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Why biking is critical for surviving the L train shutdown

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Cycling is a small but important part of the larger L train mitigation plans

The Williamsburg Bridge is expected to get an influx of cyclists during the L train shutdown.
Max Touhey

As important as all the other transit modes in the rich tapestry of L shutdown mitigation efforts will be, cycling could be the most life-changing. Every other component, whether it’s using other subways or the replacement buses, will be temporary. Once the L re-opens in July 2020, everyone will go right back to their precious, precious L. Except, perhaps, the cyclists.

In my experience, most cyclists didn’t suddenly decide to start biking to work. Something—whether it’s a particularly nightmarish subway commute or moving apartments or jobs—pushes them to make the change. Chelsea Yamada, the Manhattan organizer for Transportation Alternatives, says many of the group’s longest-tenured members started cycling during the transit crisis of the 1980s.

In 2019, for thousands of New Yorkers, that change may be the L shutdown.

Relative to the L shutdown’s massive scale, the MTA and DOT are not counting on a huge number of New Yorkers taking to cycling, predicting only “about two percent” of current L riders will switch to the two-wheeled alternative. (More should consider it as a viable alternative—DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg noted just this morning that “If you’re hale and hearty, the fastest way to go [from Brooklyn to Manhattan] is by bike.”)

In absolute numbers, that’s approximately 4,500 people, a huge jump in cyclists (DOT predicts 2,000 to 3,500 of them will cross the Williamsburg Bridge from 8 to 9 a.m.). For comparison, last year the Williamsburg Bridge averaged 7,272 bridge crossings every day.

Plus, cycling will be an attractive option to traverse 14th Street, something 50,000 riders currently use the L for. Most of them will opt for the 14th St SBS instead, but if even two percent of them choose cycling, that’s still 1,000 cyclists a day, a huge increase. And, really, it ought to be more than two percent, given the area’s flat grade and dozens of Citi Bike docking stations around 14th Street.

In other words, about as many people will choose cycling to get around as the replacement ferry service launching between Williamsburg and Stuyvesant Cove, which will run from 6 a.m. to midnight on weekdays and until 2 a.m. on weekends, offering a free transfer to the M14 SBS service. But unlike the ferry, cycling doesn’t cost millions of dollars to implement and has no maximum capacity.

In fact, the more people who cycle, the better it will be for everyone. More cycling would mean fewer ride-hailing vehicles clogging traffic, and more capacity on the buses, ferries, and subways. Less cycling would mean, well, the exact opposite. In fact, if the predicted boom in cycling didn’t happen and those folks opted for ride-hailing instead, the replacement bus service would get stuck in traffic, which would send more people to the subway, which would in turn end up far over capacity. Therefore, it’s not just preferable, but critical, that former L riders are encouraged to bike.

Citi Bike will expand its presence during the L train shutdown, including with 1,000 pedal-assist electric bikes.
Max Touhey

In order to accommodate this surge in cycling, DOT has proposed a number of street redesigns, some of which were welcomed by the local community and others not so much. On the Brooklyn side of the Williamsburg Bridge, DOT has already improved the immediate approaches by providing a more direct connection to Grand Street. They are also planning to re-work Grand Street itself—perhaps the most dangerous road for cyclists in north Brooklyn—with a parking-protected bike lane on one side and a buffer on the other. This is a vast improvement over the “horrifically dangerous experience,” as Yamada described it, of the current design. Cyclists are ushered between a busy lane of truck traffic and parking spots with cars constantly more concerned about entering traffic, nabbing a spot, or opening their doors than avoiding cyclists.

On the Manhattan side, DOT is improving the connection from the Williamsburg Bridge to points west and north, including the First and Second avenue protected lanes. Critically, Delancey Street will get a two-way protected bike lane, providing a connection to Allen Street, which runs uptown and has buffered bike lanes of its own. The upshot is that getting to/from the Williamsburg Bridge should be more pleasant than the current detour along Suffolk and Rivington streets.

These improvements have been fairly uncontroversial, but what to do about traversing 14th Street via bike has riled up some locals, especially in the West Village. The original plan was to put in a two-way protected bike lane along 13th Street, which would be removed after the shutdown. But thanks to local opposition, that plan was changed to two one-way buffered bike lanes along 12th and 13th streets—which, ironically, will eliminate more parking spaces than a two-way lane. (A coalition of Greenwich and West Village groups even filed suit to stop the implementation of bus priority and bike lanes.)

During several town hall hearings on the shutdown, some locals have made DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg promise that the bike lanes are temporary, to which she has replied that she will come back to the community if DOT wants to keep them after the shutdown. This is less than ideal from Transportation Alternatives’ perspective, because two one-way bike lanes do not provide the safety benefits as one two-way lane that is properly protected. Yamada adds that they were hoping for a greenway-like option that would “give cyclists something encouraging and exciting” for getting crosstown, especially for those who may still rely on public transportation for the main trunk of their commute but would see cycling as attractive for that final crosstown leg if there was a route that didn’t force conflict with traffic.

Many such folks may rely on Citi Bike, which is also set to step up its game for the shutdown. The bike-sharing company is planning to expand in Bushwick—although they haven’t specified to what degree—and add capacity throughout Manhattan and at key stations with “valet service.” Citi Bike will also introduce a fleet of more than 1,000 pedal-assist e-bikes, which will be able to travel between special docking stations in north Brooklyn and lower Manhattan.

Will all of this be enough? Given that many of the new street designs do not include fully protected bike lanes, will the lanes be clear of parked cars, delivery vehicles, or Ubers? Will new cyclists feel safe enough not to give up?

Ultimately, cyclists are safest in numbers, so the more people who bike, the more likely the answer to those questions will be to the good. And the more people who regularly bike, the louder the calls will be for safer, protected infrastructure. And maybe, just maybe, this positive cycle will continue after the L resumes rumbling under the river.