The first New York subway is a monumental public works project. Its appeal and achievement may not be apparent for a contemporary reader who takes local trains for granted. But in 1904 when the project was unveiled, it was a pioneering engineering effort with great public utility. At a time when the idea of public transportation was in its infancy, the first New York subway proved to be the nerve center for the city. In the more than a century of its existence, the challenges overcome by the project serve as case studies for later generations of civil engineers and urban planners. The lessons in design, planning and implementation that attended the project continue to offer practical wisdom for city planners and urban architects alike. More importantly, the infrastructure of the subway proves to be a cultural melting pot for a nation that is constantly evolving its identity.
The NYC subway was commissioned to be built by the Rapid Transit Construction Company. Privately owned, the company spun off an exclusive branch (Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT)), for overseeing the operations of the construction. Moreover, the stakeholders in the company applied and won the contract to operate the railway line upon its construction. The grand scale of the project warranted that the IRT publish a book in 1904 highlighting the features of the just-completed project. Considering the numerous hurdles and hiccups the project successfully overcame, the company showcased its achievement in the large-format book with plenty of photographs and in a appealing layout. The book is now rightly considered a colletor’s item, not only for the momentous occasion it marked but also for the rich detail it contained. For example, the book included the reasons and considerations behind certain decisions taken during the planning and design stage. As well, it contained details of particular problems and their resolutions during the implementation stage. Further, much of the content was serialized in a reputed trade journal in the lead up to the inauguration of the subway. This was meant to serve two objectives: to educate the general public about the upcoming utility and also to generate excitement and anticipation of its launch. (Interborough Rapid Transit, 2004, p. 1)
It is not surprising that the NYC subway project elicited lots of excitement among the general public upon its initial announcement. The subway employees were looked upon as noble public servants and the IRT motormen were celebrated as heroes. The train engine was a complex behemoth with multiple functions provisioned. The motormen who handled these beasts were looked upon like modern day fighter pilots. Though the technology in century since had improved tremendously, the demands made on subway motormen was not any less than that demanded of modern jet pliers. In the classic photographs from the period, one could see the motormen controlling electric current to the motors through their left hand. Their right hand is usually positioned upon the brake valve. The uniforms, apparels and other instruments wielded by early motormen are now heritage items kept in national museums. Such is the central public role that these technicians played in the process of nation building. Up until 1950s when the subway was modernized by the Transit Authority, the laborious work and rudimentary wardrobe of motormen represented cherished American values. In other words, the hard work, the dignity of labor and the communitarian element in the vocation of motormen captured the spirit and culture of the nation.
When we talk about subway projects in major cities it is usually around their funding, financial viability, safety standards, ticket prices, frequency of the service and supporting facilities. Although these factors mark the success or failure of a subway project, its cultural and historical significance has a value of its own. This is especially true of pioneering efforts as the NYC subway. At the time of its proposal at the turn of the twentieth century, the immediate challenge was the careful calibration of public and private interests behind the project. Too big to be supported by the Treasury alone, the commercial interests had what realized the project. One individual should be given the lion’s share of credit for striking the delicate balance between social and commercial pressures was Abram S. Hewitt, the former mayor of NYC. He managed to successfully lobby for making fundamental changes to laws and public policies governing the undertaking. He realized that
“while private capital alone had been perfectly adequate for building elevated rapid transit lines in New York as early as the 1870s, the more costly construction of an underground railway was far beyond the ability of private corporations to finance. Since it was clear that underground transit was needed to ease congestion and solve the city’s growing mobility problems, Hewitt set in motion a chain of events that sanctioned the use of public funds for subway construction, with the completed facility then leased to a private company for day-to-day operation.” (Interborough Rapid Transit, 2004, p. 1)
