Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobileby Taras Grescoe
Taras Grescoe rides the rails all over the world and makes an elegant and impassioned case for the imminent end of car culture and the coming transportation revolution
"I am proud to call myself a straphanger," writes Taras Grescoe. The perception of public transportation in America is often unflatteringa squalid last resort for those with one too/b>
Taras Grescoe rides the rails all over the world and makes an elegant and impassioned case for the imminent end of car culture and the coming transportation revolution
"I am proud to call myself a straphanger," writes Taras Grescoe. The perception of public transportation in America is often unflatteringa squalid last resort for those with one too many drunk-driving charges, too poor to afford insurance, or too decrepit to get behind the wheel of a car. Indeed, a century of auto-centric culture and city planning has left most of the country with public transportation that is underfunded, ill maintained, and ill conceived. But as the demand for petroleum is fast outpacing the world's supply, a revolution in transportation is under way.
Grescoe explores the ascendance of the straphangersthe growing number of people who rely on public transportation to go about the business of their daily lives. On a journey that takes him around the worldfrom New York to Moscow, Paris, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Bogotá, Phoenix, Portland, Vancouver, and PhiladelphiaGrescoe profiles public transportation here and abroad, highlighting the people and ideas that may help undo the damage that car-centric planning has done to our cities and create convenient, affordable, and sustainable urban transportationand better city livingfor all.
“All the cities we admire most in the world--the places young people want to live--boast great public transit systems or are in the process of building them. Taras Grescoe explains why: there's nothing more civilized than a great subway, or a bus rapid transit system, or a squad of ferries, or any of the other ways we've learned to move ourselves around urban space. As this splendid account makes clear, a car isn't liberation: not needing a car is liberation!” Bill McKibben, author Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
“Grescoe presents a strong and timely argument for moving metropolitan motorists away from their cars.” Publishers Weekly
“[Straphanger] is rife with bits of interesting trivia, and it almost reads like a travelogue as the author revels in the wonders of his diverse destinations. With a smooth, accessible narrative style…each chapter is packed with important information… A captivating, convincing case for car-free--or at least car-reduced--cities.” Kirkus
“Entertaining and illuminating...Grescoe's adventurous, first-person inspection of the world's latest high-tech transit systems keeps readers engaged while underscoring the importance of developing greener forms of transportation.” Library Journal
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Read an Excerpt
Any time we don't have crowding during rush hour, there'll be a receiver sitting in the mayor's chair and New York will be a ghost town. Why, they talk about the rush hour and the crash and noise. Why, listen, don't you see that's the proof of our life and vitality? Why, why, that is New York City!
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, 1943
1. The Subway that Time Forgot
New York, New York
Something impossibly big and powerful was moving beneath the city.
In a portable office at a construction site in Chelsea, I could already sense its presence as a low rumbling rising through the soles of my rubber boots. As I rode a steel cage fifteen stories down a circular abyss, the physical shudder became an all-encompassing roar. The elevator touched down on the floor of a high-ceilinged chamber blasted out of gray rock, where a makeshift factory was abuzz with activity. Beside me, an arc welder's torch cracked and sizzled; a crane hoisting stacks of precast concrete overhead emitted piercing beeps; a construction train juddered to a halt and shook a couple of dozen tons of broken rock onto a conveyor belt. Underneath it all, the earth-rattling roar never abated. At the chamber's north end, where the ceiling lowered into parallel tubes as smooth and round as twin shotgun barrels, the tunnel on the right thrummed like Hades' didgeridoo. It was hard to shake the feeling that a living thing had been unleashed, and was gnawing its way through the bedrock of Manhattan.
"It's up ahead, about a thousand feet!" my guide yelled into my ear. Rich Redmond, a consulting engineer for New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), and the man responsible for day-to-day operations on this site, walked ahead of me into the tunnel. I squinted into the distance, but the tube darkened and narrowed at the limits of my vision. As my mind conjured visions of sandworms and minotaurs, I followed Redmond into the gloom.
We splashed through murky water that purled around the ties of a single railway track, a rivulet constantly fed by groundwater seeping through the concrete walls. Ahead of us, the end of the tunnel was plugged by a vibrating disc fitted with red and green lights. Just as moving forward was becoming physically painfulit sounded like the world's biggest wood chipper was grinding its way through a petrified forestthe roar stopped. Redmond paused and shouted back: "They must be done with the shove. If you want to see it, now would be a good time!" Quickening our pace, we came to the end of the line: a floor-to-ceiling framework of horizontal walkways and vertical ladders, draped with a cat's cradle of coiled wires and dangling tubes.
The monster at the end of the tube was a Herrenknect Double Shield tunnel-boring machinea TBM for short. "This is the trailing gear," explained Redmond, as we clambered aboard the back end of the machine. "It's about three hundred and fifty feet long; it houses the ventilation, the pumps, the electrical systems." Custom-made for the job at a workshop in Germany, the thousand-ton TBM was so massive that it arrived in New York in three separate transatlantic shipments; reassembling it, once it had been lowered down the excavation shaft, took two and a half months. The machine's immediate goal was the cavern of a new station at Thirty-fourth Street. From there, it would veer from Eleventh Avenue, boring under Penn Station's Amtrak tunnels, before connecting to the 7-line platform at Times Square. The 7-line extension, as the project was known, would ultimately allow New Yorkers to commute to jobs at the Javits Center and elsewhere on the far West Side.
Weaving through pipes and beams, we came to the TBM's nerve center, a small booth where an operator in green coveralls sat in front of computer screens monitoring the monster's progress. "The screens show the thrust, applied pressure on the rock, and the torque of the machine," said Redmond. Guided by GPS, lasers, and radar, the operator was responsible for adjusting hydraulic levers to keep the machine's cutting-head on course.
Though it is made of metal and powered by electric motors running on 13,000 volts, the tunnel-boring machine moves like a living organism. Its rotating cutting-head resembles the circular maw of a lamprey eel, with forty-four spinning discs of alloy in the place of pointed teeth. Bracing itself against the tunnel walls with two convex grippers, the machine uses pistons to force the cutting-head forward; the crushed rocks fall into chutes behind the discs and are ferried away by a central conveyor belt. When the TBM has completed a five-foot "shove" into solid rock, the grippers are released, and, like a colossal caterpillar, the machine shifts its entire thousand-ton bulk forward by lifting and dropping its multiple feet.
Climbing a ladder, Redmond and I ducked beneath the ceiling of the tunnel, and scuttled toward the business end of the TBM. Three workers in hardhats and overalls were on their sides, grunting and cursing as they tightened the bolts on a curved, five-foot-wide segment of precast concrete; a half-dozen such segments made one complete circle of tunnel wall. On a good day, said Redmond, the machine could complete a shove in half an hour, lengthening the tunnel by 60 feet over three eight-hour shifts. On a bad day, when unexpected conditions were encountered, everything ground to a halt. As we backtracked through the trailing gear, Redmond reached into an open rail car and passed me an arrowhead-shaped piece of broken rock, flecked with glints of mica. "This is the muck train," he yelled. "Muck is vernacular for mined rock. You're holding a piece of pure Manhattan schist in your hands." The TBM makes short work of the large-grained whitish-gray rock, as it does granite, which accounts for much of the bedrock undergirding the skyscrapers of New York. In less predictable ground, however, other techniques are necessary.
"We ran into water-bearing glacial material at the very start of tunneling," said Redmond. "We had to drill holes and run tubes from the surface, fill them with liquid brine, and use a freezer plant to bring them down to thirty below zero. They basically turned the soil into a giant block of icewhich made it solid enough to mine." Once the freezer was turned off, grout was injected between the concrete walls and the rock, sealing the tunnel against seeping groundwater.
All around us were sandhogs, New York's legendary urban miners, broad-shouldered, stocky men in jeans and safety vests thoroughly begrimed with gray slurry. The sandhogs refer to the tunnel-boring machine as "the mole"a nickname that is not entirely affectionate. For generations, the power behind the cutting-head was almost entirely human. Since laying the foundations of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1872, the sandhogs have dug every important sewer, water, and train tunnel in the city. These storied laborers, many of them Irish, African American, and Italian, dug the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, shored up the collapsing Trinity Church, and excavated the city's subway lines, blasting with dynamite, tightening bolts with 75-pound wrenches, often clearing away muck with their bare hands. Working in pressurized tunnels when they dug beneath New York's riverbeds, they died by the dozens in cave-ins and catastrophic blowouts.
