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L train shutdown: Will alternative transportation improvements survive?

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NYC should still move forward with cycling network, transit service, and pedestrian safety improvements developed to mitigate the shutdown—even if it never happens

Many of the city’s new protected bike lanes, like this one on Park Row, were installed in areas expected to receive additional cyclists from the L train shutdown.

Following Thursday’s announcement that a complete L train shutdown, slated to begin in April, may be averted due to a new Canarsie Tunnel design, questions linger. If approved by the MTA board, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 11th-hour plans to change course on repairs four years in the making will affect not only the L train, but also multimodal transportation improvements designed to both accommodate displaced riders in the near future and strengthen the city’s long-term transit options.

Will the new bike lanes, expanded bike share programs, and pedestrian safety improvements survive? Uncertainty abounds. But if New York City’s transit planners and politicians are smart, they’ll push forward just as aggressively as if the shutdown was still on.

To accommodate an estimated 275,000 of the 400,000 daily L train riders that would have been affected by a full shutdown of the Canarsie Tunnel, the MTA and DOT have been aggressively planning physical changes to the city, many of which were developed in consultation with community groups: renovating subway stations expected to receive additional riders; expanding the bike lane network; redesigning streets to calm traffic, be safer for pedestrians, and accommodate additional bus service; adding more pedestrian space around Union Square; and installing more Citi Bike docks.

Servicewise, the MTA planned to add an express ferry across the East River; increase capacity of the A, E, F, G, J, M, Z and 7 trains; and make bus service more robust.

These mitigation measures would have made getting around the city easier and safer for all New Yorkers, and should have been done regardless of the shutdown to meet Vision Zero goals. The city’s mobility crisis has reached a tipping point and it needs more alternative transportation systems to alleviate pressure on the overtaxed subways and to reduce traffic congestion. However, the future of many of these initiatives is now unclear.

An MTA spokesperson told Curbed that because of the new plan’s dramatically reduced impact, an entirely new alternative service plan is needed. It’s reconsidering, along with the DOT, plans for a busway on 14th street and bus-only lanes on the Williamsburg bridge. The agency doesn’t know when the alternative service plan for the interruptions—now falling only on nights and weekends—will be released, but says it will come as soon as possible.

When asked about how Cuomo’s new plan will impact pedestrian safety improvements, bike lane network expansion, and traffic calming interventions under construction, a DOT spokesperson told Curbed the agency will review the new proposal; the agency didn’t have anything else to offer about in-progress construction at this early stage.

Some officials and advocates are still interested in keeping the mitigation measures, even if the full shutdown never happens.

At a press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio said: “[W]e’re not undoing anything we’ve done in the short term. We’re going to keep all of our current approach in place until everything is settled.”

Citing emerging ridership, Andy Byford, president of New York City Transit, indicated he’s still interested in increasing the frequency and length of G trains and investing in station improvements. He said additional ferry service will “almost certainly not” happen.

In a written statement, council member Antonio Reynoso—who represents parts of Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Ridgewood—vowed to fight for the continued implementation of street redesigns and transportation upgrades already put in place or planned for the L train shutdown. “Many of the strategies proposed in the mitigation plan, particularly those that facilitate the use of alternative and public modes of transportation have applications beyond the L train shutdown and still warrant implementation,” he said.

Council member Rafael Espinal Jr.—who represents parts of Bushwick, East New York, and Brownsville—voiced support for multimodal improvements. “The city should go ahead with its plans to ease that pressure even if the L Train won’t be completely shut down,” he said in a statement. “Things like expanding the network of bus and bike lanes and extending Citibike further into Brooklyn are good proposals and still necessary so the city should push ahead with them.”

Curbed reached out to Citi Bike about its plans for more docks and to increase its fleet of pedal-assist bikes and will update this post when we learn more. The DOT indicated that it will move forward with the new docks planned for north Brooklyn. As agencies review the new plan and await MTA Board approval, we’ll continue to develop this story.

When the L train shutdown was announced, the MTA and DOT were forced into figure out how New Yorkers would get around without a major train line, and plan around it. This is an exercise they should do for every single train line and bus route. Real transit accessibility means losing service on one system won’t cripple mobility since other systems can pick up the slack with minimal interruption for riders.