The Routes Not Taken: A Trip Through New York City's Unbuilt Subway System

The Routes Not Taken: A Trip Through New York City's Unbuilt Subway System

by Joseph B. Raskin


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Robert A. Van Wyck, mayor of the greater city of New York, broke ground for the first subway line by City Hall on March 24, 1900. It took four years, six months, and twenty-three days to build the line from City Hall to West 145th Street in Harlem. Things rarely went that quickly ever again. The Routes Not Taken explores the often dramatic stories behind the unbuilt or unfinished subway lines, shedding light on a significant part of New York City’s history that has been almost completely ignored until now.

Home to one of the world’s largest subway systems, New York City made constant efforts to expand its underground labyrinth, efforts that were often met with unexpected obstacles: financial shortfalls, clashing agendas of mayors and borough presidents, battles with local community groups, and much more. After discovering a copy of the 1929 subway expansion map, author Joseph Raskin began his own investigation into the city’s underbelly. Using research from libraries, historical societies, and transit agencies throughout the New York metropolitan area, Raskin provides a fascinating history of the Big Apple’s unfinished business that until now has been only tantalizing stories retold by public-transit experts.

The Routes Not Taken sheds light on the tunnels and stations that were completed for lines that were never fulfilled: the efforts to expand the Hudson tubes into a fullfledged subway; the Flushing line, and why it never made it past Flushing; a platform underneath Brooklyn’s Nevins Street station that has remained unused for more than a century; and the 2nd Avenue line—long the symbol of dashed dreams—deferred countless times since the original plans were presented in 1929. Raskin also reveals the figures and personalities involved, including why Fiorello LaGuardia could not grasp the importance of subway lines and why Robert Moses found them to be old and boring. By focusing on the unbuilt lines, Raskin illustrates how the existing subway system is actually a Herculean feat of countless political compromises.

Filled with illustrations of the extravagant expansion plans, The Routes Not Taken provides an enduring contribution to the transportation history of New York City.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780823253692
Publisher: Fordham University Press
Publication date: 12/01/2013
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 1,181,988
Product dimensions: 7.10(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Joseph B. Raskin is an independent scholar. He is widely regarded as an authority on unbuilt subway systems, on which he has been interviewed by the New York Times. He recently retired as Assistant Director of Government and Community Relations for MTA New York City Transit.

Read an Excerpt


Building (and Not Building) New York City's Subway System

Robert A. Van Wyck, the first mayor of the Greater City of New York, broke ground for the first subway line, near City Hall, on March 24, 1900. George B. McClellan, the third mayor of the five boroughs, officiated at its opening on October 27, 1904. It took four years, seven months, and three days to build the line from City Hall to West 145th Street in Harlem.

Things rarely went that quickly again. The New York Times article about the groundbreaking spoke of building extensions to areas like Staten Island "before this town is very much older." It wasn't the first time, and definitely not the last, that a promise to expand the subway system went unfulfilled. More than a century later, Staten Island still awaits subway service.

For as long as there have been plans for a subway system, people have wanted to build it farther — to the city's limits and beyond. In some cases, their efforts have resulted in lines being built; other ambitions went unfulfilled. Some plans will soon achieve a degree of success after decades of failure.

A series of agencies were responsible for planning the growth and development of the subway system in the first three decades of the twentieth century.

The first was the Board of Rapid Transit Railroad Commissioners (RTC), created in 1894. As work on the first subway line was underway, the RTC considered the next steps to expand the system. On May 9, 1902, RTC President Alexander E. Orr wrote to Chief Engineer William Barclay Parsons, instructing him to begin "the preparation of a general and far-reaching system of rapid transit covering the whole City of New York in all its five boroughs." Parsons developed proposals for expanding the system into Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens during 1903 and 1904. Parsons resigned on December 31, 1904; an overall plan was released on March 30, 1905. His successor, George S. Rice, prepared a second plan, which was released on May 12.

