Transportation Deployment Casebook/New York Subway 1901 -2012
The New York City subway system is one of the most recognizable transit systems in the world. The size, density and diversity of New York City made urban transit all but absolutely necessary. Despite its long and storied history, the birth, growth and maturation of the subway has not been particularly smooth. After years of experimentation, and political wrangling, the subway first opened in 1904 with only one line. After major expansions in 1913, and the system being nearly completed by the 1940s, ridership boomed. After World War II wartime factories converted to automobile production, and federal housing policy encouraged suburbs to develop. As a result thousands were able to escape the congested central city in their shiny new cars; subway ridership dropped dramatically. This decline lasted until 1992. Since 1992, ridership has continued to increase. This case study examines, both quantitatively and qualitatively, the subway's development and deployment. Particular attention is paid to the technological and policy innovation that helped, and hindered, the subway.
There are three general periods of the subway's lifecycle: (1) a period of major growth, 1901-1947; (2) a period of decline, 1948-1991; and (3) a period of rebirth, 1992-2012. This case study mainly focuses on the early years of the subway, including the technological advances, market characteristics, and the policy mechanisms which facilitated the birth, growth, decline, and rebirth of the New York City Subway. However, the decline, and eventual rebirth of the New York subway are also discussed. Table 1 below, presents yearly ridership statistics for the entire history of the subway, from 1901 to present. The asterisks note the inflection points, the year when the rate of increase in ridership switched from increasing to decreasing (or vice-versa). Figure 1 shows annual ridership statistics during the entire lifetime of the subway; each vertical line represents the end of one lifecycle period and the beginning of another.
Table 1: Annual Transit Ridership, 1901 to 2012 (in Millions)
|Year||Annual Riders||Year||Annual Riders||Year||Annual Riders|
To more fully understand the subway's lifecycle, a three parameter logistic model can be used. This equation is used to develop an S-curve which illustrates how ridership levels change during the birth, growth, and saturation of the transit mode. This equation was used:
S(t) is the status measure, (Annual Ridership)
t is time (years),
t0 is the inflection point (year in which 1/2 K is achieved),
K is saturation status level,
b is a coefficient.
K and b are to be estimated
Each lifecycle period was regressed using this equation:
From its opening in 1901 to the end of World War II, the New York Subway's birth, expansion, and maturation matches the classic S-curve used to describe technological life cycles. From 1901 until around 1914 there is massive, almost exponential growth. Then after 1914, ridership continues to rapidly increase but the rate at which ridership is increasing begins to decrease. Ridership peaks at an all time high, even compared to current rates, at 2.05 billion riders in 1947. The table below displays the regression results. Figure 2 presents the logistic curve.
The years between the ridership peak in 1947 and 1991 were dim for the subway. Ridership dropped to levels not seen since the first years of the system. The subway gained a rough reputation during these years: crime and vandalism were rampant, stations were falling apart, and the quality of the subway cars was rapidly declining. Ridership dropped nearly 51%, over this period, and finally bottomed out at levels not seen since 1915. Profits were nonexistent and federal and public subsidies were almost an absolute necessity. The merger of the BMT and IRT was a failure, hastened by introduction of public management. In the early 1980s the NYCTA implemented a massive rehabilitation program which coincided with a decreasing rate of ridership loss: the subway looked ready for a major turnaround. The table below, and Figure 3 illustrate this major decline.
This period in the life of the subway has been one of rebirth. Political and environmental realities have forced New Yorkers to reconsider use of the automobile and return to the subway. New York's continued importance as a hub of world commerce, banking, the arts and culture, and international governance has bolstered the importance of and deepened the integration of the subway as "part of the city itself." The subway helps foster the important social, cultural, and economic distinctions among New Yorkers, and allowed them to make major improvements on their quality of life. The table below, and Figure 4 graphically depict the rebirth, and resurgence of the New York City Subway.
New York City’s underground rapid transit system is one of the largest, most famous and most charismatic subway system in the world. It is not, however, the oldest system in the world: London opened its subway in 1863, forty-one years before New York opened its first line. The 468 stations spread throughout the five boroughs of New York make it the largest system by number of public transit stations in the world. In terms of daily and annual ridership, it is one of the busiest subway systems in the world. Only 6 other systems are larger: Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, Moscow, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. In 2012, average weekday ridership was more than five million, allowing annual ridership levels to reach 1.7 billion, the highest level in nearly 50 years. There are a total of 22 interconnected routes; seven numbered routes (1-7) and 15 lettered routes (A, B, C, D, E, F, G, J, L, M, N, Q, R, S, Z).
