2018/07 – NJ Spotlight – Lessons from the L-Subway

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It’s imperative to make contingency plans for a shutdown of Hudson rail tunnels. Step one: Widen bike paths on George Washington Bridge to accommodate far more riders

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Over the coming decade, there’s a significant chance that the aging, salt-damaged Hudson rail tunnels will be shut down for restoration before new tunnels are complete.2  If so, the region’s transportation providers would need to enact major contingency plans to move 200,000 affected travelers. 

Bicycling can move a significant portion cheaply, healthfully and on their own schedules. But to make this happen, the paths on the George Washington Bridge–the only bike-able connector between North Jersey and Manhattan–must be widened to accommodate substantially more users.

Consider how New York City is handling a similar scenario, fittingly known as the “L-pocalypse.”


In 2019, L-subway service between Brooklyn and Manhattan will be suspended for 15 months to refurbish the century-old Canarsie Tubes, which were also flooded during Superstorm Sandy.  The closure, affecting 225,000 commuters daily, will not be preceded by new tunnels. Rather, riders will be re-routed onto new and beefed up subway, bus and ferry service.4

They will also be encouraged to bike.

L-Train MitigationImage NYC Department of Transportation.

To that end, the city will stripe new paths across the two boroughs.  14th Street, which straddles the “L,” will be reserved exclusively for buses and bicycles.  Cyclists accessing the Williamsburg Bridge are expected to double to 14,000 per day and thousands more will stream over other East River bridges.


NYC’s subway boasts considerable redundant capacity, crossing numerous bridges and tunnels. By contrast, the Hudson rail tunnels comprise a single point of failure for Amtrak and NJ Transit.  This makes contingency planning for their loss far more difficult, expensive … and necessary. (“Hudsogeddon!”)

Adding buses will require considerable staging and on-street storage.  Proposed expansions to PATH would not be ready in time.7  Ferry utilization, now 25%, could be increased, the challenge is getting commuters to the water. Which brings us to cycling.


Bicycling provides crucial “last-mile” connections to ferries, trains and buses.  It can also provide true one-seat (saddle?) rides between home and job without burdening mass transit or congested streets.

Six towns in Hudson have inaugurated bike share,whose continued build out would increase ferry utilization.10 State-of-the-art paths across the Bayonne and Goethals bridges, due by 2019, will enable 45 and 60 minute commutes to Wall Street via Staten Island Ferry.11  

Critically, GWB paths widened to comply with national standards developed by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (“AASHTO”) would safely support 20,000 cyclists per day, plus pedestrians and bike share.12

image1-1CitiBike 12-unit transporter.  Photo by Susan Brennan.

Communities near the George now send tens of thousands of bus riders per day into midtown.13 Many would opt for a 60-minute bike ride rather than sit in traffic for hours.14 Bergen’s plan to link county parks with bikeways will connect its million residents.15  And NY’s legalization of electric-assisted bicycles (“E-bikes”) will further extend catchment.16 17

As an indicator of widespread support, 60 municipalities from Middlesex to Passaic have called for greater GWB cycling capacity.  So have the Union, Hudson, Bergen, Passaic Freeholders and Governor Phil Murphy.18

Port Authority plans for GWB are a problem

The obstacle to this scheme however, is the Port Authority.  As part of its $1.9 billion GWB restoration, the PA plans to return the paths to their 1931 configuration and allocate to cyclists a single 7 foot path.19  

This may conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), but that’s a low-use pedestrian standard–inadequate to support for even current use, let alone growth or emergency demand.20 21

The PA states that the constraint is cost, which it puts at $90 million.  But this is far less than later as a stand-alone job.  Or what’s being spent on bridges across the region, many of which won’t see a fraction of the George’s activity. 

If started now, half capacity would be online by 2021, the remainder by 2025.

Doing nothing is not an option

New Jersey would do well to adopt New York’s mantra as it prepares for its L-subway shutdown: “Doing nothing is not an option.”22

History demonstrates the role cycling can play in a transit emergency. The day following Sandy, bike trips across NY’s East River bridges surged from 13,000 to 30,000.23  This wasn’t happenstance.  It was preceded by decades of planning and investment, during which the public became accustomed to cycling.24

The sooner these investments are made, the sooner people will incorporate them into their daily travel habits, providing resilient new capacity for the changes down the road.

We may have survived the “summer of hell,” but winter is coming.25

Update September 9, 2018

Lest anyone still think that the rail tunnel failure is some remote and manageable event, this September, an overhead metal bracket pierced the roof of a moving train.26 Had that incident resulted in loss of life, those tunnels would be closed for a very long time.

dmizdfsu8aaaesuImage nj.com.

