The Two Extremes of Subway Planning

by Don Friedman on September 13, 2017

An accidental but informative juxtaposition: planning to make the entire city a one-fare zone in 1920 by building a lot of new subway lines and the decay of subway development after World War II. The Second Avenue subway is, of course, a symbol of the change in fortune: it was first planned in 1920 but the first segment only opened this year.

New Yorkers obsess about the subways for a simple reason: they are what make the city possible in its current form. Manhattan is too dense and receives too many commuters during the day for any other form of transportation to work. Without the subways we’d need more roads and parking, and more bridges and tunnels across the Hudson*, East, and Harlem rivers. We’d need to reduce the density of Manhattan overall and redistribute the people and businesses outward from the center. In short, we’d need to make New York less like New York and more like other U.S. cities. That’s not the end of the world, but it certainly would be a loss.

If we crassly set aside the fact that subways are far cleaner to operate**, and free up the streets for people and bikes, and don’t require deconstruction the city; if we look at subways from purely a money-making perspective for society as a whole, they allow the vast wealth-creating and wealth-defining apex forest of skyscrapers to cover half of Manhattan. In other words, this is a topic where ecological concerns are aligned with real-estate concerns. That’s as extreme a pairing as the two articles linked to above.


* Yes, I know that the NYC subways don’t go across the Hudson to New Jersey. But if we didn’t have the subways to allow people coming in to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Penn Station to get around the city, fewer people would commute in by train and bus.

** The amount of energy used is far cleaner to produce as electricity, even fossil-fuel-created electricity, than in internal-combustion engines. The amount of energy needed for moving a train is far less than that needed to move the equivalent number of people in cars.

Previous post:

Next post: