Creeping Systemization

by Don Friedman on September 13, 2016


Broadway and 38th Street, cut open for construction of the BMT Broadway line. Note the collection of pipes and conduits.

This New York Times article on the condition of our streets and our under-street infrastructure, Why Are New York’s Streets Always Under Construction?, is a good basic explanation of the topic. There’s an interesting sidelight to the topic, which is how things got that way.

Before large-scale infrastructure, city streets were just roads. Maybe they were dirt, maybe paved, but nothing to them beyond transportation. The invention of sewers and municipal water supply, which are irretrievably tied together*, changed that and now there were two sets of pipe networks below the streets. The sewer pipes were often small masonry tunnels, but that doesn’t change the idea. This was thousands of years ago, so under-street infrastructure is nothing new.

With industrialization, all sorts of new networks were put under the street, either from the start like gas pipe for lighting, or after an above-ground debut, like telephone wires. The list includes gas pipe, electrical conduit, telephone and telegraph cable, steam, pneumatic tubes for communication, and cable TV. Then we started putting big things below streets: railroads, subways, and vehicular tunnels.

At no point did anyone say: the streets really aren’t the same thing anymore. They’re not simply patches of earth that we’ve excluded from the built-up area of the city, they’re paths for multiple networks each of which has its own maintenance requirements and its own vulnerabilities to weathering and damage. If we were starts from scratch, we might do things differently. We might, for example, create shared utility trenches so that street cuts would not be necessary for repairs and upgrades, and to allow vibration-resistant supports for the pipes and conduits. Or maybe we wouldn’t, and we’ll never know because we’re not starting from scratch. The street was never meant to be a utility system, but it has gradually become one.

* You can’t supply water unless it has a drain to go to; tire’s not much point installing sanitary drains if you don’t have running water to flush with.

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