The RTC was responsible only for planning the lines. The responsibility for operation rested with another agency, the State Board of Railroad Commissioners. Governor Charles Evans Hughes wanted one agency to regulate public transit, railroads, and all other public utilities. Despite protests that local authority was being abrogated, Hughes signed a law sponsored by State Senator Alfred R. Page and Assembly Member Edwin A. Merritt on June 7, 1907, creating the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC). The legislation split the state into two PSC districts: the first consisted of New York City's five boroughs, and the second the rest of the state. The RTC's last act was approving construction of Brooklyn's 4th Avenue line from downtown Brooklyn to Sunset Park on June 27.

There were doubts about the PSC. "The public has heard so much of the Utilities Commission that it expects the impossible," the New York Times quoted an unidentified expert on transit issues saying a few weeks after they came into existence. "I believe that the new board will come in for quite a good deal of criticism before it accomplishes anything, but this does not mean that the Commissioners are at fault. If in two years the commission has improved the rush hour service on the various lines to any marked extent, it will have accomplished a great deal. The best it can do in the next few months will be to improve the midday, Theatre hour, and early morning service."

The 4th Avenue line was included in a proposal made to the RTC by Brooklyn Borough President Bird S. Coler in 1906. He called for a line to be built from Pelham Bay Park to Fort Hamilton and Coney Island, running along Westchester Avenue, Southern Boulevard, and 138th Street in the Bronx, 3rd Avenue and the Bowery in Manhattan, and Flatbush Avenue and 4th Avenue in Brooklyn after crossing the Manhattan Bridge. A branch would run to Coney Island via 40th Street, New Utrecht Avenue, 86th Street, and Stillwell Avenue. The New York Board of Transportation would use this concept four decades later in plans for the 2nd Avenue Trunk Line. In 1906 this was the start of what would eventually become the first major expansion of the subway system.

Rice expanded on Coler's proposal, proposing that ten new subway lines be built to serve Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn by 1916. Rice thought that Queens would be well served by trolley service through the Belmont Tunnel, then approaching completion (but not put into service for eight years as a subway tunnel, used by the Flushing line), and over the Blackwell Island's Bridge, which would open in 1909 as the Queensboro Bridge. This led to the release of the PSC's first major plan, the Tri-Borough Plan.

The heart of that plan was the Broadway–Lexington Avenue line, running from the Battery to Woodlawn and Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. The Tri-Borough Plan would begin to build toward subsequent plans, containing elements of the Lexington Avenue, Broadway, Jerome Avenue, Pelham, 4th Avenue, West End, and Brooklyn–Queens Crosstown lines.

The Tri-Borough Plan was not well received. The Flatbush Taxpayers Association protested the lack of a Nostrand Avenue line. The Queens Borough Transit Conference protested that its borough had been ignored. "We will resort to the courts if necessary if Mayor [William Jay] Gaynor and the Board of Estimate and the Public Service Commission insist on developing the outlying sections of Brooklyn and the Bronx at the expense of Queens," said the Conference Chairman, James J. O'Brien.

Mayor Gaynor had qualms. The PSC wanted the Tri-Borough Plan lines built as a system independent of the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit Company) and the BRT (Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company). Gaynor wanted to base the subway system's expansion on extensions of existing lines. This difference in philosophy lasted for years and affected the Tri-Borough Plan. When the time came to open bids for constructing and operating its lines, the PSC found that no one submitted offers. Moreover, the IRT and BRT appeared to be dragging their heels on extending their lines.

It wasn't until William Gibbs McAdoo sought to link the Tri-Borough routes with his Hudson and Manhattan Railroad system and further expand them that the IRT and BRT considered expansion. In January 1911, a committee from the Board of Estimate consisting of Manhattan Borough President George A. McAneny, Bronx Borough President Cyrus C. Miller, and Staten Island Borough President George Cromwell met with the PSC and began the process that led to the issuance of the Dual Systems Contracts in 1913.

The IRT and BRT maneuvered back and forth to gain authorization to operate the lines that the Committee and the PSC were considering, offering to operate all or many of the new lines. Both companies staged PR campaigns to gain favor with both the general public and elected officials.

When the PSC approved the Dual Systems Contracts in March 1913, plans to extend service to northeast Queens, Staten Island, and along Utica Avenue in Brooklyn were deferred — permanently, as events turned out. Construction of the Crosstown line, a north–south route between Brooklyn and Queens proposed by the BRT was postponed for more than a decade; when work began, it was part of a transit system operated by the Independent City-Owned Subway System (IND). Lower-level platforms and connecting tunnels that had been built at the IRT's Nevins Street station in anticipation of that company being awarded the franchise for 4th Avenue line (along with the tracks running over the Manhattan Bridge and along Lafayette Avenue in Brooklyn) have sat unused by trains for more than a century.