The infrastructure is characterized by massive scales. The current subway is comprised of a total of 659 miles of revenue earning track, the most of any system. The actual route length is significantly less, only 232 miles. Roughly 60 percent of this distance is entirely underground. Some might argue that only the tracks located underground qualify as true subway. However, since the tracks are fully integrated, and one fare grants access to all stations and destinations, it is reasonable to consider it one transit system. New York’s system also has a huge inventory of rolling stock—nearly 6,500 cars. These cars traveled a total of 341 million miles, with an average of 166,138 miles between repairs. Trains are powered by a 625 volt direct current (DC) third-rail, which runs along the tracks. Trains include multiple cars and are all controlled by a multiple unit controller first developed by Frank Sprague in 1898.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), a “public-benefit corporation” chartered by the legislature of the State of New York, operates the various transit systems in the New York City metropolitan area. The board of directors is composed of 17 members recommended by the Governor, and confirmed by the New York State Senate. These systems include buses, subways, commuter railways, and bridges and tunnels. MTA’s bus fleet is the largest in the nation, and the subway system is larger in size, and carries more riders than all other U.S. systems combined. The Authority serves over 15 million people in the metropolitan area. Of the more than 3 million people of working age in New York City, 55.7% travel to work using public transit. This figure is huge, and includes all classes of worker. MTA, however claims that nearly four out of five rush hour commuters to and from the central business district of New York via public mass transit. MTA’s operating budget for 2013 is $13.2 billion dollars. This includes the salaries of over 65,000 employees, and a transit police force that is the fifth largest in the nation.
Social and Economic Context of the Subway’s Birth
Arguably, few other cities in the world were as ripe for investment in urban transit on a massive scale, than New York City in the early 20th century. In 1800, New York City had a population of only 79,216 residents. By the turn of the 21st century, the city was immense: nearly 3.5 million residents crammed the five borough, fully unified city. It is notable that a large majority of this growth occurred in the second half of the century. From 1840 to 1870, the population tripled of Manhattan. Population growth continued to explode, and grew another 294% by the end of the century. This growth can be attributed in part to the location of a major U.S. immigration station on Ellis Island, strong commercial traffic down the Erie canal, and in part due the deeply ingrained commercial ethic present in New York since its founding as a trading post. A huge portion of this population was poor or working class, and was relegated to the squalid, dangerous, overcrowded tenement houses in the Lower East Side. Congestion was nearly unbearable. Reformers and capitalists alike called for a solution to the problem. The subway was one solution: with enough effective transportation, the city’s population could spread more evenly.
The subway was by no means New York’s first experience with urban mass transit. Horsecars or “omnibuses” were New Yorker’s first form of mass transit. These consisted of a wooden cart mounted on flanged wheels, which were wood, rimmed with a metal flange. The cart was pulled along metal rails laid in the road by teams of two or more horses. Investors found omnibuses to be a very lucrative investment, at times returning huge profits. Omnibuses were among of the first attempts at urban mass transit, in New York and around the world. It was the first technology to run along a fixed route, during scheduled periods, using a fixed fare and operating according to common carriage principles. While horsecars were affordable, reliable and a major improvement on travel by foot, they also produced large amounts of manure, were a literal death sentence to horses, and required dozens of horses (hundreds along hilly routes) to operate. Moreover, as the population exploded, there was no choice but to expand the city. A faster, cheaper, more reliable form of rapid mass transit was need.
Several elevated steam engine rail lines, or els, emerged in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. Rapid transit adopted standard railroad technology, including scaled-down steam engines. These trains operated on elevated platforms above grade, along several important avenues, and the length of Manhattan to the South Ferry terminal for connection across the rivers. In the first year, around 60,000 passengers rode the els. Two years later the trains carried well over 700,000 passengers. As impressive as their performance was, els had major negative impacts. Engines were loud, dirty, noise prone to starting fires and exploding. The major players in future rail transit emerged at this point, including Manhattan Railways and Brooklyn Rapid Transit. The elevated rails provided the mother logic for constructing and operating the subway.
