Subways: Past History

The New York City subway system began in 1904, which was about 35 years after the “elevated lines” of New York City. These were largely built by the city and leased to independent owners. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) had the subway, bus, and streetcar operations of the city placed under it from the New York City Transit Authority, in 1968.

Yet, the origination of the subway project being undertaken dates back to 1898, when numerous sections of now the City of Greater New York. The Rapid Transit Act, signed in 1894, allowed different lines to be planned as subways, e.g. through Lafayette St. (previously Elm St.) into Union Square. Initial protests to crossing Broadway were eventually resolved, and funding via partly bond issue facilitated construction.

After a series of acquisitions by the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT), with eventual conversion of steam powered trains to electric trains occurring. A bankruptcy of the BRT in 1918 resulted in consolidation into the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation, forming eventually the New York Rapid Transit Corporation.

A “war of direct vs. alternating current” between Edison and Tesla/Westinghouse played into the subway design – direct current won over for railroad use, with a conversion from AC to DC (as a 600V third rail). The Triborough plan united Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx. Thereafter, the Astoria and Flushing lines – similar to prior design, the city built them and leased them to private companies for operation. However, due to inflation post-World War II, financial troubles led to the city consolidating lines.

The city then launched the “Eighth Avenue Line” from 207th St. to (now) World Trade Center in 1932; the “Sixth Avenue Line” from West 4th St. to East Broadway; a crosstown line from Nassau to Bergen St. was then formed. A “Second Avenue Line” was contemplated but never built due to the Great Depression. The idea of one fare for subway riders was suggested by Mayor John Francis Hylan in 1925.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, issues with poor maintenance, crime in the subway regions, and avoidance by public due to such issues, led to sub-optimal revenue. Night-time initiatives such as Guardian Angels in 1979 protected in the subways overnight, and eventually by the 1990s crime substantially declined.

In the 1960s, with $600mm allocated and $1.2B spent to create tunnels as part of the “Second Avenue” line, again this was stalled due to fiscal crisis. Other smaller lines were built, yet most large plans were limited due to budgetary constraints and never accomplished.

In 1972, graffiti was a rampant problem, with Mayor John Lindsay “declaring war” but budgets were limted – with $1.3mm annually as a cost. About 17 years later, in 1989, the “rolling stock” was 100% graffiti-free, with attendant reduction in crime noted. In the 1970s, in a span of eight years, rides declined by 327mm.

A 1978 New York Daily News article cited the Grand Central station as the highest crime region; many other technical problems continued. The subway system’s attempts to increase ridership with “take the train to the plane” ads not being very successful. With 13,000 felonies per year in 1979, incidents like four alleged robbers were shot in 1984 by Bernhard Goetz, raising national awareness… it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the “zero tolerance” even for fare avoidance (which was as high as almost 7% after the 1990 increase to $1.15) was implemented by Giulani, Bratton, and others, resulting in much safer conditions; floor-to-ceiling gates instead of prior turnstiles helped improve fare avoidance.

A future crisis included the September 11, 2001 (9/11) damage to the Cortlandt Street station resulting in its demolition, with some re-routing of train lines.

Subways: Present Status & A Few Personal Observations

With a 36% increase in ridership between 1995 to 2005(and population growth of 7% in the city), by 2013 ridership reached 1.7B per year (which was similar to 1949). Finally, the often taken up and abandoned project of the Second Avenue Line was taken up, with ground-breaking in 2007, among other plans for extensions of other lines (like the 7 line).

While occasional accidents such as derailments occur (along with rare acts of terror), the general safety of the subway lines is evidenced by the significant ridership in New York.

A few observations from my own rides on the subway:

  • Being blind and taking the subway: On the Fulton Street Station which was under construction at the time, I noted a blind person with a cane who walked through the modified station course due to construction, up around 100 steps up different stairs to the exit – truly masterful;
  • The Humanity of people riding the subway – I have seen on several occasions when the train is packed, people being considerate – one even offered to use her lint remover after her coat got too close to my suit… another has helped me when I ran out of fare, and I returned the favor to someone else… many have given up their seats to those elderly or in need;
  • An excellent system of notification of station from automated voices with meaningful announcements: while some trains are better than others in their PA system, these are useful for keeping crowds who are essentially “on their own” in multiple cars remain informed;
  • Improvements such as notification of when to anticipate trains (especially among the 4-5-6 lines): this is tremendously useful to plan whether to take alternative forms such as a taxi or bus, but would be perhaps better served if placed as a display outside the station rather than as often times occurs, after paying past the turnstile.

Subways: Future

The impact of the subway on the city and its citizens, commuters, and tourists is significant. It will likely continue to remain so in the future.

With the anticipated completion of the Second Avenue Line including “#6” trains along these areas as well as other expansions, convenience is likely to grow (and along with this, probably rent prices increasing for apartments presently a bit removed from the nearest subway lines).

Perhaps a convenient line can be contemplated similar to the “take the train to the plane” lines that didn’t succeed in the past – to La Guardia Airport. Presently, only JFK Airport has a train system (E/M) which can access it, as well as the LIRR train system, but both require transfer to Air Train. A similar system to La Guardia would be significant. Perhaps Mayor DeBlasio or a subsequent Mayor could undertake such consideration.

(Information above has been acquired from numerous sources, including,, and