Home View from Underground Fixing the unpleasantness of underground passageways

Fixing the unpleasantness of underground passageways

by Benjamin Kabak

The underground passageway connecting 6th and 7th Avenues beneath 14th Street is not the friendliest of places. (Photo via @EnriquePenalosa)

Underneath New York City, the catacombs of the subway stretch beyond our imagination. New Yorkers vaguely remember passagesways — the one under what used to be Gimbels, the one stretching north from Herald Square — shuttered due to crime and budgetary concerns. The ones we do know are austere and ugly. The massive IND mezzanines seem desolate, the walk between 7th and 8th Avenues underneath 42nd St. is cramped and crammed with people. These passageways do nothing to make us feel good about the subways.

Over the weekend, former Bogota mayor and current NYU scholar Enrique Peñalosa found himself in one of those passageways and issued something of a challenge to New York. While walking underneath 14th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues, Peñalosa snapped the photo you see atop this post and issued a short missive. “Walking under the city in subway tunnels,” he said, “is not pleasant.”

Those ten simple words capture the essence of these tunnels. The stations with pleasant walkways, such as those maintained privately that run under 6th Ave. near Rockefeller Center, are few and far between, and the rest seem barely functional with not much in the way of attention paid to them. It’s a sorry state of affairs really.

These passagesways shouldn’t be like that. Even though I’m skeptical of spending, say, billions of dollars to beautify a PATH hub or the Fulton St. Transit Center, the environment of the subways can create better attitudes among passengers. If the system looks maintained and cared for, if we feel comfortable walking down hallways and aren’t assaulted by the smell of urine or something worse, we are inclined to feel more confident in the system and to look it more.

To that end, I asked my Twitter followers how we can fix up the MTA’s passageways. Take a look at a few of the replies:

I posed the same question on my Facebook page and got another array of answers all with a similar theme. The answers focused around better lighting and the use of more color, whether through advertising or an Arts for Transit installation. The Under Bryant Park installation in the short passageway between the 6th Ave. Line and the 7 train seems to draw rave reviews across the board.

Infrastructure for subway passengers doesn’t have to be drab or foreboding. Even the bare minimum of upgrades can make an otherwise unappealing passageway seem less threatening, and the psychology of riders and the way they interact with and appreciate the system can be improved through simple fixes. If international leaders find subway tunnels unpleasant, New Yorkers shouldn’t just accept them as part of the everyday drudgery of the subway ride.

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John-2 January 24, 2013 - 1:17 am

Bryant Park is still a relative newcomer as far as transfer tunnels within fare control go. It was designed to begin with with to be more attractive to people using it, and it’s already been redone once when the original started having too much of an early 1970s feel to it.

The tunnels that seem the most problematic are the ones that basically just extend the white tile design from the platform to the tunnel walkway’s walls. Robbed of the station tablets or the other Squire J. Vickers touches that enhance the IRT and BMT stations, the lack of any frills turns the long walkways basically into pedestrian versions of the city’s vehicular tunnels.

Varying the look of those passageways, along with improving the lighting and trying to mitigate the echo-y sounds, are probably the easiest fixes that can be made without actually widening the tunnels to eliminate that slightly claustrophobic feeling the longer ones can have (and as long as the city’s crime/vandalism rate remains low, the MTA might also think about putting some sort of multimedia video displays in the tunnels, to further break up the monotony.

JJJ January 24, 2013 - 1:24 am

Agencies who value their passengers time use moving walkways.

R. Graham January 24, 2013 - 1:33 am

And we have a lot of school kids in the city who value destroying the things that most civilized people value. Irony.

petey January 25, 2013 - 10:08 am

a lot?

BBnet3000 January 24, 2013 - 1:38 am

The longer ones could have moving walkways like the court square passageway, if they are wide enough (they would probably make the one above quite cramped).

Have you seen the Dey St passageway? Supposed to have some cool use of light and reflections, though wasnt finished when I was fortunate enough to take a tour. Its also much wider than the one above. I suspect that the narrowness of some of them definitely makes them cramped and longer feeling.

Mj January 24, 2013 - 1:40 am

If we can’t make a subway tunnel which people are forced to use attractive, what chance do we have with making a successful Low Line?

Someone January 24, 2013 - 8:33 am

Who says they’re even going to consider a Low Line?

Someone January 24, 2013 - 8:03 am

Maybe the MTA should use horizontal escalators in place of subway tunnels.

