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Is the NYC subway ready for the L train shutdown?

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The short answer: probably not

The L train will cease to run between Manhattan and Brooklyn for the duration of the 15-month shutdown.
Scott Lynch

Before every public hearing they’ve held on the subject, New York City Transit president Andy Byford and Department of Transportation commissioner Polly Trottenberg have said that the L train shutdown will be the biggest challenge of both of their careers.

Indeed, the shutdown, which will start in April and cease L service across the East River and in Manhattan for 15 months, will be more than challenging for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers; it will be a pain. The L is the 10th-busiest metro in North America all by itself, and during rush hour it transports as many people as all the East River vehicular bridge and tunnel crossings combined.

But what makes the L shutdown so challenging, to use Byford and Trottenberg’s favorite word, is that unlike other big transit disruptions like blizzards and hurricanes, life is otherwise expected to continue as normal. That’s a daunting proposition for the roughly 275,000 riders who currently take the L across the river or within Manhattan on a daily basis.

The question on many New Yorkers’ minds is whether the city is ready to face this challenge. For what it’s worth, the MTA and DOT believe every single L rider is accounted for in their service alternatives and that 71 percent of them will have no more than 10 extra minutes of commuting time per trip, so long as everything goes according to plan.

Now, about that plan.

The vast majority of displaced L riders—79 percent of them, to be exact—will be expected to take other subway lines. The heavy lifting will be done by the J/M/Z, the only line that’s even remotely close to the L and also runs between Manhattan and Brooklyn. The MTA expects about a third of displaced L riders to use the J/M/Z instead. To cope with this tremendous load, the MTA is adding about three extra trains per hour, which is the maximum possible given the track configurations around the Williamsburg Bridge.

The potential issues with this plan should be immediately obvious to anyone who has ever taken those trains during rush hour. According to the agencies’ own L shutdown mitigation plan website, 24,100 riders per hour take the L to Manhattan during the morning rush, meaning the MTA expects around 7,700 additional riders per hour to take the J/M/Z. But the MTA is only adding capacity for less than half that, or 3,480 riders per hour. As transit expert Alon Levy detailed earlier this year, the J/M/Z does have some extra space to cram people in as is, but not that much space.

The Marcy Avenue J/M/Z stop in Brooklyn is expected to handle a chunk of riders displaced by the L train shutdown.

After adding the additional L refugees onto existing J/M/Z ridership, the line will be transporting about as many riders as the L does today, but on older, less reliable signals and stations less conducive to handling large crowds. Let’s compare the Bedford and Marcy Avenue stations. While Bedford Avenue is overcrowded and largely a mess during rush hours, it’s able to avoid dangerous overcrowding most of the time because trains pass through reliably, thanks to the L’s modern signaling technology. Plus, it has one large center platform, which provides more flexibility in cramming people into the station.

On the other hand, Marcy Avenue—where many former Bedford Avenue riders will go—uses the same unreliable signals as every other line but the L and has two relatively narrow side platforms. Even today during rush hour, Marcy Avenue fills to the gills on one side while the other remains mostly empty. The MTA is widening the stairways that lead to and from the platforms, but not the platforms themselves.

What will almost certainly happen during the shutdown is NYPD or MTA authorities will have to restrict access to Marcy Avenue platforms to prevent dangerous overcrowding. “If too many people are waiting on those platforms, NYPD may have to enforce occupancy limits,” warns Danny Pearlstein of Riders Alliance. It’s hard to imagine many people will put up with that more than once before seeking other alternatives.

Unfortunately, the subway alternatives are not particularly appealing. While the MTA will be able to more than double the number of G cars traveling in each direction by running both more and longer trains, the G is just a means to an end for displaced L riders. The MTA expects 26 percent of L refugees will transfer via the G to the E, M, or 7 in Long Island City. Although the MTA will allow for free out-of-station transfers between the G and 7, most will transfer at Court Square. As I’ve previously written, the Court Square transfer from the G to the E/M is a literal embodiment of a bottleneck. The MTA did remove the station’s moving walkways—which were out of service much of the time anyways—to improve passenger flow in the long tunnel connecting the G and E/M, but in the a.m. rush those transferees will meet the bottleneck before descending to the far end of the platform. It will be imperative for platform controllers to keep people moving.

Capacity on the trains themselves is a worry—the MTA will increase capacity on both the M and 7 lines by 11 and seven percent respectively—but once again the biggest concern is the platform space.

And those are just the most obvious trouble points. Broadway Junction, a major transfer point between the L, J/Z, A, and C lines in central Brooklyn, also expects to see a sharp increase in usage. Many L riders from points east will make their transfer to another line there, while riders who live a few stops west—perhaps as far down the line as Dekalb Avenue—will likely conclude their best option is to ride in the wrong direction on the L a few stops and transfer at Broadway Junction too.

For those who have never had the pleasure, Broadway Junction already struggles to handle the approximately 8,600 weekday swipes it saw last year. It is a poorly designed station; the transfer points are narrow and not conducive to passenger flow. The MTA is adding a few stairwells to and from the J/Z platforms to the L, but the narrow passageways, cramped stairwells, and bottlenecks will remain.

Still, everything will have to run perfectly in order for there to be a modicum of success to this plan. And as we all know, the subway does not run perfectly. In fact, Riders Alliance found that during the entire month of August, only one morning rush hour was not snarled by signal problems. And one doesn’t have to ponder theoreticals to see that there is no room for L riders when the J/M/Z goes down during rush hour.

“I think the biggest concern about the subway portion of the mitigation plan is that the subways overall are already unreliable and very crowded,” Pearlstein says. “With the L out of commission, already-strained adjacent subway lines will be under tremendous pressure to cope with additional ridership. Sometimes they just won’t be able to handle it.”