What’s with the New York City Subway System?

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

I’m no expert on the New York subway system, although its map makes fine wall art, and Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda’s (“iconic“) 1970 New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual is said to be a modernist masterpiece (besides delivering wonderfully functional signage and wayfindig, plus genius branding). But the trains, the cars, the tunnels, the signals…. There are some problems. Two tweets sum up — as so much goes — the contrast between what the United States does, and what the rest of the world can do[1]. First, the tweet that got me thinking about this post:

And now, the rest of the world. The Moscow subway, taken by many thousands during the World Cup, and seen on television by millions more:

I’m sure that the Moscow subway — soon to expand; also, subway dogs! — has its own dank corners, but though I looked for a Muscovite equivalent of the shameful Borough Hall station, I couldn’t find one (a litany of complaints, most of which seem pretty minor). Russia has an economy half the size of California’s. So why do Muscovite subway travellers have it so much better than New Yorkers? I’m not sure I can answer that question; at the end of the post I will confess my failure to achieve a state of non-bafflement. Neverthess, New York is a world city, a “primary node” in “our” globalized world, and so it’s worth taking a look at how its most essential transport system got into such a mess. In this post, I’ll look at why the New York subway system is so important. Then I’ll look at infrastructure problems, environmental problems, and the role of government, and conclude.

The New York Subway System Is Critical Infrastructure

For those of you who are, like me, from out of town, some numbers:

Opened in 1904, the New York City Subway is one of the world’s oldest public transit systems, one of the world’s most used metro systems, and the metro system with the most stations. It offers service 24 hours per day on every day of the year, though some routes may operate only part-time.

The New York City Subway is the largest rapid transit system in the world by number of stations, with 472 stations in operation[16] (424 if stations connected by transfers are counted as single stations).

The system is also one of the world’s longest. Overall, the system contains 236 miles (380 km) of routes, translating into 665 miles (1,070 km) of revenue track;[10] and a total of 850 miles (1,370 km) including non-revenue trackage.

By annual ridership, the New York City Subway is the busiest rapid transit rail system in both the Western Hemisphere and the Western world, as well as the seventh busiest rapid transit rail system in the world; only the metro (subway) systems in Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo, Guangzhou, and Moscow record higher annual ridership.[21] In 2017, the subway delivered over 1.27 billion rides, averaging approximately 5.5 million daily rides on weekdays and a combined 5.7 million rides each weekend (3.2 million on Saturdays; 2.5 million on Sundays). On September 23, 2014, more than 6.1 million people rode the subway system, establishing the highest single-day ridership since ridership was regularly monitored in 1985.

The Subway is critical to New York City’s economy, hence to New York State’s, hence to the nation. The Atlantic:

Today, subway cars in New York carry passengers on over 5 million rides each day. [If it ceased to function], more than half the city’s population could find itself without a way to get to work, bringing the city’s $4 billion a day economy to a grinding halt.

And yet, service levels have significantly deteriorated. Some anecdotes from Vox (in 2017):

New York’s subway is in crisis. After years of growing ridership, use of the system took a dip in 2016, with further declines this year. Last month saw a train sit in the tunnel in sweltering heat for 45 minutes and a derailment with dozens of injuries. The media describes the situation as hell (Slate), a meltdown (Curbed), or a crisis (NBC).

And the Atlantic:

Subway delays have more than doubled over a five-year period. Track fires increased.

And from the Gothamist, some numbers:

Train delays—thanks to a cocktail of aging infrastructure and crowded platforms—are the norm, not the exception. Twitter serves as proof of point any given Monday morning, and new MTA statistics indicate that conditions are getting worse, not better. A NY Times analysis of recently-release data shows that delays are hovering at around 70,000 per month, up from 28,000 per month in 2012.

More than a third of those delays are due to overcrowding, which caused 30,000 delays last November. Subway cars also traveled an average of 120,000 miles between breakdowns last November, compared to 200,000 miles in 2010. Last year, the MTA set a 75 percent on-time arrival goal for each train on the line. By November, 2 trains were arriving on time only 36.6 percent of the time; 6 trains 49.2 percent.

At this point, I should note that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the First of His Name, declared a state of emergency for the Subway system in 2017, and has proposed a $37 billion subway fix plan, of which he expects the City to pay half. Since the perspective of this post is “How we got here,” rather than the bright future that is, presumably, ahead, I’ll postpone consideration of this scheme until a later date, though of course readers are free to add their own assessments in comments. That said, let’s turn to infrastructure as it is today:

Infrastructure Problems with the New York Subway System

The cars. From The Atlantic:

The 1960s-era Brightliners, those stainless-steel C-train cars, break down constantly—every 33,000 miles on average, The New York Times recently reported. That’s compared with the average subway car, which breaks down every 400,000 miles, and the newest cars, which break down every 750,000 miles, according to the newspaper.

The tunnels. If the subway has capacity problems, one solution would be to take a cue from Moscow, and build more lines. That’s not happening, CityLab:

Since December 16, 1940, New York has not opened another new subway line, aside from a handful of small extensions and connections. Unlike most other great cities, New York’s rapid transit system remains frozen in time: Commuters on their iPhones are standing in stations scarcely changed from nearly 80 years ago.

Indeed, in some ways, things have moved backward. The network is actually considerably smaller than it was during the Second World War, and today’s six million daily riders are facing constant delays, infrastructure failures, and alarmingly crowded cars and platforms.

(The CityLab article is an excellent historical overview, with a timeline.) The signaling system[2]. From the New York Daily News, with so much amazing detail I can’t forbear to quote a lot:

Even something as basic as a cable is an antique.

Workers popped open a junction box to show a 70-year-old cloth-covered cable, due for the scrap heap next year, connected to newer rubber-covered wires.

Dispatchers in the tower room of the station monitored train locations on a massive electromechanical machine half as big as the room itself.

Green and blue lights moved across white lines against a blackboard as big as an overhead deli menu.

Below the lights, the machine featured a row of red and black levers that must be manually pulled and pushed to control switches and signals on the tracks.

In a musty room tucked away in the back, drab green cabinets house 120-volt signal relays that communicate between the tower room machines and equipment on the tracks.

Habersham used a light on his cell phone and squinted to read the dates scrawled on the machines. Some still bore the name of the original manufacturer, General Railway Signal Co.

One relay was dated April 2, 1940. A second relay machine from 1940 was since refurbished — 40 years ago, in 1977[3].

When there’s a breakdown, it’s up to NYC Transit to fix it — General Railway Signal Co. isn’t around anymore to provide tech support.

And yes, the cables in this room are also covered in cloth that’s highly flammable, making the area a potential tinderbox that would take the train system down with it if it caught fire. The MTA in 2005 experienced such a blaze in a signal relay room at Chambers St. on the A and C lines.>

(Reminds me of my wonderful old American Flyer tinplate trainset[4]. Wonderful, but not for a system that handles 5 million people a day!)