The sandhogs are still a force to be reckoned with beneath the streets of New York. An Irish flag hangs at the entrance to the excavation shaft, and before digging on the 7-line extension could begin, the city's new Roman Catholic archbishop paid a visit, tracing the sign of the cross over bowed hardhats. Automation, which began when New York's first TBM was lowered into the shaft of the Third Water Tunnel in 1970, has been both a blessing and a curse. With the coming of the "mole," the most dangerous part of the sandhogs' jobs, digging into potentially unstable ground with picks, shovels, and percussion drills, was eliminatedbut so were a good number of jobs. At the turn of the last century, it took almost 8,000 men, working for two dollars a day, to excavate New York's first subway lines. Today's sandhogs are paid far moreover $100,000 a year, with benefitsbut only a few dozen are needed on each eight-hour shift. The mole, the steam-powered hammer to the underground miners' John Henry, has turned out to be the biggest, toughest sandhog of them all.
Around the world, hundreds of such machines are now at work, chewing through geology in an unprecedented push to increase human mobility. In Beijing, Madrid, Delhi, and Los Angeles, TBMs are drilling beneath the feet of urbanites, in one of the most astonishing bursts of transit infrastructure building in decades. As the planet enters a new phase of urbanization, cities are looking to advanced transit systems as the way out of congestion, pollution, and economic stagnation. The mole may have taken the danger, and thus the glamour, out of tunnel digging, but it is allowing cities to build new lines on time and on budget, with no loss of human life. The fact that New Yorkwhich for decades stood alone among great cities in that its total track mileage was actually decreasingis finally digging a new tunnel, is a sign of the times. After half a century of freeway building, the subway is back.
If all goes well, Redmond explained to me as we rode back to the surface, the work would be completed some time late in 2013. According to its critics, the 7-line extension, which will add exactly one stop to the existing network, is a "subway to nowhere"a waste of precious resources in recessionary times. It was intended to serve a stadium for the 2012 Summer Olympics, but when New York lost the bid to London, plans for a second stop for Hell's Kitchena neighborhood sorely in need of another stopwere dropped. The line will terminate at the largest undeveloped patch of real estate in Manhattan: the Hudson Yards, twenty-six acres of switches and marshaling tracks the MTA sold to Related Companies and Goldman Sachs in 2009 for a cool billion dollars. The developers plan to turn it into a $15 billion enclave of office towers, apartment buildings, a hotel, parks, and retail businesses. According to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, it is such long-term investments in infrastructure that will transform areas full of promise into "neighborhoods full of residents, park-goers, office workers and shoppers." Critics call it a boondoggleone that will mostly profit the mayor's developer friends. The price tag for extending New York's subway network by just one mile in the early years of the twenty-first century? Just over two billion dollars.
The project, by any calculus, is ridiculously expensive. Thanks to the tunnel-boring machine, the actual excavation work is not a big provider of employment for the city. But laying new subway trackeven a controversial project like the 7-line extensionmay be the smartest investment New York has made in its own future in decades.
Take the "T" Train
Were it not for the subway, New York as it is today would not exist. At a crucial time in the city's history, the engineers of this ingenious subterranean railroad cleared the streets of impossible congestion and decanted the population of the teeming, insalubrious tenements of the Lower East Side to the farthest corners of the boroughs. Because it was able to move so many people so quickly, the subway became the ultimate urban density amplifier, allowing the apartment buildings and office towers of Manhattan to be built side-by-side, and turning a 26-square-mile island of gneiss, marble, and schist into one of the world's greatest metropolises, where millions could live and trade services, goods, and ideas swiftly and efficiently.
Given how badly it was neglected in the twentieth century, it's a miracle that New York's subway survived into the twenty-first at all. In the mid-1950s, when the underfunded system's rolling stock was already forty years old, the city adopted an official policy of deferred maintenance, kicking off a long decline that tracked the city's sagging fortunes. The nadir came in the early '80s, as motors fell from brackets and trains burst into flames with depressing regularity. In one of the worst accidents, an antique signal failed, causing a Manhattan-bound local to slam into the back of a train waiting in a Brooklyn tunnel, killing the motorman and injuring 135 riders. When author Paul Theroux spent a week riding the rails in 1981, he discovered a Dickensian underworld of loopers (car-hopping purse-snatchers), skells (vagrants), shoeflies (undercover transit cops), and lushworkers (drunk-rolling pickpockets), where transit workers were burned alive in token booths for kicks.
"What is amazing," Theroux concluded, "is that back in 1904 a group of businessmen solved New York's transport problems for centuries to come. What an engineering marvel they eventually created in this underground railway! And how amazed they would be to see what it has become, how foul-seeming to the public mind." It was as though Theroux had stumbled upon a rusty musée mécanique in the jungle, kept running, barely, by the local tribespeople.
Something had to change, and it did. Shortly after Theroux's visit, the Transit Authority declared war on graffiti, hauling in cars nightly and scrubbing them clean of the day's accumulated Wildstyle tags. (Spray paint is now a thing of the past: the modern vandal has resorted to etching the windows with acid.) Antique and defective trains were replaced by Canadian-made cars that now average 690,000 miles between breakdownsone hundred times the '80s norm. In the last thirty years, $75 billion has been poured into the system.
Not that grit has entirely disappeared. Among the subways of the world, New York's is a utilitarian system. With a few exceptions, the stations are shallow: on the avenues, trains can be heard clattering through the sidewalk grates, raging uptown and down only a few yards beneath the feet of pedestrians. "There's the smelly essence of New York down there," intoned Manhattan's pop-poet laureate Lou Reed in the days of subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz, and the underground has retained its velvety stench of soot and sweat, mixed with the roasted nut odor of dust from overheated brake shoes settling on the puddles of rainwater between the tracks. On the concourses, freckled black with the chewing gum of the ages, pillars cut off sightlines, the ceilings seem to be only inches overhead, and the dry heat and jaundiced light enfold you, forcing you into a new, almost theatrical relationship with the city.
For anybody who grew up with stories of a system going to hell beneath a crumbling metropolis, it is remarkable just how well the New York subway works. Most trains are air-conditioned, and on the Grand Central platforms, giant overhead air-cooling units create an oasis that, on hot days, actually tempts you to linger underground. (I've spent a couple of Julys in New York. That people here rode the subways for most of the twentieth century without air-conditioning is a testament to their fortitude. That Parisians and Londoners are still asked to do without it should be considered cruel and unusual punishment.) These days, almost everybody takes the train; depending on the traffic, it can be faster than hailing a cab. Even billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg sometimes rides the express to City Hall on the Lexington Avenue lineperhaps as often as twice a week.1 Subway ridership, which bottomed out in 1977 at a billion rides a year, is once again approaching the record highs of the post-war years, when two billion trips were taken on the elevateds and subways.
Most important, New York is finally building more transit infrastructure. In addition to the 7-line extension, the East Side Access tunnels, which are being drilled beneath the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and the Seagram Building at a cost of $7.2 billion, will allow Long Island Rail Road commuters to arrive at Grand Central Terminal, saving a half hour of backtracking to East Side offices from the usual terminus at Penn Station. And the warren of corridors and stairs at Fulton Street in Lower Manhattan, which local transit campaigners have wryly dubbed a "funhouse that's no fun," is finally being rationalized into an easy-to-use east-to-west concourse. (The Access to the Region's Core Project, whose three tunnels between New Jersey and midtown Manhattan would have doubled the number of rush-hour commuter trains serving Penn Station, was canceled by New Jersey's governor in 2010. Since then, the Bloomberg administration has reportedly been at work on implementing a further extension of the number 7 line across the Hudson River to New Jersey, a plan that would make the line significantly more cost effective.)