The first subway was proposed by Hugh B. Wilson. Wilson was present for the opening of London’s underground in 1863, and upon his return to the U.S. obtained $5 million in financing, and lobbied the legislature for the right to build the first subway. He was unsuccessful as a result of a strong lobby by omnibus owners, and the political bosses in New York City. A few years later, in 1868, the aspiring inventor Alfred E. Beach was granted a state license to construct two pneumatic “dispatch tubes” under Broadway. Disguising his true intention from Boss Tweed and other powerful horsecar owners, Beach presented a proposal for a package delivery system. Beach actually hoped to use these tubes for human transit. Beach designed and constructed a one-block long underground pneumatic tube, through which a small air-compressing steam engine would blow a canister. Although the design ultimately failed, Beach innovated on exiting tunneling shield and drastically improved construction speed and safety.
As described above, mass transit in New York City began with horsecars, briefly flirted with cable cars, deployed an extensive system of steam powered elevated railways. But the transition from steam power to electric car was a crucial step in the efficiency and safety or underground rail transit. Thomas Edison and several Europeans inventors were experimenting the electricity as a form of propulsion in the late 1800s. The harsh emissions of steam engines made their use underground impracticable. Electric cars were the standard from the start in the New York subway. In 1879, Dr. E. Werner von Siemens exhibited a rail-based, electrified passenger hauling system. A year later, Thomas Edison created and operated a narrow-gauge electrified railway in New Jersey. These early electric motors were too weak to pull several cars, and thus electrified railways were limited in length and passenger capacity.
The streetcar innovator, Frank Sprague found the solution in Multiple-Unit Control (MUC). Instead of a single motor pulling or pushing an interlocked group of cars, Sprague designed a way for motormen to simultaneously control the motors of multiple cars from the lead car. Sprague first demonstrated this technology in Richmond, Virginia’s streetcar system in 1888. In New York, the els were quick to adopt the technology; adoption was further accelerated by state legislation prohibiting steam engines from tunnels. After touring several underground rail system throughout the world, the principal engineer of the IRT, John B. McDonald, recommended electrification of the system; the Rapid Transit Commission agreed to this recommendation.
Construction of the first subway line started on March 24, 1900. The bid to design, construct and operate the entire system was awarded to the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) company. This contract was called, and is still referred to as "Contract 1." This company was operated by John. B. McDonald, and financed by August Belmont. The first subway route opened in New York on October 27th, 1904. It operated a single line from City Hall to in downtown Manhattan, through two 90º turns at East 42nd Street, and underneath the burgeoning Times Square, to 145th Street in Harlem. After a short tour of the new system, regular passengers were allowed to use the new subway. As designed, the system could barley handle the pent up demand for urban mass transit. Only seven years after its beginning, the IRT serviced more than 800,000 people per day—it was designed to carry no more than 600,000 per day. With huge ridership came huge profits: IRT’s returns reached as high as 15 percent in 1915. Calls soon came for expansion. In the mean time, minor changes were made to improve operations and handle the major congestion. For instance, extra doors in the center of cars were cut out to accelerate boarding and reduce station dwell time.for expansion. Other improvements included replacing wooden-bodied cars, with cars made of all steel. Although heavier by nearly 4,000lbs, improved electric motors allowed comparable performance.
Much of the growth in the birthing phases can be attributed to the population boom in Manhattan especially, and in the other boroughs to a lesser extent. Policy makers and investors recognized that the subway was capable of being very successful because the need for mass transit was readily apparent: omnibuses, streetcars, and elevated railways almost always generated huge revenues. This experienced was transferred directly by people like August Belmont, who recruited veteran railroaders to operate and manage the subway system. The New York state legislature believed (or were encouraged to believe) investors such as Belmont could manage transit systems entirely on their own. This was codified in the Rail Transit Act of 1894, and urban transit in New York became decidedly laissez-faire. As a result, monopolies like Belmont’s Interborough-Metropolitan holding company formed in 1905. Although the subway system was vastly overcrowded, the Interborough refused to consider expansion because it was making huge profits on the hundreds of thousands of daily riders. The IRT also refused to consider raising fares from a nickel, which was supported by residents, politicians and reform groups hoping to keep the subway affordable to all classes. In fact, the contracts under which the expanded subway was built included a provision guaranteeing five-cent fares for the life of the lease.
