For a habitual subway user in Manhattan since 1970 - and a maybe a dozen other cities around the world from time to time - the drumbeat of subway criticism can get a bit much. Words like crumbling, obsolete, filthy, rat-infested and unreliable roll as easily off the tongues of hassled straphangers as the above-ground chattering classes in their limos and Ubers. Politicians join the chorus when it suits them, talking a good game during short political cycles while earning a solid F for securing their legacy by creating and maintaining vital investments with 75-100 year time-horizons.
And even when useful projects actually get done (there are only two in my lifetime, both unfinished), completion schedules can span generations and leave behind eye-watering cost overruns – capital deadweight that produces exactly nothing of value yet saddles taxpayers with massive debt service for years to come. In short supply today is the kind of far-sightedness that helped create New York’s bridges and tunnels, its parkways, its world-class water system, and of course the original subway infrastructure. And there’s today’s serviceable PATH, finished in 1908 under William G. McAdoo, later Secretary of the Treasury under Woodrow Wilson. (“Let the public be pleased.”)
But wait! Are things really so bad that we need to rebuild from scratch? In some ways they’re even more challenging. It’s a good bet that reimagining a world-class subway system that can secure the City’s future will be the biggest brownfield transport project ever undertaken. It requires reconfiguring and reengineering century-old layouts intertwined with all kinds of critical gas, heat, electric power and communications utilities that have accumulated like barnacles on a ship’s hull over the decades. Don’t believe it? Look down an open manhole sometime.
Along with rebuilding most of the system’s stations and yards, any serious rehab has to happen while close to 6 million testy passengers have to be moved around the City every day. In all kinds of ways, greenfield subway projects (or greenfield superimposed on brownfield) have it much easier in places like Singapore, Paris, Shanghai - and even London - extending or developing brand new high-speed and local lines on time and on budget, even in the most ancient of cities. Passenger are not unreasonable by nature, but morale does reflect the likelihood of seeing real benefits before they pass from this earth.
Maybe the constant criticism is also overblown in the broad scheme of things. It’s hard to complain about the small part of the subway layout I normally use in Manhattan - especially with a good memory of the way things used to be.
Gone are the graffiti-covered windows blocking the view of station stops, the piles of onboard trash, and even some of today’s clunkers have started new and improved lives after an amazingly attractive renovation, just like an old Boeing 777 after a D-check.
Gone are the aggressive and often physical panhandlers and the omnipresent platform stench that would drive people and companies to seek civilization elsewhere. Even the new generation of (sometimes talented) subway gymnasts has been toned-down. Many conductors, agents and transit police now make an effort, and it shows. Passengers with plenty to gripe about are mostly civil and offer seats to those who obviously require them. And there’s no need to worry anymore about misunderstood eye-contact with fellow passengers, thanks to today’s electronic substitutes for Prozac.
Except for the glaring omission of efficient subway links to the airports - virtually unique among today’s important business and financial centers - visitors from overseas can get used to our system with a bit of practice. It’s New York, after all, and there will be some good stories to tell when they get home.
So there’s always a bright side, and today’s subway ecosystem has one too. There are plenty of people who deserve credit for things not being even worse, much worse. Sustainability is a different issue. Pendulums swing, and there’s no guarantee that we won’t revert to the bad old days rather than a bright new dawn. The City has to play the cards it’s been dealt. In New York there’s not that much “greenfield” around to accommodate big new projects that move the needle, and “brownfield” is disruptive and expensive.
On top of that, nobody wants to pay - something that the subway shares with big infra-structure projects around the world. Well thought-through and executed, these projects are enormously productive year after year over decades and sometimes centuries – to the point where even huge development costs fade into insignificance. But the costs fall on people in the here and now, while the benefits are widely dispersed over space and time. So the former don’t want to pay and the latter can’t easily be made to pay. Think a New York subway renaissance will run a deficit in cost-benefit terms? Pure nonsense. So we end up with enormously socioeconomically profitable projects that cannot be financed.
There are plenty of solutions. Tax those who don’t pay but benefit most directly, like landowners and developers enriched by the subway - taxes that may in part get passed along to residents and businesses in higher rents and ownership costs. Those who benefit most directly are made to pay, but nonetheless are better off. Or go for a broader tax net that covers all of New York’s residents and visitors with a permanent City subway tax and hotel surcharge.
Don’t use the subway? Too bad. Your limo battles less traffic the more people do. Commute from the burbs and walk to work? Too bad. The value of the subway is baked into your home value and your ability to resell it. Want to make it progressive? Add features like a nonresident vacancy tax on all those unused luxury condos owned as a bolt-hole by foreigners and finance bigger discounts for the poor and the elderly. There’s plenty of revenue elasticity in a “city of the future” like New York.
New York’s subway is a hidden treasure . All it takes is visionary political leadership, disciplined execution and management, and imaginative financing to unlock it for the future prosperity and vibrancy if the City.