The City’s Shuttle Bus Plan for the L Train Shutdown Is a Recipe for Gridlock

On any given weekday, the Williamsburg Bridge is clogged with traffic. As one of just two toll-free East River crossings — along with the Manhattan Bridge — that provide commercial vehicles with direct access to Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn and Long Island, the Williamsburg Bridge is a crucial route for trucks and large vans. During rush hours, bridge traffic not only makes the span itself a mess, but packs streets on either end for dozens of blocks.

It is into this gridlock that the MTA and DOT plan on sending up to 80 buses per hour during the L train shutdown to shuttle displaced L train riders across the river. Four Select Bus Service routes created just for the shutdown will take commuters from Williamsburg to subway stops in lower Manhattan and vice versa.

“Buses will be an important piece of the puzzle,” DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg told the City Council during a hearing on the shutdown plans last month. The MTA predicts approximately 17 percent of displaced L riders, or up to 4,200 riders per hour and more than 30,000 per day, will use these shuttle buses, while the rest will take to other subway lines, and to a lesser extent bicycles or ferries.

Yet DOT has opted not to put a dedicated bus lane on the bridge itself — meaning buses will have to compete with existing commercial traffic. Further, the city plans to institute only limited bus lanes on the approaches, which transit experts warn could doom the entire shuttle bus system.

J.P. Patafio, vice president of the surface transit division of Transit Workers Union Local 100, which represents the city’s bus drivers, says forcing buses to compete with commercial vehicles for space on a narrow bridge is a recipe for disaster. “The Williamsburg Bridge is a particularly tricky bridge because it isn’t a modern bridge with wide lanes,” he says. “If you don’t give a bus a dedicated lane, I don’t care what they say, you’re gonna have traffic backing up in Manhattan because it’s going to be backing up on the bridge” in the afternoon rush; during the morning rush, meanwhile, Brooklyn “is going to be a mess.”

Walter Hook, a New York City–based urban planner for BRTPlan, which specializes in implementing Bus Rapid Transit routes, tells the Voice that the risk is “very high” that the Williamsburg Bridge will be “totally clogged” during the shutdown.

“We met with DOT and we walked them through it,” Hook recalls. “And we said that these buses are gonna go two miles per hour.”


When the L train stops running under the East River next year, the only vehicle restriction Mayor de Blasio’s DOT plans to place on the Williamsburg Bridge is an HOV-3 rule: All cars must have at least three people in them. Commercial vehicles and ride shares — which are expected to soar in popularity during the shutdown — will still be permitted at all times, even during peak commuting hours. (Ride shares will have to abide by the HOV-3 restriction.) These restrictions are far less stringent than the ones being put in place on 14th Street between Third and Eighth avenues, where DOT is making the entire road bus-only from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.

Every aspect of the mitigation plan — from the extra subway service to the shuttle buses to the ferries — has to run smoothly because even the slightest hitch could throw the whole plan into disarray. To wit: DOT found that if only three percent of projected 14th Street bus riders opted for For-Hire Vehicles instead, the entire benefit of the busway would be negated by increased congestion on the surrounding streets.

“DOT’s traffic studies show that the HOV 3+ lane will provide an adequate flow of buses over the bridge,” a DOT spokesperson told the Voice in an email. “If any adjustments are needed during the shutdown, we will make them accordingly.”

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Transit activists have been sounding the alarm about the traffic on the bridge since before DOT’s plan was even announced in December. While the MTA and DOT have held dozens of public meetings about the shutdown over the last several years, including two highly-publicized town hall meetings in May that largely focused on the Manhattan bike lanes and 14th Street busway hours, some experts have continued to warn that the biggest flaw is the lack of a bus-only lane on the bridge and its approaches. Yet transit authorities have never publicly discussed a bus lane on the bridge in any detail.

“We don’t believe [DOT has] done a sufficiently rigorous study that that road won’t be totally congested,” Hook tells the Voice. In January, Hook co-authored a study on the mitigation plan, which was released in partnership with Transportation Alternatives. The analysis concluded there are significant gaps: Although DOT will put in some form of bus lanes on key bridge approaches, the bus lanes owill not have turning restrictions for other vehicles, which will clog the lane as they wait for pedestrians to cross. Also, the two bus routes from the Bedford Avenue L train stop will have to connect to the bridge via Roebling Street and Bedford Avenue, which will have no bus-only lanes.

“In my view, they’re trying to come up with a proposal with middle ground,” Hook surmises regarding DOT’s mitigation plan. He adds that DOT’s analysis did not formally model more aggressive plans, such as a longer busway in Manhattan extending along most of the 14th Street bus route instead of just from Third to Eighth avenues. “They should approach it from a technical perspective. How are they going to do this?”

