Bedford Ave L Subway (Photo: Roshan Vyas via Flickr)
In the past year, residents, workers and various stakeholders including business owners have been on edge over the impending 18-month shut down of the L train. The shutdown has been planned to enable repairs of the tunnel running under the East River damaged by Hurricane Sandy and would impair over 400,000 of New York’s commuters every weekday.
The computer-based technology called communication-based train control is a signal system that lets the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) run more L trains by knowing precisely where each train is on the line. This technology has boosted service frequencies and, according to MTA board member Andrew Albert, gave rise to the “economic revival in Williamsburg, Bushwick, and other Brooklyn communities.” Since 1990, ridership has more than doubled at L train stations and quadrupled at the Bedford Avenue stop.
While the MTA and other agencies active in the planning of alternative transit options are full force with re-visioning streets and public transportation options, small businesses are in the sidelines fearing the worst. According to the Regional Planning Association, merchants have experienced up to 50% business drop-off in past L train closures and with the 18-month shutdown, the 1,000 restaurants surrounding L train stations in Brooklyn (855) and Queens (145) – including five Michelin star-rated restaurants – are bound to face similar impacts. In fact, the burgeoning bar scene and nightlife of Williamsburg and Bushwick will also stand to suffer greatly from the L shutdown since both neighborhoods boast more liquor licenses per square mile than any other neighborhood in the outer boroughs.
On-Premise Liquor License Density (Source: Rudin Center for Transportation)
While many visitors will still be willing to make the trip across the East River via other modes of transportation or other subway lines for destination drivers and restaurants like Peter Luger’s Steak house or the original rainbow bagels, other small businesses may not be so lucky. Non- convenience retail such as clothing boutiques and designer home furnishings that have grown in Williamsburg have become dependent on visitors as much as residents.
Minna Elias, the chief of staff for U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney who was also involved with businesses struggling during the Second Avenue subway construction, worries that little will be done on behalf of the businesses. In January, at a Town Hall meeting, both business owners and commercial real estate brokers came forward to highlight the already visible impacts of the shutdown on storefront vacancies and sales. According to Brooklyn Winery, a popular bar and venue for weddings, the L-train shutdown is already impacting bookings and business that normally get scheduled years in advance.
Although it might seem that the MTA’s needs of discouraging traffic are at odds with businesses’ needs to drive traffic, there are still steps that can be taken to mitigate the impacts of the L-Train shutdown. In a report published by NYU Rudin Center for Transportation last Fall, a useful recommendation was made to actively involve local chambers of commerce and business improvement districts in coordinating evening and weekend service to and from Williamsburg to mitigate impacts of the L-train shutdown. This effort could include designating pick-up and drop-off locations for ridesharing companies and taxis, or kick starting an optional benefit program for local restaurants, bars and shops to partake in that might consist of discount and voucher books for dining and shopping.

Fortunately, the conversation with local businesses is only just beginning with the help of L-Train Coalition, a community group of engaged stakeholders, community organizations, businesses, and concerned citizens. The group is looking to add the thoughts and needs of the business community to the larger conversation through surveys and discussions. Hopefully the findings from the surveys will point to potential programming strategies that business owners are willing to partake in and we’ll be keeping a close watch on the results of their efforts.