Last Thursday, the Department of Transportation reminded us how screwed we all are by releasing its detailed analysis of projected traffic along Manhattan’s 14th Street corridor during next year’s L train shutdown. According to the report, DOT modeled several different options for adding bus service and is recommending the most aggressive proposal — leaving New Yorkers to wonder if an even more proactive approach would better lessen our coming transit hell.
And if the city’s current plan doesn’t provide the bus frequency or speed required to transport displaced L riders, the department warns, frustrated commuters may resort to ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft along 14th Street, making for even worse traffic and longer commutes.
While much of the focus on the shutdown has been on riders using the L to travel between Brooklyn and Manhattan, 14th Street also serves as a major destination for commuters: Of the 275,000 daily riders directly affected by the shutdown, DOT says 114,000 of them exit the subway along 14th Street. Currently, the M14 crosstown bus, which runs along 14th Street, serves approximately 30,000 riders a day; during the shutdown, DOT projects it will need to serve up to 84,000 people. (To put this in perspective, open this photo of MetLife Stadium, which fits 82,500 people. A bus can hold about two rows’ worth of people from one section.) This, DOT notes, would make it the busiest bus corridor per mile in the country.
The twenty-page memo focuses on addressing that particular challenge, providing more insight into how DOT arrived at the plan it announced in December, which calls for a 14th Street “busway” during peak hours — meaning no other vehicles can use 14th Street except for local deliveries, Access-A-Ride, and cars accessing parking garages — from Third to Ninth avenues, and a single dedicated bus lane along several blocks at all other times. This bus lane will serve a new M14 Select Bus Service with all-door boarding, in addition to the M14 local routes.
DOT also estimates bicycle ridership will more than double in the area around 14th Street, so it’s proposing removing one parking lane along 13th Street and replacing it with a two-way protected bike lane. This lane, DOT notes, will be used by between 2,000 and 5,000 daily cyclists, but the proposal will eliminate only 236 parking spaces and no vehicular travel lanes. (DOT says it plans to remove the bike lane after the shutdown is complete, but will re-evaluate depending on how things go.)
Curiously, this scenario — the 14th Street busway at peak hours and 13th Street protected bike lane — represents the most aggressive of the five scenarios DOT modeled using an advanced traffic analysis program. The other four scenarios considered were: 1) a “control” simulation where the L still operates and no changes are made to traffic patterns; 2) a “do nothing” scenario where the L shuts down but only additional bus capacity is provided; 3) an “SBS” scenario where the M14 is converted into a standard Select Bus Service route; 4) a “short busway” scenario where 14th Street is bus-only for peak hours from Third to Sixth avenues; and 5) the scenario DOT recommends as described above.
To put it another way, DOT looked at four L-train shutdown scenarios and picked the most aggressive one — meaning we can’t be confident there isn’t an even better option: say, making the busway apply to non-peak hours as well, or extending it along the entire M14 route, suggestions that have previously been made by Transportation Alternatives, a transit advocacy group. Based on the information DOT included in this traffic study, it appears these options were never seriously considered.
“After analyzing bus travel times as well as effects on traffic operation and congestion, we believe the busway option put forward best meets the demands on the corridor expected during the L train closure,” a DOT spokesperson told the Village Voice. Despite considering the busway’s hours of operation to be “a highly significant variable,” the traffic analysis tested only one such configuration. DOT says it is “interested in hearing more on this from residents, business owners, and commuters along the corridor.”
Indeed, DOT found that the “short busway” plan would actually increase traffic on side streets because so many cars would turn to avoid the busway, further exacerbating congestion. An analysis provided to the Village Voice by Transportation Alternatives and BRT Planning International, a firm that assists in the design and implementation of Bus Rapid Transit networks around the globe, found that such a congestion-inducing detour could very well happen with the large busway too.
“These huge turning volumes at Third Avenue will cause significant delays to the bus lanes which will be shared with this turning traffic,” the analysis says. “As such, the impacts of extending the busway to First Avenue or Avenue A should have been studied, as it might have shown better results.”
It’s particularly curious DOT didn’t analyze those scenarios given that the study goes to great pains to outline the gravity of the challenge. If the M14 SBS route doesn’t run with a 37 percent reduction from current M14 run times, DOT estimates, people will avoid the bus and opt for for-hire vehicles instead, like taxis and Ubers — which, the agency notes, will only further exacerbate traffic.
And yet, the margin for success is razor-thin. That 37 percent reduction in travel times critical to keeping the whole plan from falling apart is, as DOT notes, incredibly ambitious. For comparison, the M86 SBS, which runs across 86th Street, saw a reduced travel time of only 8 to 11 percent versus the local route after it launched.
If the buses don’t run smoothly and frequently and people opt for FHVs, it will create a downward spiral as congestion gets worse, much like the city has already experienced. But if the buses do run well, people who otherwise might have opted for FHVs will choose the cheaper, quicker option instead, which will create a virtuous cycle of reduced congestion.
The stakes are high, which raises the question of why DOT is advocating for a scenario with such questionable margins. It’s worth remembering just how few private vehicles we’re dealing with here. DOT counted 2,762 cars along 12th to 16th streets during peak hours. That’s barely two L trains’ worth of drivers. Even if each of those cars had four people in them — and most do not — they would still be transporting a mere 13 percent of the projected bus ridership along 14th Street during the shutdown. And the plan DOT recommends will inconvenience those drivers by a whole 24 to 36 seconds per journey over the “do nothing” option — hardly an inconvenience at all, especially when juxtaposed with the journeys current L riders will be experiencing.
DOT has a supremely unenviable task. The agency must balance the concerns of drivers, transit riders, residents and businesses along the 14th Street corridor, delivery workers, and a host of other parties. Many of these constituencies have conflicting priorities, and DOT is stuck in the middle. On top of that, there is simply no good solution to shutting down a subway line that transports a population the size of Orlando’s every single day.
It’s not as if DOT is making a methodological error overweighting the experience of drivers. In fact, a section of the report is even titled “Measuring People, Not Cars,” which correctly notes if you just count vehicles, you’ll end up underrepresenting those who travel via more efficient modes like buses. But this makes it all the more curious that DOT stopped at the busway scenario and didn’t model, say, the full 14th Street “PeopleWay” permanently closed to traffic — except buses — that Transportation Alternatives director of organizing Tom DeVito has been working on for months.
When asked if he’s disappointed DOT didn’t even model his proposals to find out if they’re an improvement, DeVito said that it would be “fair” to say that. “These are serious proposals that deserve consideration.”
However, all evidence suggests DOT disagreed. Unless something changes soon, we’ll never know what the most balanced, fair, and equitable solution to the L train shutdown problem would have been.