Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Routes Not Taken: A Trip through New York City's Unbuilt Subway System

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Routes Not Taken: A Trip through New York City's Unbuilt Subway System

Article excerpt

THE ROUTES NOT TAKEN: A Trip Through New York City's Unbuilt Subway System. By Joseph B. Raskin, xii and 323 pp.; maps, diagrs., ills., bibliog., index. New York: Fordham University Press, 2014. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 9780823253692.

The long-awaited 2nd Avenue subway in Manhattan is finally scheduled to open in 2016; only its first phase. The rest will likely take much longer. This Manhattan East Side line was originally proposed in 1920, in an ambitious plan released by Daniel Turner, then head of the Public Service Commission, along with many other lines to the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and even Staten Island. Whereas most of these other projects were forgotten or, sometimes, built, the 2nd Avenue line has gradually become the symbol of a system unable to modernize, much less to develop. Without a regular source of money besides the fare box, the New York City subway history is a succession of dashed hopes, refinancing, service disruptions, emergency repairs, and, more recently, crowdedness.

According to Raskin, Assistant Director of Government and Community Relations for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority New York City Transit, and a self-educated scholar, the real question is how did the existing lines get built in the first place? In his book, The Routes Not Taken, he shows that it is much more common for a line to remain only an idea on paper than to become a subway. Via a thorough analysis of local newspaper articles and archives at the Transit Museum, Raskin details the combination of political bickering and economic constraints that have sunk so many projects. Readers curious about specific situations and neighborhoods should find plenty of information.

Why, for example was the Flushing line never expanded past Main Street in Flushing? The last stop on the #7 line is one of the most trafficked stations in the whole system (tenth in 2012), with more than nineteen million swipes per year (60,000 on an average weekday). Morning rush hour is a jumble of riders starting right on the streets, where over twenty bus lines terminate, and ending in a terrible crush on the platforms of the express and local #7 trains. All together, this station serves a population of over 300,000 New Yorkers, the equivalent of a city larger than Yonkers and New Rochelle combined.

Since its opening, from 1917 to 1928, when it finally reached Flushing, the #7 train was always supposed to extend into the confines of northeastern Queens. The 1929 plan, prepared by the board of transportation shows two branches reaching Whitestone and College Point to the north and Murray Hill and Bayside to the east. The extension is still on the map in 1939 and then again in 1945, before finally dropping off the plans.

In one detailed chapter, Raskin shows three types of internecine rivalries that contributed to this sorry stalemate in the 1920s and 30s. For one, real estate owners in Flushing wanted an underground subway, rather than an elevated. They thought that an elevated would diminish the value of their property and undermine the character of the town. Communities in College Point, Whitestone, and Bayside favored an elevated because they knew that the cost of building a subway to their communities would be too high. In the end, the notables of Flushing prevailed, and the #7 train, elevated all throughout Queens, takes a sudden dive underground for its last stop under Main Street. Since the station was underground, there was no necessity to widen the street, which explain why there is no room today to accommodate the buses and the foot traffic of Flushing.

Another rivalry was between the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT), the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit (BMT), and the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), then all independent, private companies. The LIRR was operating two lines across the area. Asked to share the tracks with the subway, it demanded unreasonable compensation and dragged its feet, thus postponing competition for years. …

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