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Postcard from New York

As far as cities go, New York is *the* superlative. At once soaringly vertical and unfathomably broad. Dense and constrained, yet with an expansive commuter belt spread over three states. A place where local neighborhood hangouts sit a block away from global institutions.

I found New York to be a surprisingly homely and friendly place. The people are gracious and polite, helpful and personal in a way that belies a population counted in the tens of millions. Curiously I felt safer and more welcome in midtown Manhattan than I have in most other places. A real enigma of a city where the sense of wonder extends far beyond the garish lights of Times Square.

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One could write volumes on transport and urbanism in New York, and indeed people have. There is a gift shop in Grand Central Station that stocks a library worth books on such topics. There are four current issues on the planning of Central Park alone. If you want a history of New York’s municipal reticulated steam supply there is a book on precisely that. If you are interested in the subway there are about a dozen. Nonetheless, I thought I would write this post as some observations on using the New York subway quite intensively for the best part of a week.

It is almost the oldest, almost the biggest, and almost the busiest metro system in the world. Like the old and great systems of London and Paris it is the complex product of over a hundred years of iterative development, grand schemes, failed ventures, mergers, reorganization, investment and neglect. Like the rest of the city, the subway is paradoxically superlative: equal parts brilliant and terrible.

To start with the good:

The subway system is both very extensive and very intensive. By extensive I mean that it extends right across the five boroughs of New York City, with many long lines stretching out to some of the farthest suburbs. By intensive I mean that it has many closely spaced stations, with stops located convenient to seemly everywhere. Together this means the system has great accessibility for travel all over the city, particularly because it also integrates very well with frequent buses on the surface. Yet again, the most metro intensive cities in the world also have very intensive bus systems. Remember that, and repeat it regularly.

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Normally the combination of frequent stops and long lines would have the unfortunate result of slow speed and lengthly travel times. However in New York they have avoided this problem with one of the great and unique features of the subway. Most lines are actually configured as two pairs of tracks, either side by side or on two levels. This allows them to run two service patterns per line, a ‘local’ that stops at every station along the way, and an ‘express’ that skips all but the major destinations and interchanges. You can pick between the high accessibility or the high speed, and indeed the normal thing to do is to transfer from the local to the express at the first interchange, then back to the local again after skipping most of the intermediate stops. In this way you get the full accessibility and full speed, and most stations are set up with the local and express stops on either side of the same platform to make doing so very simple. While this is a great approach I doubt it is something we could ever do in Auckland, as it takes a city like New York to make it work. For a start you need to be able to afford four tracks and double sized stations, and also you need very long lines to make it worthwhile. But more than anything, you need the patronage to be able to sustain two parallel metro lines running at very high frequency on the same corridors all the time. There are only a few cities in world that can do that.

That brings me to the next point. The New York subway has exemplary service levels. Each service pattern, of which there are frequently two or three per line, runs at very high frequencies right across the day. Trains every three or four minutes is the norm, even outside of peak hours. And the kicker? The system operates twenty four hours a day, seven days a week for the most part. This underlines the sheer importance and value of the subway to the function of New York. It isn’t a system intended to get commuters to Manhattan on weekdays, it isn’t a system intended to take the edge off traffic congestion, and it isn’t a system intended to provide a last resort for the poor and unfortunate who have no other options. Rather, the subway is simply a system intended to transport people around New York, whatever the time, whatever the destination, whatever the reason and whoever the traveller. This is something we need to aim for in Auckland, not the metro system itself, but the transit system that works any time for any reason and any person.

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So now the bad. As I suggested above the subway is a product of its history, which naturally has resulted in various foibles and problems.

Despite the abundant network connectivity, connecting between lines is usually a convoluted and lengthy process. Transfer stations are most commonly a collection of separate platforms of various ages and designs linked by labyrinthine passageways, staircases and occasional street level links. Many span multiple levels and even multiple city blocks, undoubtedly the result of fitting in new lines and tunnels over the years wherever they could be accommodated. Way finding within station complexes is difficult to say the least, and simple connections can become a frustrating claustrophobic experience.

