NYC Needs a Car-Free 14th Street When the L Closes — And When It Returns

In 2019, the L train west of Williamsburg will be shut down so the MTA can repair Sandy-related damage to subway tunnels under the East River. Hundreds of thousands of people will have to find other ways to get around, and there’s no conceivable way to do that without dedicating a lot of street space to buses, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

Enter the “PeopleWay,” Transportation Alternatives’ concept for a 14th Street solely for transit, cycling, and walking. Yesterday staff and volunteers with TA and the Riders Alliance were out at Union Square making the case for the PeopleWay and gathering signatures for an overhaul of the street. The campaign calls for improvements to be made permanent after the L resumes full service.

Even with a fully functional L train, bus service on 14th Street carries more than 32,000 weekday trips. Car traffic slows them down and leads to unreliable service. Sidewalks are too crowded. Biking without protection next to cabs, trucks, and buses is terrifying.

Now add L train riders to the mix. On a typical day, 50,000 passengers make L train trips that start and end along 14th Street. Another 230,000 ride between Brooklyn and 14th Street. To help all these people get around without the train, optimizing 14th Street for the most spatially efficient modes of travel isn’t a choice so much as a necessity.

TA estimates that a redesign with dedicated bus lanes, protected bike lanes, and more pedestrian space can double the capacity of 14th Street.

City officials and local electeds are already talking about repurposing street space on 14th Street. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has called on DOT to explore a car-free 14th Street, local reps Council Member Corey Johnson and State Senate Brad Hoylman have both expressed interest in the idea, and DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg has said that the L train closure is “a crisis not to waste” and “we should do something transformational in terms of bus service.”

Advocates aren’t going to sit on their hands, though. TA Executive Director Paul Steely White said sustained activism is necessary to ensure the city pursues an ambitious plan that can provide L train riders with a viable replacement. “We know we can win a stronger, more robust design on 14th Street if we have greater numbers, if we get more people involved, because right now there’s a strong likelihood that whatever we win without activism is going to be watered down,” he said.

In addition to TA and the Riders Alliance, the PeopleWay coalition includes the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the Gray Panthers, the Chelsea-Hell’s Kitchen-based group CHEKPEDS, and the Regional Plan Association. The RPA has put forward its own plan that calls for busways on 14th Street, the Williamsburg Bridge, and connecting streets.

Stuy Town resident Arlynne Miller said she signed onto the campaign out of a sense of urgency about the impending L shutdown. “I rely all the time on that train to get me to trains in Union Square, Sixth Avenue, Seventh Avenue, and Eighth Avenue,” she said. “If we don’t have more buses, and if we don’t have a way for those buses to move more quickly down 14th Street, it’s going to be tragic.”

Next up for the PeopleWay campaign: Wednesday’s joint meeting of Manhattan Community Boards 3 and 6, which will focus on the impact of the L train shutdown. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. at Mount Sinai Beth Israel’s Podell Auditorium.

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