Cut and cover

Writing these pieces is like a Year 8 Geography assignment. But better because I chose the topic and wrote the marking criteria for myself.

I like walking. When I say that, I mean I'm the sort of person who walks three blocks for coffee and breakfast, and then sets out randomly uptown, and end up walking a solid sixty blocks only to decide to go on a self-guided walking tour (while I'm in the neighbourhood) and then walk south twenty blocks only to decide I'll probably be late to my 3pm coffee catch up if I walk all the way downtown. But then I'm early, so I walk around for an hour anyway. I'm the sort of person who clocks up 25 000 steps on my tracker only to think, "poorly effort." I'm that sort of walker.

The thing about walking lots is you have time to ask questions. You have time to read historical plaques on walls and sidewalks. There's time to wonder how long trees have been growing in one spot, and after whom the streets were named, and if the streets maybe had different names once upon a time.

And the thing I noticed most, one particular day on a very long walk, is how much the city is in layers. Above, there are soaring buildings in Midtown and downtown, and low-rise residential buildings in the Village and Harlem. There are tree branches and street signs but there's a distinct lack of electricity cabling. In the depths of winter, when temperatures dip down to the indescribably cold, where a number on the weather report is of no real meaning because they all mean my face might freeze off today, one of life's small pleasures comes from defrosting one's feet over the vents on the sidewalk. In the summer time, when the sun bounces off the roads and the buildings, creating an amplified state of swelter, these vents must be deftly dodged. Beneath one's feet, the soft rumble of the subway hums, and at so many street corners there is the hustle and bustle of people traversing between the surface and the subterranean. Amongst all that is beneath our feet - the parking garages, the gas and electricity, the internet cabling, the fresh water and sewerage, there also exist lost tunnels and remnants of a city that could have been different.

The questions bubble to the surface as frequently and as fast as busy commuters exiting the subway. Where, I wonder, does the term "underground" come from in relation to subterfuge and slightly eclectic habits? (The answer, as best as I can tell from a quick Google search, is that it stems from WWII resistance movements to German occupation.) Why does Central Park exist? (It almost didn't, but in part it was early America's desire to be cultured that brought about its creation.) Why are large swaths of the city built in grid form with conveniently numbered streets but then some of the city has lettered names and confusing angles? (The answer - SoHo was already built up but uptown of here was ripe for redesign and development.) Why is "Wall St" called Wall St? (Literally because there was a Wall.) Why is Park Ave called Park Ave? Why is there no 4th Ave, mysteriously lacking between 5th and 3rd despite Park and Madison sitting comfortably between them? (So these two questions fit together - Park Ave WAS Fourth, which actually does still exist between 8th and 14th Sts. But it was renamed Park as it brought commuters from Harlem towards the Park previously mentioned in this paragraph along the New York and Harlem Railroad line. That no longer exists.) Why do the subways (mostly) follow the streets? And how does one build tunnels under water?

As for these last two questions. Well. We are in for a bit of a ride. It turns out that once you start digging (pun intended) on this topic, there's a lot to learn.

Let's roll back a bit. If you stretch back in your memory to the cold winter of 1888, which is probably rather hazy in your global citizen memory, there was a big, nasty, terrible blizzard. It was the sort of blizzard that New York City of the day was not built to withstand, and with it electricity lines fell to the ground, above-ground railroads grew stagnant in the stone and the City as a whole literally froze in place. Paralysed by this weather-induced phenomenon, the City that has never settled for sleeping resolved to do something about it. And, in form completely unrecognisable in today's era of political auditing and relative inaction, the City resolved to build underground railroads and to bundle essential utilities into the areas below ground.

Even then, however, it took a lengthy twelve years before the first subway tunnel was underway. And then they started digging. One hundred and eighteen years ago, there were far fewer people living in the city, no cars and many fewer commuters coming in from other boroughs and surrounding areas for work. The plans, in fact, had been to build subways (and transport lines) as arteries to feed the City's economic growth. Lines into Manhattan meant more workers and business. The two were symbiotic. And so, in quieter times, workers grabbed pick axes and shovels and literally dug trenches along the streets and avenues, cutting down and covering over segments of the road as they went. There were, in fact, stations built that have since been abandoned. Their relics can still be glimpsed on certain journeys underground (also this and this). Cut and cover explains two things - why many of the subway tracks are under wheels and feet, and why there are, at many stations, only a few flights of stairs between the subterranean and earthly travel routes.

Tunnels are, as might be guessed, all sorts of more difficult to build. In the modern era there are tunnel-drilling devices that make construction much safer for workers, but is much more expensive for the City. In the good ol' days, workers dug under riverbeds (so the tunnels are not underwater so much as under-underwater) by hand. This led to serious cases of "the bends". There was one tunnel that was constructed down the coast, floated up river and placed in the riverbed. Many of these tunnels were constructed in the heyday of rail transport construction and remain in essentially their original form.

Like any big city, the initial plans for the subway were grand and proposed to happen in stages. The aims then remain the same now - to bring as many people safely and speedily to the city for work and leisure. And, as in many plans in developing cities, the routes generally connect outer areas with the main economic centres, but not necessarily with each other. There are spokes on the wheel, as it were, but no rims.

Having mostly leisured in only one of the five boroughs, Manhattan, I had long believed that the subway system was both an engineering delight and a public transport dream. These beautiful underground tunnels connected all over the island, providing quick and easy access to any number of desired destinations. Putting mass transit underground (in a non-subterfuge-y kind of way) left the streetscapes that little bit more poetic and free for pedestrian use. Within five blocks in any direction of my usual visiting location, there are six subway stations. But then my cousin moved to Brooklyn and I was forced to face the realities of mass transit's limitations. First, I had considered walking. Indeed, I got about halfway there and then my feet and legs got tired and it was very hot and I was very sweaty. Nine miles there and back is a little much for one day. Second, there's only one tunnel connecting the Manhattan and Brooklyn transit systems. Third, these systems were not all originally part of the same company and thus there are often train changes required.