Furthermore, because most of the stations were cut out of the street corridor and can have me than one level, the ceiling heights are universally low, little more an two meters in many cases. This adds to the claustrophobic feeling (as does the dank stuffy air from the lack of air conditioning), but more insidiously it means that there is little scope to hang much wayfinding signage in places where it can be easily seen. The labyrinthine station designs make it both impossible to intrinsically see the obvious path to the other platforms, yet simultaneously the low ceilings prevent fixing the problem with good signage.

Stairs are many and varied on the subway. This means the system is not accessible by wheelchair and difficult for those with prams, luggage and the like. Many stations are built only with access via four narrow staircases, each set on one corner of an intersection. This can mean a whole trainload of people trying to get up one little staircase against the flow of others trying to get on. Furthermore most stations don’t have a concourse level, so changing platforms can mean exiting up to street level to cross the road and head back down the other side.

The final thing, well the whole network is a bit scuzzy. Dirty, run down, crumbling, rusting and waterlogged. It’s in need of an almighty makeover it will probably never get. I’d hate to think of what the cost of simply painting the stations and patching up broken tiles would be, let alone rebuilding and renovating the hundreds of stations.

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So in summary the New York Subway a paradox, at once decrepit and exemplary. Incredibly useful, valuable and effective, yet thoroughly unpleasant and confusing to use. Excellent service levels in a horrible environment, an ugly and awkward icon the city could not function without.

12 comments to Postcard from New York

  • Simon

    Agree on the utility. Fantastic. Agree on the grime. Adds to NYC’s gritty reputation (although it’s largely undeserved these days). I’ve not fojnd yhe connections difficult during my times there although the occasional lack of concourses is occasionally a pain. Also worth mentioning is the value. Aporox. $28 for a 7 day pass unlimited riding. Brilliant for tourists abd locals alike.

  • Simon

    Apologies for the typos. Damn phone.

  • Patrick R

    Fantastic summary.

    It is interesting to note that above ground Manhattan used to be, in the 70s and early 80s especially, much more run down and grimy than it is now. Every time I return it feels cleaner, safer, and perhaps just a bit duller…. It used to be the poster city for ‘urban decay’; dirty, bankrupt, fallen, corrupt, on edge, violent, but charismatic.

    Don’t get me wrong, it is better now, but it is true that for any nostalgic of those Mean Streets, you can feel it still in the Subway. There is still something akin to descending into one of the outer suburbs of hell at times when you venture down one of those little sets of stairs…. Those endless gloomy basements have none of the homely enclosure of the Tube, nor do those abrupt and workmanlike entrances have any of the glamour of Le Metro’s fin de si├Ęcle wrought iron fancies. And the company! Always a theatre.

    And there are advantages in coming to the urban infrastructure party late; it means you get shiny new kit. Like in Shanghai, where they built, in just 15 years, a system bigger than NY’s from scratch, and it’s quiet, clean, safe, and efficient. Or indeed Auckland, where we have rebuilt much of our old little rail system and are on the verge of turning it into a highly effective and focused and extremely modern Metro. With luck.

  • Glen

    Great summary, it parallels my experience on the NYC subway exactly.

    Frequent and fast (the Q train took us from SoHo to Times Square in just a few minutes thanks to the express pattern), but also amazingly gritty and grotty. Apart from the usual grime, our closest station (Canal Street) had stalagmites of grime (!!!) growing from the ceiling.

    Oh, and the NYC subway is loud. Really, really LOUD. The bangs when the trains cross the rail joins/gaps are loud, harsh and grating, and they echo through the stations. I think even with sound-deadening headphones or earplugs it could damage your hearing if you were using it on a daily basis. For tourists though, it’s just part of the NYC experience :)

  • tuktuk

    Great post Nick R. Takes me back a few years to our trip over there – really the city that never sleeps. Incidentally, you can hear the subway squeaking and clanking quite clearly in what I recall the below-street level auditorium of MoMA.

