Sunday, January 31, 2010

Paving the Road with Iron Bars

On this frigid February's Eve- that most demoralizing of all northern months- it seems appropriate to address one of the big questions in urban planning from a psychological perspective- mass transit and future infrastructures. Writers such as those excellent journalists over at The Infrastructurist are constantly reporting on and advocating for new and significant public transit.

In New York City a majority of residents already use forms of mass transit, the most famous and heavily used of which is the subway. At this point in the year, the subway has become an oppressive component of the unfortunate workday tradition of house-subway-office-subway-house without ever seeing the light of day. This affects the psyche of the city, and one of the biggest factors in this collective malaise is the fact that so much of New York's mass transit is below ground.
[you may be tempted romanticize this image as interesting.  do not be mistaken, it sucks]

There is a fundamental difference between below ground, on grade, and elevated rails in cities. It affects not only the physical spaces and interstitial zones created in the public right of ways, but also alters the psychological experience of the city. Each method has its particular benefits and difficulties. However, when a system is dominated by below-ground subway, the effect is disorienting and dehumanizing.

New York City has the second most extensive subway system in the world after London, and is by far the busiest serving some 4.5 million passengers per day. In addition it features 134 miles of tunnels, the largest underground network in the world. Originally Manhattan and Brooklyn both were serviced primarily by on-grade and elevated public transit rails, vestiges of which can still be seen throughout the city.
[old 9th avenue elevated rail, at 110th street]

A fascinating article published in Scribner's Magazine in 1892 surveyed the state of public transit in European and American metropolitan areas and examined the various modes of transportation for their economic and social impacts. It provides a fascinating snapshot of the discourse surrounding public transit just before subways became the de facto mode of urban public transit in New York City. (Read here for a fascinating story of the initial pilot tunnel and the political intrigues involving Tammany Hall and the then-editor of Scientific American).
[3rd Avenue Elevated Train, at South Ferry stop]

Despite the ambition of the private companies running the elevated trains, passengers were often ill-served by the uncoordinated elevated train lines (most of which ran north-south in Manhattan, and from downtown to the Coney Island-region in Brooklyn/Kings County). They also created messy street conditions, blocking light and showering noise and filth onto the streets below. Around the time that Brooklyn and Manhattan (along with Queens, Staten Island, and The Bronx) merged to become New York City, there was a shift to make the public trains subways. Public hearings were held throughout the 1890's and after some delay, the city's first subway opened in October 1904 running under Broadway from City Hall to 145 Street (click here for an incredible inventory of the Construction and Equipment necessary to maintain the original subway infrastructures).

Except for the absence of any environmental rhetoric or analysis, the article is shockingly contemporary and I recommend reading it. However, one aspect that is never discussed are the psychological effects of the various forms of public transit on the collective psyche of the city. This is strange, since this sort of qualitative argument is often used to great effect to justify the style or scale of major buildings and places of civic importance in the city.
[9th Avenue Elevated Train at 29th Street, Manhattan]

Over on the Urban Omnibus, planner Steven Dale recently extolled the virtues of air cable transit (and offered a fair, harsh critique of Santiago Calatrava's proposal for New York City) in his article "Off the Road and into the Skies". In it he argues that not only is cable air transit feasible economically and competitively efficient, but it is also more fun. I would argue that any chance to be above ground, especially in the air or elevated above grade, be it on rails or cables, can be an inspiring and pleasurable experience, offering novel perspectives and educational experiences. Seen from above, the re-contextualized buildings, urban geography, infrastructures, and street life offers insights and provokes visceral responses otherwise unavailable, especially when compared to being underground.
[6th Avenue at Bryant Park, the elevated train is at the bottom, the public library is above]

A few months ago I mentioned the interesting "Safari 7" exhibition put on by Kate Orff and her cronies at Scape and the Urban Landscape Lab. It was a fun and fascinating exploration of the various cultural and ecological environments that one passes through on the 7 train. In the brief they stated that they chose the 7 train because it cuts through and unifies some of the most disparate and interesting cultural and ecological sites and histories in the city. I say that is debatable, but it is a significant train ride because the majority of it is above ground; one can see the old World's Fair Grounds, the infrastructure and ethnic neighborhoods in outlying parts of Queens, the heavy industry and factories and new residential towers of Long Island City, and the skyline of Midtown Manhattan looming across the East River. In a tunnel, one perceives none of that.
[Proposal for street level rapid transit on Broadway]

The effect of this must not be understated. Before it became commonly accepted that the mode of mass transit for Manhattan and much of Brooklyn was subway, fantastic speculative projects were developed considering how streets and plazas and buildings might work in concert with elevated rails and station hubs. The areas they touched buildings or landed in parks created hubs of activity that have now been replaced by people hurrying into holes like so many muskrats.

We know that subways are attractive because they meet the 20th century prerequisite regarding infrastructure- keep it out of sight, at least in affluent neighborhoods. In that vein, work continues in New York City on the infamous 2nd Avenue subway. However, varied examples from Tokyo, Medellin, Curitiba, and Copenhagen all offer mass transit options that are not psychologically repressive. The now of New York would be different if two hours of every day wasn't spent underground, and February would suck less.


  1. Granted I've only been on NYC's subways as a tourist, but I've never really felt there was a substantive difference in user experience between riding a subway or a surface train.

    As an acrophobe, I dislike immensely when I have to use elevated trains (and you will never get me on a cable car!)

    To me a subway system isn't about hiding the vulgarity of everyday life, it's a utilitarian response to the need for maximizing space utilization.

  2. That's fair enough. As I only offer anecdotal analysis (which I admit is largely me whining about the worst time of year here, and how urban design contributes to that) I have to admit your point is a valid one. You like one way, I like another.

    I do want to emphasize that it is the extreme amount of time spent in tunnels (layered on top of so much time already indoors) that is oppressive. Were it just half my train rides (instead of almost all of them) I might sing a different tune. It certainly is different as a tourist, one must admit.

    I would say that as far as a utilitarian response to maximize street space, you can still get the same amount of usable space for automobiles and people on the street level by elevating the trains and you can do it for half the cost of burying them. The problem is you then block the light on the street if the buildings are high and close, and they are loud. Check out some of those links on the webpage. There are some interesting articles from the 19th century which illustrate people's complaints with the elevated trains.

    I think elevated trains can be seen as an opportunity. Though there is no accounting for people with a distaste for being in the air. That is a valid concern, for sure.

  3. Frankly, whether it's in a tunnel or above ground, you are still indoors while on a train. The same is true about riding in a car (at least in a car, there is the option of having the windows down).

    It sounds like what you are really asking for is more exposure to daylight.

    The other advantage of subways vs. above ground trains is that the subway can go under buildings and are therefore not limited to the paths of the roadways

  4. Amen,
    I much prefer above ground transit options (like elevated rail, cable etc)from a psychological viewpoint. As in being up in the air is fun (unless afraid of heights).

    And from a economics perspective many above ground transit options (as you mention)are significantly cheaper than the below grade or above grade options.

  5. This is a fascinating article, and I must say it rings true. I think there are some things that can be done to mitigate the oppressiveness of the underground, like elaborate stations, such as those in Moscow & St. Petersburg, which lend a sense of grandeur and open space, and especially tall ceilings.

    The article definitely made me appreciate the idea of elevated trains more. With modern construction, the tracks shouldn't be too oppressive. The stations, I guess, are inevitably wide, but prehaps could be integrated into buildings that don't interfere with the street-level too much. I think about the fantasy Geary St. rail line here in SF, and it seems like an interesting option-- underground downtown and elevated in the avenues-- but I don't think people will go for it.