MTA can address the L train closure and the transit access problems by the Brooklyn waterfront at the same time by building world-class bus rapid transit.

This BRT solution would go beyond what New York has done so far with Select Bus Service (SBS), which brought benefits mostly through off-board fare collection. The SBS toolkit will not be sufficient to handle the huge number of stranded L train riders. To move all those passengers without creating a busjam, the full arsenal of BRT elements needs to be deployed: a fully dedicated busway that can’t be impeded by deliveries or drivers turning right, stations level with the bus floor, off-board fare collection, and more.

Here are the main components of a BRT solution to the L train closure:

Connect to L Train stations via fully dedicated BRT lanes. While a specific routing needs further study, a bike/ped/transit mall down Bedford, perhaps as a one-way pair with Driggs, is appealing. Bedford is already overflowing with pedestrians who could use more space, and when closed to traffic for Williamsburg Walks on three Saturdays each year, it has experienced few problems. Because Williamsburg in that area is a grid, there are several good alternatives for diverting traffic. One landmark station with off-board fare collection, and a free transfer to the L (ideally a physical connection so all those passengers are not double-swiping), could be built at Bedford and North 7th (and Driggs in the other direction) with another station at Metropolitan to avoid overcrowding and to shorten the walk for many passengers coming from the waterfront. Maybe the community can stomach sacrificing a few hundred parking spaces to improve the daily trips of 230,000 former L train passengers. Full BRT might also be considered along Metropolitan Ave to connect both the Lorimer and Graham L stations to the bridge access routes, or on Grand Street, providing a straight shot from the Grand St. L stop onto the Williamsburg Bridge. Trucking would be restricted to the arterial that did not have BRT.

Brooklyn connection to the Williamsburg Bridge. In the short term, BRT vehicles could access the bridge from a dedicated busway on a short section of Roebling (between Metropolitan and the bridge) or Borinquen, depending on how the busway connects to the L, and would exit the bridge (also on the Brooklyn side) into the existing terminal at the foot of the bridge. In the long term, dedicated access ramps to the center lanes of the Williamsburg Bridge would be needed to fully bypass the bottleneck.

Sahra Mirbabaee/BRT Planning International
Sahra Mirbabaee/BRT Planning International

Connect to Delancey/Essex Station and Allen Street SBS. On the Manhattan side, BRT vehicles would run on a central median-aligned busway on Delancey with a station at Essex to connect to the Delancey/Essex Street F/J/M/Z trains. Many passengers would transfer into the subway system there. But it would be a missed opportunity to not continue the busway to Allen Street and provide direct connections into the M15 SBS which operates two-ways on Allen Street. Some buses could make the turn and continue north (up First Avenue) or south (to the Financial District) while others may turn around and head back to Brooklyn.

In Brooklyn, extend the Bedford service to the Nassau G. With BRT, even when the dedicated lanes end, the services can continue. Ideally, a dedicated busway on Bedford could be extended north to the Nassau Avenue G station. Even better, the full bike/ped/transitway could be extended like this. But even with the L train East River closure, we cannot expect taking road space to be a snap. At the very least, we should extend the BRT service to the north in mixed traffic, beyond the Bedford L station, to the Nassau G Station. This will cut out the need for the one-stop transfer from the G to the new BRT route and will speed up the trips of many people who currently rely on the G. This benefit will also outlast the Canarsie Tube closure.

Only true BRT has the capacity to carry the 230,000 daily trips the East River L train tunnel currently handles and be built in the timeframe we are talking about. If designed right, BRT could make the trip significantly faster than the multiple-transfer subway alternatives.

The proposal could also help address the growing transit needs of the Brooklyn waterfront, most of which are Manhattan-bound rather than Red Hook-bound. It would provide a new, long-term alternative to the L’s 14th Street routing, helping to address the overcrowding problem. The closure of the Canarsie Tube could actually be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for New York City to grab some street space and build high-quality surface transit.