Enviromental Problems with the New York Subway System

Water is a constant problem (much in the same way that if you hear water running in your basement, but you don’t have any taps turned on, you have a big, big problem). From 6sqft:

The subway’s crippling, century-old infrastructure is not the only reason behind the system’s constant delays and disruptions. The other problem involves about 13 million gallons of water, or more depending on the rainfall, that gets pumped out from underground on a nearly daily basis…. After ineffectively using only sandbags and plywood to fight flooding in the past, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has turned to more high-tech solutions, like flood-proof doors and inflatable gaskets, which will be a part of its $800 million emergency action plan to fix the subway.

And then there’s Hurricane Sandy. From the Wall Street Journal, “Salt Water Puts Subway ‘in Jeopardy’“:

The storm that has wreaked havoc along the East Coast struck a historic blow to one of New York City’s most vulnerable—and vital—points: the subway system.

A storm surge driven by the remains of Hurricane Sandy sent seawater pouring into at least six under-river tunnels of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s subway system Monday night…

After the flooding, its extent not yet fully measured, the threat of an extended shutdown loomed over a system that carries 5.2 million passengers a day and is essential to the city’s economy.

The subway system is “in jeopardy,” MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota said Monday. “Our subway system and salt water do not mix.”

Salt can eat at motors, metal fasteners and the electronic parts, some many decades old, that keep the system running. Salt water, and the deposits it leaves behind, degrades the relays that run the signal system, preventing train collisions.

Salt water also conducts electricity, which can exacerbate damage to signals if the system isn’t powered down before a flood.

Late Monday night, an MTA spokesman confirmed that floodwater had breached the subway system flooding all five tunnels between lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, as well as the Steinway Tube between Midtown and Queens. Railyards also flooded, and the A train bridge in the North Channel in Jamaica Bay was underwater after the surge.

The speed of recovery would depend on whether floodwaters damaged any of the rest of the 14 subway tunnels under the Harlem and East Rivers, where the system is most exposed to catastrophic flooding.

This time around, New York dodged a bullet. But there will be plenty more bullets to dodge in the future! Climate change means ocean rise (handy maps), and that means more flooding, more often. From the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Impact of climate change on New York City’s coastal flood hazard: Increasing flood heights from the preindustrial to 2300 CE,” the abstract:

We combine downscaled tropical cyclones, storm-surge models, and probabilistic sea-level rise projections to assess flood hazard associated with changing storm characteristics and sea-level rise in New York City from the preindustrial era to 2300. Compensation between increased storm intensity and offshore shifts in storm tracks causes minimal change in modeled storm-surge heights through 2300. However, projected sea-level rise leads to large increases in future overall flood heights associated with tropical cyclones in New York City. Consequently, flood height return periods that were ∼500 y during the preindustrial era have fallen to ∼25 y at present and are projected to fall to ∼5 y within the next three decades.

(Hurricane Sandy was a 260-y storm.) So lay in those flashlights and rain slickers….

Government and the New York Subway System

In a word, money. (This excellent history and timeline gives more detail.) The New York Times:

None of this happened on its own. It was the result of a series of decisions by both Republican and Democratic politicians — governors from George E. Pataki to Mr. Cuomo and mayors from Rudolph W. Giuliani to Bill de Blasio. Each of them cut the subway’s budget or co-opted it for their own priorities.

They stripped a combined $1.5 billion from the M.T.A. by repeatedly diverting tax revenues earmarked for the subways and also by demanding large payments for financial advice, I.T. help and other services that transit leaders say the authority could have done without.

They pressured the M.T.A. to spend billions of dollars on opulent station makeovers and other projects that did nothing to boost service or reliability, while leaving the actual movement of trains to rely on a 1930s-era signal system with fraying, cloth-covered cables.

They saddled the M.T.A. with debt and engineered a deal with creditors that brought in quick cash but locked the authority into paying $5 billion in interest that it otherwise never would have had to pay.

In one particularly egregious example, Mr. Cuomo’s administration forced the M.T.A. to send $5 million to bail out three state-run ski resorts [in upstate New York; hi Bob!] that were struggling after a warm winter.

At the same time, public officials who have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions from M.T.A. unions and contractors have pressured the authority into signing agreements with labor groups and construction companies that obligated the authority to pay far more than it had planned.

Faced with funding shortfalls, the M.T.A. has resorted to borrowing. Nearly 17 percent of its budget now goes to pay down debt — roughly triple what it paid in 1997.

In a sentence, a corrupt political class and the bankers looted the system.


Before concluding, let me throw Uber into the punchbowl. From the New York Times, “Subway Ridership Dropped Again in New York as Passengers Flee to Uber“:

In another alarming sign of the crisis plaguing New York City’s subway, ridership dropped for the second year in a row as passengers flee the system for Uber and other ride-hailing services, draining the transit system of badly needed revenue. Annual subway ridership fell in 2017 to about 1.73 billion trips, down about 2 percent from 2015, according to statistics from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and subway officials said ridership continues to slip, falling during the first five months of this year by about 2 percent. the declining subway ridership could have wide-ranging consequences: It could hurt the transit agency’s finances, increase street congestion and stall the city’s economic success as it competes against global cities with better transportation networks.

Just spitballing here, but if you use the neoliberal playbook framework — [1] Defund [or sabotage], [2] claim crisis, [3] call for privatization… [4] Profit!” (rinse, repeat as necessary) — it seems to fit the case of the New York Subway pretty well; we’ve seen defunding, we’ve seen the cries, which are reality-based, of crisis, and now we’re seeing the entry of a private firm to scoop up profit (except Uber isn’t, and cannot become, profitable; however, its squillionaire backers may (a) be stupid money, and (b) may believe that destroying public services is a good thing in itself[5]). However, given the long time frames and multiple players involved — the Subway wasn’t defunded forty years ago because Travis Kalanick had sent a messenger from the future — a more sophisticated trope than “playbook” is required. So that is my confession of bafflement!

One thing I’m not baffled about is that we need to defend government’s ability to deliver public goods vociferously and unrelentingly. The Atlantic:

Ensuring the long-term survival of the subway system will require a radical shift in American values, said [Projjal Dutta, the MTA’s director of sustainability initiatives]. Its longevity depends on society’s belief in public transportation as a public good. “Public transportation reduces carbon dioxide,” he said. “Carbon dioxide causes global warming, global warming brings water into the public transportation system, and the result is the reduction of public transportation. It’s a vicious circle and it’s not well understood.” Two-thirds of New York state’s residents live in the MTA service area, he said, but there is a national narrative about highways and cars and roads that is much more powerful. Right now, federal transportation dollars are split 80/20 in favor of roads and highways. “If you want to solve the problem of climate change, we have to start reversing that split.”

