MANHATTAN (CN) – One hundred and fifteen years ago Sunday, the New York City subway system opened with a northbound Manhattan ride from the beautiful City Hall station to 145th Street in West Harlem, about nine miles. A ride ran 5 cents, and officials asked the public to give them two days to get things just right.
“We expect slight delays,” said General Manager Frank Hadley, as quoted in The New York Times on Oct. 27, 1904. “It would be unreasonable not to look for some hitches, in view of the newness of the men and the devices. There will be no serious inconvenience, however, and we think that within 48 hours the subway will have come as near to perfection as any railroad can.”
Today, New York runs the largest 24-hour, 365-day-a-year subway system in the world, boasting more than 800 miles of track and 472 stations, according to the New York Transit Museum. It was a marvel in 1904, and to some extent it remains one. But in the wake of a 2017 subway state of emergency, passengers are demanding better.
Ben Fried, a spokesman at nonprofit research and advocacy group Transit Center, spoke to the importance of the system in a phone interview Friday.
“The whole city of New York is what it is today because of the subway,” he said. “So I think when we talk about the subway, we’re often talking about just the basic health of New York City. … That’s why the current moment is both a time of optimism and tremendous risk.”
He graded the New York system at a C or C-minus, on a scale where Tokyo is an A-plus.
Transit in New York has been one of the city’s most hotly debated topics for years, but especially since the 2017 New York City Transit Crisis, when Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the city’s mass-transit systems.
Cuomo announced the crisis after a subway train derailed in Manhattan in June due to a poorly secured replacement rail, injuring 39. The following month, another train derailed due to poor maintenance, injuring nine.
The worst accident in the system’s history occurred Nov., 1, 1918, when a train approached a Brooklyn S-curve at 30 mph, 24 mph over the speed limit, and derailed, killing nearly 100 people. The accident led to an overhaul in safety measures, including a transition to metal cars, better signals and onboard train controls.
A subway crisis occurred in the 1970s due to deferred maintenance, crime and low ridership, but it got back on track in the 1990s with the introduction of the MetroCard.
“We are somewhat optimistic about [the subway’s] future, but we recognize that there’s a long way to go,” Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for the advocacy group Riders Alliance, said in a phone interview Friday.
“We envision a transit system that is fast, that is affordable, that is reliable, that is frequent — and too often the New York City subway doesn’t measure up,” he said.
A New York Times investigation found that, before the 2017 collapse, politicians from both parties had made cutbacks to the system that culminated in a loss of $1.5 billion. Political influence and fund mismanagement also contributed to the slow movement. Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio bickered over who was really in charge of the subway system (hint: it’s the state).
“The good news is that our elected officials are listening,” said Pearlstein. “We have held the governor’s feet to the fire.”
A new congestion pricing plan, set for 2021, will tax vehicles entering Manhattan’s central business district and is expected to raise $1 billion annually to help fix the ailing subways. It’s the first of its kind in the country.
Just this month, New York City Transit Authority chief Andy Byford — whom transit advocates credit for some important changes — resigned and then abruptly changed his mind. His Fast Forward plan dumped nearly $17 billion into buses and subways, including to fix signals and improve accessibility. The MTA also introduced a budget portal in an effort to better explain its finances to the public.
Pearlstein pointed out the need both to make the subway system more accessible – only about a quarter of stations have an elevator — as well as to steel the subway system for the perils of climate change, for example by increasing flood resiliency.
New Yorkers seeking to avoid the unpredictability underground, however, face pronounced risks in transit : 25 cyclists have been killed on city streets so far this year. In 2018 there were ten cyclist deaths in all. Seventy pedestrians had been killed this year in the city as of August.
Pearlstein and Fried agreed that the city’s subway system is still kind of a miracle, just as it was when it opened.
“It’s a miracle and a marvel, but it’s also a basic need,” said Pearlstein. “This is the primary way that people access the core of the city, and New Yorkers have a right to do that.” He likened it to a city water system, as an entity of tremendous value that officials need to take seriously.
“We shouldn’t have to think about it,” he said.
Fried made a similar statement.
“It is an enormous operation,” he said. “Thousands of people are working every day to keep these trains running, and it’s an intricate choreography.”