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What can be done to make narrow, crowded subway platforms less nerve-racking?

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Waiting for a train at the Union Square subway station is an anxiety-producing event, but does it have to be this way?

Photos by Scott Lynch

New York City is full of peculiar phenomena—rickety fire escapes; 100-year-old subway tunnels; air conditioners propped perilously into window frames—that can strike fear into the heart of even the toughest city denizen. But should they? Every month, writer Ashley Fetters will be exploring—and debunking—these New York-specific fears, letting you know what you should actually worry about, and what anxieties you can simply let slip away.

On the Yelp page for New York City’s Union Square subway station—the fourth-busiest in the city, where the 4, 5, 6, N, Q, R, W, and L lines all converge—reviewers have a lot of opinions.

Why there are are Yelp pages for New York City subway stations remains a favorite mystery of mine; why there are 89 photos and 50 reviews dedicated to evaluating the ambience and visitor experience of the Union Square stop—a place where, like the DMV or the post office, you usually either have to go or don’t—is something I both wish I knew and deeply enjoy not knowing. (For what it’s worth, Yelp users give it two and a half stars on average.)

Reviewers of the Union Square station tend to comment on its convoluted layout, the distinct aroma at the ends of its platforms, and its ever-present buskers. The top-rated review, however, brings up the terrifyingly narrow L train platform there. “Gosh transferring from The L Train … to the BMT Broadway Line is a death trap waiting for someone,” it reads. “It’s an unfortunate accident waiting to happen, as you could get bumped or pushed directly onto the train tracks having no where else to fall, with so many in a hurry to reach their destination during morning and evening rush hour.”

The L platform at Union Square isn’t the narrowest in the city, nor is it even the narrowest in the Union Square station; that distinction belongs to the curving 4-5-6 platform two levels above. The Union Square L platform, however, has arguably earned a reputation as the most anxiety-inducing, thanks to its slim standing area coupled with its constant overcrowding. Earlier this year, the New York Times published a stress-inducing wintertime photo of this very phenomenon; in it, so many parka-clad passengers are packed onto the platform that virtually none of the floor is visible.

Why is the Union Square L platform such a uniquely nerve-racking place, where it seems at any moment you might just get bumped over the yellow line right onto the tracks? It’s a perfect-storm, worst-case scenario kind of ordeal: The L train platform is an outdated facility now facing an unprecedented amount of use.

The platform (like others along the L line and elsewhere in the city) is narrow because it was built to withstand just a fraction of the volume of humanity it now carries. Constructed in 1924, the platform at Union Square measures just 24 feet across. As the Times points out, “the platform at the 34th Street-Hudson Yards station, one of the newest in the system, is more than 10 feet wider, even though it has less than one-tenth the ridership.”

Some of the crowding is due to that increase in ridership. The population citywide has increased massively in the last century, and coupled with the recent gentrification of Brooklyn neighborhoods along the L line (like Williamsburg and Bushwick), ridership has increased dramatically in the years since 2000: In 1998, just over 21 million people rode the L line annually; in 2000 it leapt to 26 million, and by 2005, that number had ballooned to more than 30 million. The MTA estimates that the ridership on the L has more than tripled since 1990.

Another complicating factor, however, is the fact that the train just…doesn’t come often enough.

“The faster you circulate people through a station, and through a platform, the less crowding you’re going to see on that platform,” says Kate Slevin, VP for advocacy and state programs at the Regional Plan Association. And the L train, she says, “doesn’t run enough. … Maintenance has not been what it needs to be. It’s falling apart. You’re seeing more incidences of trains breaking down, or track outages, service outages. At the same time, you’re having more people riding the system.”

Next year, when the MTA closes the L train line for 18 months to repair damage incurred during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the MTA has pledged to make improvements to the Union Square station. At present, its plans are to “augment turnstile capacity,” “reconfigure and widen stairs between the Broadway [N-Q-R-W] line subway and the L subway line to improve passenger circulation on the stairs and on the platform,” and “add a new escalator from the L subway train platform to the station’s mezzanine.”

But Slevin and her colleagues at the Regional Plan Association—an organization dedicated to improving public spaces and transportation systems throughout the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut metro area—have a few additional ideas.

Though ideally a revamped Union Square L platform would be wider, and the RPA’s recommendation says as much, “widening the platform is an extreme idea and it’s not one that is likely to actually be feasible, on the cost side, because to widen the platform you have to move the tracks,” says Richard Barone, the RPA’s vice president of transportation. What Barone says might be a more feasible option to reduce passenger hazards are sliding platform doors, like the ones on the AirTrain at JFK Airport, and in metro train systems elsewhere in the world, like in Paris and Singapore.

(A representative for the MTA did not comment on the possibility of installing sliding platform doors at Union Square, but did point out that the MTA has plans to install them at the L train stop at Third Avenue.)

Additionally, the RPA recommends “decluttering” the Union Square platform on the L line —that is, removing anything unnecessary that takes up space on the platform. “You have benches, you have little stores in some cases, you have pillars, you have artwork, you have railings, all kinds of things,” Slevin says. “We’re asking, ‘Do we need some of those benches, because people need to sit down while they’re waiting? Or do we need more space?’ It’s balancing all the ridership needs to the best of your ability.”

The MTA, for its part, has yet to announce whether it will incorporate the RPA’s recommendations for the platform at Union Square into the larger plan for improving the L line. Measures like platform doors and a “decluttering” effort could help put thousands of commuters’ minds a little more at ease, though—not to mention it could do wonders for its Yelp reviews.