New York, NY
Could the temporary shutdown of one of New York’s most important subway lines have a silver lining? From Bushwick to Williamsburg to Manhattan’s 14th Street corridor, the L-train in this new era has gone from a sleepy gray subway corridor to a luminous silver line, connecting some of New York’s most vibrant and creative neighborhoods. The shutdown will give the L-train critical long-term resilience, and we must confront the consequences with the determination and innovation for which New York is renown. This will demand the grit that daily inspires New Yorkers to make lemonade from lemons, albeit spiked with a shot of tequila.
This challenging event affords the opportunity to consider not only the 14th Street corridor, but the potential to design a pilot for the long-term surface mobility of our city, with a much-needed reorientation towards the pedestrian, the cyclist, and the street-level straphanger. Most take for granted the disproportionate amount of space dedicated to private vehicles in New York. It is only in recent years, thanks to grassroots advocacy and government leadership, that we have seen the re-appropriation of roadbed for bike lanes, pocket parks, and of course, Times Square. In response ubiquitous naysayers – similar to those who recently predicted the “Carmaggedon” in Los Angeles that never came – claimed the sky would fall, but these Chicken Littles looked even smaller and more yellow bellied when the predicted calamities never struck. Armed with this experience we must be courageous visionaries in the reconceptualization of 14th Street, of course with the necessary sensitivities to businesses and residents concerned about traffic (I live and work near Union Square, so I empathize.) But ultimately we must hold to the conviction that our streets belong to the people, whether they are propelled by bikes, wheelchairs, buses, or Air Jordans.
Our proposal for 14th Street has precisely this focus on the indefatigable foot soldiers of New York, demanding that our pedestrians be the rulers of the road.
We propose two achievable phases for a new “Silver Line” along 14th Street centered on the deployment of new station pavilions inspired by Bogota’s Transmilenio and Curitiba’s BRT system. These pavilions would be durable, affordable, sustainable, and “temporary” in the sense that they would not require any foundations or infrastructure in the roadbed – they would simply sit on the street. Constructed with a tough, modular system that can be assembled easily on site, the structures would serve several purposes at once.
The Silver Line pavilions would:
1. clearly demarcate the border between dedicated transit lanes at the center of the street and one-way bicycle lanes on each side of the street, leaving the entire width of the sidewalk for pedestrians free of bus stations and bicycles, with no conflict points other than well-signaled crosswalks;
2. provide safe, wheelchair-accessible, weather-protected, information-rich waiting areas;
3. be elevated so people, including those in wheelchairs, will already be at the level of the transit system with their fares paid, allowing fast embarkation and disembarkation;
4. be solar-powered, sustainably providing the energy needed for lighting and digital wait-time clocks, as well as the ability to recharge one’s phone while waiting;
5. be light, low-slung and largely transparent as part of a landscaped median that runs the length of each block, beautifying all of 14th Street in a manner that will ennoble the pedestrian experience, segregate bike lanes, and enhance shopping;
6. be partially self-financed through the creation of tasteful advertising space.
Consequently, the Silver Line will:
• show that 14th Street can operate as a commuter-first corridor;
• increase the capacity of 14th Street to accommodate far more trips;
• prioritize the connections among bus, bike and foot travel on 14th Street;
• uplift public life and the experience of all users, with pedestrians being #1;
• and create dedicated residential parking along area side streets and dedicated commercial parking and taxi/livery pick up points along the avenues. (Loading could also take place on 14th Street during off-hours)
In terms of policy and governance, we view the implementation and operation of the Silver Line under the shared auspices of the MTA and City DOT, with the clear precedent of Select Bus Service. Public/private partnerships to build the Silver Line pavilions should also be considered.
We propose this system of sidewalks, bike lanes, and dedicated bus lanes as a Phase One that would operate during the L-train shutdown. During this interim period, we propose that planning, approvals and funding be sought for a new Manhattan-wide streetcar system, similar to the BQX system proposed for Brooklyn and Queens, that would begin operations concurrent with the re-opening of the L-train. This Phase Two streetcar system would re-use the pavilions deployed in Phase One.
A Manhattan streetcar system would provide high speed mobility to our “transit deserts,” connecting the major cross streets with the burgeoning edges of the island. Over the last two decades Manhattan has grown towards its edges, reclaiming post-industrial land along both rivers. Columbia has expanded northwest towards Manhattanville. The High Line, Hudson Yards, the Con-Edison sites, the Alexandria Medical Center, our rediscovered waterfronts – it is wonderful that a thousand flowers have bloomed, but what will irrigate them? It is also wonderful that the Second Avenue Subway and the #7 Subway extension have opened, but we cannot serve all of these growing areas with projects that would take decades and billions we don’t have.
There is a silver lining to this shutdown; a re-imagined 14th Street will be the pilot for a new vision for Manhattan’s mobility, a back-to-future scenario in which state-of-the-art sustainable streetcars propel millions throughout its territory in an equitable, accessible, safe, fast and joyful manner. This is the upside of using scarce political capital to obtain congestion pricing, convincing businesses that their deliveries can be accommodated, and showing well-heeled New Yorkers who drive and pay exorbitant parking fees that there is a better way. We can make 14th Street a 21st Century corridor, and in so doing remake Manhattan for a new millennium.