Overall, through the length of the subway five different construction types were adopted based on the terrain, topography and other factors. Hence the NYC subway is not one long monotonous work, but is a mélange of different types of construction segments. The first type is the one that is built close to the surface with a flat roof and ‘I beams’. These structures are “supported between tracks with steel bulb-angle columns used on about 10.6 miles or 52.2 per cent. of the road.” (Interborough Rapid Transit, 2004, p. 37) The second variety is the one with a flat roof made of reinforced concrete. These too are supported between the tracks by steel bulb-angle columns. For instance, the stretch that runs between Brooklyn and Lenox Avenue is built in this fashion. The Battery Park loop is another site where this style of construction is evident. The third type of construction method employed by the New York IRT is one where concrete lined tunnels are erected with occasional open cut work. The stretch alternates between open cut work or rock tunnel work depending on the terrain. The fourth type of construction utilized for the NYC subway covers nearly a quarter of the entire length of the tracks (5 miles approximately). These were erected on elevated roads on steel viaducts. Finally, the fifth type of construction uses “cast-iron tubes used under the Harlem and East Rivers.” (Interborough Rapid Transit, 2004, p. 37)
There are other architectural features of the subway that deserve mention. For example, just besides the steel columns and facing the waterproofing material are systems of terra-cotta ducts. These ducts encapsulate the electric cables and are accessible for repair or renovation every few hundred feet via manholes. Moreover, these manholes lead toward the subway and the street. The total number of these ducts “ranges from 128 down to 32, and they are connected with the main power station at 58th and 59th Streets and the Hudson River by a 128-duct subway under the former street.” (Interborough Rapid Transit, 2004, p. 37)
Another notable feature of the subway is how reinforced concrete construction is employed. This material was used in the place of conventional steel roof beams. The latter is usually comprised of steel rods of an inch and a quarter thicknesses which is laid
“in varying distances according to the different roof loads, from six to ten inches apart. Rods 1⅕ inches in diameter tie the side walls, passing through angle columns in the walls and the bulb-angle columns in the center. Layers of concrete are laid over the roof rods to a thickness of from eighteen to thirty inches, and carried two inches below the rods, imbedding them. For the sides similar square rods and concrete are used and angle columns five feet apart. The concrete of the side walls is from fifteen to eighteen inches thick. The rods used are of both square and twisted form.” (Interborough Rapid Transit, 2004, p. 38)
The chief reason why a varied set of methods were adopted during the construction is due to the varying conditions of geography, existing urban-scape and other environmental factors. Moreover, given the scale of the project, several teams of engineers were formed and each segment of the track is contracted to each group. Which breaking down into modules is not a bad idea, the problem arose when each sub-contractor tried to impose his own preferred style of construction. Nevertheless, the expedient reaction of the ICT to this issue meant that a centralized command structure was quickly established. This ensured that the project retained its sense of integrity and its workers a sense of unity.
One of the unique features of the subway is how it stretched along the narrow stretch of land between the two river banks. Indeed, the shape and route of the subway is a silhouette of the long and narrow shape of the island of New York itself. Despite the narrow confines of the island, the birth of the subway was necessitated by the evolution of the city into a fast-growing business center.
A persistent challenge faced by the engineers was the relative newness of their techniques. With no antecedents to take guidance from, the engineers were left to device their own methods of construction. The other formidable challenge came in the form of the sheer size of the project. The chief architects were committing their know-how to a work that spans the entire length of the city. The stakes are high not just in terms of professional competence but also for the city administrators and the general public. The ingenious method employed by the engineers is known as ‘cut and cover’. In this method, “one side of the street is blasted out to the depth of some thirty or more feet and one-half of the subway built in the trench as dug. It was necessary, however, in some places to open both sides of the street at once, and often in places where the surface-car lines had to be supported bridges and trestles and long lines of streets of boards were constructed.” (www.nycsubway.org)
Further, the construction methods were to be adapted to the unique topography of New York City. As a result, the well-esteemed methods employed in building tunnels in Paris and London cannot be applied to the New York project. In contrast to the deep tunnels used in European cities, NYC subway was built on a shallow trench. The semi-cylindrical roof, in this case, served to support the weight of the street as well as offering protection from the elements for those underneath it. The shallow trench method worked best in crowded city centers. But when confronted with rocky terrain or river beds, the depth of the tunnel was lowered accordingly. At times, even mining shields were employed for cutting out deeper sections. This is especially true of areas such as Harlem and East River which have a hard, rugged terrain. In locations such as these cast-iron tubes were employed. Hence, civil engineers adopted a flexible approach to the project.
