Home View from Underground Showing the subway some ‘World of Tomorrow’ love

Showing the subway some ‘World of Tomorrow’ love

by Benjamin Kabak

As part of their New Year’s extravaganze, the City Section of this Sunday’s New York Times asked 10 folks to look ahead to 2108 and predict what New York City will be like in the future. Based on an article from 1908 in which New Yorkers predicted 2008, the article featured its fair share of kitschy, flying-cars type predictions and two global warming doomsday scenarios. How creative.

What the article didn’t do — other than through the illustration that accompanied the piece — was give mention to the subway. One of the global climate change folks predicted archeological digs in what would be our flooded subway system, but other than a visual reference of a U and X train — as part of the Sixth Ave. line based on the orange — nary a word of the MTA’s future was at hand.

Well, luckily, you all have me, and I’m going to correct that oversight. So let’s delve into five things that I hope New Yorkers in 2108 can enjoy as they ride New York City’s subways. That is, if they’re still riding the subways. Maybe by then, we’ll have transporter technology. That would be the cure for the rush hour blues.

1. Technology Upgrades: Train-Arrival Boards That Work — In a way, this should have been on the list for 2008. London has it; San Francisco has it; Washington, DC, has it. But New York with one of the biggest and oldest subway systems in the world can’t seem to find a way to get train-arrival boards that work into subway stations. The test run on the L line has gone for nearly a year now, and the signs themselves have popped up in random places — Bergen St. on the Flatbush IRT local, for example — but the MTA isn’t much closer to a system-wide rollout today than they were a year ago. By 2108, I fully expect to know when the next train is coming, and here’s a hint: If I’m waiting on a downtown platform, I don’t really care when the next uptown train is coming. Just ask L riders traveling west from First Ave. about this one.

2. Service Upgrades: Second Ave. Subway — Eighty years in the making, the Second Ave. subway is no sure thing. Yes, we will be getting a Q extension up to 96th St. sometime around 2014, but beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. The MTA has yet to secure funding for the rest of the line and than 2020 completion date could end up being rather fluid. By 2108, I hope that the Second Ave. subway would run from 125th St. down to Hanover Square and, hopefully, beyond. But as its tortured history has shown, the Second Ave. subway is never a safe bet.

3. Technology Upgrades: Automated Trains — Right now, the MTA is dealing with plans for automated subway cars. The L train test run didn’t go as smoothly as they planned, but as the technology improves and the subway systems are retrofitted with 21st Century technology, I full expect the MTA to go with automated trains. These communications-based train control systems allowed for more track volume and a more efficient level of service. Yes, by 2108, robots will, in effect, be driving our subways.

4. Service Upgrades: Airport Raillinks — Can you tell me how to get, how to get to LaGuardia Airport? Sure can. Take the subway and then a bus and hope you make it to your flight on time! While the least likely of my subway dreams, a subway connection to LaGuardia is certainly something this city in its fight to cut down on automobile traffic could use. I know some subchatters have suggested running the N/W past Astoria Boulevard to the airport, but right-of-way concerns in the densely-settled regions of Queens between the airport and Astoria present some major obstacles. With the nearest lines in Queens all elevated, construction of such a spur would be quite the battle.

5. Technology Upgrades: Wireless Service — Yet again, this one’s rather obvious as it’s in the works right now. But in 100 years, whatever wireless services people are using will be readily available in the subways. ‘Nuff said.

So that’s my list. Maybe it’s too inside-the-box. Four of these proposals are in various stages of development but all four feature significant barriers to implementation. In 100 years, the subway system should run faster, smoother and cover more ground. We should see more Brooklyn-Queens-Bronx connections that bypass Manhattan and more reliable service for the Outer Boroughs as they undergo another century of population explosion. We’ll see advances in payment technology, and two more generations of subway cars will come and go.

Make no mistake about it: If New York is still a thriving, prosperous, international city in 2108, it will have a very modernized, 200-year-old subway system.

Illustration from The New York Times by Bob Scott.

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Kid Twist January 3, 2008 - 11:34 am

How about climate-controlled underground stations?

Gary January 3, 2008 - 2:11 pm

Come on Ben, you gotta step out on the limb a little.

I’ll raise you a connection to Staten Island, a combination of the regional commuter lines (LIRR, Metro-North, AND NJ Transit), a combination of PATH and MTA subways (sooner than you might think now that there is fare parity) and additional trans-Hudson tubes (at least one new Hudson crossing in addition to the THE Tunnel).

Subway access to LaGuardia, including a link from LaGuardia to JFK.

Also: ubiquitous video surveillance in subway cars and stations.

And of course, the F Express / V local to Brooklyn!

Benjamin Kabak January 3, 2008 - 4:20 pm

Gary, I debated this one for a long time. Do I go way outside of the box and give my top five desires for the subway regardless of their potential or do I stick with the safe route? I like to think that I went for a mix of both. The SAS is no sure thing and that raillink to LaGuardia is a pipe dream that should have happened decades ago but probably can’t happen with some major political forces getting behind it now. The technology upgrades are things that should happen in the next ten years. I don’t know what the following ninety will bring. Considering that the subways relied on coin-op entry gates from 1904 until the 1990s, RFID cards may be here in the long run once they’re implemented.

But if I were going to look at the subway map and say that I could add any number of things between now and 2108 – outside, of course, the F express – I think I’d go with this:

1. Full Second Ave. Subway from the Bronx to Staten Island. The train should terminate past the 6 at Co-Op City, run down Manhattan via Second Ave. and run under the harbor at higher speeds to Staten Island. SI really needs that subway, and that addresses one of your desires.