But the most eagerly awaited project of them allone in the offing since the fare was a nickel and the Brooklyn "Trolley" Dodgers were hitting homers at Ebbets Fieldhas got to be the Second Avenue subway. When the widely hated elevated tracks on Second Avenue were torn down for scrap iron during the Second World War, and the Third Avenue El was demolished fifteen years later, it was with the understanding that a subway would soon replace them. Despite a number of promising starts, the Second Avenue subway never got built. The Lexington Avenue line, meanwhile, has had to do all the heavy lifting on the east side: its number 4, 5, and 6 trains carry 1.7 million people a dayequal to the ridership of Boston's "T," Chicago's "L," and Washington's Metro combinedmaking it the busiest transit line on the continent. Estimated price tag for the Second Avenue Subway, when it is completed, maybe, in 2016: seventeen billion dollars.
Does Manhattan really need this much subway? Definitely. In a week riding the Lexington Avenue line during the rush hour, I never got a seat. In fact, there wasn't a morning I rode when the trains weren't at crush load, which means 160 people were crammed into cars built for 110. Even with a train arriving every two minutes, commuters stand five deep on the main platforms. The infrastructure, meanwhile, is showing its age. At Union Square, the curved tracks make arriving trains squeal (at 98.6 decibels, the New York Post discovered, enough to cause hearing damage) and result in an 18-inch gap between train and platform at many doors. To solve the problem, early Industrial Age technology was mobilized: moving metal flanges snap into place from the edge of the platform when the train arrives. There is no way to decrease the headwaythe amount of timebetween trains; thanks to analog relays and signals that date from the 1930sand look, as one subway commentator told me, "like the switchboard at the Grand Hotel"trains are already running as close together as is safely possible. New York's subway may be running better than it has been in decades, but compared to many European and Asian systems, it is still in shockingly bad shape.
The rationale for the Second Avenue subway has always been a simple one: scooping up commuters on the far East Side will significantly reduce the atrocious crowding on the overtaxed Lexington. So far, however, work has been delayed by, successively, the Depression, the Second World War, the Korean War, and the fiscal meltdown of the '70s. This time around, work has actually begun beneath the streets of the Upper East Side, and the sandhogs have lowered a tunnel-boring machine into the launch box at 96th Street. Riding the "T," as the new line will be called, will likely be a disorienting experience for veteran straphangers: the bright, well-lit stations will have column-free mezzanines and dizzyingly high ceilingsmore like Washington's Metro than the claustrophobic stations New Yorkers are used to.
That is, if this apparently cursed subway ever sees the light of day. Given the state of civic finances, its future is by no means guaranteed. With the real estate taxes that are the source of much of the MTA's funding in serious decline, the authority announced in 2010 it was facing a $900 million budget shortfall, and would have to cut basic service on three subway lines. Which raises the question: If the MTA can't even keep existing lines running, how can it afford to build a new one?
In a city this compact, populous, and wealthy, sustained investment in transit should be a no-brainer. Only 5 percent of daily commuters to Manhattan's central business district arrive by car; the rest get to work by foot, bicycle, or on some form of transit. The subway is the sine qua non of Manhattan; it keeps the economy of the city, the state, and the entire Northeast thrumming. Shut it down, even for a day, and New York City turns into Podunk.
When it comes to transit, though, some people just can't seem to do the math. It never pays its own way, goes the refrain; or The crooks that run the system are making money hand over fist; or the classic We should take all that money and use it to build more roads. It is the kind of reasoning that has turned the Second Avenue subway, a simple replacement project that should have been completed half a century ago, into the line that time forgot.
As a brief look at the history of public transport in New York shows, it has ever been thus.
"To Harlem in Fifteen Minutes!"
Every city has its phantom tollbooths, spots on the map where the space-time continuum does not seem to apply. In New York, there is a certain subway train that, after the last passenger has gotten off, makes a brief stop at a ghost station: a spectacular, century-old chapel of rapid transit that has been sealed like King Tut's tomb since the end of the Second World War.
This is the old City Hall station, a legend among transit historians. In order to visit it, I had to promise a spokesman for New York City Transit that I would not reveal the numberor letterof the train that stops there. James Anyansi met me at the end of a damp subway platform in Lower Manhattan, and after showing his ID to the operator of a train emptied of its passengers, took me on a short, wheel-shrieking ride around a sharp bend in the track. The doors opened, and we emerged into a time capsule: a station of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (the IRT), looking much as it did when it first opened to the public on October 27, 1904.
It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the diffuse light cast by the frosted globes of multi-armed chandeliers. We were standing on a sweep of platform curved like a sultan's scimitar. Unlike the simple, post-and-lintel construction of most subway stations, there is not a straight line to be seen in the old City Hall station: a succession of arches curved out of sight, as in the crypt of a Romanesque church. Between the semicircular ribs, a herringbone pattern of glossy cream and emerald tiles bordered skylights of leaded glass; incandescent bulbs illuminated the station's gloomier corners. As the train pulled away, leaving us alone in the station, an elaborate bronze plaque on the other side of the tracks was revealed. Between seated damsels bearing the dates 1900 and 1904, it paid homage to "This first municipal rapid transit railroad ... . Authorized by the state / Constructed by the city," and bore the names of Cornelius Vanderbilt and August Belmont. We walked up a broad staircase to a domed mezzanine crowned by a glass oculus, once the spot where "ticket choppers" collected fares from commuters. Anyansi directed his flashlight beam up a staircase sealed by heavy metal doors. Had we been able to open them, we would have emerged next to the statue of Nathan Hale outside City Hall.
When the City Hall station opened, a New York World reporter called it "a cool little vaulted city of cream and blue earthenware like a German beer stein," which just about gets it right. In all New York, there is only one other place remotely like it: the time-warp temple of hygienic tile that is the Grand Central Oyster Bar. Both were designed by a Spanish architect known for bringing the technique of tiled vaulted ceilings common in Catalonia to America. During the Second World War, the station's magnificent leaded glass ceiling was blacked out in anticipation of air raids; it closed permanently in 1945, because its platform was too sharply curved to handle longer trains.
Waving his flashlight at waist height, Anyansi signaled the driver of the next train to pick us up. We rounded another curve, and, in a Viewmaster's click, were back from the rabbit hole to the workaday, no-nonsense domain of the MTA.
New York's early subway boasted other touches of elegance, most of them effaced during the twentieth century. Oak ticket booths, with elaborate bronze fittings, were supplanted by cages of Plexiglas and steel. Glass-bricked sidewalks that allowed light to pour in from street level were gradually paved over. More than one hundred arched iron and glass kiosks, modeled on Turkish summer houses, were removed when motorists complained they blocked their view of traffic. (The kiosk that shields commuters from rain and wind at Astor Place is a faithful contemporary re-creation.) In total, August Belmont Jr., the financier behind the IRT, allowed half a million dollars for ornamentation of the entire system, a paltry sum even thenhe spent more operating his private subway car, the Mineola, which featured mahogany from the Philippines, sliding leatherette curtains, overstuffed couches, and its own motorman.
The Sunday after its grand opening, one million New Yorkers lined up to ride the IRT, which bored north from City Hall along Broadway all the way to 145th Street in Harlem; queues at some stations stretched for two blocks. Its express trains reached speeds of 40 miles an hour, making it the fastest mass transit railroad in the worldit is still one of the world's only subways with dedicated express tracks. Public enthusiasm for the new system was genuine. In a chronically congested commercial center, freedom of movement had been a long time coming.
Gridlock is a function of New York's geography and history. It is, after all, an urban archipelago whose islands are divided by tidal estuaries and rivers; the charming muddle of narrow, frequently off-bias streets in Lower Manhattan is a legacy of colonial and even Dutch pre-industrial settlement. In 1811, state commissioners laid out a street plan that became the template for all future growth: 155 streets that spanned the island from river to river, crosshatched by eleven 100-foot-wide avenues, creating a gridiron that extended from Greenwich Village to Harlem, with little provision for green space. Broad north-south avenues were fretted with narrow, closely spaced streets, their width best suited for buildings of one to four stories. Broadway, which followed an old Native American footpath, threw a diagonal across the grid, introducing confusion at key intersections.
At a time when Central Park was still swampy bog and Harlem a distant village surrounded by the estates of wealthy farmers, the commissioners' plan must have looked like a fond dream. But, as the port boomed, so did New York's population, doubling from 1820 to 1840, and again from 1840 to 1860and yet again by 1890. With 3.4 million inhabitants, New York at the turn of the century was the second-largest city in the world, and by far the densest. With almost 5,000 people crammed into an average city block, the Lower East Side, staging ground for America's immigrants, was the most crowded patch of real estate on the planet.
In the first decades of the nineteenth century, New York had been a walking city, crossable on foot in less than half an hour. As the city stretched north of 14th Street, and travel times increased, the city's first transit entrepreneurs competed for passengers' nickels. Swiping an idea from the French, a stable owner in the 1820s introduced horse-drawn omnibuses running on fixed routes and schedules. The New York and Harlem Railroad, the world's first horse railroad, upped the ante by sinking iron rails into the Bowery: the tracks reduced friction, allowing more passengers to be pulled faster, and with fewer horses, than the poky omnibuses.
By 1860, when fourteen horse-railway companies were carrying 38 million passengers a year, conditions on the streets of Manhattan had become unbearable. As there were no separated lanes, traffic moved any which way, and progress was glacial. Such was the confusion of drays, butcher carts, and grocers' wagons that it was said crossing Broadway at Fulton Street could take twenty minutes. Mark Twain, writing for a California newspaper in 1867, captured the sheer folly of the situation:
You cannot ride unless you are willing to go in a packed omnibus that labors, and plunges, and struggles along at the rate of three miles in four hours and a half, always getting left behind by fast walkers, and always apparently hopelessly tangled up with vehicles that are trying to get to some place or other and can't. Or, if you can stomach it, you can ride in a horse-car and stand up for three-quarters of an hour, in the midst of a file of men that extends from front to rear (seats all crammed, of course)or you can take one of the platforms, if you please, but they are so crowded you will have to hang on by your eye-lashes and your toe-nails.
Getting any business done in New York, Twain concluded, involved devoting an entire day to fighting traffic.
In a city at a virtual standstill, schemes for improved transit proliferated like patent medicines, filling the pages of scientific journals and illustrated weeklies. Some of the follies actually got built. The West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway, a scheme straight out of Dr. Seuss, consisted of a single track suspended thirty feet above Greenwich Street (in what would later be known as the Meatpacking District) by slender wrought-iron stanchions. Steam engines hidden beneath the sidewalk powered loops of continuously whirring wire rope threaded through giant pulleys; passengers filed into a car, a gripman pulled a lever, and padded claws grasped the cable, jerking the car into motion along half a mile of track. The "rattletrap line," as the dailies dubbed it, was constantly breaking down, leading to comical scenes in which commuters stranded three stories above street level had to be rescued by ladder. After only two years of unreliable service, the entire apparatus was sold for $960 at sheriff's auction.
As long as William "Boss" Tweed ran Tammany Hall, efficient rapid transit didn't stand a chance. The impossibly corrupt commissioner of public works had a vested interest in keeping transit on street level: a major investor in omnibuses, Tweed made a fortune dispensing 999-year franchises to the owners of the horsecar lines. Despairing of political approval for a subway, and inspired by the success of London's underground, inventor Alfred Beach decided to build a subterranean railway in secret. A team of workmen, digging at night and carting away dirt in wagons from the basement of a clothing store at Warren Street and Broadway, managed to excavate a 300-foot-long tunnel without being detected. In 1870 Beach triumphantly unveiled his Pneumatic Railway. The curious waited in an underground parlor furnished with settees, chandeliers, and a grand piano, and then filed into a horseshoe-shaped car that fit snuggly into an 8-foot-diameter tube. A giant fan, used for ventilating mines, blew the car and its passengers down the tracks at six miles an hour; almost half a million people would eventually pay 25 cents a head to ride the Pneumatic. Tweed tried to bring suit against Beach, but shortly after the opening, Tweed was imprisoned for life on corruption charges. Unfortunately, the Panic of 1873, in which railroads across the continent failed, killed off investment in new schemes, and the Pneumatic was sealed up and forgotten. When sandhogs digging a subway line to Brooklyn forty years later broke into the subterranean parlor, where the piano still sat, they might as well have been Morlocks stumbling on a Victorian time machine.
The Pneumatic turned out to be an idea before its time: it would take a generation of in-fighting before construction of another underground railway began. In the meantime, New York had to make do with its balky surface transportation. Cable cars ran up many avenues, but they were notoriously dangerous. Electric trolleys, which began replacing horsecars in the 1880s, were soon ubiquitous, but their progress on Manhattan's crowded streets was always painfully slow. The stopgap solution for rapid transit was the elevated railroad, and soon the "Els" ran up four major avenues. They seemed like a natural solution in the laissez-faire nineteenth century: private enterprise could throw them up quickly and cheaply, without government help. By 1890, New York's trolleys and Els were carrying a billion passengers a year, more than all the other railroads in the Americas combined.
Widely used, Els were also widely hated. What's wrong with an El? Nothingunless it happens to run through your neighborhood. Brooklyn retains many stretches of elevated tracks, and to get an idea of what an intrusion they can be, I rode the Q train to Coney Island one afternoon. Four El tracks run right down the middle of Brighton Beach Avenue. At the best of times, strolling past the Russian delis and nail salons is an intense experience: the tracks overhead cast the street into perpetual gloom and amplify the honking and revving of cars and trucks at least twofold. I watched as a Manhattan-bound train arrived, its contrapuntal clacking mounting to a teeth-gnashing crescendo as the wheels screamed on the curve over Coney Island Avenue. When two trains went by at once, it was like being in a basement suite beneath Valhalla's bowling alley.
Living on Second Avenue in Manhattan in the 1890s must have been even more trying. The trains passing overhead weren't powered by electricity, but by coal. Pedestrians were splattered with axle grease, or blinded by iron filings from brake shoes, and chunks of burning coal routinely fell to the pavement. A visiting Australian travel writer complained it was like having an "ever-active volcano" overhead, and posed "a severe trial to the average nervous system." Though they reduced property values in their immediate vicinity, the Els succeeded, as the streetcars had before them, in reducing the extreme density of Lower Manhattan. Gradually, tenements spread northward past Central Park, as people moved to less crowded neighborhoods and rode to work downtown.
Building an underground railway was another matter, and opposition to Manhattan's subway came from all quarters. Property owners on Broadway feared foundations would be undermined and entire department stores swallowed up, and papers published scare stories about women suffocating in the pestilential atmosphere of the new London Underground. And citizens were afraidquite rightly, after decades of Tammany corruptionthat municipal involvement would mean sweetheart deals and kickbacks for developers and pols. Then, early one March, as the debate raged, a vicious nor'easter blew in from New Jersey, piling snow to the second floor of brownstones. Ferries stopped running, steam engines were extinguished, and piles of snow blocked the tracks of every horsecar and elevated line in the city. The commercial capital of the Western Hemisphere had been paralyzed after only two days of inclement weather. "New York," the Times marveled, "was as completely isolated from the rest of the world as if Manhattan Island was in the middle of the South Sea."
The Great Blizzard of '88 clinched the deal: New York would have its subway. The mayor came up with a formula by which private enterprise would build and operate the trains, with nominal ownership in the hands of the city. Though this put transit in control of the business elite and beyond effective democratic control, voters approved the formula in a referendum by a factor of 3 to 1. On February 21, 1900, August Belmont Jr. signed Contract No. 1, to build and operate the IRTat a guaranteed nickel farefor the next fifty years. One month later, an honor guard fired a 21-gun salute in City Hall Park. Between each volley, Joseph Pulitzer's paper reported, "the World's watchword, 'To Harlem in Fifteen Minutes,' ran from lip to lip and swelled into a splendid chorus."
It had been a long time coming, but New York's first subway was finally getting built.
The Second Avenue Saga
One hundred and ten years after the groundbreaking, the subway is still under construction. Joe Pecora wouldn't mind so much, but the work is being done right outside the front door of his restaurant.
The lunch rush was over at Delizia 92, a neon-fronted Italian restaurant at the corner of Ninety-second Street and Second Avenue that's been serving Upper East Siders calzones and cannolis since 1978. Pecora cast a baleful eye over the espresso on the table in front of him toward the sandhogs sipping filter coffee next to a rectangular scar in the pavement. Delizia 92, you see, has the misfortune to be located next to the launch box, where a tunnel-boring machine had just been lowered to start digging the first phase of the Second Avenue subway.
