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Transportation United States

Why New York City Stopped Building Subways (citylab.com) 219

New York City, which once saw an unprecedented infrastructure boom -- putting together iconic bridges, opulent railway terminals to build the then world's largest underground and rapid transit network in just 20 years -- has not built a single new subway line in more than seven decades. As New York's rapid transit system froze, cities across the globe expanded their networks. A closer inspection reveals that things have actually moved backward -- New York's rapid transit network is actually considerably smaller than it was during the Second World War, and due to this, today's six million daily riders are facing constant delays, infrastructure failures, and alarmingly crowded cars and platforms. This raises two questions: Why did New York abruptly stop building subways after the 1940s? And how did a construction standstill that started nearly 80 years ago lead to the present moment of transit crisis? The Atlantic's CityLab explores: Three broad lines of history provide an explanation. The first is the postwar lure of the suburbs and the automobile -- the embodiment of modernity in its day. The second is the interminable battles of control between the city and the private transit companies, and between the city and the state government. The third is the treadmill created by rising costs and the buildup of deferred maintenance -- an ever-expanding maintenance backlog that eventually consumed any funds made available for expansion.

To see exactly how and why New York's subway went off the rails requires going all the way back to the beginning. What follows is a 113-year timeline of the subway's history, organized by these three narratives (with the caveat that no history is fully complete).

Why New York City Stopped Building Subways

Comments Filter:
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 16, 2018 @03:35PM (#56447659)
    Are busy selling flamethrowers than doing any actual work.
  • by SuperKendall ( 25149 ) on Monday April 16, 2018 @03:37PM (#56447671)

    There's no way the rampant corruption and cronyism around construction in New York City does not have a massive role to play in all this.

    It's a real shame, as other cities now have much nicer metro options and I don't nee NYC getting better at all, anytime soon.

  • Uh, no. (Score:3, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 16, 2018 @03:40PM (#56447721)

    NYC is currently in the middle of its largest subway construction project in history, but don't let facts get in the way of a good narrative!

    • "with the caveat that no history is fully complete"

      Yeah, they were (past tense) necessarily writing about how things were (past tense).

      Or at least CityLabs tends to look backwards, decry the failures, and then look forward to a Utopian recovery.

      Well, they don't have to pay for it, so sure they do. Surely city planners worldwide hang on their every syllable.

  • by bogaboga ( 793279 ) on Monday April 16, 2018 @03:41PM (#56447733)

    The statement...

    ... today's six million daily riders are facing constant delays, infrastructure failures, and alarmingly crowded cars and platforms.

    should read...

    ...today's six million daily riders are facing constant delays, infrastructure failures, and alarmingly crowded, old, dirty, noisy cars and platforms. (Bold mine...)

    New Yorkers should visit places like Dubai, Shanghai, St Petersburg in Russia or even Singapore City, to see what a subway should look like and function.

    Sadly, Americans still think they have the best and greatest in the world.

    • You haven't seen the bi-directional cattle car that is the Austin metro rail.
      Its nothing more than a single ~15 mile stretch of rail that goes from downtown Austin to a couple towns north. 2 cars. 6 stops. 1 hour waits. Imagine a single line between Brooklyn and Manhattan to service all of New York, and you get the idea.

      • by sycodon ( 149926 )

        The fuckers didn't even put it through to the airport, which would probably quadruple ridership.

    • Sadly, Americans still think they have the best and greatest in the world.

      You mean New Yorkers?

      Few other Americans care about subways.

    • Just out of curiosity, how many of those mass-transit systems run 24/7365?

      I remember visiting Paris which had a lovely Mass transit system ... and then running through the subway grabbing the last train before being stranded in the city Center with no way (except an expensive cab ride) back to the suburb house of our friends where we staying.

    • New Yorkers should visit places like Dubai, Shanghai, St Petersburg in Russia or even Singapore City, to see what a subway should look like and function. Sadly, Americans still think they have the best and greatest in the world.

      Leave those richer countries. Kolkata Metro (new name for Calcutta) India is cleaner than NYC subway. I can't believe it either.

      But the mosquitoes in the subway have speciated and they are distinct species from the mosquitoes above ground in New York. Evolution in action. Deny that creationists.

    • by Ogive17 ( 691899 )

      Sadly, Americans still think they have the best and greatest in the world.

      Uh, I've never met an American that thought we had the best mass-transit system in the world. In fact, every time I've ever had a discussion it's quite the opposite, how much our transit system sucks.

    • The statement...

      ... today's six million daily riders are facing constant delays, infrastructure failures, and alarmingly crowded cars and platforms.

      should read...

