The History Behind New York City’s Crumbling Subway
A subway accident in 1982. Photo by Frank Leonardo via Getty
Tunnel Vision

The History Behind New York City’s Crumbling Subway

This shitshow has been a long time coming.
June 30, 2017, 3:27pm

In early 2019 the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here .

To many transit observers, the meltdown of New York City's subways—and Thursday's announcement by Governor Cuomo that the system is in a "state of emergency"—was only a matter of time. Here's a century-old system, bearing the brunt of millions of passengers every day, that, for decades, went underinvested in by elected officials. Time has taken its toll, and now, to fix it entirely, experts say the entire rapid transit system—the most used in the Western world—would need to go offline.


That is why the L train shutdown, which VICE has been tracking since April, is a microcosm of a larger issue: when Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the Canarsie Tunnel, it also exposed the fact that the tunnel hadn't been properly maintained in years. And knowing that history is integral to understanding what this shutdown tells us about the larger state of New York's infrastructure, and how it got this way. That, at least, is Clifton Hood's argument.

"Since the early 1920s, the subway system has been beset by chronic financial woes, and there's never been a satisfactory political solution to it," he told me. "And boy, that sure seems borne out in the last couple of years, too."

Hood is a history professor and the author of 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York . A renowned voice on New York's transit past, he seemed like the perfect person to ask, essentially, the question that's been on a lot of New Yorkers' minds lately: what the hell happened?

The subway system was originally built and operated by two private companies: the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), and the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT). The first contracts with the city—known as Contract #1, in 1904, and #2, in 1907—included 28 stations between City Hall and 145th Street, as well as extensions to Atlantic and Flatbush Avenue, in Brooklyn. And nearly the minute these subways opened, they exploded with people, and crowding.


"Turns out the subways made a lot of money, and were wildly more popular than anyone anticipated. So the decision was made: let's greatly expand the system," Hood said. "We can reach many quarters of the city, and we can make a lot of money doing it… And let's bring these two companies in, and have them compete with one another. At the same time, let's use the subway system to deconcentrate the population from Manhattan, and move them out to Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx."

Thus, what were known as the Dual Contracts—Contracts #3 and #4, in 1913—were born, coordinated between the city, IRT, and the newly formed Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT). The deal, worth $366 million then, led to the above ground subway lines in the outer boroughs, and the refurbishment and expansion of those that already existed, well into the rural pastures of Queens, the industrial sectors of Brooklyn, and the growing immigrant communities of the Bronx. Most of the subway system that exists today comes from the Dual Contracts, including the L.

The L train, or what would become it, began operating in 1924 on an old steam-powered railway track after the Canarsie Tunnel was constructed underneath the East River. The "14th Street-Eastern District Line" was given the number 16, and ran from Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, to Williamsburg, then known as Brooklyn's "Eastern District."

In 1928, it connected to an existing aboveground train in Canarsie, and, three years later, an extension to Eighth Avenue was added, creating the 10.3-mile-long line we know today. And the impact was felt immediately. "It certainly leads to the expansion of these communities," Hood said. "Nobody expected Williamsburg to be what it is today, but it sure leads to the growth of Canarsie and places like that."


What these subways would to do to the city writ large, he added, can hardly be understated; they gave life to the hustle and bustle that the city's economy is fueled by, and New York has never been the same since. "It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that, and you can use the L as an example of this, that it leads to the making of a modern metropolis," he told me. "The city of the five boroughs—or, at least, the four boroughs—gets connected socially and economically the way the consolidation of the city in 1898 had done it politically."

Finalized by the purchase of BMT in 1940, the city would eventually acquire the subway system, fusing the two private companies' networks into one, overarching web of trains. When numbers were dropped in 1967, the 16 line became the LL—the second L for "local"—and then just the L, in 1985.

The rest is history. As mentioned on this site, the L's ridership skyrocketed in the aughts, as Manhattanites clamored for cheaper digs and gentrified spaces in Brooklyn. A $443 million fleet of subway cars introduced in 2002 were unable to meet demand by 2006, and new cars had to be ordered soon after. A years-long computerized revamping of the L train's signal system—a digital transition that is still not finished systemwide—was completed in 2012, and led to the line's countdown clocks, which were some of the first seen in New York City's underground.


Aside from that, though, general maintenance of the system's infrastructure—the tracks, the tunnels, the technology—wasn't as much of a priority to elected officials who wanted to cut ribbons, Hood said; a reality that even Governor Andrew Cuomo admitted recently. The desire for the public sector to think and build big with mass transit died after the New Deal. Not to mention the fact that subways are very costly public goods, and, at that time, people were leaving the city en masse for a burgeoning suburbia. Building highways seemed more prevalent than building new subway lines.

With the city unable to pay for it anymore, Albany took over the subway system in 1968, forming the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which now oversees two commuter lines (the Metro-North and Long Island Rail Roads), the buses, and nine bridges and tunnels, making it the largest public transit authority in the country. As time passed, the price tag for fixing the subways grew, and the MTA's capital budget just couldn't keep pace. Now, even estimates of $100 billion—which on Thursday is what Governor Cuomo pledged to devote to the project—to bring everything up to a state of good repair might be low-balling it.

So of course, it caught up to us, with the recent epidemic of subway delays and closures being a symptom of that problem. Other world capitals, like London and Tokyo, continue to build new lines and update their systems in a timely manner, while New York has fallen largely behind. This is, perhaps, the most telling tale of this country's infrastructure issue: what does it say about America when her most important financial and cultural capital can barely move?


"The fundamental problem has been, where is the political will and wherewithal to do that? It's the money, stupid," Hood told me. "New York is a booming city, with the economy going great guns, and the population increasing, and it's becoming even more of a nexus of immigration. And we're stuck with this crumbling subway system that is absolutely essential to the city's existence, and that is fundamentally a political problem."

Now, Hood continued, the battle over New York City's mass transit woes has been one of attrition, where officials must choose between what are essentially all bad outcomes to keep this age-old system afloat. The L train shutdown is a victim of that decision, and just how much longer that balancing act can hold may be a question that history cannot answer.

"The notion that we have to make choices is just ingrained in our thinking," he said. "It's interesting: a lot of the coverage in the New York Times has been, 'Well, maybe we did make a mistake by building the Second Avenue Subway, the 7 train extension, and the East River Access, and maybe we should've put more money in maintaining the signals."

"But you can also add, why not do everything? Isn't all of this important for the lifeblood of the largest and most important city in the country?"

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