The L'd Up Project
The service delays and suspensions associated with the L train repair project will usher in a period of sustained uncertainty for individuals and businesses that rely on the transit line and alter travel patterns across the city. Who adjusts their behavior to compensate and how they do so can tell us a lot about the value of this piece of infrastructure across multiple scales to individuals, businesses, communities, and the city and region.
Disrupted infrastructure can help us answer big questions.
Studying moments when infrastructures cease to work as they normally do is perhaps the most powerful way of really penetrating and problematizing those very normalities of flow and circulation to an extent where they can be subject to critical scrutiny.
Stephen Graham (2010). “When Infrastructures Fail” in Graham, Stephen (Ed.) Disrupted Cities: When Infrastructure Fails. New York: Routledge. p. 3.
As the quote above suggests, it is when things break that we can gain an appreciation for the roles that they play in our lives. This is particularly the case for infrastructure. Transportation infrastructure, in the form of transit systems and services, forms a critical piece of the connective tissue of cities and regions. People rely on these services to access jobs, markets, education, family and friends, recreation, and community, and their locational decisions – about where to work, live, site a business, shop, etc. – stem in large part from the access that public transportation networks afford them and the costs that access imposes. Studying how behavior changes in the wake of disruption demonstrates the value of this shared resource, and how that values and costs are unevenly distributed across individuals and space. It can teach us about vulnerability, adaptation, and resilience.
The L Train Disruption
The L train is a line in New York City’s subway system, controlled by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and connects the far reaches of Brooklyn and parts of Queens with Manhattan (see Map). It is among the busiest subway lines in the city: according to the MTA, 225,000 people a day use the L Train to travel between Brooklyn and Manhattan and 50,000 people a day use the service solely in Manhattan.
In 2012, Superstorm Sandy flooded the two tubes of the Canarsie tunnel through which the trains travel between Brooklyn and Manhattan with over 7 million gallons of brackish water, causing damage to wiring and concrete structures. This damage ultimately prompted the MTA to announce in 2016 that it would need to close the tunnels for 18 months in order to conduct repairs beginning in April 2019. The shutdown, as it came to be known, was expected to create unprecedented disruption to residents and businesses along the L train line, throughout the MTA system, and across the city and region as passengers moved or sought alternative modes of travel.
In January 2019, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the MTA would consider a new plan that would avert a full shutdown of the subway system and restrict repair work to evenings and weekends. While the new approach will not result a total shutdown, we expect that the L line will experience significant service disruptions during evening and weekend repair periods and will quite likely result in larger disruptions periodically as construction progresses. It is the impact of these disruptions – a prolonged period of uncertainty – that this consortium seeks to understand.
Project Themes and Scales
We know that the L train repair is not the only planned service disruption in the New York City transit system, but it is one that will potentially impact the largest number of individuals. Through the planned repairs riders, business owners, property developers, and communities will experience heightened uncertainty that will affect their decisions and, with these, the urban system. Through it we can explore it impact across multiple thematic areas and scales – from the individual to the region.
Transportation infrastructure disruptions most obviously impact how people move around cities and regions. Those directly affected by service uncertainties will have to seek alternative forms of transportation. Understanding people’s responses to conditions of uncertainty, and how these differ depending on means, origin-destination, time and purpose of travel, among other things can show who is most negatively affected. Relatedly, changes in travel behavior have wide-ranging and often unanticipated consequences – for instance, increasing traffic congestion, demand for alternate lines, encouraging the development or adoption of new services or technologies, or impacting private transportation markets, among others. Some or all of these may have lasting effects on travel behavior, demand for urban transportation infrastructure, regulation, etc. that shape mobility, access, and flows in urban regions.
Business and work
Individual workers that rely on the transit line to get to, or do, their jobs and businesses that may be impacted through changes in employee travel patterns, changes in customer traffic, or issues related to deliveries will feel the strain of service disruptions. Consumption patterns may also shift during a protracted disruption. This is an opportunity to better understand what types of businesses and workers, in which parts of the city, are most profoundly affected and how. We will look at individual as well as aggregate impacts to understand how the character of affected neighborhoods shifts (in terms of amenities available, income of residents, quality of life, etc.) throughout and after the disruption.
Residential and commercial real estate markets have already been profoundly affected by uncertainty surrounding L train repairs. Shifting property prices yield important insights into the value that the market ascribes to real estate of various classes in affected areas in the context of L train service uncertainty. We will analyze real estate markets in neighborhoods along the line to understand what sectors and places are most affected by price fluctuations, how these impact who can live and work in affected neighborhoods, and understand who bears the cost burden of fluctuations associated with infrastructure uncertainty.
As access and mobility options change as a result of infrastructure disruptions, and business and residential settlement patterns shift in response, the built environment may also change. Incentives to develop certain types of buildings, public amenities, and public space can all be affected by these changes. We are interested in how infrastructure uncertainty plays out in the spatial form of urban systems and with what consequences.
All of the above have profound impacts on the character of communities and their resilience. The studies of transportation disruptions often underappreciate the impacts that uncertainty can have on social relationships, families, communities, and quality of life in neighborhoods. We hope to understand how different communities change as a result of uncertainty, how they perceive and organize in anticipation of disruption, how these responses differ, and how they affect outcomes.
This project brings together an interdisciplinary team to conduct a comprehensive survey of the impact of a planned and protracted transportation disruption. We hope to answer big questions by drawing connections between elements that are often studied in isolation. In the process, we will pioneer innovative methodologies and develop a blueprint for research on future infrastructure disruptions.
We anticipate that our research on the L train disruption will contribute to scholarship and policy debates in the NYC metropolitan region and beyond about resilience - of systems, of individuals, of communities, of organizations, of economies, and of the city and region. It will increase our understanding of issues of equity as the disruption exacerbates and brings to light differential patterns of advantage and disadvantage across groups and space. We will be better able to model the link between infrastructure investment and economic growth and development. Finally, better understanding individual choices in the face of crisis, constraint, and uncertainty can contribute to the development of better solutions for sustainable mobility and responsible urban growth.