Only a Few City Council Candidates Are Taking the Looming L Train Shutdown Seriously

At a TransAlt forum last night, a handful of candidates in the running for two open seats in Manhattan endorsed the idea of a car-free 14th Street to prioritize buses, biking, and walking during the L train shutdown.

Candidates for City Council District 4 at last night's forum. From left: Barry Shapiro, Keith Power, Bessie Schacter, Jeff Mailman, Rachel Honig, Maria Castro, and Vanessa Aronson. Photo: David Meyer
Candidates for City Council District 4 at last night's forum. From left: Barry Shapiro, Keith Power, Bessie Schacter, Jeff Mailman, Rachel Honig, Maria Castro, and Vanessa Aronson. Photo: David Meyer

When the L train shuts down in April 2019, the task of moving 275,000 weekday passengers will shift to the city’s street network and other subway lines.

The MTA and NYC DOT say they’ll release their preliminary L train shutdown plan later this year, but it’s clear that any plan will fail without prioritizing buses on the Williamsburg Bridge and both sides of the East River.

On 14th Street in Manhattan, Transportation Alternatives has proposed car-free “PeopleWays” where buses, bicycling, and walking take precedence, a concept that the MTA and DOT say is on the table. (DOT is also “looking at” a car-free transitway for Grand Street in Brooklyn.)

With all-important primary elections coming up next Tuesday, TransAlt hosted a candidates forum for the Manhattan City Council districts most affected by the L train shutdown. It’s ultimately up to the mayor to decide how to allocate street space, but the local council members will be highly influential and can either push the city to prioritize car-free travel, or obstruct plans to do so.

Three candidates running to replace Rosie Mendez for District 2, which includes 14th Street between Fifth Avenue and First Avenue, and seven candidates running to replace Dan Garodnick in District 4, which includes the area east of First Avenue, came out to the forum. (Council Member Corey Johnson, whose district includes 14th Street west of Fifth Avenue, is running for a second term unopposed in the primary.)

Many candidates endorsed the general concept of reducing car traffic and improving bus service and bicycling, but few would commit to the specific idea of a 14th Street dedicated solely to car-free transportation.

“I think we need to leave the street open” to cars, said Carlina Rivera, running in District 2. “I think we have to think of a better way for traffic to move from east to west without completely closing the street down.”

Rivera and the two other District 2 candidates who attended — Mary Silver and Jorge Vasquez — all cited the importance of improving bus service and bike access on the L train corridor, but their responses were non-committal and full of caveats. (Four other people are running in the primary and did not attend.)

“We desperately need to do something to make sure people can get around,” Rivera said. But her proposals — an high-occupancy vehicle lane on 14th Street, “a shuttle over the bridge” — fall far short of what independent transit experts, as well as the MTA and DOT, believe is necessary.

“We have people who have mobility issues that need to get around, and we have hospitals and clinics on 14th Street,” said Vasquez. “So why can’t I drive my mother for her diabetes treatment? There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“In my mind, we’re only beginning this discussion here,” said Silver, who announced that she was launching a forum on her website to collect input on the L shutdown from constituents.

In District 4, three of the seven candidates in attendance expressed support for making 14th Street car-free during the L shutdown: Vanessa Aronson, Maria Castro, and Keith Powers.

“We need to really invest in Select Bus Service on 14th Street during the L train shutdown,” said Powers, who explicitly endorsed the PeopleWay concept. “I think we do need to invest in more space for bikes on 14th Street during the L train shutdown.”

The other District 4 participants — Rachel Honig, Jeffrey Mailman, Bessie Schachter, and Barry Shapiro — leaned toward “compromise” and a deeper evaluation of the potential impacts.

“I would be willing to reduce, substantially, the number of cars [on 14th Street], but I don’t think you can outright shut off the possibility altogether, especially because there are so many elderly and so many people trying to access hospitals and services just north of 14th Street in our district,” said Schachter, who nevertheless wants to “triple” the number of buses on the street. “I don’t think that we have the information that we need to do that right now.”

While the forum focused on 14th Street and the L train situation, it was also a good chance to get a feel for how candidates think about streets and transportation in general. Some other notable moments from last night:

  • In District 2, Mary Silver supports mandatory helmet laws.
  • Rivera and Silver both support congestion pricing. Vasquez does not.
  • In District 4, all but two of the candidates, when asked how they would respond to complaints about cyclist behavior, responded with their own complaints about cyclists’ behavior. (The exceptions were Aronson and Powers.) “I got a call last week from a  resident who is afraid to leave his house because he doesn’t want to cross First Avenue, because of the bicycles,” Honig said. She and Castro both proposed licensing bicycles and bike riders.

The candidates also submitted statements to TransAlt ahead of the forum, which you can read here.