I had often marvelled at the frequency with which trains run in New York. It seemed like the wait was never more than five or six minutes, which is utterly astounding to someone who has grown up in Melbourne (peak hour, lucky if it's fifteen minutes between services, good luck on the weekend getting a train at all) and "upgraded" to Sydney in adulthood (great if you live at an express station, or near any station, and plan on going anywhere near any other station, but good luck if your transit is not to/from the city or not near a station. Also, expect apocalyptic delays at random.). This system is fantastic at getting in and around Manhattan. It is not so great, and indeed frightfully insufficient, if you live outside of the City, in poorer neighbourhoods or ones that didn't exist back in the original planning of the mass transit network, or if you need to get into the City from distant peripheries. For my friend who works in the City but lives in Long Island, getting to work is a miserly 90+ minute commute. At home, he must own a car because getting around town without one is impossible (or at least very difficult). Additionally, many of these outer suburbs are low on bus services and do not have the surfeit of taxi and ride-share services that are common in Manhattan. And, what I hadn't realised is that even though the services in Manhattan feel frequent, they are still often late by the timetable, overcrowded, and unreliable.

One of the problems with a rail service designed over 100 years ago is that things get old. The manufacturers of original items may have gone out of business, or they may have desired updating their products to newer, hardier constructs. But changing the product might mean upgrading several other elements, and each aspect of this costs money. Additionally, tunnels, tracks and stations constructed a century ago are subjected to weather conditions, earth movement and erosion requiring constant upkeep. Much of the mass transit network in New York is reliant on technology that might have been state-of-the-art at the turn of the last century but is well-and-truly outdated now. Yet technicians must continue to use these technologies because replacing systems along the whole system, or even along whole lines, would be astronomically expensive. Because pressures on the transit system's finances are ever growing with the needs outpacing funding (indeed, funding has been decreased compared to inflation in recent decades), the system falls further and further into disrepair even as the City grows and increasing numbers of commuters are reliant on it. On top of regular maintenance needs, the City has been blasted by extreme weather events flooding stations and wiping out tunnels at huge costs.

I really love the subway. It's a place where you can see all the shades of New York City. Not only do the trains carry you between different neighbourhoods, with their stations reflective (sometimes) of the area's past, and not always at all reflective of their present wealth or lack thereof, they also carry with them insight into all echelons of society. I love the grimy walls and all the surfaces you'd really prefer not to touch. I love that these states of disrepair remind us all of just how many feet have traversed these platforms. There are busking roving performers; there are well-dressed business people in suits, cursing quietly when their phones break service in tunnels; there are quiet commuters reading books or craning their face towards their phones; there are tourists with eyes searching wildly for the right stop. There are also reflections of political or social failings - the homeless folk with placards announcing why they would appreciate help as they walk through the carriage, there are garments of division. This in-you-face awareness of people other than yourself is perhaps part of why New Yorkers, by and large, support programs that provide support for those less fortunate, for healthcare, and for public education. When you can't escape what it looks like when you fall through the safety net, it's harder to resist making that net stronger.

It thus surprises me that this lifeblood in the city has had its construction ground near to a halt since the 1940s. There was a massive boom and then, bam, it all seemed to falter. It part this is due to the rise of the personal automobile - we as a society moved towards individual transport as both as solution to getting from A to B as well as a status symbol. It seemed, at the time, easier to drive ourselves than to be driven. And yet there is little that would incentivise me to drive in New York City. The stasis of construction is, as many things are, also attributable to funding issues. It costs a lot of money, particularly in a bustling metropolis, to build underground railroads. That's especially true of a city that was then requiring it's earthly streets for private transport. Cut and cover was no longer a feasible option and tunnelling is wildly expensive. And, remember, even in the 1940s the subways were, in parts, over fifty years old and constantly requiring maintenance. Part of me wonders if there was an element of this is all too hard. It costs too much, it's inconvenient, it's politically dangerous. And so, despite the population growing, and with it the need for reliable, affordable transportation, New York City now has fewer miles of railroad than it did during the Second World War. And, because it's so long between projects, the skills gained by workers with each project are lost in the ether when there's little continued construction.

If any of us were to imagine a perfect transport system, it would seamless connecting between different elements, on time, fast, affordable, and clearly signed. It would provide ready transport to all areas of town and connect with surrounding suburbs. It would be safe and provide access points for people with varying physical abilities. While these systems do exist around the world, it requires a great deal of investment from the government and political will from the people to make this happen. And, of course, the subway wasn't built in a day.

Surprisingly, for a nation of 326 million people, there are only fifteen rail systems in the US.  The nation would need to invest over $90 billion to bring public transport systems back into a state of good repair. And with these sorts of figures hovering in view, it's very easy to see how it's overwhelming. But, as anyone living in one of New York City's five boroughs, or who commutes from a nearby suburb, will tell you - something needs to be done. The system itself needs repair and modernisation. The squeaky clean elements of station comfort are, functionally, less important. Newfangled plans for phone charging substations only point out that platform waits are sometimes so long that such a charger could prove useful. For a city that is the economic lifeblood of the East Coast, it seems surprising that these precious arteries have been left to calcify.

I cross my fingers that change is coming. I hope that these beautiful, historic, functional creaking trains get the rejuvenation they've been waiting for. In the mean time, I'll continue searching between tunnel pillars for remnants of stations that could have been.


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