"They notified us by mail first," Pecora told me, "but we didn't really believe it was going to happen, because they'd started building the Second Avenue subway twice before and never finished it. Then the fences started going up." The construction, he said, was causing no end of grief. His electricity had been cut without warning, destroying valuable equipment. Vibrations turned hairline cracks in the floor into alarming gaps. Pipes in his basement burst. His clients couldn't find parking. "And it's going to be like this for the next seven years."
This stretch of Second Avenue once ran through Germantown, a multiethnic enclave of Germans, Hungarians, Russians, and Irish; the Marx Brothers grew up around the corner, in one of the tenements built after the El opened the neighborhood for development. When the El was torn down in 1942, Second Avenue began to get denser, as new high-rises were built in anticipation of the long-promised subway. This is not the Upper East Side of robber baron mansions and Madison Avenue boutiques; it remains home to such working-class institutions as the Heidelberg Restaurant and the half-century old Dorrian's Red Hand bar.
As head of the Second Avenue Business Association, Pecora gets to hear all the grievances. Several businesses have already shut down, and a hundred-year-old residential building had to be evacuated when it began to tilt dangerously. "The MTA is giving the store owners peanuts," complained Pecora. At least fifty-two tenants had already been relocated to make room for subway entrances.
It sounded like a classic case of big government ramming a mega-project down the throats of reluctant locals. But this time nobody involvednot even the organizer of the resistanceappears to be against the subway project itself. "Definitely, I think there's a need for it," said Pecora, "but they should compensate the businesses much better." And he just wished the station wasn't being built in his front yard. "The ideal place for the launch box would have been at Ninety-sixth Street." In other words, four blocks northright where Harlem begins.
The MTA, for its part, feels it's being more than fair. It has set aside $10 million to compensate those who want to move; if a tenant chooses a more expensive apartment, the MTA will pay the difference in rent for the next three and a half years. "The interesting thing," Michael Horod-niceanu, the president of the authority's capital construction company, told me, "is that we're bringing three hundred workers to that area on a daily basis. And a lot of them end up stopping in for a slice of pizza at Delizia." There are only a few stretches along Second Avenue, it turns out, where the tunneling will affect life on the surfaceand Delizia 92 happens to be on one of them. According to Peter Cafiero, the MTA's director of rail service design, "Any point we're coming up to the street, where the station areas are, we've got a highly concentrated visibility. But once we're drilling through rock with the tunnel-boring machine, most people won't even know we're there."
Compared to the initial round of transit construction in 1900, the work now being done on Second Avenue is positively painless. Half of the original IRT was the product of "cut and cover," a technique pioneered in building the subways of Budapest and Boston. Sandhogs literally ripped the tops off major thoroughfares, exposing and rerouting sewers and gas mains as they dug rectangular trenches down Broadway, Forty-second Street, and Fourth Avenue. Adjoining buildings had to be shored up, and wooden bridges built to support the weight of streetcars, which continued to roll over the heads of men laboring below. Accidents were frequent. A dropped candle ignited a quarter-ton of dynamite in Midtown; the resulting blast defaced Grand Central Terminal, and caused building facades to collapse into the crater, laying bare the bathtubs and boudoirs of dignified brownstones. Between explosions and tunnel collapses, forty-four men died building the first subway.
Were the long-term results worth the short-term pain? There is no question that the new system met an urgent need. In its first month, the IRT was handling 425,000 people a day, and newspapers were already bemoaning the birth of the "subway crush." Within four years of its opening, cars were packed 30 percent over capacity.
The subway had an even bigger impact on the shape of New York than elevateds and electric trolleys. The old walking city soon tripled in area. Realtors bought up farmland in northern Manhattan and the Bronx, building "new law" tenementsmore spacious and better ventilated than Lower East Side walk-ups, with airshafts and courtyardsfor working-class families. The "chariot of the poor" encouraged the creation of decent, walkable neighborhoodsplaces like Jackson Heights in far-flung Queens, conceived as a prototypical garden suburb (and later the lumpen Shangri-la of television, inhabited by the likes of Frank and Estelle Costanza). In the outer boroughs, virtually all new construction clustered within a quarter-mile of the tracks. By following the taproots of mass transit, the working poor were able to escape industrial squalor for greener pastures. Before the subway, over half of all New Yorkers lived in Manhattan; forty years later, only a quarter lived there, and Brooklyn had become the city's most populous borough.
While the subway reduced population density in Manhattan, it also intensified downtown commercial development. "The most spectacular consequence of the subway," observed William Parsons, its chief engineer, "has been the skyscraper." Without it, neither the Chrysler Building nor Rockefeller Center would exist: the horizontal technology of rapid transit, combined with a nineteenth-century breakthrough in vertical transportationthe safety elevator, first installed in a five-story building on Broadway in 1857made closely spaced skyscrapers truly practical. The underground railway enabled the astonishingly rapid shift of Manhattan's commercial center of gravity from Wall Street to Midtown, as Times Square and Grand Central were stitched together by the Forty-second Street Shuttle. Along with the federally funded irrigation system that built Los Angeles, the New York subway is considered the single greatest improvement to urban real estate ever undertaken.
And yet, from day one, many New Yorkers took the subway for granted. "While the crowds were still enthralled by the strangeness of it all," a New York Times reporter wrote not long after opening day in 1904, "the men on the trains were quietly getting out at their regular stations and going home, having finished what will be to them the daily routine for the rest of their lives. It is hard to surprise New York permanently." Familiarity with the trains quickly turned to resentment, producing one of Gotham's most durable tropes: that fat cats were making a fortune packing commuters into rattling sweatboxes.
There was truth to the complaint, at least in the early days. In 1913, the city signed "dual contracts" with the IRT and Brooklyn Rapid Transit, extending subway lines across the East and Harlem rivers and doubling track mileage. In the pages of his New York Evening Journal William Randolph Hearst fulminated against the deal made with the "Traction Trust," arguing for municipal control of the entire system. The real-life Citizen Kane was right about the dual contracts: they were a bad deal for the city, allowing the subway kings to rake in the nickels while leaving the city responsible for all the debt. But Hearst was mistaken about the profitsquite quickly, the subway turned into a money loser. By the 1920s, the "Traction Trust" was struggling to make interest payments on its capital debt and was forced to lay off thousands of guards and "ticket choppers."
Civic traditions of kvetching aside, the subway was a sweet deal for New Yorkers. For fifty years, anybody with five cents in his pocket could ride the train to Coney Island, Yankee Stadium, or Times Square. At that fare, commuting six days a week, the head of a working-class household had to devote only 1 percent of his gross annual income to transportation.2 Yet it was this nickel fare that doomed the subway as a moneymaking venture: inflation in the '20s led to a massive city transit deficit, and when ridership briefly declined during the Depression, the IRT went bankrupt. The cost of a ride only increased to a dime in 1948, long after it had risen in every other city in America.
For years, populist politicians had been proposing municipal ownership of the subway. Fiorello LaGuardia, first elected in 1933, oversaw the completion of the Independent Subway System (the IND), the last significant addition to the subway network in the twentieth century. Conceived as a municipally run alternative to the private lines, the "People's Subway" was great for Manhattan, but, outside of Queens, failed to foster much expansion into the outer boroughs. The IND's routes, starting with the Eighth Avenue subway, often paralleled and directly competed with existing private lines; at best they filled in gaps in the system. What's more, it was a financial disaster: for every nickel ride taken, the city lost nine cents. The IND's existence as an independent entity was short-lived. LaGuardia spearheaded the unification of the IND with the bankrupt private companies into a single system. (On today's subway, you know you're on the old IND if you're riding a train lettered from A to G. Numbered trains follow old IRT routes; generally speaking, trains lettered J to S follow the former Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit routes.) In 1940, LaGuardia donned a cap and as Motorman No. 1 took a ceremonial ride on the new, city-owned New York Transit System. For the past seventy years, the subway has belonged to the people of New York.
The idea that New York's subway was born out of private entrepreneurial genius is hyperbole; it was in fact the product of what would now be called a public-private partnership. The system could never have been built without municipal financing or New York's bond-raising capacity; the city gave August Belmont Jr. $35 million to lay the tracks and dig the tunnels, and another $1.5 million to buy the land for stations. And private companies ran the system for as long as it was profitableless than two decades. Yet even after private ownership ended, the ideology of business management prevailed. In the 1950s, Paul Windels, a Republican lawyer, helped create a highly bureaucratic agency, the New York City Transit Authority, that removed the subway from direct democratic control. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a state-level super-agency, took over operation of the NYCTA and the region's commuter railways in 1968. The hoary civic cliché that somebody was making money hand over fist from the straphangers' misery became even more entrenched when the policy of deferred maintenance sent the system into decline, and New Yorkers grew increasingly alienated from their own subway.
