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:
@secondavesagas don’t you want to commission some intense but uplifting soundscape for those tunnels?
— Nico Muhly (@nicomuhly) January 22, 2013
@secondavesagas art? “Under Bryant Park” is great.
— Franklin Bynum (@franklinbynum) January 22, 2013
— Brian R. (@bgrmosaic) January 22, 2013
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.