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New York Has Averted a Subway Line Shutdown. Now What?

L-pocalypse not.

On Thursday, almost exactly four months before the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s popular L train line was set to shut down for 15 months of repairs, Governor Andrew Cuomo made a shock announcement: It wouldn’t. After less than a month of consultation, a panel of academic engineering experts convened by the governor determined the subway, damaged by 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, could get by with a limited, nights-and-weekends shutdown instead.

Rejoice, right? For the 400,000 daily L train riders, definitely. But for those who have spent two years planning for what even government officials call the “L-pocalypse,” Cuomo’s apparent last-minute save had tinges of bittersweetness. (The new plan, which involves an “innovative” engineering process that has been used to build new tunnels outside the US, needs approval from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, over which Cuomo has some influence.)

It’s not that these activists and tech mavens are disappointed that the crisis has been averted. But like most crises, it came with an opportunity: to rethink transportation in a large swath of New York City. And they weren’t letting it go to waste.

“We saw a lot of thought and energy go into a community-driven plan that put transit and bikes and pedestrians first, and it would be a shame to scrap that, both for people trying to get around during the MTA shutdown and beyond,” says Joseph Cutrufo, the communications director at the New York advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. “The L train presented an opportunity to rethink the way we allocate limited street space. That shouldn’t be lost because it’s taking a different format.”

Whether or not the L train is running, there’s a case for getting more people out of cars. According to the Mayor’s Office, 30 percent of the city’s total greenhouse gas emissions come from private vehicles and trucks. And while the number of New Yorkers who regularly bike to work has tripled since 1990, they still account for just 1.2 percent of the population.

As part of the MTA’s plan, the agency and the New York City Department of Transportation had mapped out a network of cycling, bus, and pedestrian improvements, connecting North Brooklyn to the center of Manhattan’s busiest business districts. The city has started work on bus-only lanes in midtown Manhattan, and bike lanes in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood and across Manhattan. An expansion of New York’s popular bike-share program, timed to happen just as the L went into hibernation, will continue as planned, a DOT spokesperson said. It is an open question whether the improvements meant to make using those bikes easier and safer will stay.

Also still up in the air are the yet-to-be-executed parts of the L-train shutdown plan—elements that promised to make the city more accessible to those who bike and walk. The DOT had promised a 14th street “busway” with a wider sidewalk, banning all but public transit and emergency vehicles from part of the corridor. This would have sped up bus service in the crowded area and made it easier for walkers to maneuver about the streets. The city also had plans to convert the Williamsburg Bridge, which run between Manhattan and Brooklyn, into a bus- and carpool-only zone from early in the morning to late at night. Plus, it had plotted out walking-friendly improvements throughout the city, but especially in areas that expected to see increased traffic from travelers diverted from their standard commute.

A DOT spokesperson couldn’t say what will happen to those plans. And during a Friday interview with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show, Mayor Bill de Blasio intimated that, if the new plan goes through, the city might reconsider its alternative transportation-friendly plans. “We’re going to keep all the measures the city has prepared in reserve,” de Blasio said.

Private transportation companies had also seen the upside of subway riders’ shut down pain. Lyft rolled out an ad campaign in Brooklyn in which it (jokingly) dropped the “L” from its name in solidarity with suffering L line commuters—and, of course, to remind them that its app is always an option. (Sample copy: “Stay ca m. We wi get through this together.”) Don’t feel too bad for the ride-hail company, though—transportation experts expect off-peak rides at night and on the weekends will increase as the L train disruption continues into 2020.

E-scooters and e-bikes, too, stood to gain, especially as the mobility companies that run them attempted to use the shutdown as an excuse to elbow their way into the city. Bird released a long report in December arguing its electric scooters, which are currently not allowed in New York, are an excellent solution to public transit meltdown. “We’re ready to meet that demand in the L Train corridor—and across the City—especially for those who will face longer wait times during the shutdown,” a Bird spokesperson said in a statement Thursday.

Uber, which owns the e-bike and e-scooter company Jump, said there was still good reason to allow its programs to operate throughout the city. (Currently, Jump participates in a limited dockless bike pilot in the outer boroughs of New York.) “We believe that having e-bikes widely available throughout the entire city, especially in the outer borough neighborhoods that are ignored by docked systems, is how you will see real mode switch and improve all New Yorkers’ access to transit,” Uber spokesperson Kaitlin Durkosh said in a statement.

Via, a shared ride-hailing operator and software provider that provided 14 million rides in New York City last year, had already started rolling out special L-train shutdown promotions and packages. The company had also intended to up the number of six-seat vehicles it dispatched to the affected neighborhoods. So the news of the sudden change of plans was a shakeup, says Alex Lavoie, its head of US operations. But that’s sort of how it works in transportation. “We understand that it’s not an easy thing to run real-time mass transportation. We understand things change and things have to adjust,” he says. “While this comes as a surprise, we’re prepared to adjust our own plans for it.” Ah yes, the city that never sleeps—but changes in an instant.

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