Painfully slow bus speeds would be a worst-case scenario for everybody involved. Frustrated commuters would abandon the buses for other modes of transit, such as nearby subways or ferries — which are already projected to be at or above capacity during the shutdown. Even more catastrophically, others may resort to app-based services such as UberPool, Lyft Line, and Chariot to meet the HOV-3 restriction, which will only exacerbate the traffic problems on the bridge.

The traffic mess is further complicated the Williamsburg Bridge’s peculiar layout. The bridge has eight lanes of traffic, four in each direction. Above the river, those four lanes split into inner and outer two-lane segments. The lanes on the bridge are narrow, so buses will need to straddle multiple lanes (as some commercial vehicles already do). Further, because of height and weight restrictions on the inner segments, buses and trucks (along with vehicles making right turns after the bridge) will be directed to the outer lanes during the shutdown. If the lanes are too narrow for commercial vehicles and buses to coexist side by side, the outer segments could essentially become one-lane roads, while ride-share vehicles and small commercial vans would have the inner lanes all to themselves.

DOT officials indicate that the narrow bridge lanes are one reason dedicated bus lanes were rejected: If buses take up double lanes, that would mean removing cars from half of the bridge. But Hook says the only places the lanes are too narrow are at a pair of “choke points” by the towers, and the lanes could safely merge there to allow buses priority without completely stopping car traffic in the adjacent lane.

Patafio emphasized the need not only for dedicated bus lanes on the bridge, but for turn-restricted lanes leading up to the bridge itself. This would keep buses moving in otherwise congested areas while also making enforcement easier, as police could pull any vehicles that aren’t buses out of those lanes before they get on the bridge. (It remains an open question exactly how enforcement of the HOV-3 restriction will work under the DOT plan.)

This would also be an inexpensive solution. Patafio, a former Brooklyn bus operator, cited a recent successful trial in Boston that converted a parking lane into a 1.2-mile bus lane using only traffic cones and a few signs. A run time that could previously take up to a half-hour for buses to traverse was shaved down to ten minutes or fewer. (The city has since made the lane permanent.) He sees a similar model working well during the shutdown, especially since it can be deployed quickly if and when all parties involved agree that it’s necessary.


As with when the city released its traffic analysis for 14th Street, the HOV-3 solution appears to be an attempt at a middle ground between Doing Everything and Doing Nothing — when the L train shutdown is such a nightmare scenario that we need to do everything, or close to it, to make it remotely manageable.

Patafio knows that more bus-only lanes would result in uproar from drivers, as well as from businesses that might not be able to get deliveries as conveniently. But he views this as a necessary evil during the biggest transit challenge the city has faced in years.

When many subways were shut down following Hurricane Sandy, he notes, the MTA implemented free shuttle bus service from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The lines for the buses stretched for blocks, but DOT established dedicated bus lanes on the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges to keep them moving.

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Patafio believes a similar all-in effort is necessary for the L shutdown: “If they don’t give us what they got in Manhattan on 14th Street and they don’t put it in Brooklyn and make some hard decisions, then I think you’re gonna have a whole shitload of traffic.”

Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, who represents Williamsburg and Bushwick, recalls that a bus-only lane across the bridge was “one of the first things we asked” DOT about the shutdown plan. He says DOT assured him the HOV-3 restriction would reduce traffic enough that a busway won’t be necessary. He’s trusting DOT on that, at least until the shutdown begins and he can see for himself. But, he adds, DOT told him there are contingencies in place in case things don’t go according to plan, and one such contingency may be a bus lane.

Nevertheless, Reynoso is reminding himself to be calm and work with the powers that be to create the best plan for his community and the city as a whole. “The first week, maybe a month, are going to be a disaster,” Reynoso cautions, as everybody adjusts to their L train–less reality. “I don’t think any of us are prepared for how significant this is going to be.”


Why Do Some Parts of New York Have So Many Subways While Others Have None?

The New York City Subway is the lifeblood of the city, yet it seems perpetually embroiled in crisis; though it’s currently caught in a terrible backlog of deferred maintenance, the city can’t function without it, as the mounting panic over next year’s L train shutdown makes clear. Yet as a circulatory system, it leaves certain limbs significantly undernourished. Why was there only one line for the whole East Side of Manhattan until the Second Avenue line finally opened last year? Why does the G train wind so lonely and awkwardly from Brooklyn to Queens? Why are the downtown Brooklyn lines such a chaotic thicket of difficult transfers, while other densely populated parts of the borough, like East Flatbush, are devoid of service?