The real estate industry has long resisted the notion that property taxes should subsidize transit. This is the height of ingratitude, considering that the subway increased the values of apartment buildings, bringing fortunes to developers. "The subway represented an indirect municipal subsidy to the private construction industry," Clifton Hood cogently argues in 722 Miles, his history of the building of New York's subway. "Without violating the laissez-faire taboo against direct intervention in the private sector, city government helped provide decent accommodations for working-class families. The subway's enduring legacy was that the lives of New York's poorer citizens became fuller and more productive."
Back on Second Avenue, the long-delayed subway is still causing Joe Pecora no end of grief: the chain-link along the sidewalk, the vibrations, the heavy equipment being lowered into the launch boxthe disruption to neighborhood life is likely to continue until late in this decade. (In the meantime, you could do worse than dropping by Delizia 92 and placing an order. Pecora makes a mean spinach calzone.) But when the Second Avenue subway opens, it will handle a half-million passengers a day, providing long-needed relief to a system that has been overcrowded since the day it opened. For a city as compact as New York, digging a subway is essential surgery, worth the expense and short-term pain. The wounds are soon sutured, and when they heal, they leave the city stronger, more efficient, more bound together than before.
Highways are a completely different story. They are open wounds that never healand they tear cities apart.
The Meat-Ax and the Metropolis
A century ago, New York City was on its way to becoming a remarkably good place to live. Gracious apartment living, first pioneered in such Gilded Age upper-income buildings as the Stuyvesant Apartments (1869) on Eighteenth Street and the Dakota (1884) on Seventy-second, encouraged a dense, class-mixed urban environment, where working families lived within walking distance of their employers. The addition of Frederick Law Olmsted's Central Parkbased on the "People's Garden" in Liverpool, the first public urban parkprovided a welcome respite from the gridiron, and more block-sized parks were being created all the time. The wealthy Progressives of the City Beautiful movement successfully lobbied for civic art and enduring public monuments inspired by Classical architecture (and against ads in the subwaya battle they lost). Indoor plumbing, electric lights, and improvements in public health made the city a cleaner, more pleasant place to live. The trend was global: along with the Eixample of Barcelona, the Champs-Elysées in Paris, the Gold Coast in Chicago, the Recoleta in Buenos Aires, and the Bund in Shanghai, Fifth Avenue became a proving ground for the latest manifestations of elegant urbanism. New York's working class, meanwhile, was enthusiastic about the nascent "wonder city" of skyscrapers of Midtown, which seemed to embody the loftiest civic aspirations while maximizing efficient land use. The subway tied the metropolis together, and the visionary urbanists of the Regional Plan Association, founded in 1922 to rationalize the growing city, drafted ambitious plans to expand the subway (including a line along Second Avenue) and create a rail system that would allow people to travel throughout the region quickly, cheaply, and pleasantly. The future seemed very bright indeed.
Then something happened that would reshape the city like a slow-motion tsunami. It started slowly, with the appearance of a few curious, sputtering, backfiring flivvers, the playthings of wealthy dilettantes. By 1932, however, there were 790,000 motor vehicles in the city, and New York was again choking on its traffic. This time it was not butcher's carts and horsecars clogging the streets, but Fords, Chryslers, and Chevrolets. The greatest enabler of the automobile invasion would be Robert Mosesthe man who made the modern metropolis safe for the car.
It's possible to put a positive spin on the career of Moses, and recently, in a radical reassessment of his legacy, historians, curators, and journalists have been doing just that. Here is the authorized, sugar-coated biography of the man. Born to wealth in 1888, the recipient of a blue-chip education at Yale, Oxford, and Columbia, Moses campaigned against patronage in city government and pioneered the parkways to Long Islandoften by expropriating land from the wealthywhich allowed the working class to escape the sweltering city for Jones Beach and other coastal playgrounds of his making. He used New Deal funds to finance the awesome Triborough Bridge, and brilliantly employed the legal concept of the authority to guarantee an independent revenue stream from highway tolls, allowing him to fund further public worksamong them the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the world's longest suspension bridge when it was completed. As his influence grew, Moses brought the city the United Nations, two World's Fairs, and Lincoln Center, which jump-started the revival of the Upper West Side. His magnificent swimming pools conferred grandeur on poor neighborhoods, his parks and playgrounds helped the city breathe, and his one thousand mostly low-income apartment houses helped solve the housing problem for all New Yorkers. In his forty-four-year career, which spanned the administrations of five mayors and six governors, he built 15 expressways, 16 parkways, the West Side Highway, the Harlem River Drive, and Shea Stadium. He thought big, and got big things done: without his expressways, New York would be gridlocked into economic irrelevance. Robert Moses, from this perspective, was indeed the master builder of twentieth-century New York, a man who, in the words of one revisionist, "made Baron Haussmann look like a subcontractor."
Here's an alternative to the hagiography, gleaned from the pages of Robert A. Caro's masterful, and massive, biography The Power Broker. Raised in privilege, Robert Moses was always cushioned from real life; from the age of nine, he slept in a custom-made bed and was served dinner prepared by the family's cook on fine china. As Parks Commissioner, he swindled Long Island farmers and homeowners out of their land to build his parkwaysessentially cattle chutes that skirted the properties of the rich, allowing those well-off enough to own a car to get to beaches disfigured by vast parking lots. He cut the city off from its waterfront with expressways built to the river's edge, and the parks he built were covered with concrete rather than grass, leaving the city grayer, not greener, than it had been before. The ambient racism of the time hardly excuses his shocking contempt for minorities: of the 255 new playgrounds he built in the 1930s, only one was in Harlem. (Physically separated from the city by one of his highways, the playground featured trellises decorated with wrought-iron monkeys.) In the decade after the Second World War, he caused 320,000 people to be evicted from their homes; his cheap, sterile projects became vertical ghettoes that fomented civic decay for decades. If some of his more insane schemes had been realizeda highway through the sixth floor of the Empire State Building, the Lower Manhattan Expressway through today's SoHo, the Battery Bridge whose approaches would have eliminated Castle Clinton and Battery ParkNew York as we know it would be nearly uninhabitable. There is a name for what Robert Moses was engaged in: class warfare, waged not with armored vehicles and napalm, but with bulldozers and concrete.
Whichever version you acceptMoses the master builder or Moses the master villainone thing is clear: the man had no time for public transport, or the people who used it. He tore up the city's trolley tracks to improve traffic flow, and made the overpasses on his parkways a foot too low for buses to use, so only car owners could reach Jones Beach (Moses himself lived on Long Island). Ignoring the Regional Plan Association's recommendations, he refused to make room for transit tracks on bridges or in the center malls of highways, making it impractical to reach Idlewild Airport (later JFK International) and many other locations by train.
"By building his highways," Caro wrote in The Power Broker, "Moses flooded the city with cars. By systematically starving the subways and the suburban commuter railroads, he swelled that flood to city-destroying dimensions. By making sure that the vast suburbs, still rural when he came to power, were filled on a sprawling, low-density development pattern relying primarily on roads instead of mass transportation, he insured that that flood would continue for generations if not centuries, that the New York metropolitan area would beperhaps foreveran area in which transportationgetting from one place to anotherwould be an irritating, life-consuming concern." If the Second Avenue subway is only now getting built in the twenty-first century, it is because public funds were monopolized by Moses to build bridges and highways, rather than transit, during the twentieth.
Most critically, Moses, who never learned to drive and was chauffeured in an air-conditioned Packard limousine, ignored the emerging problem of gridlock. By making it easier for people to drive and to live in suburbs that could be reached by cars, he foredoomed the city to paralysis. He enabled the suburbanization of Long Island, where mass-produced, car-based suburbs like Levittown, built just off his Wantagh State Parkway, ate up villages and farmland. The Triborough Bridge was meant to solve New York's traffic problems; instead, congestion on all the city's other bridges actually increased in the months after it was built. Moses's bridges and city-spanning highways provided the first demonstration of the theory of induced traffic: build more highways, and they will fill up, almost instantly.