Nonetheless, the lines built under the Dual Systems Contracts represented the single biggest extension of the subway system to that point. The IRT would stretch farther out into the Bronx and well into Queens and Brooklyn. The BRT (later to become the BMT) would rebuild the lines they were operating in Brooklyn, expand farther into that borough and Manhattan, and extend into Queens.

However, the PSC was still viewed as slow and cumbersome, as it had functions and responsibilities beyond the transit system. In 1919, the doubts that had been expressed when the PSC took control over the transit system were still being discussed. Questions were raised as to how their operations could be streamlined. One person who thought he had an answer was New York's new governor, Alfred E. Smith. In his inaugural message Smith called for change:

There is widespread dissatisfaction, particularly in New York City, with the Public Service Commission.

In the First District, a radical change should be made in the structure of the commission itself if it is to accomplish results. At the time of its formation in [1907] there was expressed grave doubt as to whether or not it would work out well. There were many who believed that the function of constructing rapid transit railroads for the City of New York should be divorced from the function of regulating public utility corporations generally. In my opinion experience has demonstrated that they were right.

For years the trend in New York City, as well as in the state, has been towards single headed commissions to the end that the responsibility may be fixed upon one man. During the recent war the Federal Government taught us the lesson that results may be best obtained by a single executive clothed with proper power when any great work is to be carried out successfully.

Smith signed the legislation creating the position of transit construction commissioner on May 3, 1919, offering the post to William Barclay Parsons, then serving with the army in France; Parsons declined. Smith turned to New York City's commissioner of plants and structures, John Hanlon Delaney.

Delaney is not well remembered today, but he was the dominant figure in the New York City transit system for twenty-five years. He grew up in North Adams, Massachusetts, working in the printing trades, and came to New York in 1892. In less than a decade, Delaney became the president of the Printers' Union and then moved into management. In 1913, Governor William Sulzer asked him to serve in the New York State government as an efficiency expert. Mayor John F. Hylan appointed Delaney commissioner of plants and structures in 1918. A year later, he became transit construction commissioner, supervising the construction of the subway system, with Smith promising a more hands-on approach to advancing transit capital programs.

John Delaney was a political insider who developed a strong knowledge of transit issues. More than two decades before the consolidation of the subway system, he saw the virtues of unification. In 1921, the New York Times wrote that Delaney "worked in accord with the Board of Estimate and with all of the influential Democrats in the city. Much of his time in office was occupied in studying the transit problem, and he was soon recognized as an expert on the subject. He gets along famously with the traction [subway] officials as well as with the city officials, and it was understood that his plan for solving the traction problem was the practical solution of the matter."

Delaney appointed Daniel Lawrence Turner, another major figure in the history of the subway system, to the position of chief engineer. He had worked for the Board of Rapid Transit Commissioners and the PSC as the original parts of the subway system were being built. He followed Delaney to the Board of Transportation and would later work with the New York State Transit Commission, the North Jersey Transit Commission, and the Suburban Transit Engineering Board. He would also play a major role in the development of the Regional Plan Association's Plan for New York and Its Environs in 1927.

Turner had the task of developing plans to expand the subway system. He knew the need to start planning. "Since the Dual System contracts have been under construction, the attention of the Public Service Commission and of the Transit Construction Commissioner necessarily has been devoted to the completion of these contracts," Turner wrote. "But it has been recognized that a new transit program was imperatively necessary. Therefore, in the Fall of 1919, which was as early as the commissioners permitted, I undertook to formulate a comprehensive transit plan. ... The time has now arrived when we must look ahead again and provide plans for and begin the work of construction on the enlargement of the rapid transit system."

The plan Turner drew up, released in September 1920, would be ambitious at any time in the history of the transit system. He laid the foundation for the subsequent plans to expand the system, envisioning the development of the outer regions of all five boroughs. His belief was that transit should be built ahead of development, anticipating growth, rather than reacting to it.

