From a Nickel to a Token: The Journey from Board of Transportation to MTA

From a Nickel to a Token: The Journey from Board of Transportation to MTA

From a Nickel to a Token: The Journey from Board of Transportation to MTA

From a Nickel to a Token: The Journey from Board of Transportation to MTA


A must-read for transit buffs, From a Nickel to a Token chronicles twenty specific events in the history of New York City's mass transit systems between 1940 and 1968, including large numbers of rare photos.
Streetcars "are as dead as sailing ships," said Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in a radio speech, two days before Madison Avenue's streetcars yielded to buses. LaGuardia was determined to eliminate streetcars, demolish pre-1900 elevated lines, and unify the subway system, a goal that became reality in 1940 when the separate IRT, BMT, and IND became one giant system under full public control.
In this fascinating micro-history of New York's transit system, Andrew Sparberg examines twenty specific events between 1940 and 1968, book ended by subway unification and the MTA's creation. From a Nickel to a Token depicts a potpourri of well-remembered, partially forgotten, and totally obscure happenings drawn from the historical tapestry of New York mass transit. Sparberg deftly captures five boroughs of grit, chaos, and emotion grappling with a massive and unwieldy transit system.
During these decades, the system morphed into today's familiar network. The public sector absorbed most private surface lines operating within the five boroughs, and buses completely replaced streetcars. Elevated lines were demolished, replaced by subways or, along Manhattan's Third Avenue, not at all. Beyond the unification of the IND, IRT, and BMT, strategic track connections were built between lines to allow a more flexible and unified operation. The oldest subway routes received much needed rehabilitation. Thousands of new subway cars and buses were purchased. The sacred nickel fare barrier was broken, and by 1968 a ride cost twenty cents.
From LaGuardia to Lindsay, mayors devoted much energy to solving transit problems, keeping fares low, and appeasing voters, fellow elected officials, transit management, and labor leaders. Simultaneously, American society was experiencing tumultuous times, manifested by labor disputes, economic pressures, and civil rights protests.
Featuring many photos never before published, From a Nickel to a Token is a historical trip back in time to a multitude of important events.


In 1940 mass transit providers in major U.S. and Canadian cities were, with a few exceptions, privately owned concerns, typically one large company operating under municipal franchise rights. New York, because of its vast size, was home to a multitude of private subway, elevated, streetcar, and bus concerns; it also had one large publicly owned network, the In de pen dent Subway System (IND).

This pattern changed beginning in 1940. That year, New York’s city government bought out its two huge private subway-elevated companies, the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) and Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT). The latter also encompassed Brooklyn’s large streetcar and bus network. The IRT and BMT were unified with the IND to create a citywide rapid transit network under one management. Between 1947 and 1962 most bus operations in all five boroughs were folded into the citywide system as well. This pattern was repeated in virtually the entire U.S. and Canadian mass transit industry as well, so by the mid-1970s privately owned mass transit systems had disappeared in all but a few locales.

In 1968 a New York State agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), was created to oversee not only New York City’s subway and bus system but also the commuter railroad network wholly within New York State and the toll bridges and tunnels within the five boroughs. Some years later I would embark on a twenty-fiveyear career at one of the MTA’s agencies.

This book is an examination of twenty specific events in the history of New York’s mass transit system during that 1940–1968 period, bookended by the subway unification and the MTA’s creation. It is not a comprehensive history, as other authors have written such works. The events depicted are a mixture of well-remembered, partially forgotten, and totally obscure happenings that represent pieces of the larger and fascinating historical tapestry of New York City mass transit. The city’s mayors during this period—Fiorello LaGuardia, William O’Dwyer, Vincent Impellitteri, Robert Wagner, and John Lindsay—all devoted much energy to solving transit issues and appeasing the riding public, their fellow elected officials, transit system managements, and labor leaders.

The book includes a large number of photos of the transit system during the 1940– 1968 period, many of which have never been published. The photos in turn document a city that has changed and is forever undergoing further changes.

From the end of World War II until 1968 the Board of Transportation and its successor, the New York City Transit Authority, concentrated on replacing worn-out rolling stock with new cars and buses and rehabilitating basic infrastructure—stations, signals, tracks, and power systems. The last streetcars ran in 1956. One new rapid transit . . .

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