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Under the Ground: New York’s Subways

New York has long been known as having the finest mass transportation network in the United States, and in fact is only third in terms of daily use in comparison to Moscow and Japan’s metro systems. While the London Underground may be the oldest in continuous use, New York has the most extensive subway in the world, connecting every far flung neighborhood in the city to Manhattan’s bustling heart. While Staten Island lacks a direct route to the city center, it too has a rapid transit railway that links with the ferry lines to lower Manhattan’s docks. Yet very few know much about the long history of the subway and how it came to be the lifeblood of all New Yorkers. While the taxi remains a prominent image of New York, it is the subway that has tied together a city of over 8 million.

New York’s major transportation companies rode heavily on the streetcars which traversed most of the city’s older neighborhoods in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. The average clang and whistle of a streetcar was a daily occurrence on the Brooklyn Bridge, long before any subway was considered. However, the need to ease the overly congested streets, which still played host to horse-drawn carriages and omnibuses was a pressing concern on the Tammany government at the turn of the century. While the railroad industries were booming, connecting towns way out on Long Island and further west into New Jersey and onto Philadelphia, native New Yorkers were still pressed with the cumbersome process of having to cooperate with often dangerous ferries and jammed streetcars. Private investors intent on controlling different railroads in each borough were quickly organized and established. While some subways merely existed as above ground trains, connecting the once rural areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn, others were designed to go underground.

Even at such an early time in New York’
s history, the growing metropolis was incredibly overbuilt by 1890, and driving rail lines through the city would have required extensive demolition of existing buildings. The newly established Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT), the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT), and the Independent Subway (IND) all quickly took efforts to ensure their ridership would be able to safely enter Manhattan and not disrupt the hundreds of homes and businesses above. The answer was the cut and cover method, where the street itself would be torn up so tracks could be inlaid below the surface. After construction was finished, street could be quickly patched up again for use. Once the major lines servicing Manhattan were built, streetcars slowly faded out of usage as the subway became the more comfortable mode of travel.

Subway construction quickly grew deep into the outer boroughs, linking former distant farmlands into newly burgeoning urban neighborhoods. When the cut and cover method couldn’t be employed, the elevated track was utilized. Although elevated tracks are less common in the subway then they were, the large steel hulks still dominate the main thoroughfares in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. Manhattan’s major avenues also housed elevated lines up until the 1950’s, but their constant noise and rambling made them heavily disliked by the passersby below. Their demolition signaled the end of modern subway construction for the city. The automobile was siphoning off ridership and the population increase in far more distant suburban enclaves almost left the subway teetering on bankruptcy.
Yet, despite a harsh existence during the 1960’s and 1970’s when crime ran rampant on all the city’s major subway lines, the consolidation of the privately owned trains helped to bring about a new organized transit service. The Metropolitan Transit Authority became the flagship agency for all NYC based transit. By joining the Long Island Railroad and the Metro-North Railroad, the city subway was able to evade bankruptcy and survive into the next decades where it has seen a renaissance in ridership. Today, its trademark Helvetica signage, mosaic tiles, and the Metrocard have come to define America’s first rapid transit subway network.

Yet, despite a harsh existence during the 1960’s and 1970’s when crime ran rampant on all the city’s major subway lines, the consolidation of the privately owned trains helped to bring about a new organized transit service. The Metropolitan Transit Authority became the flagship agency for all NYC based transit. By joining the Long Island Railroad and the Metro-North Railroad, the city subway was able to evade bankruptcy and survive into the next decades where it has seen a renaissance in ridership. Today, its trademark Helvetica signage, mosaic tiles, and the Metrocard have come to define America’s first rapid transit subway network.
What does the future hold for the subway you may ask? While lines do get cut occasionally or rerouted, the New York City subway is still on the move with new construction. The Second Avenue line is finally underway, having originally been postponed since the Great Depression, it will essentially replace the former and now demolished Second Avenue elevated line and in turn will decrease congestion on the Upper East Side’s Lexington Avenue trains. The 4, 5, and 6 trains remain the most crowded in the system but Mayor Bloomberg’s administration has made it a priority to keep this project on track for completion within ten years. Bigger projects outside of New York City are also expanding commuter rail lines to allow more trains into the city via Grand Central Terminal and Pennsylvania Station. Yet, there is still a wealth of history under the surface when it comes to the subway. If you’re planning a trip to New York, look into Uncle Sam’s New York Tours at www.UncleSamsNewYork.com for more information on walking tours that will give you and your friends and a family a glimpse into New York’s past above and below. Keep riding the rails!

Want to find out more about the subways and NYC history? Visit us at Uncle Sam’s New York Tours and book your walking tour today to experience New York City like a local.

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