Photo by Madison McVeigh/CityLab
In the first decades of the 20th century, New York City experienced an unprecedented infrastructure boom. Iconic bridges, opulent railway terminals, and much of what was then the world’s largest underground and rapid transit network were constructed in just 20 years. Indeed, that subway system grew from a single line in 1904 to a network hundreds of miles long by the 1920s. It spread rapidly into undeveloped land across upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs, bringing a wave of apartment houses alongside.
Then it stopped. 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.
Why did New York abruptly stop building subways after the 1940s? And how did a construction standstill that started nearly 80 years ago lead to the present moment of transit crisis?
Photo by Madison McVeigh/CityLab
Three broad lines of history provide an explanation. The first is the postwar lure of the suburbs and the automobile—the embodiment of modernity in its day. The second is the interminable battles of control between the city and the private transit companies, and between the city and the state government. The third is the treadmill created by rising costs and the buildup of deferred maintenance—an ever-expanding maintenance backlog that eventually consumed any funds made available for expansion.
To see exactly how and why New York’s subway went off the rails requires going all the way back to the beginning. What follows is a 113-year timeline of the subway’s history, organized by these three narratives (with the caveat that no history is fully complete). Follow along chronologically or thematically for the historical context of the system's sorry state, or use a playful “map” of the subway's decline.
1904: First subway opens
The private Interborough Rapid Transit company opened the first underground subway line in 1904, stretching from West Harlem to Grand Central. After taking over the existing elevated railways, it created a near-monopoly on rapid transit in Manhattan and the Bronx. The Brooklyn Rapid Transit company dominated the elevated transit business in that borough, as well as its connections to Manhattan.
1913: The “Dual Contracts”
In an agreement called the “Dual Contracts,” the city entrusted the two private subway companies with a radical expansion of the system. Almost immediately, municipal leaders regretted the decision. Many were dissatisfied with the financial return from the investment of over $200 million—more than half the total cost of construction.
The dispute went beyond mere finance, however: The subway became a symbol of the battle between public and private interest, and a populist touchstone for a succession of mayors. Their most important leverage was control of the subway fare: By refusing to let the private companies charge more than a nickel for decades, inflation meant that in 1948 riders were effectively paying less than half what they had been paying in 1904.
1922: Independent Subway
Opposition to the private transit duopoly was the centerpiece of Mayor John Hylan’s administration. He announced a vast new “Independent” subway system, to be built and owned by the municipal government. Unlike earlier subway lines, which pushed deep into undeveloped territory, many of the IND lines closely paralleled existing private routes in order to compete with them.
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The real estate industry was one of the most important constituencies supporting the development of the subway system in the early years. Developers enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the subway, which was extended into empty fields that were then swiftly and profitably blanketed with apartment houses whose residents then filled the trains. With the construction of the IND, that bargain began to break down—they saw new subways as more of a tax burden than a generator of big speculative profits.
1939: World’s Fair
As visitors to New York’s 1939 World’s Fair gazed on General Motors’ vision of the world to come at its Futurama exhibit, they didn’t see new trains and subways. Instead, they saw cars traveling quickly on wide new superhighways to bungalows in a bucolic landscape. The car was viewed as the height of modernity; many dismissed public transit as a grimy relic of an earlier age. The postwar federal government would spend what it took to make the suburban dream come true.
1940: City takes over the private subways
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia took advantage of the disastrous finances of the BMT and IRT, ravaged by the Depression and the ban on fare increases, to acquire both companies. That strained the city’s resources, with a total cost of $326,248,000. The cost was not much lower than that of building the entire IND network, and while it did unify the system, it didn’t produce a single additional mile of subway.
1940: Sixth Avenue subway opens
The Sixth Avenue line was one of the core segments of the IND’s Manhattan network. It was to be followed soon after by the Second Avenue line, but New Yorkers ended up waiting over 70 years for even a tiny segment of that project to be completed. The Sixth Avenue subway was an astonishing engineering achievement: The work had to weave around both the PATH train tunnel and the supports for the busy elevated line above. Such wizardry did not come cheaply, and it was emblematic of the high standards—and costs—on all the new IND lines.
The IND lines built by the municipal government cost an average of $9 million per mile, which was 125 percent higher than the earlier “Dual Contracts” lines. The cost per mile of Sixth Avenue was about four times as high as the original subway. This pattern of high construction cost persists to the present day.
