Home MTA Technology Just how great are the new subway grates?

Just how great are the new subway grates?

by Benjamin Kabak

A grate prototype rests on Sutphin Boulevard in Queens. (Photo by David W. Dunlap/The New York Times)

When the subways flooded in 2007, the MTA knew they had a grate problem. Run-off from the storms were sloshing underground through sidewalk grates, and the tracks along Queens Boulevard — buried just a few feet underground — were quickly rendered inoperable. While in other cities, such as DC, the subways are far enough underground to escape the problems of heavy rains, in New York, cut-and-cover construction techniques resulted in subways prone to flooding.

When the last big storms hit New York City over the summer, the MTA protected their tunnels by manually covering these grates with tarps. Clearly, this would not be the most efficient way, going forward, for the transit agency to operate every time bad weather hits the Big Apple.

To that end, the MTA has spent the last year developing a new type of sidewalk grate that would push water away from vulnerable subway areas and into proper sewage canals. Pictured above is that prototype, and a few days ago, CityRoom had the story behind these aesthetic and functional grates. Wrote David W. Dunlap:

hammered stainless steel and available in three different heights, their almost sculpturally undulating form is a deliberate reference to the problem they are supposed to help solve. “You’re aware that this is here for storm water,” said Rob Rogers, whose firm, Rogers Marvel Architects, designed the new grates in association with di Domenico & Partners. “It has a didactic purpose…”

The prototype shown on Friday at the corner of Sutphin Boulevard in Jamaica was made up of one unit in each height, which formed a whole composition when combined. They can also be used singly or in pairs. The lowest unit, which would hold back flood waters up to six inches above the sidewalk, incorporates a seat. But the gentle troughs between the waves are not uncomfortable and could certainly serve as a temporary perch for someone, say, waiting for a bus.

As a flood-control device, the structure creates a protective collar, or sleeve, around ventilating grates that are typically set flush to sidewalk level. The idea is not to completely waterproof the platforms and tracks below, but to mitigate a devastating cascade of water, silt, mud and debris.

As Dunlap notes, these grates are still grates — The MTA needs to circulate air through their system as well — and water will find its way underground. But by elevating the grating, the MTA can ensure that runoff on the sidewalks will head to storm drains and not underground subway tunnels. Eventually, the MTA will install these grates in other flood-prone areas as well. Sounds good, right?

Well, I love the grates, and I’m glad to see the MTA taking a proactive step to address this problem. I have two concerns, albeit minor ones. Will the stainless steel get too hot when exposed to direct sunlight in the summer? We’ve heard about parents complaining about playground mats that get too hot. What will happen the first time someone gets burned on the bench?

I’m also less than thrilled with the reduction in sidewalk. Personally, I feel that New York as a walking city doesn’t afford its residents with enough sidewalk space. In the grand tradition of Jane Jacobs, I support widening the sidewalks, but these grates do just the opposite.

Of course, we can’t have our cake and eat it too. We can’t have flood-proof subways and enough sidewalk space, and in this case, I’ll take dry subways and trains that aren’t delayed every time it rains.

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Skip Skipson October 1, 2008 - 9:10 am

In the winter, I won’t be surpised when the homeless start using these as beds, and why not? Doesn’t warm air flow out of these grates? (I am assuming yes, please correct me if I am wrong) Other that the concerns noted in the article, I think this a good idea from the MTA.

Alon Levy October 1, 2008 - 10:43 am

What’s wrong with the homeless using grates as beds?

Nick October 1, 2008 - 9:42 am

But can you skateboard on them?

Seriously though, I definitely agree that these are more aesthetically pleasing than the ol’ grates in the ground, but come at a cost of taking valuable sidewalk space. I know that whenever I walk in the city I invariably end up walking over those grates.

Gary October 1, 2008 - 12:09 pm

Agree on all points – these are definitely a step in the right direction and the aesthetics are great.

I agree we need more sidewalk space . . . there are a lot of blocks, especially in Manhattan, where they need to convert a street lane to broaden the ped space. I’m pleased to see them making some progress on that (Broadway, 34th St)

I think the impact of these grates on sidewalk space will be limited, given that they are only(?) being installed in flood-prone areas. And the trade off is worth it.

Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog » Blog Archive » Lower Manhattan grates to feature bike rakes October 1, 2008 - 1:24 pm

[…] 2nd Ave. Subway History « Just how great are the new subway grates? […]

Chris October 1, 2008 - 1:38 pm

Looks like they will bruise many shins. No more walking down the street reading a newspaper. As for how to have both dry subways and full sidewalks, its called proper civil engineering with drainage pumps if necessary.


Tceez October 1, 2008 - 5:27 pm

A system that pumps out 3 000 000 gallons of water ON A SUNNY DAY lacks proper engineering and pumps?

Chris October 2, 2008 - 2:07 pm

If it can’t handle a 10-year storm, then yes.

But more to the point, why would the drains around the grate lead to track-level? They should go straight to the pumps. Instead there are no drains around the grates at most locations. Brilliant!


Streetsblog » New MTA Grates Double as Seating, Bike Racks October 1, 2008 - 2:43 pm

[…] the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, and the Municipal Art Society). However, as Second Avenue Sagas pointed out after the first prototype made its appearance, the new designs will consume already […]

Cap'n Transit October 1, 2008 - 7:57 pm

Need more sidewalk space? Take a traffic lane.

Yomery June 12, 2009 - 9:30 am

I live in Queens and have been noticing these grates everywhere. These subway grates have become my biggest nightmare. Not only do they take walking space, in the already crowed NY sidewalks, but they caused difficulties when one tries to open one’s vehicle passenger side doors. Additionally, I witness how dangerous these can be. Yesterday was a rainy day and I saw a 4 year old child climbed a grate, fall and break his lips. This curious 5 year old though it would be fun to walk the wavy grates, without realizing the metal was wet and slippery. He slipped and felt flat on his face. I noticed his lip was cut and his face bloody.

I’m glad MTA is thinking of solutions, I don’t think this was a bright ideas thou!!!

Anon April 17, 2010 - 1:51 am

Good lesson for the five-year-old. He won’t be so stupid next time.

New raised storm grates earn architectural praise :: Second Ave. Sagas April 16, 2010 - 12:01 pm

[…] solve this problem, the authority proposed in late 2008 a reconceptualized subway grate that would also double as street furniture. By July of 2009, the $31 million flood-prevention plan […]


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