New York City’s various media publications have been reporting on the worsening transit crisis with increasing frequency, and as the headlines make clear, the state of the subway is bleak. But combining what’s already-happening with what’s impending begs the question no one seems to be asking. In a city where subterranean infrastructure is already decaying quite rapidly, when will rising tides of increasing frequency result in a transition away from underground transit?
Subways have served the five boroughs fantastically since they first began sprawling underneath the city in 1904, but Sandy alone caused $5 billion worth of repairs to the system. Those repairs have only been partially completed, and despite token efforts, resiliency is essentially an afterthought, with “preventative” efforts consisting of token improvements to grates and inflatable barriers.
With only one example costing the MTA $5 billion, New York City’s subway system has already been brought to the brink of functionality. Five years after the storm, the L Train is still set for an imminent fifteen-month shutdown to cope with what happened.
Sandy alone seems unlikely to cause a shift from current bureaucratic thinking on where to spend infrastructure dollars, but the impending inevitable foretold by David Wallace-Wells, among others, means similar events in the near future are likely to inundate the city’s underground infrastructure with little regard for “once in a century” intervals as was typical in previous centuries.
The inevitability of a Sandy-or-worse repeat further shows how ill-spent repair money has been. In fact, the new South Ferry subway station is even further below ground than the old, which is partially why the cost was so exorbitant ($500 million+). The MTA continues to apply tried-and-failed methods of dealing with a crisis that continues to worsen, and this may ultimately cost New Yorkers a functional public transit system for the near future.
The solution to the crisis is obvious and has already been used to deal with the city’s expanding transit needs in the past. Elevated trains across Manhattan’s Avenues and crosstown thoroughfares would alleviate the congestion below ground substantially while adding enormous capacity to a system that is filled with chokepoints.
More importantly, an effective network of elevated trains would allow for closure and repair of portions of the subterranean network on a more frequent basis without massive repercussions across the entirety of Manhattan.
Prior to the dominance of the current underground network, Manhattan had elevated lines on Second, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Avenues. The island’s peak population of 2.33 million back in 1910 likely belied a total population that is still somewhat smaller than today’s weekday normal of four million, but it is undeniable that 100 years ago, Manhattan was home to several hundred thousand additional residents.
At the time, “El” trains were seen as horribly noisy and slow methods of transport. While they certainly had negative externalities, they allowed a system with a larger capacity, and also encouraged multiple stories of street-front retail that persist today along former routes like Sixth Avenue.
Subways, at the time, were preferred as “new” and efficient alternatives to a hulking system that ended up being completely dismantled. This is now the attitude that must be taken with regards to the current subway system, which is too big to fail, and so must be rapidly augmented by new elevated lines that alleviate the pressure when it inevitably does.
Perhaps the largest argument in favor of elevated transit is cost. Subway extensions in New York City are the most expensive infrastructure projects on the planet, running into the billions per mile. Elevated trains cost roughly one tenth as much, even in a place like New York, offering immensely more bang per buck.
More importantly, additional subway lines are far larger liabilities than new elevated transit, with the situation in 2012 making this beyond obvious. Beyond their gargantuan construction costs, the shelf-life of these infrastructure “improvements” is far shorter than anything that warrants their initial existence if they must be shut down and restored at an interval greater than every few decades.
New York City’s continued growth is dependent on reliably increasing the city’s transit capacity. And with the subways unable to keep up with demand, technological improvements to elevated transit that have resulted in quieter and cleaner trains make the restoration of the El network an attractive alternative to sinking the MTA’s investments further underwater in a system that is also heading in that direction.
While the negative externalities of elevated transit are impossible to mitigate entirely, the benefits still outweigh the costs, especially when it comes to affordability of surrounding real estate. Areas proximate to elevated transit are likely to see decreases in pricing per square foot, while concurrent upzoning could still make redevelopment very feasible (in the end, neighborhood housing prices would likely see substantial drops).
The potential decreases in pricing per square foot next to new elevated lines could be a point of contention in the long line of legal dramas that have marked the evolution of transit in New York City. In fact, construction on elevated lines ground to a halt in the late 1800s as opponents managed to find increasing room to litigate against the rail companies, partially resting on the legal basis that the negative externalities and resulting price hits to neighbors constituted a taking.
While this was a concern in Story v. New York Elevated R.R. Co., that case was ultimately decided in 1882, before the existence of air rights. New trains would certainly be cleaner, quieter, faster, and more attractive than the clanking and polluting metal monsters of yesteryear, but most importantly, the city also now has tools like zoning and air rights. Any losses to present property value can be more than compensated through corresponding increases in allowed air rights.
Repealing the state’s limit on residential FAR (set at 10, or 12, with inclusionary housing) would best enable Manhattan to take advantage of these improvements, but even within existing bounds, many neighborhoods could see substantial densification.
The city’s fascination with operating obsolete historic infrastructure also unfortunately extends to its built fabric, with many neighborhoods of purported landmarks now existing in areas where initial builders had no intention of eternal permanence. The same considerations for the future of the subway must be made for areas like the East and West Village, which will imminently require massive taxpayer-funded seawalls to maintain their quaint and exorbitantly expensive charm.
While these neighborhoods certainly have landmark structures, their current use is incompatible with a future that will demand billions of public dollars for the preservation of Manhattan real estate and the creation of new infrastructure. Encouraging developers to incorporate the facades of the old structures would be one way to keep their legacy alive, but change one way or the other is inevitable, and the Great Wall of Red Tape associated with landmarking is a woefully inadequate defense against storm surge.
Combining the opportunities afforded by impending changes shows that the future need not be bleak. But while exorbitant underground construction projects may have been signs of progress in the New York City of yesteryear, $4 billion “Transit Hubs” are now leaking on sunny days, so what happens when Sandy’s next iteration pays a visit?
Abandoning the subways outright is not an option, but offering options for legitimate resiliency most definitely is, and the most cost-effective and time-efficient way of accomplishing this is by rebuilding elevated transit. Besides removing pressure from the subways and allowing things like nighttime repairs to become a reality, this would also allow a development boom, lowering rents both through sheer bulk of new supply and perceived (i.e. mostly imagined) negatives relating to elevated transit.
El trains will certainly have their critics, but actions speak louder than words, especially when they involve closing entire subway lines for fifteen months. New York City needs a solution that spans the five boroughs to solve its worsening transit crisis, and it is already staring the city in the face, it is only a question of whether there is any political motivation to take action.