The answers are embedded in the subway’s historic origins. While you may know that the subway opened in 1904, that’s not the whole picture. Though 1904 marked the opening of the first subterranean line — a lightning bolt slashing through Manhattan, consisting of the uptown half of what’s now the 1/2/3 trains and the downtown half of the 4/5/6, linked by the current 42nd Street Shuttle — by that time there had already been trains riding on elevated structures above city streets for nearly forty years. Initially powered by steam locomotives or experimental cable traction, by the early twentieth century the els looked essentially like modern-day subway lines, with high platforms for level boarding trains powered by electric third rails (though the train cars were still mostly wood). Some of those elevated lines — including parts of the M and J/Z in Brooklyn and Queens — are still in use today. And those vanished lines are crucial for understanding why today’s subway system goes where it goes — and why its gaps are where they are.

In the beginning, there were two

The nineteenth-century rail transit scene in New York was messy, and involved, at one point, Boss Tweed blocking the development of a pneumatic tube subway to encourage the construction of elevated rail lines in Manhattan instead. As the turn of the twentieth century approached, most of the el lines and their various operating companies were gobbled up by two corporations: the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), which controlled lines in Manhattan and the Bronx, and the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT), which dominated Brooklyn and had a few lines poking into the still largely undeveloped borough of Queens.

The IRT was specifically created by financier August Belmont Jr. to operate the subway the city wanted to build down the length of Manhattan, after Belmont’s construction company won the right to build it. At the same time, Belmont’s company acquired the rights from financier Jay Gould to operate the already extant Manhattan elevated lines up Second, Third, Sixth, and Ninth avenues. So when the subway opened in 1904 it could operate both together as a single integrated system.

The IRT was, in essence, a set of tentacles running the length of Manhattan, with some of the tips extending up into the Bronx and a single prong crossing the East River into downtown Brooklyn. At this point there were three lines on the East Side — the southern half of today’s Lexington Avenue subway, plus those Second and Third avenue els.

The BRT system included a since-demolished line running the length of Fulton Street; a thicket of elevated lines in downtown Brooklyn; and old steam railroad excursion lines out to Coney Island that had only been partially modernized. BRT trains originally had terminals at ferry piers along the East River, but by 1912 service just barely made it into Manhattan across the Williamsburg and Brooklyn bridges. (Yes, the Brooklyn Bridge used to carry subway lines to a BRT terminal at Park Row, across the street from City Hall.)

Double deal

The 1912 date was key because with it came the Dual Contracts, a huge milestone in which the city used its muscle and its cash to shape the growing rail network and encourage more construction into the outer boroughs. The idea was that the city would put up the bulk of the money for the lines and then lease them to the IRT and BRT to operate; much of the contributions from the private companies would take the form of equipment and facilities. This would offload the risks and bureaucracy of day-to-day operations onto the private companies, though it would also allow them to reap the profits.

What followed was a flurry of construction activity that tripled the amount of track in the city in only a decade. By 1920, the IRT in Manhattan had taken on its familiar H shape, with extensions deep into Queens and Brooklyn; the BRT, meanwhile, featured a subway running from Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn all the way up Broadway in Manhattan and then across the river again into Astoria. And all those elevated lines were still operating as well.

Routes of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company.

But the end product had its quirks. The city ended up with not one but two systems, operated by rival companies who refused to cooperate with each other more than the bare minimum required. At the very few stations where you could transfer from one system to another, passengers had to pay a second fare to change trains. And forget about sharing track: The two systems used trains of slightly different sizes, making joint lines difficult to impossible. (This remains true today: The numbered lines are the old IRT system, which is why their cars are a little skinnier and shorter than those on the lettered lines.)

The city takes all the marbles

Amid resentment that the two private companies were more focused on fighting each other than serving their riders, the city decided to further complicate matters by adding a third subway system. The companies themselves didn’t make much money, in part because the city refused to allow them to raise their fares above 5 cents; the BRT actually went bankrupt in 1919 (in the wake of a train crash that killed more than ninety people), emerging reorganized as the Brooklyn–Manhattan Transit Corporation, or BMT. But there was still widespread belief that corporate management was lining its pockets at public expense.

Then there were the elevated lines. If you live near the current elevated structures in the outer boroughs, you know how noisy they are. The old-school els weren’t quite as bad, because many of them still ran quieter wooden train cars. But in ultra-dense Manhattan, real estate developers, who a generation earlier had loved the way the els opened up the northern reaches of the island to development, now saw them as a particular nuisance. Still, they carried tons of passengers, and the two private companies that operated them had 999-year leases on the rights to use them, so there was little incentive for them to heavily invest in underground alternatives.

The pivotal figure of the next phase was John F. Hylan, who had worked as a BRT engineer while studying law; legend had it he was fired for running his train too fast. When he became mayor in 1918, he began planning the doom of his former employers, convinced they were growing fat on their monopoly earnings and that a public corporation could reap those benefits for the city. (Hylan was also a promoter of bus transit on surface streets, earning him occasional villain status among streetcar conspiracy theorists.) In 1925, construction began on a new set of lines, to be operated by the city itself, and known as the Independent City-Owned Subway System, or IND. The new system, which opened in phases during the 1930s, was entirely underground and had stations that were palatial compared to those of the IRT and BMT.

