On March 31, Transportation Alternatives and Gothamist announced the winners of a $5,000 competition to design a solution for the transit horror that will befall travelers from north Brooklyn when the L train shuts down for 15 months starting in January 2019. Entrants included top design firms PAU and James Wagman Associates. But the surprise winner — to its drafters included — was a plan designed by four longtime friends but relative planning newbies: landscape architect Cricket Day, city planner Becca Groban, financial risk analyst Kellen Parker, and Chris Robbins, the city editor of the Village Voice.
The 14THST.OPS plan proposes to counter the L-pocalypse with a pair of high-capacity express bus routes, one running the length of 14th Street, the other going down Lafayette Street to connect to Delancey Street and the Williamsburg Bridge, with connections to the Broadway-Lafayette and Essex-Delancey subway stations. The team estimates that commute times from Williamsburg to Union Square could be cut to as little as 25 minutes. The only catch: Both 14th Street and Lafayette would need to be closed to car traffic, making way for dedicated bus lanes, a temporary bike lane along the median, and expanded pedestrian space.
“We all had an understanding that there’s a typical ideal street that has protected bike lanes, dedicated bus lanes, and way more pedestrian space,” says Day. “But the removal of private cars entirely would open up a lot more space to play with.”
As New York City’s experience with banning cars has been limited to a few smaller experiments — temporary Summer Streets closures here, a Times Square pedestrian plaza there — the foursome began their research by looking elsewhere. “In Europe, they’re a little further along in terms of thinking of a post-car world,” says Groban. “In Barcelona with the superblocks they’re creating—“
“Copenhagen,” interjects Day.
“Paris has taken cars off streets and created walking boulevards,” continues Groban. “So that was our inspiration.”
The benefits of car-free thoroughfares are obvious to pedestrians, but clearing a street of cars can also provide tremendous public-transit opportunities. Since New York’s version of bus rapid transit was first introduced by the MTA in 2008, the city’s eleven Select Bus Service lines have drawn both praise for speeding travel in underserved communities, and criticism for getting stuck in traffic just as much as regular old buses.
“Dedicated select bus service drastically improves travel times — the MTA has tried to promote that, and no one really listens,” says Robbins. “This is a good opportunity to say, “If you want to get there in 25 minutes, there’s a way to do it. We just need bus lanes and to get rid of the cars.” (Another study, by the Brooklyn-based consultants BRT Planning International, suggested that select bus service on 14th Street could provide as much as a 32-minute savings in commute times during an L train shutdown.)
Actually clearing streets of cars, though, has proven a tougher political road. The 14THST.OPS team’s plan tries to mitigate local opposition by sticking entirely to commercial strips that should welcome additional bus riders and bicyclists disembarking there. “One of the other teams went up Avenue B, which is insane,” notes Robbins. “It’s a residential neighborhood with cars on both sides and one lane of traffic.”
Besides, the planners say, the alternative could be a transit nightmare that hits lower-income New Yorkers the hardest. “It’s going to overwhelm all the subways: The J and Z, the G, the A/C — all subways that are already at capacity anyway at rush hour,” says Groban. “I worry that the solution is going to be all these private buses.”
“The Domino Sugar Factory shuttle,” says Day. “Like the San Francisco buses.”
Private buses have become a familiar sight in San Francisco, as tech firms have tried to navigate that city’s famously difficult transit system by setting up their own transit systems for employees. But the “Google buses” — some of which are run by the likes of Apple and Facebook, but the name has stuck — have also been hugely controversial, in part thanks to San Francisco’s decision to allow them to use public bus stops to pick up and drop off private passengers.
Plus, corporate bus systems not only clog streets and curb space, they inevitably leave out a huge swath of commuters. “It’s just perpetuating inequality,” says Groban. “They will serve the people who are closest to Manhattan. The people who are traveling from Bushwick or East New York, who already have commutes that are an hour long, what are they going to do?”
Avoiding this dystopian scene will require the cooperation of Mayor Bill de Blasio (who controls street closures via the Department of Transportation) and Governor Andrew Cuomo (who controls the MTA), something that we haven’t seen much of late. (“If both of them are playing chicken, then nothing will happen,” sighs Robbins.) DOT has said it will release an options report later this spring, with a final decision in the fall, but won’t divulge what specifically is on the table.
Getting a more radical street-closure plan off the ground will also likely require citizens and business groups to overcome their distrust of big city planning solutions long enough to meet an oncoming crisis. Jennifer Falk, director of the Union Square Partnership, which serves as the local business improvement district, provided a statement that they “have remained in communication with both the MTA and the New York City Department of Transportation” and will continue to monitor the situation.
“If you don’t see it work that often, you don’t think it can work,” notes Day. “Oh, the Second Avenue Subway has been going on for a century, we can’t get the Gateway tunnels done, why wasn’t the L train fixed right after Sandy? Because people don’t see it happen often enough, they just dismiss things out of hand: No one will ever let that happen. With that attitude, you’re right: No one will.”