End Notes

[1] The chances of the existing tunnels needing to be shut down for repair rise to 75% by 2026, Billions for Red Tape, May 2016, Common Good, https://tinyurl.com/ydf8v3mr

[2] FAQ, Hudson Tunnel Project, https://tinyurl.com/yc8wj42a

[3] City Plans for L-Train Closure, MTA-NYC DOThttps://tinyurl.com/yc9dtbhc

[4] L-Train Shutdown Video, MTA-NYC DOT, https://tinyurl.com/hkarh7r

[5] “Even partial tunnel closure would put 50,000 additional cars on the road, pushing Manhattan into gridlock and backing up New Jersey traffic 25 miles.”, Billions for Red Tape, May 2016, Common Good, https://tinyurl.com/ydf8v3mr    

[6] “Martin Robins, of the Voorhees Transportation Center says he is ‘terribly’ worried about NJ real estate values, and Nicole Gelinas, transportation expert at the Manhattan Institute, says she may ‘start advising friends to move to Long Island, not New Jersey’ , Gateway news reporting from 2014, 2016, 2018 by Dana Rubinstein, Politico New York,https://tinyurl.com/ydff6fbc,  https://tinyurl.com/y7cf5akz, https://tinyurl.com/ybvq4e2v       

[7] “The (Newark-WTC) 10-Car Program would likely not be operational until 2028 if approved today. …  Another potential initiative, the Hoboken-WTC 8-Car Program with an estimated cost of $550 million, is not currently under consideration.” Trans-Hudson Commuting Capacity Study, Appendix B Multi-Modal Strategies, 2016, pp. 6-8, PANYNJ, http://tinyurl.com/y7ejduqz

[8] Ibid, p.19

[9] Five New Cities Choose Hudson Bike Share, Leaving Jersey City Alone With CitiBike, Jersey Diggs, https://tinyurl.com/y9zre298

[10] “Bicycles may provide another means of accessing ferries for commutation between New Jersey and New York City.”, THHCS, Appendix B Multi-Modal Strategies, p.20, PANYNJ, http://tinyurl.com/y7ejduqz

[11] Google Maps, https://tinyurl.com/y98uu2fl

[12] (2) 10’ bike paths in peak direction; plus (1) 7’ path cross peak to rebalance bike share; and (1) 7’ bi-directional pedestrian path would yield an FHWA “E” level of service for 4000 peak cyclists per hour or 20,000 per day., National Standards, Complete George, https://tinyurl.com/y7p25wlj

[13] The share of PABT commuters from Edgewater, Fort Lee, Cliffside Park amounts to 8.5% of 232,000 total or 19,720, THCCS, Appendix B, p. 16, PANYNJ, http://tinyurl.com/y7ejduqz

[14] Google Maps, https://tinyurl.com/yazc733u

[15] Bergen Park Master Plan, CUES, Rutgers, http://tinyurl.com/ydctmpph

[16] De Blasio Moves to Permit E-Bikes on NYC Streets, Streetsblog, https://tinyurl.com/yax2o2kp

[17] L train shutdown: Electric bikes pitched as option for stranded commuters, AM New Yorkhttps://tinyurl.com/y9v8rsdn

[18] Mayor & Council, Complete George, https://tinyurl.com/y8mvgvs7

[19] Restoring the George, Bicycle and Pedestrian Access, PANYNJhttps://tinyurl.com/y8evmac6

[20] Capacity and Demand, Complete George, http://tinyurl.com/jpcfphqr

[21] Safety, Litigation and the Demise of Cycling on the GWB, Complete Georgehttps://tinyurl.com/yd2fvoag

[22] Following the L-subway example, schedule repairs over the warmest months to reduce the public’s exposure to the elements and minimize opportunities for additional weather-related outages.  Partner with state and local DOTs to expand cyclist access to bridge and ferry crossings and to conduct outreach to raise awareness and reduce fear.

[23] Sandy caused a Mini Bike Boom, Transportation Nation-WNYC https://tinyurl.com/yalsj74u

[24] Between 2011 and 2016, the number of active adult New York cyclists grew 11.2% per year to 828,000. From 2016 to 2017, bike share trips rose from 10 to 16 million. Cycling in New York City, 2018, NACTO-NYCDOT, p.7, https://tinyurl.com/hcu5yaz

[25] With that Game of Thrones allusion, I include periodic, widespread disruptions to transit systems over the coming decades, resulting from planned upgrades to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Penn Station; rollout of positive train control across NJ Transit; weather events or weather-induced infrastructure failure; and man-made events such as a rolling sickout of NJ Transit conductors.

wightsGame of Thrones  Image HBO.

[26] Where did the metal pole come from that punctured an NJ Transit train? nj.com, https://tinyurl.com/y9xfns6a