Home Subway History Dreaming of the Second System: Where the subways should go

Dreaming of the Second System: Where the subways should go

by Benjamin Kabak

For nearly eight decades, the New York City Subway system has sat in stagnant. Since unification in 1940, the City has witnessed the birth of just a handful of new lines with even fewer planned. Yet, subway inertia wasn’t always the norm.

In 1929 and again in 1939, New York City planners dreamed big. Before cars came to dominate our transportation landscape, the city knew that extending the subway would truly complete the system and usher in unprecedented boom times for New York. Thus, along came the IND Second System.

Yesterday’s post on the uncompleted remnants of a Brooklyn subway stop hints at the scope of this ambitious plan. Today, we delve deeper into this vast civic undertaking. The city wanted 100 miles of new tracks connecting every borough to one another. The map at right (click to enlarge) is a work of subway art, and the plan is a beauty.

We start in Manhattan with the Second Ave. Subway. This line would serve not just the Upper East Side but Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx. The train would start in Astoria and travel along the Crosstown route — better known as the G — to Hoyt/Schermhorn and through the Court St. stop. That stop is now the Transit Museum. Heading west to Manhattan and north up Second Ave., the line would venture up Lafayette Ave. in the Bronx to Harding Ave. Oh, what could have been.

Elsewhere in Manhattan, we see more downtown interborough connectors. Using the Chrystie Street Connection, these lines included a spur off of Sixth Ave. that would have traversed that South Fourth St. station on the way to Utica Ave. and the Floyd Bennett Airfield. We also see, in 1939, plans for a Morningside Ave. spur of the current BMT Broadway lines (N/Q/R/W), running under Central Park to W. 145th St.

In Brooklyn, the subways were to go places still unknown to the MTA’s fleet. The Culver Line — 2008’s F train — splits after Prospect Park. One spur heads to Coney Island while the other runs down Ft. Hamilton Parkway. One branch of that line terminates at 86th St. while another heads west to Staten Island. The Brooklyn-Staten Island subway was to cut across 65th St. en route to Staten Island. A stub of this tunnel lives on today.

With full service down Utica Ave., the 1939 plan also called for an extension of the Nostrand Ave. line to Voorhies Ave. Imagine how different these seemingly remote parts of New York would be had the Second System become a reality.

Nowhere is the failure of this ambitious plan more acute than in Queens. Name a problem with the Queens subways and the Second System answers. Subway to LaGuardia? No problem. Trips out to the edges of Queens County? Sure.

The 1939 plans included a Long Island City spur of the IRT traveling through Queens west of the Astoria Line. This new tracks then cut east along Horace Harding Boulevard to Marathon Parkway right near Nassau County. There is, of course, a transportation option there today, but the Long Island Expressway is no haven for straphangers. The victory of the cars here is one of the city’s biggest regrets.

From Brooklyn, the Fulton Line — today’s A and C trains — would spur to the Rockaways as they now do and northeast along Fulton St. to 229th St., nestling up to Nassau County. The Queens Boulevard line would have gone east along Hillside Ave. to Little Neck Road. Even the IRT’s Flushing line — now the 7 — would extend well past Main St. to Bell Boulevard on one spur and College Pt. Causeway on the other. It is a work of sheer beauty.

* * *

This plan would have been ambitious. It would have been expensive, and it would have mobilized the city’s workforce. Parts became a reality, but the vast majority of it — and, in particular, the more revolutionary lines — remain on the drawing board. Perhaps the city needs someone to find the money and the will to push through an expansion project of this scope. Perhaps post-Robert Moses New York would not be able to sustain a singular project of this scale.

The Second System will, for as long as New Yorkers rely on the same old subway system, be that Holy Grail. The city was young; when the original 1929 plan was put forth, just three decades had past since the five boroughs became one. Ten years later, when the second Second System plan came out, the city felt alive, rejuvenated from the Great Depression. But war hit; economic troubles followed in the decades after; and the city spiraled out of control and away from great civic works.

Today, in 2008, we still dream but of tall buildings and small subway lines. We dream of one tiny slice of a pie, of three stops along one avenue in Manhattan. No longer do we dream of a great Second System, and New York is worse off for it.

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Alon Levy September 19, 2008 - 9:19 am

First, the LIE actually makes it easier to have rapid transit along the right-of-way. It could run at grade, with some room left for maybe one lane of cars in each direction. If there were a reasonable way of connecting that to an underground line in Manhattan (I personally favor a crosstown 34th Street line), it could cost surprisingly little for another Queens mainline. Even the public opposition from the suburbs could be quieted if there were some parking provided at the end of the line.

Second, many of the parts of the Second System – generally, the less useful ones – are now reality. The QB line has a second way into Manhattan, though further downtown than the map depicts. There’s an underground Fulton Street Line connecting to Liberty Avenue and the Rockaways. Dyre Avenue Line now connects to the IRT.