1946: Subway ridership peaks
Subway ridership has never been as high as it was in 1946, and a precipitous decline began in the late 1940s as automobiles became widely available. The busiest station in the system, Times Square, saw its ridership drop from 102,511,841 riders in 1946 to 66,447,227 riders in 1953. Subway expansion would become increasingly difficult to justify as New Yorkers were abandoning the existing system—even though outward expansion was just what was needed to keep the subway as the region’s primary mode of transportation.
1947: End of the five-cent fare
With the subways now in municipal hands, a doubling of the fare was finally negotiated. Years of deferred maintenance by the cash-strapped private companies had become increasingly evident. But by then, fare hikes only exacerbated the problem of declining ridership.
Photo by Jonathan English/Madison McVeigh//MTA/CityLab
1951: Transit Bond issue
After 1945, the City of New York found itself in constrained financial circumstances. The growth and modernization of its infrastructure necessitated substantial borrowing, but the city was already burdened by an enormous Depression-era debt and faced a state-mandated debt limit. In November 1948, the Board of Transportation recommended that the city seek a $500 million exemption from the debt limit to permit the revival of the Second Avenue Subway plan, along with several outer-borough projects like the Utica Avenue line that mayors since have continued to tout, most recently Bill de Blasio. (Indeed, the wish list for subway construction has changed little to the present day.) The request passed in a statewide referendum on November 6, 1951.
But rather than being used as promised to continue the prewar pattern of expansion, most of the money was instead diverted to eroding the mountain of deferred maintenance that had built up during the war and the Depression.
1953: Creation of the Transit Authority
To ensure that fare policy never again became captive to electoral politics, many civic leaders advocated for the creation of an independent state authority to administer the city’s transit system, comparable to the Port Authority or Robert Moses’ Triborough authority. The subways were thus handed over to the state-created Transit Authority.
But the institutional reshuffle did not resolve the fundamental financial problems of a system; ridership continued to decline and maintenance remained deferred. The state and municipal governments were both unwilling to provide the subsidy that would have been needed to adequately sustain the system. Unlike highways, transit was still seen as a business that should make a profit, and not as a public service.
1956: The Interstate Highway Act
With the encouragement of President Eisenhower, Congress passed an act providing lavish federal funding for a cross-country network of expressways. The 1950s saw the construction of over a dozen major expressways and bridges in the New York region. This construction program rivaled or even exceeded the earlier subway boom. And unlike the subways, all of it benefited from federal largesse. Celebrating the completion of the Bruckner Expressway in the Bronx, Mayor Robert Wagner boasted, “This two and one-half mile stretch of elevated expressway cost more than $34 million, of which 90 percent was put up by the federal government.”
1950s: Growth of the suburbs
By the postwar period, the majority of population growth in the New York region was taking place outside of the five boroughs. New York City no longer dominated the region to the same extent that it once had, and the growing political power of the suburbs hindered funding requests for subway projects that many suburbanites believed did not benefit them. Manhattan and Brooklyn shrank from 1940 to 1960, while Nassau and Suffolk counties essentially tripled in population.
Yet New York City still planned subway projects as if the suburbs didn’t exist. In the postwar period, most greenfield real estate development shifted out of the city entirely and into the surrounding counties. Instead of being built around transit, new developments were centered on expressways.
1965: Creation of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority
In an effort to address the geographic and financial limitations of the Transit Authority, Governor Nelson Rockefeller created a new regional authority that would ultimately control the subways and commuter railways. It was given the toll revenue from the Triborough Authority’s bridges and tunnels, which had been the financial basis of Robert Moses’ bureaucratic empire, to provide the revenue needed to subsidize the transit system.
But while the new authority’s service area stretched beyond the five boroughs for the first time, it never made efforts to turn the subway and commuter railroads into a combined regional transit system. (For such a model, consider Paris’ Regional Express Network). New York may be an extraordinarily transit-oriented city, but once the municipal boundary is crossed into Nassau and Westchester, transit—especially other than commutes to Manhattan—is near as foreign a concept as it is in a wealthy Los Angeles suburb.