Jonathan R. January 24, 2013 - 8:08 am

Lighting is not flattering; air is not fresh; floor surface is unforgiving. Also, there’s nowhere to sit and stop. The Port Authority Bus Terminal has vending carts here and there; why can’t the MTA?

Mike G. January 24, 2013 - 9:12 am

That’s a good point…increase and diversify the leasing program to get more businesses in the passageways and require them to improve the surrounding space.

Someone January 24, 2013 - 9:43 am

Because, the MTA already has a rat infestation, and food vendors in the subways would only make it worse.

SEAN January 24, 2013 - 1:01 pm

And the passangers are worse. LOL

Michael K January 24, 2013 - 9:07 pm

The PABT has many vendors, most of whom do not sell food – rather they sell chotchkies like sunglasses, scarves, hats, cheap jewelry – along the likes one would find at suburban mall kiosks.

BrooklynBus January 24, 2013 - 9:39 am

Actually, while not the friendliest looking tunnel, I would say it actually looks pretty good. Not neglected at all. It is brightly lit, tile looks good and the paint is not peeling. What more could you expect in NYC given the budget? Or is it a problem just because it is in Midtown? If such a tunnel existed in the outer boroughs, no one woud even question it being unfriendly. Of course we can’t smell the tunnel from the picture and if it does you only have the MTA to blame because they do not provide bathrooms. I know we’ve already discussed that subject.

Benjamin Kabak January 24, 2013 - 9:43 am

We don’t only have the MTA to blame for grown adults’ inabilities to find a bathroom. They’re a partial part of the problem, but let’s not absolve people of personal responsibility here. There is never a need to relieve yourself in a subway tunnel.

Someone January 24, 2013 - 9:44 am

Those grown adults who are unable to find a bathroom should seriously consider drinking less.

Eric Brasure January 24, 2013 - 6:18 pm

Yes, let’s put value judgement on people’s need to urinate. What in the world?

SEAN January 24, 2013 - 4:32 pm

Don’t you think the term “grown adults” is redundant at best & inaccurate at worst? You should read author James Howard Kunstler’s books & his web site/ blog http://www.kunstler.com even you totally disagree with his opinions, as he can be rather insightful even if he appears to be a downer. The people you describe in your retourt are 5-year olds in adult bodies. I’m paraphrasing JHK there.

BrooklynBus January 24, 2013 - 9:58 pm

Never said it was entirely the MTA’s fault. I’ve seen people relieve themselves in public parks when there is an open bathroom nearby. But sometimes people do have emergencies. Not to make excuses for them, the MTA could at least do a better job of publicize where it’s working restrooms are instead of keeping them a highly guarded secret. I once suggested they be shown on subway maps, much like accessible stations are.

Benjamin Kabak January 24, 2013 - 10:20 pm

But sometimes people do have emergencies.

Even by saying that you are saying it’s OK, if not acceptable, for people to use a walkway as a bathroom. It’s not. It never is. Whether there are bathrooms or not, it’s just not OK.

Eric Brasure January 24, 2013 - 2:40 pm

14th Street is in Midtown?

Someone January 24, 2013 - 3:38 pm

Um… is it in Lower Manhattan?

SEAN January 24, 2013 - 4:34 pm

No, it is in Handler.

Someone January 24, 2013 - 5:02 pm

I don’t get it.

SEAN January 24, 2013 - 9:34 pm

You never herd of Chelsea Handler? Turn on Chelsea Lately on E! that was the reference. Sorry if it was to obscure.

Someone January 25, 2013 - 7:51 am

Oh, I get it now…

Eric Brasure January 24, 2013 - 6:19 pm


I guess if anything 14th Street is the border between Lower Manhattan and Midtown.

Someone January 24, 2013 - 9:12 pm

To avoid further argument, I’d consider calling the surrounding neighborhood Chelsea or West Village, rather than Lower or Midtown Manhattan.

SEAN January 24, 2013 - 9:38 pm

That’s why I said Handler above. Chelsea Handler that is.

Frank B January 24, 2013 - 9:29 pm

Simply and roughly, where there are no numbered streets is Lower Manhattan.

Lower Manhattan (or Downtown) is, well, old New York. South of Houston, where the Commissioners’ Grid is non-existant. Where there are no numbered Streets or Avenues, where the grid is imperfect, that’s Lower Manhattan. Midtown is the grid and above, and extends to roughly 59th Street (Central Park South), then you have uptown, upper east side, upper west side. Then above 110th Street Harlem begins, and Morningside Heights, further uptown Inwood etc. etc.

