Nearly 80 years ago, a construction standstill derailed the subway’s progress, leading to its present crisis. This is the story, decade by decade.
In the first decades of the 20th century, New York City experienced an unprecedented infrastructure boom. Iconic bridges, opulent railway terminals, and much of what was then the world’s largest underground and rapid transit network were constructed in just 20 years. Indeed, that subway system grew from a single line in 1904 to a network hundreds of miles long by the 1920s. It spread rapidly into undeveloped land across upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs, bringing a wave of apartment houses alongside.Then it stopped. Since December 16, 1940, New York has not opened another new subway line, aside from a handful of small extensions and connections. Unlike most other great cities, New York’s rapid transit system remains frozen in time: Commuters on their iPhones are standing in stations scarcely changed from nearly 80 years ago.Indeed, in some ways, things have moved backward. The network is actually considerably smaller than it was during the Second World War, and today’s six million daily riders are facing constant delays, infrastructure failures, and alarmingly crowded cars and platforms.
Why did New York abruptly stop building subways after the 1940s? And how did a construction standstill that started nearly 80 years ago lead to the present moment of transit crisis?
Three broad lines of history provide an explanation. The first is the postwar lure of the suburbs and the automobile—the embodiment of modernity in its day. The second is the interminable battles of control between the city and the private transit companies, and between the city and the state government. The third is the treadmill created by rising costs and the buildup of deferred maintenance—an ever-expanding maintenance backlog that eventually consumed any funds made available for expansion.To see exactly how and why New York’s subway went off the rails requires going all the way back to the beginning. What follows is a 113-year timeline of the subway’s history, organized by these three narratives (with the caveat that no history is fully complete). Follow along chronologically or thematically for the historical context of the system's sorry state, or use a playful “map” of the subway's decline.
1904: First subway opensThe private Interborough Rapid Transit company opened the first underground subway line in 1904, stretching from West Harlem to Grand Central. After taking over the existing elevated railways, it created a near-monopoly on rapid transit in Manhattan and the Bronx. The Brooklyn Rapid Transit company dominated the elevated transit business in that borough, as well as its connections to Manhattan.
1913: The “Dual Contracts”In an agreement called the “Dual Contracts,” the city entrusted the two private subway companies with a radical expansion of the system. Almost immediately, municipal leaders regretted the decision. Many were dissatisfied with the financial return from the investment of over $200 million—more than half the total cost of construction.The dispute went beyond mere finance, however: The subway became a symbol of the battle between public and private interest, and a populist touchstone for a succession of mayors. Their most important leverage was control of the subway fare: By refusing to let the private companies charge more than a nickel for decades, inflation meant that in 1948 riders were effectively paying less than half what they had been paying in 1904....