Moscow seems to be outdoing us, here. Better subway, better work preventing global warming. Should that be?


[1] This contrast is also visible in the Third World hellhole that is the JFK International Terminal. Why, New York? Why?

[2] The capital investment plan is already controversial with regard to signaling.

[3] To be fair, we used to make things that lasted forty years.

[4] Here is a wonderful article from the Atlantic about the Subway’s interlocking system, the labor that goes into maintaining it, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s first encouter with a large software project.

[5] Or they’re the sort of funny squillionaire who believes that the Jackpot makes die-off inevitable, so why invest in any infrastructure beyond gated communities in New Zealand, or rockets to Mars?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. drumlin woodchuckles

    I was in JFK International Airport at two separate times several years apart.

    Time one, it was a pure hell hole. But I didn’t think of it as a Third World hell hole. It seemed to me like a Decline-and-Free-Fall-Of-The-Soviet-Union hell hole.

    Several years later it was much prettified and spiffed up. What I saw of it was neat and clean. But it was still a hell hole. It was a bright and shiny Stainless Steel HellHole. And that was absolutely deliberate. I feel confident that it was a malicious expression of pure sadistic hatred by the designers and builders for all the people who have to use JFK.

    Albany Airport is much nicer, by contrast. Or at least it was the couple times I went through there.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      For purposes of alliteration, perhaps we should call JFK airport a Stainless Steel Sh*thole. Unless its all better and nicer now, of course.

  2. Synoia

    The US was “Can Do;” when it came to building new infrastructure (Highway System).

    It is “Don’t Care” when it come time for maintenance (Highway system). Especially when action needs to be taken to maintain the Climate.

    That include maintenance for it’s citizens, aka “Health Care.” Which includes permitting production and advertising for “food and drink’ which under any system governed for Public Heath” would be banned. (for Example: Coca Cola products, or sugar laced breakfast cereals).

    It is a cultural problem, driven by a political system which deflects attention away from these issues (Russians meddling in US Elections).

    Here in SoCal, the weather broadcasts absolutely do not mention “Climate Change.” Ever. No even when discussing a fire which has burnt over 150,000 acres.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      For many years after the Great Buildout, Americans in general had a do-care, will fix outlook. The anti-New Deal Overclass figured out how to invade and infect all the organs of mass-political culture and mass social-brain guidance. This Overclass then very carefully weaponised and disseminated the don’t-care ethic. A lot of it was based on a deliberately cultivated no-hope/ no-future ethic. If there is no hope and no future, why care? What would be the point?

      1. Mike G

        But MAH TAXES.
        Public transport is Comunist.
        And the Rapture is happening soon, so why bother? (/s)

        1. animalogic

          Exactly !!
          A subway system is an expression of a government & community plan to transport the community for business & pleasure. But – government, community are really just euphemisms for SOCIALISM. Doesn’t your skin crawl, don’t you just feel…ichy at the thought ? All those humans being delivered efficiently from point A to B at a reasonable cost by government concerned about systemic welfare ? Sickening. Next thing, people will demand is a socialised medical & pharmacuetical system for the benefit of business & community.

    2. Westcoastdeplorable

      That’s because the fire was caused by sparks from a car running on a flat. No “climate change” involved.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Were the last few summers hotter, drier, longer than usual? Has that dried out the trees more than they used-to would-have-been at this time of year? If yes to both, then the last few years of weather has made the trees more flammable and more ignitable by any little spark.

        If indeed the last few summers WERE hotter, drier, longer than usual, and if indeed a hotter average underlying temperature-trend driven by more planet-surface heat-retention driven in turn by rising greenhouse buildup in the atmosphere; then it is global warming making these fires easier to happen.

        There is another cause to consider: fire suppression. Have the normal cyclical fires which would normally burn here and there in this area been suppressed for decades? Have decades of fuel been building up unaturally, waiting for a huge unsupressable fire to clear them back down to zero?
        If so, that would be forest mis-management.

  3. Synoia

    Workers popped open a junction box to show a 70-year-old cloth-covered cable, due for the scrap heap next year, connected to newer rubber-covered wires.

    That is, by the way, illegal under nearly all building codes.

    1. jsn

      Yes, but existing conditions are grandfathered, you can’t implement a code update requiring everything already in use to be upgraded. After September 11th, the City tried to require retroactive sprinkler installations in all the buildings where current code requires them and the due date keeps rolling out.

      1. Huey Long

        NYC Building Maintenance Worker here:

        Plans for sprinkler retrofits were due back in July, and installs are to be complete NLT July 2019. My circa 1971 building was constructed without a sprinklers, a partial retrofit was done in 1984, and now we’re going to be scrambling to get the rest of the building sprinklered during the next year.

        One of my former apprentices works in a very old building near Grand Central that has next to no sprinkler coverage, and the overtime and conractor bill to get this done on time is going to be FEIRCE.

        1. jsn

          Thats’ interesting, because I’m working on a renovation of a 68 Code building, an 18 story apartment building thats’ three hour rated but not sprinklered and Building Management has no plans to sprinkler it.

          I know there are lots of ins and outs to the NYC DOB, but I’ve not seen sprinkler retrofits in any of the recent, old apartment buildings I’ve worked in. Is it a commercial building your old apprentice is working on?

          1. Yves Smith

            I’m in the oldest elevator apartment building in NYC and I guarantee we are not getting sprinklers. I also have grandfathered power and plumbing! Half of my apartment is on a fuse box. I can’t use a hairdrier in the bathroom and have a space heater on in the bedroom at the same time.

      2. Pat

        And sometimes contractors are allowed to use the grandfather clause to avoid doing the job with right oversight, and I use that term loosely. A friend r appealed a capital improvements increase in a rent stabilized apartment a few years ago by pointing out that the electrical upgrade was not to code. In fact the previous electrical wiring was closer to code because the refrigerator was in a separate breaker from the majority of the apartment along with a n overhead light and an outlet near but not next to the sink. The appeal was rejected, despite the contractor admitting that they had moved the outlet the refrigerator was on along to the main apartment circuit while installing a new gfi outlet next to the sink in the formerly somewhat separate circuit, that this put increased strain on the main apartment circuit, that it did not meet current standard for a separate appliance circuit AND that the only alternative allowing the tenant to run a hair dryer in their apartment without tripping the breaker was the frowned upon running of the refrigerator from the new gfi outlet with an appliance grade extension cord. But he didn’t need to meet code because it was grandfathered The MCI increase for bringing the wiring to code passed, no corrections required AND the tenant was told to get over it and pay the additional thirty dollars a month forever to pay for the improvement. And no tenant advocate who my friend has told during or since has figured out how the “grandfathering” allowed this since they also installed a new circuit board and line at the same time which should have required the installation of a new additional appliance circuit. They were not surprised though.

        File it under corruption, but what might have been a reasonable carve out for certain code improvements has been used to justify shoddy cost cutting measures on a lot of things in this city.

  4. Detroit Dan

    The Tokyo subway is on another plane altogether. It’s a work of convenience, efficiency, and beauty.

    1. Joel

      Actually parts of the Tokyo subway are almost as old as the New York subway. The difference is that the Tokyo subway is perfectly maintained and spotlessly clean. It’s a retro masterpiece. The MTA is third world minus. Google some images of the Delhi metro for a fun comparison.

      1. Ron Dorosin

        And also, the Tokyo subway system is many times bigger than NY’s. It’s just broken up into many companies that run lines into different areas. And every part of the system from many of the trains to the ticketing machines are all perfectly functional retro masterpieces. I always appreciate the time I get to ride on them.

  5. Edward

    What American infrastructure isn’t being neglected? Are the costs of the wars tied in with this? Congress has ceased functioning. I think members of Congress work about three days a week and spend the rest of their time raising money. Lobbyists write the legislation.

    1. WheresOurTeddy

      From the article on Deadspin “Why your team sucks: New York Jets 2018”:

      I think it’s time we all admitted the truth, which is that New York sucks. This isn’t an opinion. It’s supported fact now. Everything that used to make the city good—the people, the food, the energy—has been wiped out. The subway doesn’t work. All the interesting people got priced out of the tri-state area entirely and were forced to relocate to, like, Detroit. The restaurants are boilerplate high-end Vegas garbage. Linebacker Dylan Donahue got loaded and drove the wrong way through the Lincoln Tunnel because that is now, by far, the most efficient way of getting around town. Everything is soaking wet ALL THE TIME. Nothing works. The only people left are billionaire dipshits and angry men in construction helmets. All the new real estate in town consists of 71-story luxury condo towers with one apartment per floor, each occupied for three weeks a year by the hideous nephew of some Uzbek cobalt magnate. New York City, itself, has become the Jets of cities: an expensive, boring wreck.

  6. Another Anon

    Recently during one such delay, I asked a conductor why about 10 or 15 years ago, the stations covered by the D and B trains were switched. To me It made no sense because it looked like that just the labels on the trains were switched. He told me that the trains were switched because those for the D line were not as reliable as those for the B line and since the former got more use, the MTA reckoned that those D trains would last longer if they covered less used stations.

    During the Bloomberg administration, the 2 Train was the most reliable. Maybe it was just a coincidence that Mayor Bloomberg commuted on that line.

    1. Wombat

      “During the Bloomberg administration, the 2 Train was the most reliable. Maybe it was just a coincidence that Mayor Bloomberg commuted on that line.”

      Source for reliability? IRL the 2 line was among the latest to lose the old red cars (which doesnt inherently make it a worse line, but perhaps indicates a lower priority).

      The 1-2-3 line runs on the West Side of Manhattan whereas the 4-5-6 runs on the East Side (where City Hall is); he used the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall stop on the “green line” (4-5-6).

    1. Huey Long


      Fantastic book by a favorite scholar of mine.

      My favorite part was reading about what a financial debacle Roc Center was for the Rocefeller family, and how money bonded for the 2nd Ave subway kept getting spent on other projects, including the 6th Ave express tracks, which coincidentally opened right around the same time as the Roc Center expansion west of 6th Ave…

  7. Carl

    Recently spent some time riding the Sydney public transportation system and it was absolutely brilliant. Seamless payment and integration of trains, buses and ferries, with an app that was GPS-enabled and could even tell you how full an approaching bus was! Just jaw-dropping. Outside of Portland OR, I can’t think of anything in the US that’s even close.

    1. animalogic

      So glad to hear that. When I lived there is was…still a work in progress. Gee, at this rate they might get a train line to Bondi, or, gasp, the northern beaches.

  8. Carolinian

    Bloomberg on a subway? Was that when he was not flying his personal helicopter from East River heliport?

    I lived in NYC years ago and just thinking about the subway I once took every day is depressing. It sounds like it is now even more depressing which may explain the neglect. Glamour was never a big selling point and subway scenes are a staple of movie makers for thrillers–perhaps because of the agoraphobic connotations. As for

    critical to New York City’s economy, hence to New York State’s, hence to the nation

    doubtless the nation will end up paying for it somehow. NYC and “critical” may need to be debated at some point.

    1. Wombat

      I used to take the 4 train every day to school. Saw Bloomberg on there in the afternoon a couple times- he got off in midtown Manhattan of course, it wasn’t like he was going up to the Bronx like many of us deplorables, yet he definitely took the train, during rush hour, and stood.

      1. Michael Fiorillo

        Yes, he sometimes took the trains, though he was driven to the station four blocks away by an SUV that was always idling outside his townhouse.

        And are we supposed to be grateful for that? He still spent his entire twelve years in office doing nothing to push for more funding for transit, and trying to privatize the school system. A monstrous man, despite the media’s efforts to temper his service to himself and fellow members of the Overclass by describing him as a “social liberal.”

      2. Big River Bandido

        Not only was Bloomberg driven to the 59th St. station, but the SUV that carried him there skipped the local station closer to Bloomberg’s home. It’s one thing to take the subway. But to walk to it like everyone else? And to be forced to actually make transfers? The horror!

        Bloomberg’s riding of the subway was poorly-acted theater.

        1. Wombat

          Indeed, I just said that he took the train, I even mentioned he only took it through the finer parts of NY, and not to the deplorable parts. Nothing in my post implies that Bloomberg was upstanding or deserves our gratitude. It is common knowledge that most NC readership is aware of Bloomberg et al’s policies!

          However I would caution, his “poorly-acted” theater was bought at the time by a young high-schooler like myself, and by many fellow middle class and working poor strap-hangers who shook his hand. So sure we NC crowd are wise now, but let’s not forget that gimics like his were [and are] effective. So in that regard thank you Michael for pointing out some of his awful policies.

          But perhaps we don’t jump on someone stating a fact or anecdote that isn’t heavily hedged by cautionary caveats and reminders. I get it, we get it, we know what Bloomberg et al are; we shouldn’t have to display our “woken” bonafides on every comment.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      Millions of New York Citysiders are survival-dependent on life support systems like the subway, electric grid, water grid, natural gas grid, etc. If one or more of those grids were to go down and stay down for a while, millions of people would either have to flee the city or die.

      Is it important for the rest of America not to have to receive and resettle 10 million refugees from New York City? If it is, then the rest of America will figure out how to keep New York survivable for the millions who live there.

      Unless the Overclass has already decided to let The Jackpot happen all the way in New York City and see how it plays in Peoria. In which case, the non-Overclasses will have to figure out some way to take command over the City away from the Overclass.

      1. Carolinian

        Consider this commenter suitably chastised. There was a no doubt tongue in cheek move by Norman Mailer and some others for NYC to secede from NY state back in the 70s. I don’t recall that they also wanted to drop out of the USA.

        But sounds like you do agree that the NYC Overclass have some role in the abuse of the flyovers. Perhaps it’s only them we need to view as less than necessary.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Yes. One might go further and say that the Overclass of all places are a malignant tumor wherever they are living. Certainly the Koch brothers, for example, are a tapeworm on the brain of the nation. As is George Soros. But the Koch brothers have twenty times more money. So that makes them twenty times more dangerous than George Soros. Plus the Koch brothers actively believe in destroying public infrastructure wherever it exists. I don’t know that George Soros cares one way or the other about that.

          I read somewhere that there used to be all kinds of thing-making in NYC. Over the decades, zoning and stuff was manipulated to exterminate as much productive thing-making within NYC as possible. The bussiness of NYC was to be FIRE sector manipulation, plus supporting all the staff who support the Financial Areas, plus tourism and all the people who support that. Otherwise, I don’t know how much real thing-making or even thing-fixing activity happens within NYC anymore. I gather Workman Bicycles are still made there, or at least assembled there.

          1. Huey Long

            Bob Fitch covers all of this in “The Assassination of NY.”

            The RPA began planning the deindustrialization of NYC as far back as the 1920’s. In terms of thing making in the city, we do still produce plenty of food products in the boros, and the Long Island City neighborhood is home to a number of sheet metal contractors that manufacture custom ductwork and other HVACcomponents to keep the myriad office towers up and running.

            1. drumlin woodchuckles

              That is good. That is real. That could be a ‘stub’ ( as they call it on Wikipedia) to build back out from. When I have more time, I will offer more thoughts ( in hopes that they will be useful).

          2. Michael Fiorillo

            In the late 1950’s/early 1960’s, Brooklyn alone had more factory workers than Detroit and Pittsburgh combined. If you look at the neighborhoods that burned down in the 1970’s, it overlays closely with de-industrialized neighborhoods.

            The city was a manufacturing center for clothing, textiles, transportation and electrical equipment, machinery, and was the center of the largest printing industry in the country. Printers had after-work softball leagues in Jimmy Walker Park in Greenwich Village near my home (they’d sometimes let me play right field late in the game when I was a kid). You could smell the priner’s ink and hear the presses running at night along streets that today house multi-million dollar lofts, along with advertising and digital marketing firms. There was jewelry and furniture production (which moved South before it moved to China… And there was the Port.

            Almost anything you could imagine was produced in NYC, much of it in Manhattan, until it was pushed out. As previous readers have noted, Bob Fitch was one of the few journalists who covered this issue. Joshua Freeman’s “Working Class New York” is also a fine introduction to this era.

            Gerald Podair’s “The Strike That Changed New York,” about the epochal 1968 NYC teachers strike, also gives a fine description of NYC’s fall as a social democratic beacon for the country, and especially how it divided the forces that might have fought off the bankers.

            it’s no accident that the de-indiustrialization of NYC happened in the lead-up to the Downbeat of Neoliberalism, which was the Banker’s Coup of 1975, when the city lost local control over its budget, and twenty years of public sector austerity commenced.

  9. TXDave

    The grifters control the economy. Nothing can be built at a reasonable price. Between the consultants, studies, contractors with inside tracks, public projects have just became a means to siphon funds from the public purse.

    It’s not just Moscow that puts New York’s subway to shame. I’ve been to Singapore, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, Berlin in the last year, and there’s no comparison.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      So perhaps a deep and broad process of de-grifterfication must be completed first before anything can be rebuilt or repaired?

  10. Wombat

    I cannot help but think that you are absolutely right about the long-game neoliberalism playbook being put to work here, Lambert. The New York Subway would be a crown jewel for the rent-seekers, yet they cannot sieze it so quickly like some Chicago parking meters, because the NY Subway has a well-warranted, historic reputation of being an efficient, public good. On June 11th, when you posted the Atlantic hit piece (which posits that it only takes a couple billion to turn the tunnels into some muskian utopia, compared to 19 billion to modernize the EXISTING system), I first realized these fears and pulled these quotes from the Article, using your four-step model:

    [1] Defund [or sabotage]: “… and it’s going to cost billions to keep the old trains running: $19 billion, at least according to one estimate from city planners.”
    [2] claim crisis: “But the system is also falling apart.“
    [3] call for privatization: ”Just a collection of competing fleets, centrally orchestrated and offering different levels of service to different groups at different prices.”
    [4] Profit! [ka-ching]. “People would pay to reserve a slice of the pavement at a particular time.”

  11. rd

    You left out an important NYTimes article on construction costs and excess labor in NYC. This is also very important for any of the other tunnels under the Hudson River (Amtrak etc.): https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/28/nyregion/new-york-subway-construction-costs.html

    Having done some engineering and construction work in NYC, along with many places in North America, NYC has by far the most bureaucratic and archaic construction permitting and labor rule requirements I have seen anywhere. These additional costs are astronomical, especially when piled on top of the normally high costs of working in a congested city.

    NYC needs to learn the lesson of the UAW – excessive featherbedding rules kill the entities they are trying to feed off. I have worked on a lot of good union sites where the unions provide good workers with logical work rules. Those projects go well at reasonable cost, so it is not the mere existence of unions that is the problem.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Did UAW “featherbedding” play a role in the decline of Detroit car companies? If so, how much? How much of a role did obsolete design and refusal to keep up with European and especially Japanese car design and quality play? And how much of that was due to management?

      Certainly when Chrysler faced its first near-death experience, Frazier of UAW worked with Iaccoca of Chrysler to get the Union to make a lot of give-backs for several years to allow Chrysler to recover its revenue-streaming ability. What is the exact opposite of “featherbedding”? ” Bed of nails bedding? The UAW did several years of bed-of-nails bedding on behalf of Chrysler and their own jobs there.

      1. rd

        These are complex systems with numerous causes of failures. Management has lots of blame as you point out. Unions are a form of management themselves. Unions need to understand that they need to keep up with changes in order to stay relevant and alive. Complex work rules simply to keep head count up are simply keeping costs high with no added benefit (having unnecessary workers is very different from cutting hourly wages).

        Ultimately if your marginal costs for a unit of production are too high, then you may get none which is where NYC subways appear to be now. Offshoring subway construction to reduce labor costs is not feasible, so the common response is simply not to build it at all when it comes to infrastructure. Reducing the cost of subway construction and maintenance reduces the passenger mile cost which can in turn lead to potentially even more jobs in the future if more miles of subway are built and maintenance gets done.

        I remember being in a UAW plant in the late 90s where there was some litter on the ground that appeared to be a slip hazard. I was bending down to pick it up and throw it in the trash can 10 feet away when the corporate engineer I was with stopped me and told me if I touched that, there would be an immediate grievance filed by the workers on the floor that management was taking away jobs from union workers because a worker should be called over to pick it up. This is the extreme level that unions can end up at and it doesn’t save jobs as the 2000s proved.

        1. JohnnySacks

          Having worked in a union shop, this example is not cherry picked, it’s the norm. Younger workers grateful for a decent job forced to sit on their ass and twiddle their thumbs for one out of three hours each day due to ridiculous time standards. Zero incentive to suggest and implement mind-numbing common sense efficiency improvements. OK, in my observed case, management deserved everything the union gave it, but with or without the combination, the outcome was toxic.

      2. Michael Fiorillo

        Auto is a capital-intensive industry, with labor equivalent to about ten percent of a car’s production cost.

        Increase “union featherbedding” (which sounds an awful lot like management talking points here) by several orders of magnitude, and you still have a minimal increase in costs to consumers.

  12. nothing but the truth

    New York Post

    “As subway riders suffer through train delays and packed cars, the political class has hit upon the easy fix: more money. Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants the city to give more, while Queens Sen. Mike Gianaris wants a new tax on millionaires.

    But if the first $15.6 billion a year doesn’t help, how much will?

    A historical review of the MTA’s finances reveals that the authority is taking in a record amount of revenue. Just 12 years ago, the MTA took in $7.8 billion.

    That’s right: The authority’s tax, fare and toll take has — rather neatly — exactly doubled, even as inflation has pushed prices up just 28 percent.”

    1. Ratbat

      Great point.

      Revenue collection isn’t the problem. It’s how spending is allocated, something that would be much, much harder to fix.

      Finding political support to allocate this spending more efficiently could prove awfully elusive.

  13. VietnamVet

    If you are hording wealth to gain more power, how low-lives get around really doesn’t matter unless it is Uber and it is a means to exploit them. Washington DC’s Metro has the same problems as NYC except it is 72 years newer. It has gotten so bad the federal government actually came up with a plan to seize control. This is typical of the Clinton/Bush/Obama/Trump Administrations. Let the public go to hell. Do nothing to fix it. If the decline becomes noticeable blame Russia, environmentalists or immigrants for it. Agitprop over public service.

  14. upstater

    The Russian subways, in general, are far superior to anything in the US.

    The St. Petersburg metro is beautiful. No claustrophobia, very well lit, trains running on 3 minute headways. Trains are clean! The cars appear to be older, but well maintained. Cheap to ride — 1/2 ruble (about 30 cents) for a single ride and cheaper with multi-use cards.

    Russian cities also have electric trolley buses and street cars. Comprehensive routes, easy to navigate. Again, cheap to ride.

    And don’t ask about Russian railways — mostly electric powered, genuine high speed rail in some places. There are something like 6 overnight sleeper trains between Moscow and St. Petersburg, including the Red Arrow. In daytime the Sapsan highspeed takes 3:30 for the same distance as Boston to Washington (Amtrak takes 7 hours)

    The United States has crap infrastructure of every sort.

    1. Edward

      I guess the Russian oligarchs have not managed to get their hands on the transit system or they are more afraid of the public.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        It shows what a transit system can achieve and maintain when it is not ‘garched up.

  15. Tinky

    My father lived in Manhattan for nearly my whole adult life, and I lived on Long Island for many years, so I have some familiarity with the NYC subway system. It is horrible – noisy, dirty, and poorly maintained.

    The contrast between it and Tokyo’s system is stunning, as is the contrast of most smaller, far superior systems.

  16. Wombat

    I cannot help but think that you are absolutely right about the long-game neoliberalism playbook being put to work here, Lambert. The New York Subway would be a crown jewel for the rent-seekers, yet they cannot sieze it so quickly like some Chicago parking meters, because the NY Subway has a well-warranted, historic reputation of being an efficient, public good. On June 11th, when you posted the Atlantic hit piece – which posits that it somehow only takes a couple billion to turn the tunnels into some muskian utopia, compared to 19 billion to modernize the EXISTING system- I first realized these fears and pulled these quotes from the Atlantic article, using your four-step model:

    [1] Defund [or sabotage]: “and it’s going to cost billions to keep the old trains running: $19 billion, at least according to one estimate from city planners.”
    [2] claim crisis: “But the system is also falling apart.“
    [3] call for privatization: ”Just a collection of competing fleets, centrally orchestrated and offering different levels of service to different groups at different prices.”
    [4] Profit! [ka-ching]. “People would pay to reserve a slice of the pavement at a particular time.”

  17. Roquentin

    I lived in NYC for a straight decade and never owned a car. I took the train every day. After leaving, I never thought I’d feel good about sitting in traffic again, but it’s a cakewalk compared to fighting the crowds and dealing with everything I had to put up with on that subway. That’s not even taking into account the fact that it’s rat infested and decrepit. I once saw a bag of garbage in the G station I lived off of (It was my 2nd year there and I was flat broke) that was so full of rats it looked like it was breathing. I’ll never forget it sitting there and pulsating. I lived there long enough not to expect anything major to be done to fix it. They might nibble around the edges, fix a few things here and there, but there isn’t money or political will to do the massive repairs which are necessary. I’m sorry to say, I believe it’ll get a lot worse before it gets better.

    It’s kind of a metaphor for the US in general and the Gilded Age 2.0 we’re living in. Obscene opulence at a first glance, but the entire thing is decrepit mess held together with duct tape.

    1. Yves Smith

      I don’t know when you lived in NYC. I take the trains now (admittedly mainly the Lex line, where the cars happen to be nice, the F, which is fine, and the lines running on Broadway, which are a bit grimmer but still in good shape) and I also take cabs. Thanks to Amazon and Uber/Lyft, getting around in a cab even at off hours during the day is guaranteed to be slower and more aggravating that a subway if you are going north/south. Going crosstown is another matter, and NYC transit is pretty poor at that.

      1. Martin Finnucane

        But the G is something else besides. I lived some years ago in NYC, accumulating debts that no honest man could ever pay. And yes, I can confirm the G is in fact nasty – the cars, the stations, the living rat bags, the attitudes of the people taking it.

      2. Roquentin

        I live in Minnesota now. The Twin Cities to be exact. Traffic here isn’t bad by the standards of most metropolitan areas. I think the most shocking thing to me is that none of these highways have tolls. There isn’t a single interstate in the Twin Cities that requires a toll in order to drive on. People complain so much about taxes, but I’d take increased taxes over having to pay tolls on the road any day of the week, if for no other reason than avoiding the hassle of the payment process and the traffic slowdowns that come with the booths.

        As far as NYC goes, I’d still take the subway if I were living there. A car there is a waste of money, plain and simple. The subway was the only thing that made living there even halfway affordable. It’s a shame that they’re letting the system go down the tubes.

      3. Octopii

        The 7 sure is nice now with Hudson Yard at the end of it — now that’s a fun escalator…

        The DC metro is having similar issues – but in our case it mostly seems like extreme incompetence of workers and management. And blatant falsification of safety records. The union makes a full court press on every dismissed worker, even the ones that files those reports and killed people in accidents.

        Oh, and getting to New York? Also a nightmare either by bus, car, or train. The much trashed Acela is frequently delayed, the buses sit in traffic for hours on a Friday afternoon, and the highways through NJ and NY will tear open the suspension of a car like a brutal can opener.

  18. Darius

    Hello. Anybody in there? The subway is for poor people. Hello. Hello. Duh. People who matter drive, silly.

    This is the world Andrew Cuomo lives in. Really, it’s the world we all live in. The car is a vital human organ to the American. People without cars aren’t worth a damn. This thinking is so internalized most people don’t even realize it’s not the only way of looking at the question.

    1. Yves Smith

      Not true. Goldman partners often used the subway, since if you care about your time, the subway is the fastest and most reliable way to get from the Wall Street area to midtown and taxi transit times have only gotten worse. It’s also popular if you are running to an assignation. If you use an Uber or a radio car, there’s a record of your trip. Yellow cabs paid in cash are also pretty anonymous, but you might not be able to get one when you need it (rush hour, scarcity due to rain, etc.). Although I agree most people outside NYC don’t understand that.

      1. Darius

        I think politicians think this though. They have drivers and never use the subway. I’m sure Cuomo thinks the subway is for chumps, and people take the subway only because they don’t have a car. Of course, the last thing New York needs is more cars.

  19. Pat

    The Second Avenue Subway mini line that has only been open for a few years is already showing water damage in a couple of stations. I might not have been shocked but was dismayed when I spotted it. Nothing will be done, Andy Cuomo got his photo op with it.

    And don’t forget that right after getting a needed fare increase a year or so ago Cuomo immediately cut more money from the MTA than the fare increase was supposed to bring in from his budget. They have two planned fare increases that I believe just got approved, I fully expect cuts from Cuomo to follow.

  20. lyle

    It should be noted that the subways in NYC were built with private capital it was only in 1940 that the city took them over and the state took over from the city in 1968. the main problem is that as a private enterprise rides would become cost prohibitive (which was why the city took over the lines in the first place). This was true in most US cities (and London) the infrastructure was built by private concerns, but could not make money at the fares charged.
    The question is which investors in their right minds would buy the property. It appears from discussions of the Washington DC metro that deferred maintenance is an endemic problem. To afford keeping things up to snuff, you would have to raise the rates significantly, or slap an additional entry fee on Manhattan for autos (easy on the west hard on the North and East)

    1. Darius

      Apply property taxes from adjacent properties whose value depends on the subway. Subways never made money. The old ones were built to support real estate investments.

    2. Scott

      The history of private rail companies (subways and streetcars) is a little more complicated. This is going off memory of a few articles that I read, but many private organizations were prohibited, as part of their charter, franchise or license, from increasing prices. This lead to strain as years became decades. In addition, many companies (like PSEG) owned both the electric utility and electric railway, selling electricity at below cost to the railway and passing higher costs to other consumers. The practice was prohibited by the Public Utility Holding Company Act (PUHCA) in the 1930s. This meant that the utilities needed to sell the streetcar companies who no longer had access to subsidized electricity. They really had no option but to sell to a government.

      1. Michael Fiorillo

        “They had no option but to sell to a government.”

        You’re leaving out an important fact in the chain of events, which illustrates the underlying systemic corruption: they were were first sold to bus companies, which promptly destroyed them. The plot of the animated film “Who Killed Roger Rabbit?” revolves around how it happened in LA, which once had the world’s largest urban trolley system.

        Governments later took over the carcasses after the predators were finished, something that is likely to be repeated during the next round of financial crisis and public sector austerity.

  21. RR Hayes

    In the early 1990’s the London Underground undertook a program called “The Company Plan.” This program concentrated LUL’s management on the job of moving people from point A to B. They had realized that they knew how to run trains, but didn’t do a good job of cleaning them, for instance. They also did what Tokyo did and separated the management of specific lines to “local” managers–decentralized controls. With a major emphasis on improving signal and track conditions and “Minding the Gap” between trains. Minding the gap between trains meant that there was less crowding on one train as the passengers were more evenly distributed between 2 trains. Train drivers were rewarded for sticking more close to the gap between the train in front of them and behind. This caused a more regular distribution of trains and hence passengers–less over crowding of trains was the result. With better track & signal maintenance the systems overall reliability improved. This was a direct result of decentralizing both functions so that local line managers concentrated their resources on the few things that affected reliability. Riders rewarded LUL with increased ridership AND accepted a fare increase. And on a recent visit to London, LUL has continued to provide excellent service.

  22. Adrian

    Have to disagree with this being an example of the neo-liberal playbook, Lambert.

    1-There is no chance of privatization of the MTA and the increase in FHV use with Uber and Lyft has a lot to do with poor management of street space by the city and not just issues with the subways.
    2-The MTA is incredibly well funded, tens of billions have been spent on state of good repair and capital projects in the past 30 years, with tens of billions more to come in future capital plans.

    The problem is waste, corruption and incompetence on the part of MTA management. The MTA is used as a means of allocating public resources to favored contractors and communities with no consideration for return on investment, it’s more like the Pentagon than the NHS to use a recent example from your posts. Favored contractors can bill for billions in construction expenses with a revolving door between MTA managers and the contractors they supervise.

    Also, the MTA is a terribly run, inefficient organization, East Side Access being a perfect example, it’s billions over budget and years behind schedule and should never have been built in the first place. The MTA is constructing a brand new station hundreds of feet below Grand Central Terminal for LIRR trains when instead they could have connected the LIRR to the existing Metro North tracks just below street level for a fraction of the cost. They didn’t do it because Metro-North and LIRR managers refused to work together.

    1. Huey Long

      Also, the MTA is a terribly run, inefficient organization, East Side Access being a perfect example, it’s billions over budget and years behind schedule and should never have been built in the first place. The MTA is constructing a brand new station hundreds of feet below Grand Central Terminal for LIRR trains when instead they could have connected the LIRR to the existing Metro North tracks just below street level for a fraction of the cost. They didn’t do it because Metro-North and LIRR managers refused to work together.


      JUST like the Pentagon!

      Eastside Access is a massive waste of money, and they didn’t even bother continuing the tunnel past GCT towards either penn or Atlantic Ave for a future expansion which IMHO is shortsighted.

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      Yes, with exposed unguarded ceiling fans (no AC!) and porcelain poles/handlebars. The conductors had to straddle on foot rests in between two center cars to open and close the doors. One of those beauties is on display at the Transit Museum in downtown Brooklyn; for New Yorkers of a certain age, it’s some heavy temps perdu…

      Probably every rivet on those trains was manufactured in the US, as well, and the leader of the transit workers union was the great Mike Quill who, confronted with a court injunction (which he ignored) barring a strike, famously said in his brogue, “The judge can go to Hell in his black robes!”

    2. Huey Long

      I celebrated Fathers’ Day this year riding just such a subway car at an annual MTA nostalgia event at Brighton Beach.

      1. Michael Fiorillo

        Yes, the same is done over Thanksgiving weekend, with train buffs riding them throughout the system. They’re quieter and more spacious than any cars currently used…

  23. Jason Boxman

    I’m beginning to think the United States of America is simply a failed state. It clearly is for those of us in the 90%.

  24. Jeremy Grimm

    I used the subways in Seoul. Many of the stations were deep underground, spacious, and well-maintained. While waiting for a ride there I recalled scenes from old films showing the crowds huddled in the London subway waiting out an air raid, and then it occurred to me that Seoul is within firing ranges of North Korean artillery batteries. I suspect the subway system in Seoul was intended to provide shelter in case of a North Korean attack. I haven’t seen the subways in Moscow but as described in the Metro Trilogy, credited to Dmitry Glukhovsky, they too may have a secondary purpose as shelters. I noticed the subway stations in Washington, DC were set very deep in the ground — although not so spacious or grand as Seoul. Perhaps the MTA can grab up some money from Homeland Security to enlarge and improve the NYC subways.

    1. Jessica

      Not all, but some of the stations in Moscow were definitely built with surviving WW2 bombing in mind.
      The escalators for those are impressively long. And fast.
      Some of the stations were also built to allow survival through something even more dire. There are bomb doors between the tracks and the station that only open when a train is in the station.
      I was moved by the art, much of which is very explicitly socialist. Being there in the late 1990s, I felt like a tourist in the ruins of some once great ancient empire. Hard to see that and still think that the Soviet Union was nothing but moronic economics with a lot of Gulags.

      The Metro Trilogy that a number of other commenters have mentioned is fascinating. Not necessarily the best SF I have ever read, but it felt very, very Russian. In that sense, similar to the Three Body Problem trilogy, which is utterly brilliant SF, and very, very Chinese. Both trilogies are worth reading for their insights into the cultures that produced them.
      Now veering way, way off topic, if you do read the Three Body Problem, reading a good history of the Opium Wars beforehand will enrich your experience. Or the fictional River of Smoke gives a vivid description. (It is part of a trilogy. I think that is the one that covers the Opium War.)
      For those who have brought up the evil Robert Moses, the NY subway in both its grandeur (it does actually get people there) and its decay, can be thought of as the product of the fight between a strong leftist streak in the city (subway, CUNY, rent control) and the classists who empowered Moses. And also the contradiction between mass transit seen as being “just for derelicts” and mass transit as a tool for re-gentrifiers in parts of Brooklyn and Queens.

  25. George Phillies

    Rumor has it that there are other cites in Russia besides Moscow and St. Petersburg, These were the show cities for foreigners.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      One would think that the owner-operators of NYC would regard the NYC transit system as being equally a show city showcase for foreigners.

      Maybe NYC’s motto is . . . ” We’re number One. So we don’t have to try as hard, right?”

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      Suppose you just arrived from Mars and rode the subways in NYC and then road the subways of some other major world cities — you can exclude Moscow if you’re allergic to Russia Russia Russia [I just picked on Moscow because I enjoyed the novels Metro 2033 and Metro 2034, not sure about Metro 2035 ~~], and suppose your mission requires that you unaided by human help locate our leader, the leader of Earth, to avoid the having to repeat that embarrassing line: “Take me to your Leader.” Judging based solely on the subway systems you rode would you begin your search anywhere near NYC?

      1. Huey Long

        Do a an image search for Tehran or Pyongyang metro…

        Even our “sworn enemies” in the “Axis of Evil” countries have prettier subways than NYC!!

  26. Jessica

    I don’t think that the neglect of the NYC subway is as much about creating an opportunity for privatization so much as about destroying anything that functions well and widely on a non-corporate basis.
    Into the 1950s,even into the 1960s, NYC was, compared to the rest of the country, social democratic. It had highly functional public transit, a tuition-free college system (the CUNY system) that was a major ladder up for earlier generations of immigrants, and rent control.
    The social democratic character of New York City was well destroyed by the 1970s. There was that famous newspaper headline: “Ford to City: Drop Dead”.
    The subway system we have now is the result of the destruction of that social democratic base but with the subway being too integral to the functioning of the city to simply dismantle. So neglect.

    By the way, Tokyo and Seoul and Copenhagen and Vienna, those are all fair comparisons. Moscow is not. Its subway system was built as a political statement of the superiority of the Soviet system and within a context of the concentration of resources in Moscow at the expense of the rest of the country, both during and after the Soviet era. If the Saint Petersburg metro runs well now, that would be a fair comparison. When I was there in the late 1990s (granted, the very bottom of the post-Soviet collapse), one tunnel had flooded, so they just gave up and ran buses.

    1. makedoanmend

      “…Moscow is not. Its subway system was built as a political statement of the superiority of the Soviet system and within a context of the concentration of resources in Moscow at the expense of the rest of the country, both during and after the Soviet era…”

      And New York City’s subway is not a concentration of resources that are then not available to other parts of the USA? Capitalism does’t make political statements with its building programs?

      Seems a rather capricious set of distinctions leading to the elimination of Moscow tube as a comparison.

      You may be pleased to learn, if their site is anything to go by, that the St. Petersburg subway seems to be thriving even though construction only begun post-Stalin.

      Some of the architecture and decoration is truly stunning. I suppose today these subways represent examples of the good technical ability of the Russian state and its citizens, in whatever form, to produce viable public transportation at affordable prices.

      Surely that’s the main point.


  27. 4corners

    Just after grad school I worked as a city planner in New York. In a meeting, one of the borough presidents remarked that “transit was for indigents”. No surprise that he believed this but we were all shocked that he said it. Pre-figuring Trump, he went on to rhapsodically describe how beautifully wide the intersections are in Phoenix, AZ.

    Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker” describes in painful detail how the transportation system in NYC was shaped by decades of preference for the personal automobile, which of course was a proxy for class.

  28. stefan

    America is a full-exploitation society. This means public goods have been in decline since the civil rights act.

    Tokyo subways are stopped between midnight and 5 am, providing time for cleaning, maintenance, and time to sleep. (NYC ought to try that.) If you want to stay out late (and plenty do), you take a taxi home. Taxi drivers make an OK living in Japan.

    Americans are terrible about maintenance. It takes time and we expect someone else to do it.

    I’ve lived in Manhattan since 1999, but sad to say, it’s a dump.

    1. Yves Smith

      Trust me, the subways are better than they were in the 1970s and 1980s. The system has only clawed its way back a bit out of a deep hole.

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