1968: Program for Action
The new MTA announced the last of its comprehensive plans to expand the network on the pharaonic scale of prewar construction. It proposed a number of new lines in the outer boroughs, a full Second Avenue subway, and a “superexpress” line along the LIRR in Queens. Construction began on several of the projects, but even those were only completed in truncated form or abandoned entirely. Never again would the MTA seriously plan major network expansion. Instead, the only discussion is of projects like the new Second Avenue line or 7 train extension, which are of a scale that would barely have registered on the city’s consciousness in the 1910s and ‘20s.
1973: Closure of the Third Avenue Elevated
As transit ridership dropped from prewar level, segments of the city’s subway and elevated system were abandoned entirely. While elevated lines had previously been closed to be replaced with adjacent subway lines, they were now closed without their promised replacements ever being built, including, infamously, the Second Avenue elevated line in Manhattan. The Bronx segment of the Third Avenue Elevated was the last major segment of the system to be shut down without replacement.
1975: Fiscal crisis and Second Avenue abandonment
The centerpiece of the Program for Action, the Second Avenue Subway, had begun construction in the early 1970s. But with the complete disintegration of the city’s finances, construction simply could no longer be supported. The disconnected tunnel segments have lain underused beneath the streets ever since. Several bond issues intended to finance subway expansion had also been defeated, and the limited funds that were available ended up being diverted to the system’s dilapidated trains and stations.
1988: Opening of three-stop Jamaica extension
The 1968 Program for Action proposed a number of projects intended to improve subway service in some of the neighborhoods that had sprouted up in the postwar years, particularly in Queens. Unfortunately, few of the projects were built. One small remnant was the extension of the E train to Jamaica; the J and Z trains were also moved off a nearby elevated line into the new tunnel along Archer Avenue. But a combination of limited funds and community opposition derailed more substantial expansion plans. Even simple extensions along existing rail corridors had become out of reach.
Photo by Jonathan English/Madison McVeigh/CityLab
2017: First phase of the Second Avenue subway opens
The Second Avenue Subway has been part of the city’s transit plans since the creation of the IND in the 1920s. It was intended to replace two elevated lines that shut down in the 1940s and 1950s respectively. An attempt to begin construction was abandoned due to the financial crisis of the 1970s and only a few tunnel segments were built. Over the years, plans were scaled down, and its length was trimmed to only three stops on the Upper East Side. The prospect for future phases remains unknown.
Beyond: The high cost of forgotten history
Many other world cities also slowed their pace of subway construction in the early postwar years. They, too, succumbed to the appeal of the automobile, or struggled with debt and destruction accumulated during the Depression and Second World War. But by the 1960s, this had changed. London opened two new Underground lines in the 1960s and 1970s. Paris began its vast RER project to connect all of its commuter rail lines, linking the rapidly growing suburbs with the historic core.
By contrast, New York’s subway system had deteriorated to such a dismal state that nearly all available funds had to be diverted to basic maintenance and overhaul. The city’s declining population and fiscal troubles made expansion nearly impossible.
Now, New York’s economy has turned around, the population is growing, and the city is in a relatively good financial position. Still, the maintenance backlog is devouring capital spending. Staggering subway construction costs—by far the highest in the world—mean that whatever funding is available does not go very far at all. Old problems that precluded subway construction in the past echo in the present day: There is still no meaningful integration between the subway and suburban transit, the mayor and governor carry on the same types of jurisdictional battles, and the subway has not managed to step off the treadmill of deferred repairs. These problems have deep roots, and overcoming them will not be a simple matter.
Most challenging of all is the shockingly high cost of subway construction. Anyone would expect costs to have risen since the early days of the system, but the cost of the proposed Second Avenue line is nearly eight times what a comparable project cost in the 1980s, when adjusted for inflation.* Procurement problems and labor relations issues are partial explanations, but the most important factor may be the wholesale loss of experience resulting from the decade-long gaps in construction. One of the distinct characteristics of European systems with much lower building costs is continuous construction: Every time they complete a new line, they are able to apply the lessons from the one previous. But in New York, from the opening of the Archer Avenue Line in 1988 to the construction of the 7 train extension and Second Avenue lines in the 2010s, virtually all the experience and knowledge that had been built up in subway construction had atrophied.
The same situation risks repeating itself, as the Second Avenue construction has been completed with no new construction immediately on the horizon. The subway’s cost-induced construction paralysis becomes more severe with every passing decade. We must learn from history in order to break it.
Jonathan English is a Ph.D. candidate in urban planning at Columbia University.