Is the Rest of the Subway Ready for the L Train Shutdown?

You can probably guess the answer


With the L train shutdown one year away, most of the focus, from both the public and the transit authorities in charge of managing the shutdown, has understandably been on north Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. But the shutdown’s scale is so immense that its ripple effect will be felt across the boroughs, inconveniencing commuters in Queens and central and downtown Brooklyn, and likely much of Manhattan as well.

Publicly, the MTA acknowledges the challenge the L train repairs — which will begin in April 2019 and last for fifteen months — represent to commuters and transit planners alike. On its official shutdown website, the MTA says it expects 70 to 80 percent of the L’s 400,000 daily riders will be rerouted to other subway lines. Approximately 225,000 of those riders use the L each day to get across the East River. 

No station illustrates the scale of the challenge, or raises questions about whether the MTA is doing enough to mitigate the impact of its own planned work, better than Court Square in Long Island City, where internal MTA documents warn that corridors could be “crush-loaded” once erstwhile L riders crowd onto the G.

As the G’s northern terminal, Court Square will serve as a major transfer point to the E/M and 7 trains into Manhattan for displaced L train riders. Yet both local advocacy groups and planners within the transit authority are concerned whether the station will be able to cope. Ridership for the station has increased this decade, from 21,610 riders per weekday in 2011 to 23,317 in 2016, the latest year of available data. And with multiple high-rise apartment complexes in construction within blocks of the station, there were already concerns Court Square was surpassing its rush hour capacity. Since 2010, more than 12,000 apartments have been built in Long Island City, and another 9,000 are either under construction or in the planning phases, according to New York magazine, which means the neighborhood has undergone one of the biggest housing booms in the country. Here’s the scene on the Manhattan-bound E/M platform this morning:

The advocacy group Access Queens issued a report last year expressing concern over Court Square’s inability to cope with the shutdown. “Crowding conditions at the E and M…platform are presently a problem,” the report warned. “With significant additional L line riders being routed to the G, combined with extensive residential growth in the Court Square area, the platform capacity of this station will be overwhelmed and dangerous.”

It seems that planners inside New York City Transit agreed, according to shutdown-related planning documents reviewed by the Village Voice. The documents point to a specific example: the two moving walkways — the only ones in the New York City subway system — in the Queens Court station that connect the G and E/M platforms.

A March 2017 document viewed by the Village Voice regarding the moving walkways makes the case for removing them because they take up space without providing much benefit, but also because they will only serve as an obstruction during the upcoming shutdown. The document warned of a particular scenario that would pile people onto other riders. 

“The transfer passageway between the G and the E/M will be crush-loaded,” the document warned of the impending shutdown, “and forcing a volume of passengers in either direction without assurance of clear reservoir space at the receiving end will create an unsafe condition.”

In early March, the MTA announced at a Community Board 2 transportation committee meeting that the two walkways will be removed this summer, although it’s unclear whether the report from 2017 had anything to do with the decision. While it may appear that removing walkways that were only installed in 2002 is a waste of money, the MTA recently decided the walkways were “at the end of [their] useful life,” as Judith McClain, a senior director of service planning for New York City Transit, told the committee.

The walkways are the legacy of a complicated service change back in 2001. At the time, the G ran from Smith-9th Streets to Forest Hills, but planners wanted to replace that service on weekdays with a new line, the V, which would run through Queens and into Manhattan via the Sixth Avenue line, to relieve crowding on the E and F. This required terminating the G at Court Square and running smaller trains that traveled a shorter distance. But the move to terminate the G at Court Square angered advocacy groups in Greenpoint, a stronghold for then-governor George Pataki. As a result, the MTA came up with the compromise of installing moving walkways at Court Square to ease the transfer. In the end, according to internal NYCT analyses, the walkways saved commuters, on average, a grand total of nine seconds each.

The walkways have been plagued with problems ever since. They can only move in one direction — from the G to the E/M. And according to the Access Queens report, the walkways are often broken or out of service. A Daily News report from May 2017 said the walkways cost $3.5 million to install and that the MTA spent $200,000 in 2016 alone maintaining them.

And, in 2010, to trim the budget, the MTA replaced V service with the M as we know it today.