While some of the new system ran to previously unserved parts of the city, this wave of construction largely aimed to undermine the private lines that were already there by providing a faster underground alternative to the slower, rickety els; Hylan was convinced that the IRT and BMT would be content to ride things out to the end of their contracts until 1952 unless pushed. The Sixth Avenue Line (today the B/D/F/M in Manhattan) made the IRT’s Sixth Avenue Elevated obsolete; the old line was torn down in 1938, and there was a persistent rumor that the scrap metal was sold to Japan for war use. The linked Eighth Avenue and Fulton lines (today the A/C in Manhattan and Brooklyn) were such a marvel they prompted Duke Ellington to write a hit song in their honor; they killed off the IRT’s Ninth Avenue Elevated and the BMT’s elevated Fulton Line, respectively.

As the end of the 1930s approached, the IRT and BMT threw in the towel and agreed to let the city buy them out, unifying the subways as a single system.

The elusive vision

What comes next is one of the great tragedies of the New York City subway system. The city had been planning a second round of IND expansion even before the first set of lines went into service. The initial 1929 plan was delayed by the Depression, but as the finishing touches were being put on unification in 1939, a second iteration of the scheme was developed, with new subways to replace the remaining elevated lines and expand service further into the outer boroughs. The various plans the city developed over this decade have since become known as the Second System, although strictly speaking it was never a single organized plan.

The Second System was breathtaking in scope, but for the most part it never happened. New York hit a financial downward spiral that made such ambitions impossible; the biggest project that was actually realized was the crosstown line at 53rd Street that crosses the river to Queens. But when you look at the Second System map, suddenly some of the awkward aspects of the current subway make sense, as the missing lines would have filled in the gap that today’s riders can feel as they make their way around the system’s deficiencies:

  • The most famous part of the Second System is the Second Avenue Subway, which was planned to run the entire length of Manhattan. In anticipation of the subway’s construction, the Second Avenue Elevated was torn down immediately after unification in 1940; persistent pressure from real estate developers got the Third Avenue Elevated demolished as well in the mid Fifties, even though the start of the subway project had already begun receding from sight. This created the bane of Manhattan’s transit existence for half a century: The East Side, which once had three trunk transit lines, suddenly found itself with only one, the increasingly overcrowded 4/5/6 trains.
  • The G train, the system’s perennially unloved stepchild, was initially intended to continue under the East River and connect to the Second Avenue Line. There was also going to be a major transfer station in south Williamsburg (which was partially constructed and later became the site of an illegal art exhibition), where passengers could take tunnels leading to Lower Manhattan, or go the other direction down Utica Avenue deep into Brooklyn.
  • A new line was intended to branch off the current F and head down Fort Hamilton Parkway in Brooklyn; this line would have then tunneled under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to the fabled land of Staten Island.
  • There were also plans to build extensions into Jamaica and Hillcrest in Queens and along the east shore of the Bronx to Throgs Neck.

Instead of expanding, the system contracted for most of the remainder of the twentieth century. As noted, the old el lines had carried wooden train cars, and they needed upgrades to carry the subway trains; in the tightened postwar financial situation, that wasn’t considered a worthwhile investment for the most part, and so the downtown Brooklyn els were demolished by the 1960s. And the benefits of a combined system weren’t as easy to achieve as the city had hoped. Internally, the MTA still refers to each line as IND, IRT, or BMT, and it’s taken heroic engineering efforts in some cases just to create what should’ve been obvious transfers between the original systems. It wasn’t only physical infrastructure that resisted attempts at change: When in 1968 the city finally opened a connection in Lower Manhattan that allowed Brooklyn BMT trains to travel on Manhattan IND lines and vice versa, commuters found the service changes so disruptive and confusing that in only a few years most of them were eliminated again. The tunnel went unused in revenue service until 2010, by which time almost everyone had finally forgotten that the subway used to be three different systems.

UNITED STATES – NOVEMBER 25: Is She on the Right Track? Nancy Baker, 24, appears perplexed while studying subway map of new routes going into effect today on BMT and IND systems. But the true test of the pretty Manhattanite’s mettle-and those of other riders-will come on Monday morning when city goes to work

In 2017, after ten years of construction, a three-station stub of the Second Avenue Subway finally opened on the Upper East Side. The first brand-new line in decades, it was internally designated by the MTA as part of the long-vanished IND system. There is as yet no start date for its next phase. Plans to expand the new line down the length of the island aren’t funded yet, but at least they exist and are somewhat complete. There’s nothing even on the MTA’s wish list about expanding into corners of the outer boroughs where subway service was just around the corner eighty years ago. How bad is it? Where once the IRT and IND competed for the Bronx’s business, now the borough is pinning its hopes on Metro North — truly, a long way to fall.