14th Street busway tied to L train shutdown has businesses intrigued

Pedestrians cross East 14th Street, at the intersection of University Place and Union Square West. The city and the MTA are currently contemplating ideas to transform the street into a fully-dedicated busway.
Pedestrians cross East 14th Street, at the intersection of University Place and Union Square West. The city and the MTA are currently contemplating ideas to transform the street into a fully-dedicated busway. Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

Transit advocates and elected officials believe that a 14th Street busway could revitalize a congested, difficult to navigate corridor for years to come, but local businesses say motor vehicle restrictions on the block could create new logistical problems.

As the MTA continues deliberation on its two L train shutdown options, a 14th Street busway has been the most talked about avenue for mitigation. For starters, a busway along the corridor could mimic the L train running below. It would also create a connection between uninterrupted bus service and the 14 subway lines that cross 14th Street. (That number excludes the L but accounts for the W train, slated to return this fall.)

“It’s a remarkably important street,” said city Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg at a TransitCenter event on Monday evening. “There’s a bunch of different configurations we want to look at. I think … that there will be a consensus that we should do something transformational in terms of bus service on 14th Street.”

On weekdays, there are 85,000 commuters taking mass transit above and below a 1.2-mile stretch of 14th Street — 50,000 on the L and another 35,000 on local buses like the M14 — slicing through the vastly different neighborhoods of Chelsea, Gramercy and Stuyvesant Town.

Fourteenth Street is home to Union Square Park and a number of institutions, including several New York University facilities. Storefronts range from the upscale chain supermarkets Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, to local restaurants and delis and smoke and mom-and-pop shops.

The DOT and the MTA are still in the very nascent stages of conceptualizing busway ideas for the road, with years to come ahead of a 2019 L train shutdown. There aren’t yet any official city renderings to scrutinize, but any proposals would likely reclaim the majority of the street—about 51 feet wide—for buses, cyclists and pedestrians.

But before car access is restricted, local restaurants want to ensure that they’ll still be able to receive their deliveries. Other businesses are concerned about the segments of their customer bases that rely on cars and liveries to come to the block to shop.

“I can see this benefitting L train riders, but it’s going to create problems for us,” said Malloree Hill, a server at the Irish pub The Crooked Knife, as she prepared for the lunch crowd near the L’s Eighth Avenue station. “We have street deliveries of food and alcohol. And there’s a good number from our brunch crowd who drive in and park here.”

A few storefronts down, William Orellana, a day manager at the 24-hour Latin diner Coppelia, had similar worries. How would his deliverers be able to make their thrice-weekly drop-offs, which include some 500 pounds of food and 50 cases of alcohol (in all, about 600 bottles) that the restaurant blows through?

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” Orellana said. “Also, you have drunk people who stumble in and out from all the bars all night. They’re catching taxis and Ubers to get home.”

Some were more receptive.

“I’d love it,” said Ronica Hamilton, a sales associate at the local eyeglass shop Eyes On 14, near the Third Avenue stop. Hamilton said she lives in Canarsie and takes the L to work each day.

“I don’t see it being that much of a problem for the restaurants,” she said.

Transit advocates, including the Regional Plan Association and Transportation Alternatives, share Hamilton’s enthusiasm. So do 11 city, state and federal elected officials that have penned a joint letter to the DOT and MTA this month, asking to explore busway possibilities.

On Tuesday, Transportation Alternatives announced that it wants a new 14th Street to serve as a “PeopleWay.”

“To keep 14th Street moving, officials must be prepared to make timely investments to give buses priority, build protected bike lanes, and expand pedestrian space,” said Paul Steely White, executive director at Transportation Alternatives, in a statement. “Private motor vehicle trips are the least efficient form of travel in terms of capacity.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, an advocate for a 14th Street makeover, has anticipated the businesses’ concerns, but she said she is confident that the agencies will produce a creative solution for the street that will meet the needs of shop owners, commuters and residents.

“The MTA and the DOT have had very open discussions,” Brewer said. “You don’t get the impression that the agencies have made up their minds. That’s very encouraging.”

The silver lining to the L train crisis, Brewer and Trottenberg say, could be that the city creates a transformative street design that would last for years.

“Sometimes when you have a challenging situation on your hands, it lets you be really innovative,” Trottenberg said. “And, hopefully, if the innovations are good, they’ll stick.”