It’s not clear whether the MTA would have opted to remove the walkways if not for the shutdown; the planning document reviewed by the Voice that recommends the walkway’s removal was written a full year before the MTA publicly announced, at the community board meeting specifically about L train shutdown plans, that it would remove them. The need for as much capacity as possible during the shutdown almost surely played a role in the agency’s decision.

The tens of thousands of riders who will likely transfer from the G to the E/M at Court Square will experience two major choke points, one at either end of the long hallway that currently has the moving walkways. At each end — but particularly by the E/M side — the fairly wide hallway narrows into a bottleneck. Plus there are three steel support beams in the merge area that further restrict traffic. 

Mornings will be particularly rough, as Manhattan-bound passengers will then have to turn right, pass through an even narrower short corridor, and descend two staircases. This passage is also the only way for people on Manhattan-bound E/M trains to transfer to the G or the 7, so there will be some degree of reverse-traffic as well.

The stairwell then dumps passengers at one end of the E/M platform, so it will be imperative that people walk all the way down to the end before boarding trains to utilize the platform’s full capacity, something they are unlikely to do if a train is just arriving and they want to get on. The MTA plans to have extra platform controllers on hand to manage the crowds.

As of now, according to MTA planning documents, the authority’s only scheduled mitigation efforts relating to this Queens transfer point — aside from the moving walkway removal — are the installation of two new stairways and one “relocated” one on the G platform, additions that may help improve passenger flow around the G platform specifically but will do nothing for the other end of the transfer point. 

An MTA spokesperson told the Voice that the agency is conducting a “range of capacity improvements at Court Square including additional stairs.” The spokesperson did not reply to a request for additional information regarding these capacity improvements. 

Most stations that are expected to bear the burden of the mitigation efforts are only undergoing relatively minor enhancements, such as the installation of a few new stairways in select locations.

There are only a handful of alternative subway options for displaced L riders. Perhaps the best option for those close to the G and with unlimited MetroCards would be to transfer in downtown Brooklyn to one of the other lines that run through the area, such as the B/Q or 4/5 at Atlantic Avenue. For those farther east, the best option may be to take the L in the opposite direction, toward Canarsie, and transfer to the M at Myrtle-Wyckoff or the J/M/Z or A/C at Broadway Junction. Those closer to Manhattan can either take the G to trains that go to Manhattan or walk to a J/M/Z stop such as Marcy Avenue. Taking the G to Queens and transferring to the 7 via an out-of-station transfer (which will be free during the shutdown) between the 21st Street and Hunters Point Avenue stops or to the E/M at Court Square will be very popular options as well, according to the MTA’s analysis. For those further out on the L, there will be a free transfer from the Livonia Avenue stop to the Junius Street stop on the 3 line.

Another transfer station that has thus far received little attention yet will play an important role is Broadway Junction, which connects the J/Z, L, and A/C lines (and currently the M as well while that train’s viaduct reconstruction project continues). It isn’t any better suited for a massive influx of riders. Currently, it struggles to move the 10,000 or so riders who swipe into it every day. A recent New York Times article about possible redevelopment around the transit hub called the station a “dingy warren of passageways and platforms…so packed that rush hour turns into a crawl.”

The A/C runs underground at Broadway Junction and is connected to the aboveground J/M/Z and L platforms via three escalators and an adjacent staircase. The area at the top of the stairs — where all three lines meet — will see the most congestion. And the L has the narrowest and least accessible platform.

In that area, there are four small staircases descending to the J/M/Z platforms (the MTA plans to add two more for the shutdown). To the right, riders walk across a sheltered overpass with yellow walls to get to the L platforms. At the end of that passage, the space widens. Eastbound riders need to hang a left for the platform. Manhattan-bound riders continue straight to ascend a staircase to an overpass closely resembling those at many J/M/Z stations.

Other stations affected by the shutdown along the J/M/Z, such as Marcy Avenue, Central Avenue, Knickerbocker Avenue, and Myrtle Avenue, will, according to planning documents, be getting stair platform upgrades to improve passenger flows, but it’s hard to see how a five-foot-wider staircase here and slightly wider platform there will make life easier for hundreds of thousands of displaced riders. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, the least the MTA could do to mitigate the disastrous L train shutdown effects would be absolutely nothing, but they’re doing us one better. We’ll find out soon if it’s enough.