Editor’s Journal

Winter 1992
New York's Singular Subway

Policymakers in New York can learn a great deal by studying the ways other cities do things. But New York, as the saying goes, is different with a capital D. Searching out precisely how New York differs from other cities is urgent business for anyone who would prescribe remedies for the city's problems.

One of the most important differences is mass transit. In a recent Cato Institute paper, Jean Love and Wendell Cox demonstrate that the massive federal investment in urban mass transit in recent decades has been a waste of money. In the cities they examine--from Washington, D.C., to Miami, from Buffalo to Atlanta--they find that ridership has fallen considerably below the levels projected when these transit systems were planned. Nor have promised benefits, such as cleaner air or the end of urban flight, materialized. Of all the kinds of mass transit that have been funded by grants from Washington, rail-based rapid transit has proved the most expensive, the least traveled, and the least adaptable to the population movement that has characterized American cities over the last thirty or forty years.

The Cato Institute's conclusion is simple: The Federal Government should stop funding monopolistic public transit systems and avoid major investment in fixed facilities such as tracks, which can only be used for rail transport. Instead, it should encourage cities to turn to competitive, privately owned van lines and other forms of transit that emphasize flexibility.

This recommendation is clearly valid as it applies to the many mid-sized cities that have installed mass transit systems out of little more than an obstinate vanity. But mass transit is absolutely essential to the survival of New York as the nation's preeminent city. Without federal aid, New York cannot maintain the rail system it urgently needs.

New York built its transit system years ago with its own money and, until very recently, operated and maintained it without federal assistance. But New York's subway system was built before federal and state income taxes began draining resources from the city on a massive scale, making it impossible for residents of the city to take care of local problems without the return of some of these taxed resources in the form of subsidies and grants.

New York is alone among American cities in its dependence on mass transit. Its rail system is by far the biggest in the nation: The track mileage is greater than that of the next five largest systems combined. Without the extensive rail and bus network, commuters would be unable to get to work in Manhattan. In New Jersey and New York's suburban counties there is a crying need for circumferential routes so that people can commute between the various sectors of the suburban ring. But transportation into and out of the city is even more critical: Without the radial transport lines, and those inner lines that connect the city's parts, New York would suffer even more serious traffic jams than it does today. Schools, hospitals, businesses, and entertainment facilities would find it increasingly difficult to function.

The difference between the New York rail transit system and those of most other American cities is that New York's system is old enough to have shaped the growth of the city after its construction, whereas other systems, imposed recently on already grown cities, are still waiting for riders who are unlikely ever to appear.

With elevated lines dating back to the 1870s and its first underground line opening in 1904, and with rivers constituting formidable natural barriers to movement between its boroughs, New York is the product of its mass transportation system. If the subways had not been built, not only would unification of the five boroughs have been impossible, but the concentration of the working population in downtown and midtown Manhattan could never have been achieved. The layout of the subway lines and, in particular, the location of the stations were instrumental in directing the pattern of real estate development and housing throughout the boroughs.

Without the subway system, New York would not have grown to its present size, and satellite cities like Hartford and Newark would probably have followed different patterns of development. New York's housing would more closely resemble the relatively low-density development patterns of other American cities. The six-story walk-up building, known as the Old-Law or the New-Law tenement house, would be no more characteristic of New York than it is of Boston, and the proportion of the population living in one-, two-, and three-family houses would be greater. Today New York is the only American city in which 70 percent of the population lives in rented apartments. Moreover, without the population density made possible by mass transit, New York would not be the culturally diverse city it is today: Fewer racial and ethnic groups would have gathered in large enough numbers to be a significant cultural presence or to demand recognition as such in the political process.

Today New York's economic problems are complicated by the high cost of maintaining its mass transit system and adapting it, where possible, to respond to a changing population. Even so, it is futile to imagine New York City without mass transit, and unrealistic to imagine that because Miamians see no compelling reason for using mass transit, the same must be true for New York.

New York City is a dense artifact of mass transit, and while its managers must do their best to reshape the system to meet current needs, the city could as easily do without the Atlantic Ocean as without its imperfect but essential mass transit lines.

—RS