2. Fully integrated airport access: High-speed raillink from JFK to Manhattan; rail connection to LaGuardia. I think right-of-way and construction costs will be prohibitive.

3. Extending service out past Flatbush Ave. Bergen Beach, Mill Basin and parts of Canarsie are woefully underserved by the subway.

4. Brooklyn-Queens service running into northeastern Queens. Another crosstown connection could two needs at once.

5. Cross-Bronx subway service. This probably wouldn’t happen either, but it sure would be nice.

The problem with all of these dreams however is that rare are the days when someone picks up the ball for major Public Works projects. These five proposals including the ones you mention would require some major expenditures and foresights. But they all will become necessary pretty soon.

Gary January 3, 2008 - 4:39 pm


Long term, I think the suburbanization of America (subsidized car culture) is dead. The negative environmental effects are one reason, but more importantly, the era of cheap oil is gone forever. Regardless of new discoveries or mileage gains, the China/India/Brazil, etc. genie can’t be put back in the bottle.

Also, i am 100% confident that the Dems will take both houses of congress and the presidency in 2008. They will inherit a fiscal mess from the current clown college faculty running the federal government. . . quite likely, a nasty recession as well.

Perfect opportunity for a new WPA (my fantasy) and in any case, more funding for transit and equally important, freight rail. I think we’ll have a carbon tax at some point, or at least increased gas taxes as there is a push to make the cost of driving better include its externalities.

We’ll see what happens of course. But I like the expanded list a lot better!

Mike January 3, 2008 - 10:31 pm

Jeez – all this makes me wish the IND Second System had come into being (for a description go to http://www.nycsubway.org/artic.....ubway.html). That would have covered most of what both of you have talked about, and a whole lot more.

Rail to LGA should be a cinch; an AirTrain-like viaduct for subway service in the median of the Grand Central Parkway would cause minimal visual or audible impact to the host communities. It could diverge from the Astoria Line just south of the GCP and run as a loop through LGA. Alternatively, run it as a spur from the Amtrak Hell Gate Line, with conventional rolling stock if need be. Baggage could be checked through from Penn Station – imagine that! The service doesn’t have to be a flashy thing like the AirTrain, much as I like it – SEPTA runs regular commuter rail from Center City to the Philadelphia airport – right to the terminal.

Conventional rail from Penn Station to JFK was proposed in the 1970s, the key component being rehabilitation of the LIRR Rockaway Branch and construction of a spur from Howard Beach to the airport terminals. It might have happened except that there was no money for anything then, and people living near Forest Park thought the trains going along the old right-of-way would imperil people. That problem was solved in Riverside Park in the 1930s by roofing over the railroad tracks. While the right of way is largely intact, the AirTrain makes that option no longer viable. As a practical matter, any Manhattan – JFK direct rail would have to utilize the AirTrain alignment, perhaps with different rolling stock. Having the AirTrain and conventional rail share tracks would be tricky but not impossible; the train control and signaling systems are different and the current AirTrain rolling stock isn’t built to FRA crashworthiness standards.

I agree that the Second Avenue Subway needs to run up to Co-Op City. For this line to relieve the Lex in any meaningful way, it must run to the Bronx. There’s ample room along the Northeast Corridor from the Hell Gate Bridge to past Pelham Parkway to do this. A transfer station to the 6 at Hunts Point Avenue would complete the picture. The MTA’s Penn Station Access Study (check the MTA Web site) has some good stuff on this, from the point of view of running Metro-North service along the line, but it is understandable at least as well in subway terms. And maybe running it to Staten Island is the answer.

Beyond all this, I suppose my wish list is to build the IND Second System (most of it, anyway) plus a line in the median of the LIE, but barring that I’d like to see a lot more intra-City service on the commuter lines, esp. in NE Bronx and much of Queens, and BRT in a big way. And try to make the whole system less Manhattan-centric.

Chris H January 5, 2008 - 3:39 am

I’d like to see a “phase 5a” of the SAS. This would extend the SAS crosstown at 125th (stopping at Lenox ave for a connection to the 2,3 and Morningside Ave for a connection to the IND 125th st station (A, C, B, D). It would then swing north and be bored under the IRT Seventh Ave/Broadway ROW with a stop at either 137th or 145th and then expressing to make a connection to the IND local tracks north of 163rd street. At 168th street, the local tracks would be extended in a new bored tunnel to the GWB Bus Terminal (if possible to allow cross platform transfers with A trains at 175th street). Possibly adding an underground connection to the 181th st IRT station from the bus terminal

This would help making existing infrastructure i.e. the GWBBT, more highly utilized by not only giving it two, possibly three, more lines of subway service (C, T, possibly 1) but also by giving it direct access to the east side.

Mike January 6, 2008 - 5:52 pm

I like Chris’ idea but it could be made much easier, specifically a bored tunnel along 125th Street, then up 125th Street, connecting with two unused tracks in the existing 8th Avenue tunnel through 135th Street station. Reconfigure the existing crossovers for the junction with the Concourse line, then send SAS trains up the 8th Avenue line (which has spare capacity) to a new GWBT station underneath Broadway, using and extending existing tail tracks underneath Broadway north of 168th Street (they currently stub-end at around 174th Street). This would accomplish most of what he’s looking for at far less cost. Transfers to/from the IRT would be at 168th Street, as they are now.

The key to making this work is that the 125th Street SAS station be deep enough to allow bored tunnel underneath 125th Street. A major impediment would be sub-surface water in the form of an old stream and a high water table; this has been a big problem with the Lenox Avenue subway for 103 years, and all the steps taken by the IRT engineers to waterproof that tunnel weren’t enough.


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