New York City almost got a transparent tunnel crossing the East River. But we won’t give up hope – after all, there’s NASA tech involved.

It would have been a sensation: an inflatable pedestrian tunnel, lightweight and transparent, floating on New York’s East River.

A technological milestone – a break with conventions. A 730-meter water-based connection with a spectacular view and perspective.

The concept, dubbed “L Transporter”, was developed to solve a looming New York City issue: In 2019, the city’s L train line will be closed for extended renovations. Work on the route could last for up to 36 months, disrupting the lives and schedules of 225,000 daily commuters between Brooklyn and Manhattan.

In 2019, the city’s L train line between Manhattan and Brooklyn will be closed for extended renovations.
In 2019, the city’s L train line between Manhattan and Brooklyn will be closed for extended renovations.
Photo: Getty Images / Image Source

Technology borrows from NASA and Hyperloop

New York City needs a working solution – sooner rather than later. This is where Harvard graduate and architect Gonzalo Cruz and his team come in: Their L Transporter concept reached the final round of an idea contest to find the all-encompassing new transport solution to th L train problem.

100 visionaries had entered the call for ideas – including Cruz and his team of AECOM employees, a company specializing in infrastructure. And in futuristic ideas: Among others, AECOM is involved in the promising Hyperloop transport system for highspeed connections between major metropolises.

“This tunnel would provide a brand new way to explore the city,” Cruz states. His vision is a blend of future tech and art installation. Mobility, art, culture, and new space for New York City – itself the urban epitome of reinvention.

“New Yorkers are afraid of the water, of this dirty part of their city,” Cruz explains. This, in turn, was part of the project’s appeal: To come up with a proposal that would unite the New Yorkers with their waterways “in a semi-transparent system.” A special synthetic material paves the way for this ambitious plan: 730 meters of fiberglass textiles, the result of NASA research. It is also used to protect conventional tunnels from flooding.

Having fun and trying something new

“We could have played it safe – with a transport idea that is guaranteed to work, easy to build, and affordable,” adds Cruz. “But we wanted to have fun and try something new. We are urban designers. We want to highlight new approaches and possibilities.”

The final winner, a kind of water shuttle, makes use of the city’s existing infrastructure. It’s a good, realistic project, Cruz admits. “We, however, wanted to provoke new thinking. The L Transporter will remain a study; the project won’t continue. But a city like New York has already set some very different records.”

colourful schematic illustration of the inflatable tunnel
Both walkway and art platform: The envisioned tunnel offers space for light installations.
Illustration: AECOM

Just a question of time

So, we’re swapping outlook and strategy for a review and some philosophy: Is it better to stick to what you know in order to enjoy success? Should dreams remain in the bedroom and not be inflated and cross a river?

No, the architect is adamant. “The L Transporter is not futuristic in the sense of being utopian, but futuristic in the sense of future reality,” he declares. It’s something that becomes possible after investing more time, planning, deliberation. And more money.

“These technologies, already employed by NASA, will soon enter many different areas – it’s just a question of time.” And Cruz firmly believes that “in future, innovative ideas will become more and more vital since the world really needs them.”

How would you like to spend your commute?
How would you like to spend your commute?
Photo: Getty Images / Image Source