Perhaps Moses should be judged not for what he built, but for what he destroyed. The saddest story was East Tremont, in the heart of the Bronx. This working-class neighborhood of Jews, Italians, and Irish who had escaped the congested Lower East Side included a thriving strip of butcher shops, bakeries, delis, and movie palaces. The district's apartments were famously roomy and affordable; beautiful Art Deco buildings with streamlined facades lined the Grand Concourse, and were a short walk from the lake, tennis courts, and baseball diamonds of Crotona Park. Few families owned cars; an IRT line ran right to Manhattan's garment district, where most people worked. Then Moses drew a line on a map and declared East Tremont to be in the way of his seven-mile-long Cross-Bronx Expressway. In spite of protests, he refused to move the highway by even one block, boasting, "When you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat-ax." In theory, families had 90 days to leave their buildings; in practice, as soon as the top floor of apartments was vacated, his work crews would begin tearing off the roof. When the expressway was completed, East Tremont was riven by an uncrossable, 225-foot-wide swath of concrete. All told, 1,530 families were evicted, and a once vibrant neighborhood had to stand by as its heart was torn out.
Moses's blind spot was community, the little people who never showed up on his models and plans. Appropriately, it was those little people who eventually ruined him. In 1956, his plan to build a parking lot on Central Park's beloved Tavern-on-the-Green was foiled when a bulldozer driver refused to cross a line of well-dressed women with baby carriages, a scene reported by every major media outlet in the city. When he tried to have part of Greenwich Village declared a blighted slum, protests by residents reinforced his new image as a destroyer of communities. "There is nobody against this," he was heard to splutter when his plan to ram a four-lane roadway through Washington Square Park was foiled. "Nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of, a bunch of mothers."
One of those mothers, of course, was the great urban theorist Jane Jacobs. From her home on Hudson Street, the author and activist orchestrated theatrical opposition to Moses's projects, burning cars in effigy in Washington Square, and tossing the stenographer's paper around the stage of a public hearing to protest the building of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she pinpointed the appeal of such neighborhoods as Boston's North End and her own Greenwich Village, arguing that it was the disorderly vestiges of nineteenth-century street lifeshops and residences cheek by jowl, with the bartender sweeping his sidewalk keeping an eye on the neighbors' kids playing hopscotchthat made them safe and viable urban spaces. Small blocks, buildings of six stories and less, a mixture of commerce and residences, and lots of foot traffic, were not symptoms of blight, but vitality. In the car-loving, city-fleeing culture of the 1960s, Jacobs's prescriptions were heresy: she actually believed New York should make it harder for people to drive, on the grounds that dense neighborhoods function better when people rely on bikes, transit, and their feet.
In the long run, it is Jacobs's worldview that appears to be triumphing. After 1968, no new highway would be built in Manhattan, and a wave of grassroots protests killed highways in Baltimore, Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Philadelphia. Moses, meanwhile, lived to witness his Triborough Bridge Authority become a mere unit of the MTA, New York's bankruptcy, and his reputation destroyed by Robert Caro's biography. His grandson, the one person Moses really seemed to dote on, died on a highway when his car smashed into a culvert as he drove back to Long Island from Stanford University.
While Jacobs defended successful old neighborhoods, she never believed they should remain inviolate. Quite the contrary: she fought for the hundreds of subsidized apartments in the West Village Houses and, after she'd moved to Canada, dense mixed-income housing in Toronto's St. Lawrence neighborhood. Yet her writing has too often provided ammunition not only for the NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) movement but also for BANANAs (build-absolutely-nothing-anywhere-near-anything). Jacobs wasn't particularly interested in "heritage" buildings or specific architectural details. She fought for social complexity over the steamroller of modernist sterility, and for the people who make up a neighborhoodthe more diverse the better. Though her name has been invoked in fights against subway lines, she was a walker and a defender of transit.
If the century-old promise of North American cities as good places to live is finally being revived, it is exactly because mothers like Jacobs had the courage to oppose what people like Robert Moses spent their careers trying to impose: cities built for cars, rather than people.
On a Monday afternoon early in summer, I stood in the middle of Broadway, enjoying what felt like a lovely pedestrian city. The last time I'd been to Times Square, the sheer volume of people on the sidewalk regularly forced me to step off the pavement into oncoming traffic. This time around, seven blocks of Broadway were closed to traffic, and I spent a leisurely half hour picking my way among lawn chairs scattered through a vast pedestrian plaza, filled with New Yorkers from nearby offices eating lunch and tourists snapping pictures of the parading neon. Two days before, I'd walked up the middle of Madison Avenue, eating a fajita bought from a taquería stand located in a parking lane devoid of parked cars, a portion of seven miles of Manhattan streets closed to automobiles as part of the Summer Streets program.
Not everybody was happy about the lane closures. At Thirty-seventh Street, I overheard the driver of a Ford pickup complain to a cop, "The thing is, they're taking up two lanes of traffic!" He waved vaguely at the green bike lane and the benches at a pop-up café where a family was sipping iced drinks in the curb lane. "Don't get me wrong, it's nice and all, but one day an out-of-control truck is going to plow into those benches, and that'll be the end of that." He didn't look entirely displeased by the prospect.
If Manhattan's streets are more walkable than they have been in a century, it is largely thanks to Janette Sadik-Khan, the fast-talking commissioner of New York City's Department of Transportation, and the woman responsible for the city's 6,000 miles of roadways since 2007.
"New Yorkers are very passionate about their streets," Sadik-Khan told me, at a conference room on the ninth floor of 55 Water Street. A youthful-looking woman with gaminesque bangs, she is known for her rapid-fire delivery and command of figures. "At any given time, it feels like I'm dealing with over eight million traffic engineers, because everybody's got an idea of how the streets should be used. In the next twenty years, the city's going to grow by a million people. We're not going to be double-decking our road system. The only way we're going to be able to deal with the demand is by building more efficient mobility into our network. That means buses. That means bike lanes. And that means better walking environments. They really all go together."
Sadik-Khan gave me a quick rundown of the statistics: 95 percent of commuters get to Manhattan's central business district by transit, bicycle, or on foot. Fifty-four percent of New Yorkers don't even own a car. To cope with this reality, the DOT has created 200 miles of bike lanes in the last three years. In the Bronx, they have already introduced the Select Bus Service, an express route where prepaid fares speed up bus loading, and are consulting with underserved communities to introduce at least eight other rapid-transit bus corridors. New legislation will force the owners of commercial buildings with freight elevators to provide indoor bicycle parking.
And yet, I pointed out, apart from such highly visible sites as Times Square, private automobiles seem to have the run of New York, a city where curbside parking is still largely unmetered. Sadik-Khan countered she had done her best to limit traffic. As a policymaker under David Dinkins, she saw her project for tolls on East River bridges mothballed. Under Bloomberg, she worked hard to introduce a charge for cars entering Manhattan. By charging a new bridge toll, New York would have followed England's example, where an £8 charge for every vehicle entering central London has decreased congestion by almost a third (the charge is used to fund public transport). The New York City Council passed the legislation, but it was defeated by the state legislature in Albany.
Which raises the question: If only 5 percent of commuters get to work by car, who are all these drivers clogging the streets of Manhattanthe ones who presumably oppose congestion pricingand where do they come from? About 750,000 motor vehicles enter the central business district every day. Thanks to Moses, who made sure that almost every major highway in the region led to Manhattan, one-fifth are just passing through; a solid majority come from areas in Queens, Brooklyn, and Long Island that are poorly served by transit.
Once you eliminate delivery vans, trucks, "black cars" (limousines and car service vehicles), and taxis, though, most of the drivers on the road are employed at some level of government. A startling 35 percent of New York's government workers drive to work: free parking has long been considered one of the perks of public service. Agents almost never ticket cars with parking placards, which in theory are for city and state workers on official business. In 2010, The New Yorker outed a justice and former senate majority leader who used placards to park beside a fire hydrant and avoid feeding a meter outside Barneys. The practice creates a strong conflict of interest among the lawmakers in Albany: Why vote to limit automobile access to Manhattanor, for that matter, to approve funding for a new subway linewhen a placard gives you a golden key to the city?