Now remember there are exceptions to this; the Commissioners’ Grid does not come into solid reliability on the West side until about 13th Street, but Greenwich Village still has several numbered streets, albeit in an extremely strange arrangement. And 6th Avenue continues very far into Lower Manhattan, all the way to Franklin Street.

Now you know.

Eric Brasure January 25, 2013 - 3:31 pm

“Midtown is the grid and above”

That seems… specious to me.

Michael K January 24, 2013 - 9:13 pm

I agree that it is functional and that the MTA (in its current condition) cannot manage its current assets – forget new things. Its like having a handyman special house and agreeing to take the time to plant a pretty vegetable garden and somehow trying to fix the house by yourself with no help. Either you need more helpers (volunteers) or hire a contractor (more funding).

Either way, its a tunnel. Lets fix the 9 Million other things first, like repainting station ceilings.

AlexB January 24, 2013 - 10:05 am

Aggressive cleaning and putting in great lighting in these would be the biggest bang for your buck. Non fluorescent lights arranged in a way that created a sense of progression and softness. Why the MTA can’t imagine any lighting besides a continuous row of fluorescent tubes is beyond me. Even if you think DC stations are too dark, at least someone gave some thought to the problem.

Installing good art or hiring an architect or interior designer to re-thing these would be good too. With a bit more money, there is nothing keeping them from installing skylights in the sidewalk. If there were enough space, you could have light from above and maybe even greenery of some kind down below. For a ton of money, these spaces could be re-designed as small shopping centers, with rent paying for their upkeep and beautification. Imagine what we could have done around the system for $4billion if we hadn’t decided to spend that on the PATH station? Of course, it would all go towards making stations ADA compliant with elevators that smell like piss

Chris C January 24, 2013 - 2:14 pm

Why not see if any of the many museums and galleries in the city would like to ‘adopt’ a stretch of a passageway in order to display prints of their art works and exhibits – I’m not talking about posters advertising their exhibitions but in simply displaying some of the artwork in their vaults to a wider public.

Am sure schools would love a ready made display area for student’s art work as well.

Michael K January 24, 2013 - 9:16 pm

I think this is pretty common in Paris, actually.

Jumper January 24, 2013 - 10:58 am

If you want to know about fixing tunnels, look to Montreal. They have an entire underground city. It looks amazing, even though it’s monolithic.

al January 24, 2013 - 3:35 pm

We have something similar with Rockefeller Center. If the passageways reopen under 6th Ave, and open that link at Bank of America Building, there could be another one stretching from 8th Ave to 5th Ave along 42nd St and 42nd and 34th St along 6th Ave. It will look like a T. When that Gimbels passageway reopens, it will run west to 9th Ave along 34th St. Then it will look like a sideways 4.

Bolwerk January 24, 2013 - 11:24 am

Enrique Peñalosa should lighten up.

Fine, spend resources making them more aesthetic, but it’s not that important. Nobody goes into the subway intending to stay there. The best way to make people’s day better on the subway is to get them from point A to point B more efficiently. We can get hung up on aesthetics after we accomplish that.

And if it’s not too much to ask, crime can take a back seat to the mobility issue too.

Jerrold January 24, 2013 - 12:11 pm

Bolwerk, THAT is what I was saying in my parts of the Facebook dialogue on this issue.

Safety is much more important than beauty. That bright fluorescent lighting, which some people on Facebook find “harsh”, serves a crime-deterrent fumction.
I was asked in that dialogue if I feel really safe in those passageways, and I responded that I feel a lot more safe there than I did in 1969 or 1985.

John-2 January 24, 2013 - 1:42 pm

You can make the passageways look more aesthetically pleasing without sacrificing the current lighting brightness. Nobody wants walkways as dark as, say, your average WMATA station, but by improving the reflectiveness of the walls and floors of the tunnels, you can maintain the overall brightness while at the same time trying to get away from the current stark look the narrowest of the passageways have.

Bolwerk January 24, 2013 - 2:16 pm

I worked in an office where we used reflective tiles on the ceiling to eliminate glare on CRT monitors. It still had that noxious hospital fluorescence, but only indirectly.

SEAN January 24, 2013 - 1:06 pm

Although without a sence of safety, you lose ridership & potential revenue.