      ...today's six million daily riders are facing constant delays, infrastructure failures, and alarmingly crowded, old, dirty, noisy cars and platforms. (Bold mine...)

      New Yorkers should visit places like Dubai, Shanghai, St Petersburg in Russia or even Singapore City, to see what a subway should look like and function.

      Sadly, Americans still think they have the best and greatest in the world.

      Those countries have better mass transit than NY because their governments heavily invested in public transportation. Government investments in mass transportation and other urban development projects have been the bane of republicans since the 1970's. NY state legislator was dominated by upstate republicans for a long time so there were no new investments into NYC transit infrastructure. As a matter of fact the NYC MTA was operating with budget deficits because of NY State under funding the agency. However

    • Sadly, Americans still think they have the best and greatest in the world.

      Yeah, you know who never makes fun of America? Americans.

  • by ooloorie ( 4394035 ) on Monday April 16, 2018 @03:44PM (#56447757)

    The subway’s cost-induced construction paralysis becomes more severe with every passing decade. We must learn from history in order to break it.

    In different words, subways are too expensive to build and maintain and voters are not willing to approve either the fare increases or the tax increases to pay for them. It's unclear what the authors want to "learn" from that. In fact, it's more likely that more subway lines will get closed over time, instead of new ones getting opened.

    • The subway’s cost-induced construction paralysis becomes more severe with every passing decade. We must learn from history in order to break it.

      In different words, subways are too expensive to build and maintain and voters are not willing to approve either the fare increases or the tax increases to pay for them. It's unclear what the authors want to "learn" from that. In fact, it's more likely that more subway lines will get closed over time, instead of new ones getting opened.

      They are not too expensive compared to roads. If you invest in them and make them work, you have to invest less in expanding roads, saving you money.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by ooloorie ( 4394035 )

        They are not too expensive compared to roads. If you invest in them and make them work, you have to invest less in expanding roads, saving you money.

        That's like saying that a Tesla is not too expensive compared to a Ferrari. If you can't afford either, you'll have to make due without either.

        NYC may simply be living on borrowed time. That is, NYC's problems may not fixable in the long term and the city will gradually decline. Cities die.

    • In different words, subways are too expensive to build and maintain

      Uh huh. So tell me what's the alternative? Roads? If you think so, then grap a copy of google maps and show us where you'd build new roads in NYC.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by ooloorie ( 4394035 )

        Uh huh. So tell me what's the alternative? Roads?

        Why does there have to be an alternative? What NYC and what it will become is determined by its geography, by available technology, and by population movements. If New York can only function with more subways but New Yorkers can't pay for it, then the city will slowly decay. For some reason, that seems to bother you. Why?

        • Why does there have to be an alternative?

          Well, I guess there's always* a worse option...

          What NYC and what it will become is determined by its geography, by available technology, and by population movements. If New York can only function with more subways but New Yorkers can't pay for it, then the city will slowly decay.

          The city alone would sit comfortably as the #3 state in terms of GDP, so they can and apparently now are deciding to afford it. So fret not, those un american city types will continue to exis

          • Why does there have to be an alternative?

            Well, I guess there's always* a worse option...

            No, there is simply often no option at all; that is, economics and technology determine outcomes, and government intervention can't change it.

            The city alone would sit comfortably as the #3 state in terms of GDP

            And that's why attempting to change NYC's future through government intervention is futile. It's like trying to stop a sixteen wheeler with police tape before it goes off a cliff.

    • The subway’s cost-induced construction paralysis becomes more severe with every passing decade. We must learn from history in order to break it.

      In different words, subways are too expensive to build and maintain and voters are not willing to approve either the fare increases or the tax increases to pay for them. It's unclear what the authors want to "learn" from that. In fact, it's more likely that more subway lines will get closed over time, instead of new ones getting opened.

      But what then? The city gradually grinds to a halt as people can't actually get around? They might be expensive but there's not a whole lot of other options for a dense urban environment.

      • But what then? The city gradually grinds to a halt as people can't actually get around? They might be expensive but there's not a whole lot of other options for a dense urban environment.

        Cities are in an equilibrium between the cost of infrastructure and the benefits of proximity, and there are diseconomies of scale that limit the size and complexity of cities. As the article indicates, NYC may be at a point where the cost of new infrastructure isn't justified by its benefits; that is, if they raise taxes f

  • by DontBeAMoran ( 4843879 ) on Monday April 16, 2018 @03:53PM (#56447819)

    There's already way too many Subways, just like there's too many Starbucks, too many McDonald's, etc.

