Next year, a small segment of a single New York subway line is shutting down for 15 months — and it’s a very big problem. As the transit authority repairs a tunnel badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the L line will no longer cross the East River. Though the closure may sound insignificant, for many New Yorkers, the shutdown feels like an existential crisis. The L shuttles 400,000 riders between Manhattan and Brooklyn daily. Dwell on that number for a second: For a year and a half, a population the size of the entire city of New Orleans will have to find an alternative means of getting around New York every day.
To cope, the city’s departments have created an elaborate plan that involves six replacement bus routes, largely shutting down a crosstown thoroughfare to private vehicles, and closing the Williamsburg Bridge to any cars with fewer than three passengers. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs have spent years proposing both public and private transit alternatives to compensate for the shutdown. These include e-ferries, e-scooters, e-mopeds, gondolas, pontoon bridges, and an “ultra-luxe” shuttle called “The New L.” Only some of these will actually happen. (Sorry, Gondola and pontoon bridge aficionados.) Uber, Lyft, and other e-hails are poised to take financial advantage of the shutdown just as they have done with the subway struggles writ large. Meanwhile, the city’s bike-share system is expanding to cope with an expected surge in cyclists, and the city’s Department of Transportation is installing miles of bike lanes to accommodate them.
New Yorkers will soon see what a disaster really looks like.
But none of these efforts will be enough to replace the L. On a typical rush-hour morning, the L transports as many people under the East River as all the six East River bridges and tunnels combined. New Yorkers who scoff at the suggestion that the subway is anything other than a disaster will soon see what a disaster really looks like.
But in a perverse sense, the fact that the L shutdown poses such an immense challenge is a testament to the subway’s success. Andy Byford, head of the New York City Transit Authority and the official tasked with managing the L shutdown, routinely praises the daily “miracle” of the subway. And he’s not wrong. It’s ironic that the only transit mode that may save New York from the subway shutdown is the subway. The MTA expects other subway lines will absorb four out of every five displaced L riders.
Not many people these days consider the subway a success. Thanks to decades of mismanagement and bad funding choices, the subway is a constantly delayed, crumbling mess badly in need of billions of dollars of investment. Despite all that, the subway is still a daily miracle and the most powerful solution to public transportation ever conceived. What makes the subway such a success is not just the fact that the trains go through tunnels or travel particularly quickly. Instead, the subway is New York’s miracle precisely because of the one thing we hate about it. The subway is really, really crowded. And that’s what makes it good.
As urban areas continue to grow, Americans need to confront their intolerance for cramming together. Ubers, self-driving cars, and hyperloops titillate the imagination by promising a speedy, comfortable, and isolated vision of transportation — but all these promises are illusory. If we’re ever going to make cities work, we need to accept, and come to love, a fundamental truth: Packed urban transit is good urban transit.