One must remember that though commonly referred to as the ‘subway’, two-fifths of the length of the stretch runs above the surface. At certain places it even runs on elevated tracks. This requires a degree of dynamism from the chief designers of the project, for the engineering exigencies for sub-terrain and elevated tracks are totally different. For example, the elevated tracks are built on steel or iron casts with concrete viaducts. Also part of the structures was embankments, open surface routes and open cuts. The designers were also to consider the effect of these structures on existing roads and buildings in proximity. Given that grand infrastructure projects were in their nascence and that the available technology was rudimentary, the inauguration of the New York subway in 1904 is a monumental achievement.
If the 1904 project were to be undertaken today, the technological and technical approach would be totally different. Foremost, the robust and versatile tunnel boring machines will be utilized. Although this is expensive machinery, it substantially expedites the process. For example, the total time-period consumed by the 1904 project would have been reduced by half if the tunnel boring machine had been deployed. The other advantage offered by these machines is that their operation is fully under the terrain. This obviates any disturbances to the vehicular or pedestrian traffic above ground.
From the tentative steps taken for the 1904 project, the technology used for building subways has undergone much progress. Moreover, subways are no longer seen as utilitarian. Beyond their functional value modern subways are treated as symbols of local culture and aesthetics. Some of the recently built subways showcase a futuristic feel. It is as if the passenger is made to feel part of an ultra-efficient alien world. This is especially true of the Drassanes Station in Barcelona, with advanced integration of digital technology for passengers waiting to board the train. Modern conceptions of subways can also show the opposite tendency, where ‘heritage’ is taken up as the theme. In the Kievskaya Station in Moscow the atmosphere is one of entering a grand art gallery, with the dome of the subway adorned with paintings and ornamentations from imperial Russia. That is over and top of installations of latest digital communications features such as WiFi, wireless telephony, etc. Modern subway constructions combine the worlds of aesthetic design with fundamental exigencies of efficiency, economy and convenience.
Another buzzword in modern urban planning, especially invoked during the planning stages of subways is ‘green’. Some of the contemporary subway systems are designed to be self-sufficient and ecologically friendly. They tap into the abundance of renewable sources of energy, including solar and wind to eschew dependence on the ever-dwindling supply of fossil fuels. Even where electricity is used, it is by converting energy tapped from renewable sources. The carbon foot print of some of the existing subway systems in Europe is close to zero. This is a commendable achievement indeed.
The other buzzword governing subway planners in our times is ‘ambient experience’. Going beyond the simple considerations of pleasing the eye, the interiors of some modern constructions compete with theme parks for their visual imagination. Take, say, the Stockholm Tunnelbana in Sweden. It’s interiors, especially the public lounges, elevators and ticket counters are built into the crude excavations of the tunnel. Taking the concept of authenticity to new heights, the traveler is amply reminded that he/she is underground. The domes of the tunnels are left unpolished to retain this effect. It is imaginative, awe-inspiring and frightening all at once. The idea is to make subway travel a memorable, one of a kind experience for the user, which these innovative conceptions amply achieve.
An organic integration of form and function seem to be the underlying philosophy behind such modern construction practices. Equally, some of the modern subways seem to give expression to unique conceptual or artistic themes. For example, the Munich U-Bahn tunnel in Germany experiments with a play of colors on its long walls. In other words, even when the stations are located a hundred feet below ground natural light and air still permeate its environs. This is especially true of Bilbao Metro station in Spain and Dubai Metro Stations, where a mélange of glass, steel and reinforced concrete endeavor to make the maximum use of natural light and air. What is also evident in modern constructions is how the older ‘cut and cover’ method of tunnel making is slowly being phased out. The sophisticated tunnel boring machines that works totally under terrain seems to be the preferred choice. They are preferred for their minimal interference on the streets and residences above ground. Moreover, these machines can be operated round the year, taking away the dependency on favorable weather conditions.
Coming back to NYC subway, frequent riders have other things to anticipate in the near future. Plans are already afoot to launch a grand restoration plan and to decorate the interiors of the stations with works of art. Examples from stations already so decorated underscore the multi-cultural confluence that the subway has come to represent. For example these works include “a symbolic mural showing the transformation from nature to urbanization at the Wall Street stop to a whimsical tile mosaic depicting African-American heroes such as Ella Fitzgerald and Muhammad Ali, among others, in Harlem.” (Christina Nifong, 1997)
In this sense, one of the commendable features of the overall design of NY subway is how it combines form with function. While the primary purpose for the construction is utilitarian, its architects, designers and painters have also contributed aesthetic value to the utility. The project is a classic case of making beauty a handmaid of a utility.