Third, the Second System matters little to current New York City realities, when Queens is the second most populous borough instead of the fourth, and Staten Island is growing fast. I’d say the most important extensions now are,
– A 125th Street crosstown line, possibly connecting to SAS
– An eastward extension of the 7
– A straight westward extension of the 7 or the L, heading roughly to Secaucus
– New east-west mainlines in Queens; an LIE-34th Street line would be nice, but given the above extensions, the easiest option is to extend the N/W east and to have a short Northern Boulevard Line connecting to SAS via 63rd Street

Rick July 15, 2011 - 4:10 pm

Check out http://www.vanshnookenraggen.c.....roduction/ this site has a great amount of info on sas and others

Marc Shepherd September 19, 2008 - 10:21 am

Let’s get real. The MTA does not yet have full funding for even the first of the SAS’s four planned phases, none of which operate in any borough except Manhattan. Until there is a realistic (as opposed to imaginary) plan to fund the full-length SAS, everything else you mentioned is inconceivable.

Benjamin Kabak September 19, 2008 - 11:01 am


It’s not an issue of my getting real. I’m not advocating that the MTA, cash-strapped as it is, should do this. It’s a historical presentation about what could have been had the stars aligned. That’s all.

Of course, right now, it’s inconceivable. The money and the political will are just a few of the factors that aren’t in place. I’m not that delusional.

Alon Levy September 19, 2008 - 11:57 pm

I’m well aware. My point isn’t that the MTA should do it. Rather, it’s that fantasizing about the Second System is anachronistic because of changes in needs.

Boris September 19, 2008 - 10:49 am

Wasn’t there an equally ambitious plan in the 60’s? I still don’t understand why it was scrapped, other than for political reasons. Most of it was to be funded through federal dollars, so New York City’s economic downturn should have had little to do with it. Was the new SAS construction stopped in the 70’s because the federal money went to lifting NYC out of bankruptcy, or was there a political change that made government hate urban areas in general?

Alon Levy September 20, 2008 - 12:00 am

There were ambitious plans every decade beginning in the 1910s, until the 1970s. The one in the 1910s was mostly completed, the one in the early 1920s only netted two major lines that didn’t exist before (QB and Crosstown), and the subsequent ones didn’t go anywhere.

Marc Shepherd September 19, 2008 - 10:58 am

The 1960s plan wasn’t quite as ambitious as the full IND Second System. There was never a federal commitment to fund 100% of it, so the city’s budget crisis was a factor.

Lastly, there was the realization that the existing subway system was near collapse, due to decades of deferred maintenance. Some of the money that would have been used for expansion was used instead on restoring the system to a State of Good Repair.

John September 19, 2008 - 12:09 pm

I really like the plans for Montreal’s Metro you see in figure 7 here: http://metrodemontreal.com/faq/index.html

But I’m not sure they were ever realistic, and I’m not quite sure the Second System ever was either. Along with MS, I more just fantasize about an MTA in good repair, although I guess that’s half your point too.

Phil September 19, 2008 - 12:25 pm

It would have been nice to have a system like this, but what we have now is good enough compared to what other cities in the US have. The problem I have is how alot of these projects are viewed as beign to expensive or unnecessary.

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herenthere September 19, 2008 - 9:12 pm

Ben Kabak: one great historian…Reading this post made me tear up as a long-time Queens resident…what could’ve been.

I think what Moses should have done was to have a better mix of car + mass transit. Time machine anyone?

BTW, any idea on why the F train is sometimes going local/Qns Blvd Line crawling so slow in the AM Rush even though no apparent track work is seen being done?

paulb September 22, 2008 - 10:21 pm

Not being officially our nation’s capital city is I think the reason NYC has not been able to mount some of the dramatic projects like subway expansion that you see in other nations. It would be great if we could (or more pertinently, were willing to) fund them ourselves.

Alon Levy September 22, 2008 - 10:33 pm

That’s not true. Shanghai, Osaka, and Toronto are not national capitals. Shanghai still has impressive subway growth, Osaka has the second largest rail system in the world, and Toronto is now planning its own equivalent of the Second System.

Ellie September 22, 2008 - 11:13 pm

To have a subway system like this, I’d gladly pay more for a ride!

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ajedrez September 7, 2010 - 2:48 am

Sorry to respond so late (the link from the article about the Utica/Nostrand Avenue Lines sent me here), but I would just like to give my thoughts on the matter:

We can see a theme with the city trying to have subways outcompete elevated lines so that they could be knocked down. The South 4th Street truck line would’ve probably competed with the BMT’s Broadway Line in Brooklyn (the J/M/Z). The M would’ve gone down Myrtle Avenue, with no connection to the South 4th Street Line, and the J/Z would’ve either terminted at Myrtle Avenue or merged onto this truck line.

In addition, at the other end of the J/Z lines, the Hillside Avenue Line would’ve competed with it for passengers by being so close to it, so there probably would’ve been another transfer station built at that end as well (so the J/Z could potentially be reduced to a second Crosstown Line).

That Long Island City Line is a BMT line, not an IRT line (it is yellow and branches off of the 60 Street Tunnel, not the Queensboro Bridge.

As far as all of those extensions, the advantage is that the MTA would be able to save money by running fewer buses in Eastern Queens (a train has higher capacity and costs less per rider than a bus). You see how all of the routes in Eastern Queens, as well as Whitestone, tend to have a lot of riders, that could be taking 1 train instead of 10 buses.

If only there was a version of Robert Moses that was pro-transit instead of pro-car. We would really have a good transit system then.

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