Walter Hook and Annie Weinstock are principals of BRT Planning International, a boutique WBE planning firm that specializes in BRT projects around the world.

  • David

    Great proposal. This closure’s going to cause tremendous disruptions- and that dire reality should be leveraged to implement some bold transit innovations. Because what’s the alternative? Gridlock and chaos. This whole crisis poses some great opportunities and this plan is a good start at capitalizing on them.

  • bolwerk

    Fixing the Canarsie Tube is imperative, but it doesn’t have to result in
    a massive disruption that threatens people’s livelihoods. The key to
    keeping L train passengers moving is to create new, high-capacity bus
    rapid transit on the streets.

    Is this a joke? Yes, it will be massively disruptive. Modal breaks are disruptive. Lost capacity is disruptive. One seat rides turned into three seat rides are disruptive. There is no preventing a big, nasty disruption, harming hundreds of thousands of people. The world won’t end, we’ll get through it, no need for eschatology, but this proposal hardly does anything to change the misery that’s coming. The R Train people got through it and so will we L Train riders.

  • Joe R.

    No matter how many buses we add, the fact is the transfer to the bus on one end and back to the subway on the other will likely add at least 10 minutes to the journey time. The bus will also be slower crossing the river than the train, probably adding at least another 5 minutes. That’s 30 minutes round-trip travel time added for those who can’t easily take another line. Yes, you’re right. There’s no way to sugarcoat this. It WILL be hideously disruptive to lots of people.

  • bolwerk

    Haha, no offense, but you’re probably being overly optimistic yourself. :-p

    Lorimer to the bridge, the bridge to 14th or any alternate Lex transfer is very…roundabout? It’s probably turning 20 minute trips into 1.5 hour trips. The real world answer to that is people will simply stop making the trip if they can.

  • Joe R.

    Yeah, you’re probably right here. “Simply stop making the trip” is the option I would choose in this situation, even if it meant looking for another job. Hopefully employers will be open minded and let anyone who can telecommute. If you get on at the last few stops before Manhattan, bike might be a serious option. Probably still slower than the train, but not 1+ hours slower.

  • bolwerk

    My one attempt at serious bike commuting was that route actually, and the drivers were such dipshits that I stopped.

    I actually am considering moving because of this. My lease is up, my building sold, the new landlord is a serpent, and now this? Rents have skyrocketed all along the L too.

  • N_Gorski

    The only problem with this plan is that L train revenue service will likely end at Lorimer, not Bedford (so that the MTA can do the very necessary work of improving access to the Bedford L station). So you need the Bedford option as a standalone service, but the bulk of transfers are going to come from Lorimer / Metropolitan (on the plus side, Macri Triangle has the space to hold people while they’re waiting).

    As for transfers, let’s face it–the MTA is going to need to eat the cost of this service and make it free to make it palatable to the neighborhood.


    “The MTA is going to need to eat the cost of this service.”

    For mitigation and “emergency” services, the MTA will spend exactly as much as–and no more than–was assumed when they developed their application for emergency relief funding that was submitted to the FTA. That’s not nearly enough money to support any of these very well-thought-out but not very realistic proposals. Unless some developers and landlords are willing to pitch in some money to make up the difference, we might see a modest transit bridge akin to what has been operated when the L has been out of service on weekends in the past.

    For the wealthy, there’s always taxi, private car, or maybe VIA, LyftLine or UberPool. Renters with the means to will move. Everyone else who needs to get to Manhattan to make a living is facing joblessness, poverty (and related impacts), and public assistance. Let’s face it.

  • BBnet3000

    The behavior of drivers needn’t matter so much if this area had any high quality bike infrastructure other than Kent Ave. Unfortunately it doesn’t, not even to get from Kent to the bridge.

