Continuing our summer holiday reading this New York Times article on New York’s Subway, The Case for the Subway, touches on many important issues. Its overt subject is the terrible current state of the Subway, but along the way it covers universal issues about how cities work and the role of effective Transit systems in successful cities. To summarise:
- Cities are density.
- Density creates wealth.
- Transit creates density and spreads that wealth more equitably.
- Most great cities are built on great Transit systems.
- Smart cities fund high quality Transit networks by capturing some of the land value uplift they create.
As New York evolved over the decades, the subway was the one constant, the very thing that made it possible to repurpose 19th-century factories and warehouses as offices or condominiums, or to reimagine a two-mile spit of land between Manhattan and Queens that once housed a smallpox hospital as a high-tech university hub. When the city is in crisis — financial or emotional — the subway is always a crucial part of the solution. The subway led the city’s recovery from the fiscal calamity of the 1970s. The subway was at the center of the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11 attacks. The subway got New York back to work after the most devastating storm in the city’s history just five years ago…
For all the changes in transportation technology since the first tunnels were dug — the rise of the automobile, the proliferation of bike lanes and ferries, our growing addiction to ride-hailing apps and dreams of a future filled with autonomous vehicles — the subway remains the only way to move large numbers of people around the city. Today, New York’s subway carries close to six million people every day, more than twice the entire population of Chicago. The subway may no longer be a technological marvel, but it continues to perform a daily magic trick: It brings people together, but it also spreads people out. It is this paradox — these constant expansions and contractions, like a beating heart — that keep the human capital flowing and the city growing. New York’s subway has no zones and no hours of operation. It connects rich and poor neighborhoods alike. The subway has never been segregated. It is always open, and the fare is always the same no matter how far you need to go. In New York, movement — anywhere, anytime — is a right.
That the Subway still works at all given its decades long underfunding and ill-suited governance structure is a miracle, and a testament both to the original engineering and the daily labours of so many dedicated staff. That this degree of neglect has been allowed to continue for so long despite the enormous wealth created and sustained by the system is a glaring indictment on US societal decline.
Along with fixing the existing network there are also obvious and long overdue additions like the crosstown Triboro Line, on existing rail right of ways, that are screaming out for investment.
*Note the Triboro link is to work by the Regional Plan Association, another great US city civil society advocacy organisation. That country is such a paradox. It’s official political systems are broken in so many ways and at many levels (as the NYT article examples) but it also generates and sustains absolutely world class social institutions. SPUR in San Francisco is another fantastic example for us at Greater Auckland.
This is a great in-depth look at the challenges and opportunities ahead for 21st Century New York, and a good reminder of need to set up clear governance structures and sustainable funding mechanisms for high economic value social systems.
Plenty to reflect on for all cities, including Auckland, in this extreme case. Enjoy.