“For once, beauty has been made the handmaid of a great municipal undertaking. Architects, designers, painters, have been called in with suggestions, advice and practical demonstration of what could be utilized in William Morris’ idea of beautifying the useful. Colored tiles decorate the walls of the stations. Letters and symbols in every corner, in every detail, assist the traveler in the detection of the number and name of the station at which he is alighting. Pottery, faience, and marble are used in numberless tints and designs. Glass roofs give the the stations plenty of light which is diffused from the glazed tiles and various decorations.” (www.nycsubway.org)
The New York City subway is an iconic cultural marker of the city. The identity of the city is as much shaped by this public utility as the Statue of Liberty itself. This sentiment is more poignantly felt by residents of the city as opposed to the tourists. This is so because it is the residents who commute on a daily basis to their work and leisure activities and enjoy the convenience and expediency of the service. Compared to the alienating experience of car travel, the subway is a public space that offers contact with the community. Many citizens develop a personal bond with the subway, seeing it as a space for social theatre. For example, the following passage describes how a regular user perceives the subway experience:
“It’s rush hour in Manhattan’s subways, where East Side furs mingle with Greenwich Village grunge, and panhandlers’ pitches compete with prework chatter. Big Apple trains are also a cultural icon – long honored in song lyrics and starring in countless Hollywood celluloid fantasies. On them, riders witness the daily coming together of Madison Street execs and the homeless, Latino and Lithuanian, school child and senior. Parents who may never send their children to public school are likely to take the family on the subway. This mélange of humanity creates a spark, a major source of the energy that defines New York City.” (Christina Nifong, 1997)
Four generations of New Yorkers have now marveled and partaken in the successful sociological experiment of the subway. Even in terms of its mechanical engineering, the infrastructure continues to be a model of excellence. From the tentative steps the project took in 1904, today, the subway covers 842 miles of track and offers employment for upwards of forty thousand people. Compared to the fleet strength a century back, the subway now has a fleet of 5,803 cars, making it the biggest in the world. Engineering technology has also caught up with this grand old public monument. Several new routes and stations were added since the inauguration in 1904. Today, there are close to five hundred stations and twenty four lines. The total passenger transit is upwards of 3.6 million people. This is an unprecedented number, indicating the growing popularity of the subway among all classes of citizens. More importantly, matching New York City’s reputation as the ‘city that never sleeps’, the subway is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and all through the year. Hence, the cultural significance of the NYC subway cannot be overstated. (Christina Nifong, 1997)
To conclude, public transport systems have become key items of political discourse these days. They are no longer seen as a necessary but drab public welfare project. Every political party wants to take credit for these heart veins of their cities. It might appear that the lavish looking subway systems might be a drain on tax-payer money. But with efficient modern construction methods and the incorporation of renewable systems of energy, subways are now treated as symbols of progress and civic sense. Even public attitude towards taking the metro has changed dramatically over the decades. Even with respect to NYC subway, there hung a reputation for opportunistic crime, racial discrimination and general insecurity during the 70’s and 80’s. But the situation has totally changed now. With the threat of peak-oil looking large on the horizon, it is seen as one’s civic duty to take public transportation whenever one can. Taking the subway is now also a symbol of personal austerity, even in advanced industrial societies. Hence, the prospects are bright for the NYC subway to play a central role in the continuous evolution of the city.
- Abu-Lughod, Janet L. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles: America’s Global Cities. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1999.Print.
- Christina Nifong, Writer Of The Christian Science Monitor. “Back on Track in New York Nation’s Largest Subway System Regains Its Spark after Years of Neglect.” The Christian Science Monitor 31 Mar. 1997. Print.
- Interborough Rapid Transit. The New York Subway: Its Construction and Equipment. New York: Fordham UP, 2004. Print.
- Comprehensive Guide to the New York Subway, accessible at: http://www.nycsubway.org/wiki/Main_Page