  • bolwerk

    Well, considering I came from nearer where the L and M meet on the Ridgewood/Brooklyn border and needed to commute to 23rd Street in Manhattan, Kent is about as useful to my (then-) commute as the Trans-Siberian Railroad. :-p

  • sbauman

    Here are some metrics that any bus substitution plan must address.

    The hourly counts of passengers crossing from Brooklyn to Manhattan on the L train during the 7-10 am period are: 13K; 22K and 16K respectively. That’s a total of 51K passengers or roughly 1000 bus loads in a 3 hour period. The hourly bus counts are: 255; 431 and 314.

    It takes a passenger approximately 3.5 seconds to board a bus without paying. The peak hour boarding time is roughly 21.4 hours (3.5 seconds x 22K passengers). It will take 11 buses boarding simultaneously and continuously at both doors to accomplish this task within one hour.

    The 431 buses per hour and the need for 11 buses boarding simultaneously can be used as a basis for determining the size of the boarding area. The curb space required for 11 buses loading simultaneously exceed that available on Bedford or Driggs Avenues. They will barely fit on the cross street between these two avenues. An alternate loading zone of equal size will be required to ensure continuous loading of 11 buses, while buses are departing. Reserve buses will need a staging area.

    I don’t know what BRT’s full arsenal is. The problem with any grade level lane is cross traffic. This goes for dedicated lanes, as well as shared lanes. Will the BRT routes allow cross traffic, or will barricades be placed to prevent vehicles and pedestrians from crossing these dedicated bus lanes? The former will reduce the bus lane’s capacity by half. The latter wrecks the street grid and thus creates much more congestion.

    How much time would be saved by a center busway on Delancy Street is problematic. Left turns in both directions are not permitted on Delancy between the Clinton (Williamsburg Bridge entrance/exit) and Allen Streets.

    The big delay would be discharging passengers at in the center median for the Delancy-Essex Street Station on the F, M, J and Z lines. The subway entrances are located on the sidewalks. This means the passengers would have to cross Delancy Street with its traffic to transfer to the subway. The other problem is the time it takes to get off a bus. It’s slightly more than boarding time (5.0 vs. 3.5 seconds).

    These are just a couple of problems that the authors have not considered. Any L Train suspension solution must be a 24 hour solution and must also pass a stress test. That stress test is the peak hour flow – 22K people from 8-9 am from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

  • Toddster

    Great analysis, but busses would not have to transport the entirety of all L riders current;y going under the river. Come doomsday, it’s probably safe to assume almost all people from Myrtle Wyckoff east will transfer to the A/C/J/M/Z. A large portion of people at Dekalb and Jefferson may prefer to back ride to Myrtle for the M as well, maybe even people as far as Morgan. I would assume people living near Lorimer would also defect to the G. That’s close to two thirds of the line finding other means into the city. Granted the third of stations that must still rely on the L and busses are some of the more heavily used stops, some of them still will find other ways. I would reduce your ridership estimate by 60-70%. While still a feat, a substantially more manageable feat. There will always have to be a bus(s) boarding if not only because there isn’t enough space for a train load of people to wait on a sidewalk, but again, loading 3 busses simultaneously it much easier and realistic than 11.

  • Toddster

    People already considering a move, may move to other areas, but I think the impact on the housing market overall will be fairly minimal. Assuming it’s a one year total shut down, it can easily take a month if not two to find, secure and move into a new apartment, especially in this city. Add the cost and the stress of a move, most people not already considering a move for other reasons will probably opt to stay put and find alternatives.

    For new residents who might have normally considered these areas: again assuming it’s a one year total shut down, one year isn’t very long in the housing industry. Apartments already under construction will continue construction. Most landlords probably prefer to rent for less than collect no rent on a construction site. New developments, not yet announced or planned, will continue to be built during the shut down too because the construction process takes so long they will come on line when the L is running again.

  • sbauman

    Have you considered the following?

