As dusk and the temperature fell on Thursday evening, New Yorkers quietly lined up on the east side of midtown Manhattan. The line stretched for blocks. Some people stood for hours. As they reached the front, their reward wasn’t a set of hot concert tickets, a superstar’s autograph, or membership in a TV show’s studio audience. Instead, a yellow-clad city traffic official counted them off as he waved them onto Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) buses. Each bus replaced a segment of a subway train going to Brooklyn, and each was packed body-to-body with passengers ready to stand for another half-hour, at minimum, to arrive at a transit hub and Brooklyn and then make their way, finally, home.
The bus lines point up two lessons of Hurricane Sandy. One: New Yorkers have a strong work ethic. Many retail workers who made their way in yesterday probably spent more time more getting to work than working for pay—before having to do the commute again in reverse. One retail worker told me that her morning trip to a Madison Avenue shop had taken her nearly three hours; the evening trip would exceed that. Two: New Yorkers—and New York—cannot work without their century-old subway system. Nor can they work without the many miles’ worth of electrical equipment that threads its way underneath the dense streets.
New York’s dependence on mass transit was already on display by Sunday afternoon, the day before Sandy hit. That morning, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Joe Lhota, the head of the state-run MTA, announced that they would shut down subways and commuter rail by 7 PM and buses shortly after that. They had to do so a good 24 hours before the storm hit, because their workers needed time to bring rail cars and buses to high ground and to remove some electrical and electronic equipment from subway tunnels. By late afternoon, Manhattan looked like a Disneyworld city after the amusement park had closed for the day. Midtown retailers had tacked up signs informing passersby that they’d be closed until further notice. A few tourist stragglers gawked at the empty sheet of ice where Rockefeller Center skaters would usually glide. It became even more obvious on Tuesday, the day after the storm, that without subway trains, buses, and commuter-rail cars to funnel into midtown and downtown Manhattan the more than 2.6 million people who arrive on an average autumn weekday, the island is more a curiosity for stranded residents and travelers than a place of commerce and creativity.
By Wednesday, though, it was evident that people would steer clear of Manhattan for only so long. That morning, mass transit remained shuttered, as the MTA worked around the clock with the Army Corps of Engineers and Federal Emergency Management Agency contractors to pump water out of seven flooded subway tunnels under the East River. But the workers and owners of New York’s bodegas, shops, restaurants, and the like couldn’t stand to lose any more money. If they were lucky enough not to be contending with destruction at home, they got in their cars and vans and drove into town from the boroughs and the suburbs.
They created one of the biggest traffic nightmares Manhattan has ever seen, clogging up bridge interchanges for hours as three major car tunnels remained flooded and closed. Once they reached Manhattan, the clog of cars made it downright dangerous to walk around as one threaded one’s way through cars at every major intersection in the city. The chaos was untenable. City hall’s Department of Transportation quickly jury-rigged a plan to restrict cars entering Manhattan to those with three or more occupants, announcing it on Wednesday afternoon. By Thursday, Carmageddon was largely over.
One thing had made the difference even more than the vehicle restrictions: the subways were falteringly running again. The buses that the MTA had restored by Wednesday morning simply couldn’t replace the subways. Still, there were big gaps in Thursday’s subway service. The MTA could provide trains from the Bronx and parts of Queens to midtown Manhattan, and also within parts of Brooklyn. But until it got tubes dry and the power back on, it couldn’t send trains to lower Manhattan or to Brooklyn.
Hence the “bus bridges”: 330 buses to head from downtown Brooklyn over the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges through midtown Manhattan to try to close the service gap. Though Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants Sunday’s New York City marathon to be a symbol that New York is open for business and pleasure, the real symbol was the convoys of buses that got New York moving again. The waits were long and the service slow, but MTA managers and workers remained organized and competent throughout. The MTA’s actions hearteningly showed that the agency will always find a way to keep New York moving.
As of Friday afternoon, it’s unclear how long it will take to repair the region’s transportation assets entirely. The MTA is still waiting for power to run subways through downtown. The Metro-North Railroad and the Long Island Rail Road are running limited service, as is New Jersey Transit. But PATH train tubes and stations between Manhattan and New Jersey are still flooded. The Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, too, remains filled end to end with 85 million gallons—what Cuomo called “a mile of water.” Army pumps are draining it. Still severing subway service between Manhattan and Brooklyn is the power blackout in lower Manhattan: subways run on electricity.
People who live above 40th Street in Manhattan retained power. Restaurants and bars were packed by midweek, and on Halloween, a subdued holiday atmosphere prevailed, with trick-or-treating children mingling on the streets with shoppers and restaurant-goers on the Upper West Side, Midtown, and Hell’s Kitchen. Hungry tourists waiting for their airlines to announce flights home chowed down at bodegas, while New Yorkers waited in line at small family-run stores for wine.
But those lucky Manhattanites could buy food and drink only because stores were manned with owners and their clerks—and they were there largely because of Governor Cuomo’s support of the MTA’s heroic efforts to keep clear some passage between Manhattan and the rest of the city and the world. As Cuomo said on Thursday, Manhattan works because “15, 20, 30 stories below the surface” are “water pipes, subways, conduits, the whole honeycomb of construction below ground.” And that leads to a final lesson from the storm. It’s fashionable to think of New York as a wealthy information economy. But the info-economy is utterly dependent on the unfashionable infra-economy. If the river annexes your subway tunnels and electrical substations, no government agency heroically intervenes, and grocery stores stay shuttered, you aren’t going to be designing social-media apps in your bedroom.