Turner called for five new trunk lines and nine new crosstown lines in Manhattan, eight new lines or extensions in the Bronx, thirteen new lines or extensions in Queens, fifteen new lines or branches in Brooklyn, and five new lines to serve Staten Island over a twenty-five-year period. Over 830 miles of new routes would be built in the city, carrying five billion riders over the course of a year, more than double the number of route miles in today's subway system. By comparison, the 1929 plan for the second phase of the IND, the most famous of the unrealized plans, would have added just over one hundred miles in new and extended lines, and lines "recaptured" from the IRT and BMT.

Delaney thought Turner's plan was needed, because "in about another ten years the whole dual system will have been saturated with traffic." Even in 1920 street congestion was a concern: "The growth of traffic per annum has been consistently greater than the per capita growth of the city per annum ... the new transit plan takes into consideration the fact that vehicular and pedestrian traffic on the street surface is increasing to such an extent that it will soon be regarded as inadvisable to continue surface passenger traffic, either on the main arteries of travel or on the main cross streets, and that surface passenger transportation must be replaced by elevated or subway, with more cross-town 'tie-lines' operated on a platform device or by shuttle car service."

Delaney and Turner's efforts were sidetracked after the 1920 elections, in which Nathan C. Miller defeated Governor Smith. Miller had a different idea for running the transit system. Citing the close links that Delaney and Lewis Nixon, Smith's appointee as commissioner for utility regulatory issues, had with Tammany Hall, Miller wanted to establish a new state agency to oversee transit issues. He proposed the New York State Transit Commission.

Mayor Hylan led the opposition to the proposal, characterizing Miller's plan as attacking home rule: "The creation and the power of the proposed new transit board is opposed to the best interests of the city and to sound public policy, in that it would mean the revising and the rewriting of franchises without giving the city any voice in the matter."

The State Senate passed legislation creating the Transit Commission on March 16, 1921; the State Assembly approved it on March 22. George A. McAneny, who had played a significant role in drawing up the Dual Systems Contracts as Manhattan borough president and president of the Board of Aldermen, was appointed to serve as chairman.

Mayor Hylan and the city government never fully accepted the Transit Commission's authority, beginning three controversial years that stopped transit planning and construction cold. John P. O'Brien, the city's corporation counsel (who would serve as mayor in 1932), wrote to Delaney on April 22, ordering him to stay in office and maintain his papers. The city sought an injunction in court. O'Brien contended that the Transit Commission had no legal standing to take over the city's franchises.

Justice John W. McAvoy of the State Supreme Court denied O'Brien's request, stating that there was no legal basis to prevent the Transit Commission from operating. (This was not the last time that McAvoy would be embroiled in the fight between the city government and the Transit Commission. In 1924 and 1925, he led an investigation of that issue that led to the downfall of the Hylan administration.) After managing the mayor's reelection campaign in 1921, Delaney returned to the city government when Hylan appointed him docks commissioner that December. He also became Hylan's unofficial transit adviser.

Turner became the Transit Commission's consulting engineer and prepared several plans for the expansion of the rapid transit and commuter rail system. Not to be outdone, Hylan and the city government issued a plan in 1923 that built on the lines proposed in the Transit Construction Commission plan and began work on a controversial mixed passenger and rail freight tunnel connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island, which was opposed by the Transit Commission and later stopped by state legislative mandate in 1925.


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Table of Contents

1. Building (and Not Building) New York City's Subway System,
2. Sound to Shore: The Unbuilt Brooklyn-Queens Crosstown Line,
3. Why the No. 7 Line Stops in Flushing,
4. The Battle of the Northeast Bronx, Part 1,
5. Buy Land Now, Ride the Subway Later,
6. Ashland Place and the Mysteries of 76th Street,
7. To the City Limits and Beyond,
8. The Battle of the Northeast Bronx, Part 2,
9. Building the Line That Almost Never Was,
10. Other Plans, Other Lines, Other Issues in the Postwar Years,
11. What Happened to the Rest of the System?,
Appendix A: The 1944 Service Plan,
Appendix B: The 1947 2nd Avenue Service Plan,
Appendix C: The Cast of Characters,

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