    There are 20 L Trains crossing into Manhattan during the peak hour. Somehow, these 20 train sets must be matched by 20 additional train sets on the alternate routes. Except for people who can walk to Bwy-Jct, Myrtle-Wyckoff or Lorimer, these people will now require 2 train sets instead of the previous single train set.

    MTA policy has been to equalize rush hour loads throughout the system. There isn’t much unused capacity on the A/C/J/M/Z rush hour trains to absorb more than the current passenger load without more trains. Running the L Train between Canarsie and Bedford Ave would free up 5 of the 24 train sets required during the morning rush hour. That still leaves about 15 trains sets to find for the peak hour.

    Most systems have 20% or more spares available. NYCT is efficient in its rolling stock use. It operates with only 16% spares. The downside for this efficiency is that it lacks the capability to operate more trains than it currently does during the peak period.

    There’s no point if hoping the cavalry will arrive with new rail cars. The delivery of new R-179 cars is in limbo because of Bombardier’s impending bankruptcy. In the meantime, current peak hour schedules are dependent on the continued use of the 222 remaining R-32 cars. These were delivered in 1964 and have survived over 50 years of MTA maintenance.

  • bolwerk

    Totally. It’ll probably hit prices a little, and most of that would be a herd reaction.

  • I pass right by there on my daily trip into Manhattan from Woodhaven. Any of those diagonal Ridgewood avenues are a good choice up to Flatbush Avenue. I imagine that you used one of them. (This would have been before the bike lanes on Woodward and Onderdonk Avenues; but I am guessing that those streets were east of you anyway.)

    Did you ever discover how useful Johnson Avenue is, from its inception at the Brooklyn/Queens border at the three-way intersection with Flatbush and Cypress Avenues, all the way to its termination at Manhattan Avenue in Williamsburg? Johnson is a truck route; but I think that that activity is most prevalent during the midday hours. During commuting hours, like at 8am and at 6pm, there are not so many trucks; so bicyclsts can make good use of that street’s direct trajecetory. (And it has recently been repaved!) From Johnson’s end at Manhattan Avenue, the Williamsburg Bridge is just a short ride away on Meserole Street, which becomes S.4th Street.

    Anyway, the L train closure could have a good side, as it might lead to a further boom in bike riding for people who are going to Manhattan. (Though, admittedly, the closure will certainly be difficult for those comparatively few people for whom riding is not an option on account of physical disability.) How nice it would be if this event that is related to hurricane repairs wound up turning a significant amount of people on to bike riding, just as the hurricane itself did, when the Williamsburg Bridge was more packed than at any other time.

    (And, if I may allow myself to take an optimistic view, perhaps this imagined uptick in riders will finally convince the some of the more intransigent pedestrians to walk on the side of the Williamsburg Bridge that his reserved exclusively for them, rather than on the bicycle side in amongst the bicyclists and skateboarders — not to mention the people on scooters and even motorcycles who illegally use the bicycle side.)

    So perhaps the closure won’t be all bad, as it will lead people who don’t already know to realise just how bikeable the City really is.

  • bolwerk

    I liked to vary my route, but sometimes I’d use Onderdonk (which was somewhat north of me, but VERY peaceful) to Metropolitan, sometimes would use Wyckoff and go through that industrial area. I’d often use Johnson. Sometimes I’d go down Flushing to Broadway.

    This was several years ago though. I’m sure infrastructure has improved since then. I still live near enough and cycled that area in the past summer for the hell of it, but unfortunately most of my commuting now is by intercity bus and rail. :-

  • Dean

    To broaden the scope: the discussion on the ridiculous waterfront streetcar has quickly moved to the smart “why not BRT?” position. What do you think the highest priority dedicated-lane bus routes should be if the city were to make a push in that direction?

  • bolwerk

    BRT is probably technically impossible in that streetcar corridor. But it’s apt to say the corridor isn’t attractive with any transit mode, at least not worth doing.

