By Paul Steely White
With a 15-month suspension of L Train service between Brooklyn and Manhattan and along 14th Street coming in 2019, the City needs to start planning now to accommodate the 225,000 commuters who depend on the L Train. To avoid “L-mageddon,” we are proposing a “PeopleWay” to prioritize buses, biking, and walking on 14th Street. It could double the corridor’s capacity and serve as a model for efficient, sustainable transportation corridors to keep New York City moving in the 21st century.
In response to this grand vision, some block associations are raising more local concerns. They’re worried that banning private cars on 14th Street would merely push traffic onto smaller side streets where residents now enjoy relative peace and quiet. These neighbors need detailed answers about how the PeopleWay would work.
While these concerns are legitimate, it’s important to note that if we don’t take bold action to increase bus service and bike infrastructure on 14th Street during the shutdown, those quiet side streets will not be spared the gridlock that critics fear the PeopleWay would cause. The MTA’s estimates about L Train commuters switching to other subway lines are, in our view, wildly optimistic. With recent overcrowding and declining service on the subway, we are already seeing more and more New Yorkers turning to for-hire car services like Uber.
We worry that this trend will be magnified dramatically when the L Train shuts down. If only 6% of daily L Train riders turn to for-hire vehicles or corporate shuttles, now-quiet streets like 13th and 15th will become just as traffic-choked as they are in the horror-scenarios that local block associations like to invoke. Local residents, the City, and the MTA must all work together to reduce the amount of traffic along the L Train corridor.
In order to reduce the amount of traffic on 14th Street and protect surrounding neighborhoods from traffic, we need a plan to discourage people from driving into Lower Manhattan in the first place. HOV restrictions on the Williamsburg Bridge and other crossings would be one particularly effective way to offset potential traffic overflow from the PeopleWay.
We also need new strategies to handle deliveries, including moving as much as possible to overnight hours, and establishing more loading zones on side streets. We must also begin talking with larger companies about the possibility of consolidating goods in surface lots and then making deliveries to the neighborhood with smaller hand trucks and cargo trikes.
Polls show that our PeopleWay proposals for 14th Street and Brooklyn’s Grand Street enjoy broad support. In a survey conducted by Penn Schoen Berland, 64 percent of Manhattan respondents backed the plan. But to win support from the communities that will be most affected by the plan, officials and advocates must talk to local residents about tested and proven measures we can take to reduce traffic and make all of our streets more efficient, livable, and safe.
Paul Steely White is the Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives, an organization that aims to promote bicycling, walking, and public transportation within New York City.