Eventually, reformers won a few other policy victories: contracts to build and operate new subway lines were separated, and shorten leases from fifty to twenty-five years. This was a major change from the Interborough Rapid Transit company’s 99 year lease agreed to in “Contract 1” under which the first subway line was constructed and operated. More importantly however, newly elected Governor Charles Evans Hughes sponsored legislation for a radical overhaul of the public utilities. The new Public Service Commission (PSC) would have broad jurisdiction and power over electric, gas, railroads, and all forms of public transit. Reformers hoped that the PSC would be able to provide the solution to unprecedented overcrowding and congestion: expanded subways. Subways appeared to be a panacea: cheap, efficient, rapid transit that enabled working class families to move out of congested lower Manhattan to suburban areas, while continue to work—the population needed to be “distributed.” Finally from 1910 and 1920, the City, IRT and BMT built a massive extension of the system known as the "Dual Contracts." This massive expansion of the subway and elevated networks opened transit services to many areas previously without service. By the end of construction, official estimates of costs reached $366 million, which adjusted to contemporary prices would equal roughly $22 billion. The City of New York contributed $200 million of the costs, while the IRT and BMT contributed $105 million and $61 million respectively.
The Role of Policy in Subway Maturation
After sustaining its first budget deficits in 1947, the unified subway went on to suffer several deficit years in the early 1950s. Gone was the "golden age" of nickel fares, and the operating surpluses of the LaGuardia administration. As the automobile caused major declines in ridership, the subway fell into major financial hardship. The state legislature created the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA, or TA for short) to operate the newly unified system in 1953.. To address the huge operating deficits, the TA instituted a new ten-cent fare, and new turnstiles to collect fares. Despite a new fare and new leadership under the TA, trains increasingly ran late, and the rolling stock continued to deteriorate. In fact, fares were frequently raised over the next few decades. It wasn't until the late 1960s that mechanical car-washing units were introduced. Fancy mechanical washing units were no match, however for the scourge of graffiti that became nearly ubiquitous in the 1970s.
Labor issues were a constant headache during this period. Legally bound to operate under a balanced budget, the TA was constantly battling with the Transit Workers Union (TWU) regarding contracts.  Service and rolling stock deterioration may have been the result of the hard bargains won by the TWU. Early retirement, attrition, and skilled labor shortages forced the TA to defer important maintenance and repair activities. These failures were further complicated by preserving low fares. The NYCTA was eventually absorbed by the larger and more comprehensive Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in 1968. The MTA's 1968 "Program for Action" included several new subway lines, new rolling stock, new stations, and expanded repair services. It also included several planned line closures. These improvements, especially the new rolling stock, designed primarily by MTA staff, were based on previous pre-war models, except for one difference: length increased from 66 to 75 feet. This allowed eight new cars to have the same capacity as 10 older cars. These new cars were also not permanently coupled and were capable of running in different configurations. Finally, in the 1980s the New York City Transit Authority provided a glimmer of hope: it refurbished every subway car, rebuilt every main-line track and repaired more than 50 stations. Eventually the subway rebounded, and after 1991 subway ridership began to grow again.
The New York subway system is undoubtedly crucial to the development of the city, both past and present. The mode adopted the technologies, operating principles, and even the actual laborers involved precursor modes including omnibuses, elevated and regular railroads, and streetcars. The lifecycle was anything but a smooth transition from birth, to deployment, to maturation and market saturation. Instead the subway survived several periods of boom and bust. Not only was ridership affected by changing social perspective, but global events, like World War II, the petroleum shocks of the 1970s, and economic depressions and recessions caused impacts felts for years after the events occurred. Currently, the subway (and other forms of urban mass transit) allow New Yorkers to have some of the lowest carbon footprints in the nation. Moreover, the subway is an indelible artifact and inseparable feature of New York City's built environment and social psyche. Based on current trends, and the projections made possible by the qualitative analysis above, the subway should continue to grow. The final level of growth is nearly impossible to determine, however.
Brian J. Cudahy, Under the Sidewalks of New York: The Story of the Greatest Subway System in the World, Fordham University Press (1995).
Clifton Hood, 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How they Transformed New York, Simon & Schuster, 13 (1993).
Peter Derrick, Tunneling to the Future: The Story of the Great Subway Expansion that Saved New York, New York University Press (2001).
Metrpolitan Transit Authority, Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for the Years Ended December 31, 2011 and 2010, 150, available at http://www.mta.info/mta/investor/pdf/2011/2011_CAFR.pdf, last accessed Nov. 5, 2013.
Metropolitan Transit Authority, The MTA Network, http://web.mta.info/mta/network.htm#nyct, last accessed Nov. 5, 2013.
Metropolitan Transit Authority, Subway and Bus Ridership, http://mta.info/nyct/facts/ridership/index.htm, last accessed Nov. 5, 2013.
Metropolitan Transit Authority, Subways: Annual Subway Ridership, http://www.mta.info/nyct/facts/ffsubway.htm, last accessed Nov. 5, 2013.
