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Buses are the key to making the L train shutdown work—are they ready?

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In many ways, the MTA’s replacement buses are the key to making the whole L train plan work

The Williamsburg Bridge will carry four bus routes for the duration of the L train shutdown.
Max Touhey

Although most people are expected to still take the subway during the L train shutdown, the replacement bus services are in many ways the key to making the whole plan work. Trains simply don’t have the capacity for every single L rider to take another line, and if even a small proportion of the remaining riders—approximately one in five who currently take the L between Manhattan and Brooklyn—opt for Ubers or Lyfts instead, congestion will snarl to a standstill. It is simply imperative those buses can move quickly and reliably.

But before we get to the keys to making buses move, let’s go over what the bus routes actually are. The current bus plan addresses three different gaps facing an L-less New York: getting across 14th Street in Manhattan, moving between Williamsburg and Manhattan, and ensuring Manhattan access for commuters in Canarsie.

According to the MTA, 50,000 daily riders travel solely within Manhattan on the L, which runs under 14th Street. If that were a bus route, it would be the busiest in the city—and, starting in April, it will be. With the new M14 Select Bus Service route, which will run in addition to the current M14 routes, the MTA hopes to run a bus every minute or two along 14th Street. To handle that many passengers, 14th Street will become a Busway from Third to to Eighth avenues (and an extra block to Ninth Avenue traveling eastbound), meaning private cars and for-hire vehicles can use it for “local access only,” such as accessing garages and making pickups or drop-offs. Some of the route east of Third Avenue will have bus lanes.

As for getting across the river, the MTA and DOT expect about 17 percent of displaced L riders—so, around 38,000 people—to use the replacement buses. Currently, the plan is to have four bus routes running between Williamsburg and Manhattan via the Williamsburg Bridge. They will all feature limited stops and off-board payment similar to Select Bus Service routes. There are two mini-loops on each side of the bridge, and the four routes will mix and match so a rider can catch a bus to either of the destinations in the other borough. The MTA’s goal is to run approximately 80 buses per hour across the bridge.

On the Williamsburg side, there’s a group of stops near the Bedford Avenue and Grand Street L stations, respectively. On the Manhattan side, one loop will run up Allen Street, First Avenue, across 15th Street, and back down Second Avenue, accessing the Delancey-Essex F/M/J/Z station and providing direct service to the east side of 14th Street. The other loop will continue straight across Delancey/Kenmare Streets, head north along Cleveland Place, take a right on Houston Street, and then go south on Allen Street. This loop will provide more subway connections; in addition to Delancey-Essex, it’ll link up with the 6 at Spring St and the B/D/F/M at Broadway-Lafayette, and is a short walk to the R/W at Prince Street.

The final route, which was recently announced, goes from the Rockaway Parkway L terminal in Canarsie to the Crown Heights-Utica Avenue 3/4 station. It provides an ADA-compliant option since Broadway Junction is not an accessible station. However, it doesn’t seem like a particularly good option; the route will only run during peak hours and with 20-minute headways.

To what degree this plan will work—and whether the buses will be seen as an attractive option relative to more expensive ride-hailing services—boils down to whether the MTA and DOT can keep the buses moving, a job easier said than done. As DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg has repeatedly acknowledged at community meetings, the worst-case scenario is that commuters don’t find the buses sufficient, resort to ride-hailing services, and clog up the streets—thereby slowing down buses more, creating a vicious downward spiral.

14th Street will become a “busway” between Third and Eighth avenues during the L train shutdown.

To prevent this, DOT believes making the Williamsburg Bridge HOV-3 (plus trucks) from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. will do the trick, in addition to a host of bus-priority efforts on both sides of the bridge’s approaches, including a redesigned Grand Street (which, thankfully, will also install protected bike lanes on one of Brooklyn’s most dangerous roads for cyclists).

But as I’ve previously reported, others are not so sure this will be enough. One seemingly critical flaw in DOT’s modeling is that, while many single-occupancy commuters won’t take the bridge, there will be far more shared rides. In fact, HOV-3 combined with the bridge’s peculiar design, which restricts buses to the outer lanes, incentivizes ride-hailing service drivers to flood the zone, load up two or three passengers, and make shuttle runs across the bridge, in effect mimicking the bus routes.

But even if HOV-3 adequately reduces the number of vehicles on the road, there’s still the issue of enforcing the bus lanes and bridge occupancy restrictions. If you’ve lived and breathed in this city, then you know this is an issue the city has yet to solve, and there’s no reason to believe the L shutdown will be any different.

During pretty much every town hall meeting, a concerned citizen or two will ask how HOV-3 or the bus lanes will be enforced. Where, for example, will cars in violation be moved to so they can be ticketed without blocking the bus lane? Why should we believe these bus lanes will be enforced any better than the existing ones? Invariably, a representative of the NYPD, which will be in charge of enforcing whatever L shutdown-specific restrictions are in place, answers to the effect of we will enforce it.

And maybe they will. But for all the challenges of the L shutdown, this is probably the most concerning one. While DOT has contingencies in case HOV-3 is not restrictive enough to keep buses moving on the bridge—it has floated the idea of a bus-only lane across the bridge if push comes to shove—such plan B’s face the same issues as the plan A’s.

To be sure, a bus-only lane across a bridge is easier to enforce than occupancy limits, but the issue of enforcement is not one of practicalities. It’s an issue of desire. To what degree the NYPD is committed to keeping buses moving during the shutdown is the greatest unknown facing the entire plan. Let’s hope history is not an adequate guide.