    The city has been making a push in that direction for years, and Woodhaven always seemed like the most BRT-friendly corridor to me. Too transit-dependent for just cars, lanes already there, and not transit-dependent enough for rail. (And there is a perfectly shovel-ready rail ROW a few blocks away.)

  • bolwerk

    If BRT advocates wanted to demand something bad-ass, they should demand the BQE be appropriated as a dedicated BRT corridor. It even meets the standards of fantasist “real BRT”!

  • bedazzzled

    “There isn’t much unused capacity on the A/C/J/M/Z ”

    Not true on the J/Z – I can find a seat on a rush-hour Z train at Myrtle-Broadway (second stop from Manhattan), and J/Z trains only come every 5 minutes during the rush hour (and every 10 minutes during other peak hours). While I don’t relish giving up that extra space, it can certainly be filled by many more people, especially if the MTA runs extra J/Z trains.

    Once the L shuts down, they could even make the Z a weekday peak-direction express between Broadway Junction and Essex to take the load off other Broadway Junction transfers.

  • Michael Lorenzana (Unikirin)

    Personally I don’t know why they don’t extent the M to Roosevelt as was originally intended. you get an outer borough loop that can ease traffic on the M as many would opt to take it north into queens then midtown rather than south through Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. There is existing infrastructure that could be used to facilitate this. It would make my life much easier that’s for sure

  • I was at the public meeting and I am supporting a full, 18 month
    shutdown unless there is a cooperative and major contingency plan by
    both the MTA and the NYC DOT, as well as a cooperative and positive
    communication between the MTA and the NYC DOT and the general public
    such as stakeholders, small businesses and residents. I suggest the
    following: 1) Add more subway cars for the G train service, in order to
    make it from 300 feet to 600 feet; 2) Add more service on the G, J, M
    and Z train service; 3) Reopened all of the closed subway entrances in
    Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Bushwick; 4) Implement a free, most of
    system transfer between the Broadway G train station and the Lorimer
    Street J and M train station; 5) Replace the HEET turnstiles with low
    turnstiles and put CCTV Surveillance Cameras, in order to deter fare
    evasion; 6) Add more service along the existing bus services that will
    be impacted by this closure; 7) Use articulated buses for shuttle bus
    service; 8) Implement and operate Select Bus Service along 14th Street
    and if successful, make it permanent. With the overall construction
    costs of doing business with NYC are going up because of the aging,
    complicated and sophisticated infrastructure, it is vital to get in
    there are get it done, do it ASAP and as accountable, convenient,
    efficient, reliable, sustainable and transparent as possible.


Today’s Headlines

Turning Livery Driver Kills Carol Dauplaise, 77, at 36th and Madison (Post, News, Gothamist) A Great Look at the Senior Housing Crunch in NYC and Why Parking Minimums Stink (Politico) Brad Lander Has Some Questions About the BQX Streetcar (Brooklyn Paper) L Train Riders to MTA: Open J/M/Z and G Entrances Before Canarsie Tube Repairs […]

De Blasio Sounds Prepared to Let the L Train Crisis Go to Waste

The impending L Train shutdown should be a blessing in disguise — the impact of losing service west of Bedford Avenue for 18 months is so great, there’s no good option that doesn’t involve carving out lots of street space for buses, biking, and safer walking. Major redesigns of 14th Street, the Williamsburg Bridge, and the streets connecting to […]
If you live in Greenpoint (the blue pin), the darkest red areas of this map would take at least 25 minutes longer to reach via transit without the L train. Image: Sidewalk Labs

Mapping Life Without the L Train

This fall, DOT and the MTA will unveil their plan to keep New Yorkers moving when the L train west of Bedford Avenue shuts down for repairs. But what if the L train went away and nothing took its place? A new mapping tool from Sidewalk Labs, “NYC Transit Explorer,” shows how far you can get via transit from any point in a given amount of time. It also includes an option to see how things change when you strip the western segment of the L train out of the system.