Relax, L Train Riders: New York City Has Dealt With Transit Disasters Before

Part of being a New Yorker is living to tell about it.

Relax, L Train Riders: New York City Has Dealt With Transit Disasters Before
[Photo: Flickr user KIDKUTSMEDIA]

There’s a transit panic in the heart of gentrified Brooklyn over the MTA’s plan to shut down a large section of the L train for 18 months for major repairs, leaving riders sobbing into their handmade artisanal cotton pillows and stuck without their major option for getting to and from Manhattan. (There are many people living on the L train past Williamsburg who can’t afford artisanal cotton pillows, but the press and vocal riders seem largely concerned with the Williamsburg residents.)


It’s true that this shutdown is going to be a major inconvenience to millions of people and businesses that set up shop there over the last decade. But since many who live in Williamsburg or Bushwick may be recent arrivals to New York, a short history lesson may help calm fears. New Yorkers can handle anything–and they relish the war stories that they get to tell for years after.

Sam Schwartz, aka “Gridlock Sam,” the long-time New York City transportation engineer who popularized the phrase “gridlock” in the 1980s and served as the city’s traffic commissioner, remembers many major transit disruptions. There’s the transit strikes in 2005 that shut down buses and trains across the whole city for a few days in the dead of winter, or even the 12-day strike in 1966. And the closing of parts of the subway lines over the Manhattan Bridge from 1985 to 2001 while repairs were made. (“Full BMT service across the bridge was a distant memory to a generation of Brooklyn subway riders,” says the transit history site


But the closest analogue he recalls to the L train shutdown was the closing of the Williamsburg Bridge for six weeks of emergency repair work in 1988, cutting of all cars, trucks, buses, and several subway lines that traveled over the bridge–a total of 240,000 daily commuters. Worse, subways running on this line–the J/M/Z today–were at the time isolated from the rest of the subway system with no transfer options.

Years of neglect and flaws in its original construction led to a crumbling bridge that the Department of Transportation rated 1.6 on a scale of 1 to 7 for integrity. As suspension cables snapped and whole chunks of concrete fell off, the final straw was severe corrosion of a floor beam noticed by a painter on April 11, 1988.

The city opted to spend hundreds of millions to repair the bridge over many years. A Gothamist dive in the New York Times archives of the time found the MTA doubled service on the L train and added cars to the C, to replace the J and M service. It also still allowed pedestrians and cyclists on the bridge. To help businesses in the Lower East Side that were affected, it turned two lanes of traffic on Delancey Street into 250 parking spots, but businesses in Brooklyn were particularly hard hit. Last, a temporary ferry was set up at the foot of the bridge.

Of course, Brooklyn was far less crowded than that it is today, and the service shutdowns now are going to have a bigger effect. Still, Gridlock Sam says the city should study this time very carefully, and “look at what worked and didn’t work.”


“Some things worked too well,” he remembers. “On day one, the ferry service was listing to one side–there were so many people on the ferry boat,” he says.

With the L train shutdown, he expects the city will have to take extraordinary measures and entertain all ideas (some being discussed include buses, ferries, gondolas, shutting down 14th Street to traffic, and even wilder proposals like this trippy inflatable tunnel). But he notes: “They have a lot more time to plan.”

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.