Home International Subways Is Bizarro New York Filled with Flying Cars?

Is Bizarro New York Filled with Flying Cars?

by Bill Bahng Boyer
A Viable Subway Alternative?

A Viable Subway Alternative?

Last week on the NBC Bay Area blog, on the heels of the resolution of a labor dispute between the BART administration and labor workers, Owen Thomas asked how San Francisco would be different today if the BART system were never constructed. Thomas’s speculation on an alternative reality for the Bay Area is replete with newer, faster forms of transportation that reach the most concentrated and important centers of the region. While the plausibility of the image that Thomas paints is debatable (and debated in the post’s comments), it leads one to wonder what a subway-less New York would look like.

Clearly, New York is in a very different situation from San Francisco, due to the fact that much of New York’s growth followed – and was a result of – the construction of new subway lines in the early twentieth century. Perhaps streetcars and elevated trains would have stretched the city limits to something resembling their current dimensions. Maybe in the absence of a subway system Robert Moses would have had a greater impact on the shaping of the city? In such a situation New York City proper might be smaller with more surrounding suburbs and highways crossing the island of Manhattan. Or was a New York subway inevitable, and would have been built in the 1960s following federal support for urban transportation, much in the same way the BART and D.C. Metro were constructed?

What do you think New York would be like today if the subway weren’t constructed in 1904? Share your imaginings in the comments below. [via The Overhead Wire]

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john August 5, 2009 - 8:20 am

I knowwww this is picky, but when you say ‘it begs the question of what a subway-less New York would look like’, that phrasing enters my brain and bounces around mushing everything up in there.

Does it not raise the question? In what sense does it petition first principles?

Bill Bahng Boyer August 5, 2009 - 8:43 am

Thanks for the pointer, John. I’m never sure how to use the phrase, so I guess it’s best to avoid it entirely. I’ve edited the post.

Peter August 5, 2009 - 9:30 am

This question is akin to “What if the Confederacy had won the Civil War?”
If I want fiction I can read other blogs

Boris August 5, 2009 - 9:58 am

Parts of New York would look like First Avenue in Manhattan and parts like Staten Island, depending on when they were inhabited (before or after 1960’s zoning laws). Both locations have poor subway access today.

Nathanael August 5, 2009 - 10:30 am

It would have had a lot more Elevateds. That’s the only thing which can be said for sure.

Mike August 5, 2009 - 11:06 am

Yeah, clearly Els, like Chicago.

Or is the question what NY would be like without any grade-separated rail transit at all?

Kid Twist August 5, 2009 - 11:23 am

Half of Manhattan would be developed and the other half would be parking for the developed half. Also, lots of expressways and ramps.

anonymous August 5, 2009 - 8:24 pm


anonymous August 5, 2009 - 8:25 pm

Keep in mind tho that parking in NY is generally contained within buildings, so you won’t necessarily see the difference, but there will be a lot more space used for cars.

In any case, this is a moot issue, since without efficient public transit NYC wouldn’t really exist in the first place.

James D August 5, 2009 - 12:13 pm

Probably Midtown would be more oriented towards the rivers, with development falling off in the center.

MichaelB August 5, 2009 - 5:54 pm

With no subway, the pressure to build freeways bridges and tunnels would probably have been all the stronger. So projects like the Cross-Manhattan expressway would probably have been built. This, along with the parking needed in Manhattan would probably eat up so much space that the metro area would either have fewer people or the jobs would’ve been pushed into the outer boroughs and Jersey. Best case, a smaller less populous Manhattan that retains the essential characteristics combined with more and larger central business districts in surrounding areas. This may look like LA does, though with a larger downtown at the center. And of course rivers.

herenthere August 5, 2009 - 7:24 pm

Better planning but not as popular? More sprawl?

Building 11 August 5, 2009 - 11:51 pm

What if the 2nd Avenue El hadn’t been torn down, with the tracks going over the Queensboro Bridge, connecting with the Flushing and Astoria lines?

That’s always been one of my major “what if” questions. My other big one is “What would have happened if Yogi Berra had started George Stone in Game 6 against Oakland?


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