Bolwerk January 24, 2013 - 2:13 pm

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a “sense of safety.”* I’m saying we should actually worry about keeping transit functional and useful, rather than abstractions (distractions?) about aesthetics and safety.

FWIW, that is a safety issue. Resources spent on our lumbering policing bureaucracy, which does little to improve safety anyway, are resources not spent on transit and automobile alternatives – which actually do improve safety.

* though, I think it should be a realistic one.

Benjamin Kabak January 24, 2013 - 2:14 pm

Having something functional and useful means having something somewhat nice-looking and safe. (That doesn’t mean Fulton St. and PATH WTC are smart investments though. There is a line somewhere.)

Bolwerk January 24, 2013 - 2:39 pm

I realize that, but this is approached from the wrong angle. We have a very safe subway system already, not an unsafe one that demands massive investments in safety. These fears about hooded figures lurking in grimey subterranean passageways, dagger/gun in one hand and schlong in the other, really are a hangover from when the current generation’s parents were out late drinking and swinging. Safety should be kept in perspective.

The passageways are ugly, but they don’t appear to be either impairing usage or attracting crime. Peñalosa could only wish his BRT network got the kind of usage many of those tunnels do!

Scott E January 24, 2013 - 1:08 pm

“Walking under the city in subway tunnels”. I think the problem with these corridors is exactly that — they look like TUNNELS, not corridors. For starters, put a real ceiling up there with some nice lighting rather than exposed concrete and conduits.

Also, put something down there to make it more vibrant — like it is walking along street level: maybe artwork, licensed “street vendors” (selling books, gloves, umbrellas, that kind of stuff). This would make it less sparse, and consequently less dangerous (or less perceived danger).

Finally, one of my big pet-peeve waking along these long corridors is that you have no idea where you are — just stare into more corridor in the distance and wonder “are we there yet”? Maybe some sort of artwork on the wall which transitions from predominant red (at 7th Ave) to orange (at 6th Ave) on the 14th Street corridor, or a gradual change from Blue to Red/Yellow/Purple on the 42nd Street Corridor might help people know they’re making progress and getting somewhere.

Someone January 24, 2013 - 1:47 pm

That isn’t going to work, painting the entire hallway with the color of the line at the end on the passageway. What if you were dealing with the passageway between Court Square (G/7) and 23 St-Court Square (E/M)?

Otherwise, sounds like a good idea to me.

Matthias January 25, 2013 - 9:50 am

Have it transition from purple/green to blue/orange. Sounds like a great idea.

Phantom January 24, 2013 - 2:16 pm

The worst of the worst to me is the short, crowded passageway between the N/R/D and the IRT at Atlantic Avenue.

They’ve made all the improvements they can to it, but its still awful.

The steep stairs at either end are the icing on the poisoned cake.

Inside Metropolitan Avenue’s shuttered G passageway :: Second Ave. Sagas January 24, 2013 - 2:42 pm

[…] « Fixing the unpleasantness of underground passageways Jan […]

Henry January 24, 2013 - 4:19 pm

I’ve been in this passageway – the lighting seems to have improved significantly since I’ve been there (or the tiles have been cleaned/replaced). During the AM peak it’s tolerable, but the most harsh thing about it is the randomly placed gates throughout the passageway. There are two gates on either end, for reasons that I can’t explain (has there ever been a need or desire to close this passageway?) that are floor to ceiling, and a strange barricade-like thing surrounding a door. It’s the kind of thing that looks like it would prevent cars from crashing into it, but there are no cars, so why bother?

IMO Times Square-PABT also needs somewhat of a makeover – the exposed steel beam structure is a jarring contrast with the nice tiling and art on either side, and they need to cover that up. (All the subway passageways also need to stop smelling like restrooms, but that’s another story for another time.)

George Gauthier January 24, 2013 - 6:44 pm

Nobody mentioned safety. Those long lonely passages have ambush written all over them with nowhere to turn from danger. Prominent surveillance cameras might reassure the public about their safety. These days computers are smart enough to do the watching, sorting out criminal acts from ordinary passage through the tunnel.

Michael K January 24, 2013 - 9:21 pm

I think the lighting issue will go away when the florescent tubes are replaced with LEDs.

Someone January 25, 2013 - 7:52 am

When will that be, 10-20 years?

Michael K January 25, 2013 - 12:18 pm



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