    We were there at the height of Mayor Giuliani’s reign so the graffiti was being removed, both the good and the bad stuff. We were sending postcards to family and friends of “time-life-magazine” inspired, photo-journalist gritty black and white images of famous New York crime scenes and gun-battles (gotta love those street-side postcard and newspaper stalls). However, we (almost always) felt very safe on the streets. New Yorkers we found to be friendly, open and always very helpful.

    Amazing bar music scene, and of course all those galleries and other amazing sites. When you stand on top of Empire State building and look out over a vast urban landscape as far as the eye can see in all directions, the place is both expansive and claustrophobic.

    …..and yes, the subway rocks ;)

  • Patrick R

    Gotta share this, wonderfully robust views of a self-styled ‘anti-car jihadi’ who, of course, ends up living in LA, very funny:

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/29/i-loathe-cars-so-why-do-i-live-in-la-geoff-dyer

  • Wasn’t part of the waterlogged subway the result of Hurricane Sandy?

  • Peter

    Welcome to my city, New York, which I love. I guess to visitors, the NYC Subway system must seem very dilapidated and antiquated but you learn to overlook it because the subway is very handy, it takes you most places you want to go and it runs around the clock. New York (Manhattan) is much, much less grimy than in the bad old days, the 1970s, but, you’re right, Patrick, it is somewhat duller. The nexus of cool in New York is now found in Brooklyn in neighborhoods such as Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Bushwick and to a lesser extent a little farther south in Boerum Hill, Red Hook and Prospect Heights. I live in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Queens which is connected to Manhattan via the number 7 line. When I first started using that line in the 1990′s the trains were Redbirds built in the early 1960′s. About 10 years age they were replaced by hand-me-down Kawasaki cars built in the mid 1980′s. On weekdays, an express service is run toward mid-town Manhattan in the morning on a third center track found along most of the route in Queens. In the evenings, the reverse is true with express service heading out to Flushing, Queens. Between western Queens and Times Square there are only two tracks which carry both the local and express service. With the Kawasaki cars the MTA came up with a color coded system – green for local and red for express – to indicate the type of train. This years those trains have been replace with modern trains with LED readouts and a soothing computerized female voice to announce the stops. However, the most aggravating this is that the new trains do not use this color coded system nor does the nice lady tell you whether an outbound train in the evening is express or local. You now have to peer at the small LED sign on the side of the car. The color coded system was so quick and hard to miss. I wish more thought was given to information dissemination in public transit. I’ve complained to the MTA about this lack of info but there has been no change yet. I imagine this would be particularly difficult to visually impaired passengers who rely on the correct voice message in the car. Oddly enough, when the new 7 train car make it farther out in Queens, it is only then that the nice computer lady makes the distinction between local and express service. Hurricane Sandy did damage many of the subway tunnels. Currently the R train tunnel under the East River between lower Manhattan and Brooklyn is closed until this Fall for repair and waterproofing. I wish the NYC subway were more modern but it does the job and it’s full of character and characters.

  • mfwic

    “The people are gracious and polite” All I can say is it must have changed!

  • In a world of balanced transport investment the North Island Main Trunk Line, from the Auckland waterfront through to rural South Auckland, would have at least a third [if not 4th] track so that vital freight movements and frequent passenger services could reliably take advantage of this corridor. In such an environment not only would the massive capacity of a rail corridor be available to these current uses but also express passenger trains would become possible. Say Britomart-Panmure-Otathuhu-Papakura-Pukekohe, or similar, but also inter regional trains like Tauranga-Hamilton, Auckland.

    Regardless of the government’s commitment to subsidising the road freight industry with borrowed and conjured money POAL say they want to go from the current 8 trains a week to their Wiri depot to 56! And that’s up the Eastern Line just as AT are planning to push EMUs through at 10 minute frequencies later this year…..

  • […] Ahh New York. I love you so, grimy subways and all, and wish we had public transport a 10th as good as yours […]

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