When I asked Sadik-Khan about the issue, she flashed a slightly frayed smile. "Under Mayor Bloomberg's watch, we've cut across the board thirty percent of the placards for city workers. And the Department of Transportation is moving forward with a pilot car-sharing program. If it works out, it could have huge applications citywide."
Sadik-Khan is facing an uphill battle. While the Department of City Planning has rezoned 20 percent of New York under Bloomberg, most of it to higher densities and within a half-mile walk of transit stations, nothing has been done to limit car use. Moses-era regulations requiring new construction to include off-street parking spaces still prevailand the more parking there is, the more people tend to drive. Over Sadik-Khan's shoulder I could see the rusting piers of the Brooklyn waterfront and the multiple lanes of traffic on the Bronx-Queens Expressway, a Moses project that kick-started the decline of the Red Hook neighborhood.
"We've stopped looking at the streets as these utilitarian, 1950s-style corridors for moving cars as fast as possible. We really look at them as valuable public spaces. In many ways, the Department of Transportation is the largest real estate developer in New York City." To her credit, Sadik-Khan is capable of enacting change on the streets as rapidly as she talks. "In certain areas, we can transform pavement to plazas in a matter of days. I think New Yorkers are really tired of waiting ten or fifteen years to see any kind of change. Whenever we create a public space, it's amazing: people just materialize out of thin air in minutes."
After talking to Sadik-Khan, I strolled over to the Meatpacking District, and climbed several flights of stairs to the High Line, a disused New York Central rail line that has been turned into a gorgeous elevated promenade. Among rail spurs that curved into bricked-up warehouses, sumac, smokebush, and other native plants emerged from the joints between precast concrete planks; office workers with loosened ties and unbuttoned blouses lolled on benches, catching some sun. The absence of traffic brought to mind sociologist Paul Goodman's plan to ban private cars from Manhattan, leaving avenues open for electric buses and taxis. "It can easily be a place as leisurely as Venice," he wrote in a 1961 manifesto, "a lovely pedestrian city." And it was hard not to read the High Line as a pointed commentary on car culture: after piercing the modernist slab of the Standard Hotel, it detours into tiers of benches facing a glass wall that seems to be suspended over Tenth Avenue. The glass makes the roadway a piece of framed kinetic art, contrasting the very human scene of mothers with strollers with the vista of taillights of taxis and trucks rushing uptown.
About halfway along the High Line's three-mile course, I came across one of those automated parking garages where cars are stacked in an open steel framework five high, like so many battery hens in wire-mesh cages. With their wheels suspended in the air, the immobile Lexuses and Mercedes looked faintly ridiculouslike relics of primitive urbanity, on display in some future museum of otiose technology.
Tepper Is a Straphanger
As I rode the number 1 train downtown to the West Village one afternoon, sharing a bench with some excited Spanish tourists laden with Bloomingdale's bags and a street performer dressed as Spiderman, I remembered how, when I was a teenager, I thought New York's subway was the scariest place on earth. I'd seen its graffiti-covered, crime-ridden trains in countless movies on late-night television. If you were to credit The Warriors, deserted Union Square station was roamed by gangs of roller-skating punks; The Taking of Pelham One Two Three showed commuters on the Lexington Avenue line being terrorized by gun-toting robbers wearing fake mustaches; and, according to The Incident, if you rode from Brooklyn to Times Square you were bound to be traumatized by ducktailed, switchblade-carrying psychopaths.
Hollywood scriptwriters (many of them escapees from New York) really knew how to play on America's fear of the city. In reality, the heavily patrolled subway was always safer than the streets above. Even when violent crime peaked in 1981, there were only 17 murders in the subway, versus 1,832 on the streets; more people died that year from vehicular homicidesbeing run over by carsthan underground.
The subway has changed, but so has New York. The new Greenwich Villages are a train ride from Manhattan, in Astoria, Corona, Boerum Hill, Sunset Park, Carroll Gardens, and Ridgewood, walkable old neighborhoods, now being colonized by families, that Jane Jacobs would have appreciated. Tens of thousands of condos built at the height of the real estate boom are being turned into affordable rental housing. These days, New York resembles nothing so much as New York of the late '40s, when municipal population and vitality were at their peak. With a twist: 40 percent of the population is now foreign-born, and the pace of immigration is eclipsing the Ellis Island days. The fact that all classes, races, and ages are once again mingling on the subway bodes well for the future.
Calvin Trillin, who has been living in the West Village since 1961, could probably be numbered among the first wave of urban pioneersor gentrifiers, depending on how you look at things. The longtime New Yorker writer's Federal-style townhouse, on a dog-legged street west of Seventh Avenue, was built in the 1830s. Trillin used to rent; now he owns. (I didn't dare ask how much his place was worth, but a couple of blocks away, Jane Jacobs's modest Hudson Street home, declared "blight" by Moses and company fifty years ago, recently sold for $3 million.) Pulling down a folding staircase from the ceiling, Trillin invited me to climb to his roof, where we sat beneath a sycamore tree. You might assume the author of Tepper Isn't Going Out, a novel about a New Yorker who becomes a kind of grumpy guru of Gotham for camping out in his Chevrolet, would be a die-hard driver. (He does own a Volkswagen Passat, which he uses to get to a summer home in Nova Scotia.) But Trillin has a secret: he mostly gets around by bicycle and subway.
"I almost never take a cab anymore," said Trillin. "It's almost always the subway. There are maybe a few people I know who don't take the subway because they consider it 'mass' transit. They're essentially snobs." The number 1 line, Trillin told me, was his warhorse; there was a station two blocks from his front door. "Last night I had to emcee a benefit across the street from Grand Central, and it's an enormous pain to get there any other way than the subway." He rode the train in a tuxedo. "People just assume I'm a waiter. My late wife didn't like to take the subway at night when she was all dressed up in high heels and fancy clothes. She didn't mind that people took me for a waiter; she just didn't want to be somebody with a waiter." In almost five decades of riding the trains, he said, he had not witnessed a single serious crime, nor even been stuck in a tunnel.
"Sure, there were times I thought the subway was unpleasant, especially the graffiti. And it was only fairly recently that they put maps outside the cars. You used to have to get into the train to find one, and then you needed a degree from the Royal Institute of Cartography to read it. By then, you realized you were going in the wrong direction. The next stop was Queens Plaza. For some reason, it was always Queens Plaza." All in all, though, the service was better than he could remember it ever being. "Really, in New York, it's just dumb not to take the subway."
If I lived in New York, I'd be a full-time straphanger, too. When I was in my thirties, I toyed with the idea of relocating, and Erin and I still talk about spending a year or two in Manhattanan idea that gets more appealing as more streets get pedestrianized, the network of bike paths grows, and parks like the High Line open. The reality is we'd probably end up in more affordable Brooklyn, where some of our friends now live. In the meantime, we get to visit, and our first order of business almost always involves ducking into a subway station, to charge up our MetroCards.
After all these visits, the subway is still revealing its secrets to me. This time around, I took an almost bucolic excursion to Far Rockaway, riding along the causeway past wood-framed boathouses, where wading herons speared frogs on rocky beaches. At the 34th Street-Herald Square station, I came across a virtual xylophone that lit up when I waved my palm in front of photo-sensors, splashing the station with the electronic tones of marimba, flute, and birdsong. Riding the D train from Brooklyn, I looked up to see the illuminated image of a cartoon rocket taking off in the tunnel: it was the Masstransiscope, a 300-foot-long strip of hand-painted panels installed on an unused subway platform by artist Bill Brand, the images animated, zoetrope-like, by the motion of the train.
And though the disturbances remainthe hard-luck litanies of panhandlers, the hard sells from roving battery and chocolate bar salesmenthey are outweighed by the little pleasures. My favorite is the dreamy feeling I get gazing out the window of an uptown local, hypnotized as the ridged roof of the swaying express on a parallel track lowers itself into the hidden depths of New York City.
Copyright © 2012 by Taras Grescoe
Meet the Author
Taras Grescoe is the award-winning author of four books and countless articles focusing on world travel. He's written for The New York Times, The Times (London), Wired, the Chicago Tribune Magazine, and the Los Angeles Times. He currently lives in Montreal. He has never owned a car.
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