  • Huh? This is an immutable law, or just what you write when you aren't sure what you wrote won't offend someone?

    Gawd, now my American History AND World History teachers are spinning in their graves.

  • They are already broke ;)

    Just my 2 cents ;)
  • The shmucks decided to make it pretty.

    So they built HUGE stations, with ceilings that are 30ft above the tracks. I could see making them wider, but the idiots made them tall. Minimal benefit for massive expenses.

    And they build these huge monstrosities deep underground.

    The subway stations accounted for most of the cost over runs.

    • by ghoul ( 157158 )

      They were meant to double as bomb shelters hence the extra space for breathing air

  • "Alarmingly crowded cars and platforms?" Are you sure about that? [youtube.com]
  • by known_coward_69 ( 4151743 ) on Monday April 16, 2018 @04:13PM (#56447939)

    The subways were originally built by private companies but the fare was set by the city. This caused financial problems as costs rose.

    After a while these companies went bankrupt and now they along with the commuter railroads who were also originally private companies were all bought out by the state and turned into the MTA. A state sponsored private corporation that the state, the city and other counties control.

    In the 80's the private companies who ran the bus system were also integrated into the MTA

  • There was an attempt to expand the system, but it was never explained why the workers packed their equipment, and just rejoined the crowded surface.

    A few nights later, one late night talk show host mentioned something along the lines: There is that awful smell of piss in the subway, and it is never going away
     
    There may be a connection between the two.

  • Once NY implemented taxi medallions to restrict the trade organized crime took over the business. Subways compete with taxis so I suspect heavy "lobbying" was done to curtail new projects. And until Uber toppled the medallion cart a single medallion was worth well over a million dollars. They're still selling for about two hundred thousand but a far cry from their former glory.
    • by GlennC ( 96879 )

      You're correct. Taxis had nothing to do with it, since the idea of the subway predates the automobile, and both are targeted toward different user groups.

      At least, that's what I think your pro-Uber anarcho-capitalist rant seems to say,

    • don't let the thought of civic duty, quality of life get in the way of license revenue.. - Bureaucrats

  • Fat hobos got too lazy to go down stairs to pee, so more subways not needed.

  • by natd ( 723818 ) on Monday April 16, 2018 @05:24PM (#56448455)
    Sydney, a fairly low density sprawl of some 5m people all trying to get to a single hub (on the east side) made a valiant start on a subway system in the late 1800's and then....stopped pretty much. Some original platforms and entire stations have never been used and some terminals were just meant to be a temporary 'breather'. I envy cities like Tokyo, London and indeed NYC for what seems to me the possibility to pick a destination in the city and 'just got there' pretty quickly in a way that's impossible in Sydney. Here, it's the total self-interest that has permeated both sides of politics. What's the point in a politician sticking their neck out for a 10+ year build when someone else might get the thanks down the line? That said, there is actually a decent new line being constructed now, but it's a drop in the ocean and no more seem to be in the planning, instead stupid light rails that are slower than walking in some cases, and certainly slower than a taxi or driving. Perhaps NYC has gone the same way, but at least you got a good start.
  • ,,,the subway system? I'm assuming that subway rides are subsidized, that the fare does not cover the operation of the subway system. Riders pay $5 for a fare, but the actual cost to provide that fare is more, maybe 1.5-3x more.

    What would a fare on the NYC subway cost if it payed to operate the subway?

    I'm not opposed to mass transit subsidies, either. Lowering the price to get people into mass transit is a worthwhile goal, but if you let the subsidy get out of control it distorts the economics and you wi

    • by natd ( 723818 ) on Monday April 16, 2018 @06:28PM (#56448845)

      $20 billion would put 5000 new electric cabs on the street and pay each driver $50k for the next 26 years.

      So that's an extra 5000 extra cars on the city roads, inefficiently moving people one at a time through slightly worse traffic than current. I haven't even attempted to do the numbers but I've a feeling this would be a non starter as a replacement for mass transit. I would however say that the future of transport will be a hybrid approach. Trains can still play an important role complimented by medium and mini autonomous vehicles + feet for the last mile.

    • by Crass Spektakel ( 4597 ) on Monday April 16, 2018 @07:06PM (#56449017) Homepage

      comparing 5000 cars with a subway is wrong because the cars and trains aren't the expensive part, the streets and tunnels and railways are.

      comparing 500 miles of street with 500 miles of subway is right.

    • More than they currently do. What would be the cost of driving if it was self funded?