Robert C. Post, Urban Mass Transit: The Life Story of at Technology, Greenwood Press (2007).
Rapid Transit in New York City and in the Other Great Cities, available at http://www.nycsubway.org/wiki/
Jacob A. Reis, How the Other Half Live: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890; reprint Penguin Books, 1997).
United States Census Bureau, American Community Survey 3-Year Estimate 2011 (2011).
- 1901-1998: Peter Derrick, Tunneling to the Future: The Story of the Great Subway Expansion that Saved New York, New York University Press, 44 (2001); 1990-2012: Metropolitan Transit Authority, Budget and Financial Statement Archives, available at http://web.mta.info/mta/budget/.
- Clifton Hood, 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How they Transformed New York, Simon & Schuster, 13 (1993).
- Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island (via the Staten Island Railway (SIR)).
- Metropolitan Transit Authority, Subway and Bus Ridership, http://mta.info/nyct/facts/ridership/index.htm, last accessed Nov. 5, 2013.
- Metropolitan Transit Authority, Subways: Annual Subway Ridership, http://www.mta.info/nyct/facts/ffsubway.htm, last accessed Nov. 5, 2013 [hereinafter MTA, Subway Facts].
- As of 2011, Metrpolitan Transit Authority, Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for the Years Ended December 31, 2011 and 2010, 150, available at http://www.mta.info/mta/investor/pdf/2011/2011_CAFR.pdf, last accessed Nov. 5, 2013 [hereinafter MTA, Financial Report].
- MTA Financial Report, supra note 7, at 150.
- MTA Subway Facts, supra note 4.
- Brian J. Cudahy, Under the Sidewalks of New York: The Story of the Greatest Subway System in the World, Fordham University Press, 14-15 (1995).
- Metropolitan Transit Authority, The MTA Network, http://web.mta.info/mta/network.htm#nyct, last accessed Nov. 5, 2013 [hereinafter MTA Network].
- United States Census Bureau, American Community Survey 3-Year Estimate 2011 (2011).
- MTA Network, supra note 13.
- Cudahy, supra note 12 at XV.
- Hood, supra note 1 at 35.
- Id. The five boroughs unified in 1898.
- Peter Derrick, Tunneling to the Future: The Story of the Great Subway Expansion that Saved New York, New York University Press, 10 (2001).
- Hood supra note 1 at 31. The Erie Canal opened in 1825.
- Id. at 31
- Jacob A. Reis, How the Other Half Live: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890; reprint Penguin Books, 1997).
- Robert C. Post, Urban Mass Transit: The Life Story of at Technology, Greenwood Press (2007).
- Hood, supra note 1, at 15.
- Post, supra note 29.
- Cudahy, supra note 12, at 12
- Rapid Transit in New York City and in the Other Great Cities, Chapter 6, available at http://www.nycsubway.org/wiki/Chapter_06:_Elevated_Railroads [hereinafter Rapid Transit in NYC].
- Cudahy supra note 12, at 13-14.
- Derrick, supra note 25, at 24-25.
- Id. at 26.
- Id. at 27.
- Hood, supra note 1, at 43-44.
- Cudahy, supra note 12, at 14.
- Post, supra note 29.
- Cudahy, supra note 12, at 15-16.
- Rapid Transit in NYC, Chapter 13, available at http://www.nycsubway.org/wiki/Chapter_13:_Contract_Awarded_and_Work_Begun.
- Cudahy, supra note 12, at 4-6.
- Hood, supra note 1, at 114.
- Id. at 122.
- Cudahy, supra note 12, at 28.
- Hood, supra note 12, at 122.
- Id. at 123-24.
- Derrick, supra note 25, at 221.
- Hood, supra note 1, at 128-29.
- Id. at 131.
- Derrick, supra note 25, at 108-14.
- Public Service Commission, First District, New York State, "The Dual System of Rapid Transit," available at http://www.nycsubway.org/wiki/The_Dual_System_of_Rapid_Transit_(1912).
- Derrick, supra note 25, at 229.
- Hood, supra note 1, at 214.
- Id. at 241.
- Cudahy, supra note 12, at 128.
- Id. at 254.
- Cudahy, supra note 12, at 138.
- Cudahy, supra note 12, at 141.
- Id. at 147.
- Mark S. Feinman, The New York Transit Authority in the 1970s, available at http://www.nycsubway.org/wiki/The_New_York_Transit_Authority_in_the_1970s.
- Cudahy, supra note 12, at 155.
- Hood, supra note 1, at 259.