    • ,,,the subway system? I'm assuming that subway rides are subsidized, that the fare does not cover the operation of the subway system. Riders pay $5 for a fare, but the actual cost to provide that fare is more, maybe 1.5-3x more.

      What would a fare on the NYC subway cost if it payed to operate the subway?

      I'm not opposed to mass transit subsidies, either. Lowering the price to get people into mass transit is a worthwhile goal, but if you let the subsidy get out of control it distorts the economics and you wind up with funding shortfalls because you're dependent on outside support.

      Is it possible NYC's subway is approaching the point of being not economically viable? If it takes $20 billion to fix it right, is there a better transportation system that could be bought for that kind of money? $20 billion would put 5000 new electric cabs on the street and pay each driver $50k for the next 26 years. I'm not saying its better, but once the investment sizes are taken into considering it makes sense to think outside the box.

      Would people be willing to pay $10 or $20 per fare for a system that self-funded, including upgrades and expansions? I bet a lot would switch to cabs or Uber for that money.

      In America our physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, power lines, utility lines, etc) are crumbling. NYC subway is no exception to America's crumbling infrastructure problem. NYC subway issue is part of a national problem with our infrastructure that everyone recognizes and agree that something must be done. Good luck fixing America crumbling infrastructure considering the national budget will expand by over 1.5 trillion dollars in a few years because of the recent tax cuts. There is little political wil

    • by jareth-0205 ( 525594 ) on Tuesday April 17, 2018 @07:49AM (#56451245) Homepage

      If it takes $20 billion to fix it right, is there a better transportation system that could be bought for that kind of money? $20 billion would put 5000 new electric cabs on the street and pay each driver $50k for the next 26 years. I'm not saying its better,

      I mean, good, because it's very plainly very much worse. Subway trains carry hundreds of passengers each. Tens of thousands per hour at the very least. Adding 5000 cabs, even if they all took several people and ran constantly, is a drop in the ocean. Even if they could travel as fast as trains, which on the congested roads they just can't. Vehicles are nowhere near as efficient as trains.

      People take up finite physical space. Unless you want to redefine who travels where, there are a limited number of ways to do that. Thinking outside the box is not magic.

  • How can anybody building anything in New York with all the regulations and "families" making sure they get a piece of your pie?
  • The central concept of mass-transit is fundamentally flawed and this should be factored into decisions for its expansion.

    Mass-transit suffers from a major utilization problem in that to be attractive to riders, it must be reasonably fast, but also be easily accessible.
    A mass-transit system with a small number of stops can run faster, but many people will refuse to use it due to the lack of accessibility.
    The problem is that the more stops that are added to increase the accessibility, the slower overall
    • The solution is called an "Express Train". For traveling short distances, you hop on the local train. For traveling long distances you take the express. You can even have multiple kinds of express train:

      1. Simple express that only hits major stations.
      2. Half-express that hits local stations in one half but expresses on the other half (with a mirror twin that serves the opposite halves).
      3. Skip-stop trains that stop at every other station or every third station (with 1-2 other trains that mirror the behavio

      • by dgatwood ( 11270 )

        A better approach, IMO, is what I call the parallel express, or zipper express (because it resembles a giant zipper). You have an express line that makes every fourth stop or so, and then you have parallel lines with a larger number of slower trains on parallel lines timed to depart and arrive at the same time as the express trains do, so that passengers on one can switch quickly to the other and vice versa. Depending on which train you're on, you either get off at the stop before or after your desired s

  • I assume the same reason as everywhere else; because Jared got caught diddling kids and having an HD full of kiddie porn.
  • I major factor that stymies expansion is the high cost of construction in NYC due to the labor unions. This has been mentioned elsewhere, it takes twice as much money than it does to build similar tunnels of similar complexity and difficulty in cities such as Paris.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/28/nyregion/new-york-subway-construction-costs.html [nytimes.com]

  • I think the main problem is the rising costs regarding underground construction, due higher safety standard and expected comfort for the passengers.
    If you look at the construction of tunnels the death rate between workers was really high, and of course problems with absestos and dirt produced during the boring process wasn't cosidered. Add to this the fact that nowadays a station not equipped for people on wheelchair or without heating isn't a viable oprion, and of course the costs of building are high.
  • The article didn't go into the reasons why construction costs (even after adjusting for inflation) have gone up so much. A lot of it is that the city is more developed now, so new lines can't be built using the same techniques as the earlier ones. The old subway lines were mostly cut and cover; that is, you dig out the surface, put a subway a few feet under the street, and rebuild the top when you are done. That's not feasible now, so all the new lines involve deep tunneling, a much more expensive process.

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