Home Subway History Remembering a subway on the rise

Remembering a subway on the rise

by Benjamin Kabak

Today, I hopped onto a J train at Chambers St. and took it to Broad St. to run an errand at lunch time. Even though the cavernous Chambers St. is in bad need of a rehab, I thought nothing of waiting on a mostly empty platform for a train I wouldn’t have dared ride alone (were I old enough) 20 years ago. The subways, as long-time New Yorkers are wont to say, have come a long way in a few decades and are no longer as closely associated with crime and a lack of safety as they once were.

New York’s subway renaissance has had two driving factors: capital investment pushing the system toward a state of better repair and more fare-payment and unlimited ride options that encourage ridership at all hours. By making the subways relatively cheaper for everyone and improving travel conditions and safety, suddenly, mass transit saw its ridership in New York City climb to near-record heights. Although a recent recession has slowed the ridership growth, the subways are safer and generally more reliable today than they have been in decades.

Yet, a storm is brewing as the MTA wants to scale back on unlimited ride MetroCards. While we don’t yet know how a 90-ride cap on 30-day cards will change ridership, the move hearkens back to another era, one when people weren’t keen on paying for every ride. At their Metropolis blog, the Wall Street Journal

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digamma July 20, 2010 - 5:52 pm

“New York’s subway renaissance has had two driving factors: capital investment pushing the system toward a state of better repair and more fare-payment and unlimited ride options that encourage ridership at all hours. ”

Wait, what? What about the massive drop in crime above ground?

Josh K July 20, 2010 - 6:07 pm

Is it just me, that when I read articles from around the time of the early days of the subway, I seriously half expect a quote from Gene Russianoff. It seems like he’s been a transit advocate FOREVER.

Cap'n Transit July 20, 2010 - 11:59 pm

He was the one who convinced Mayor LaGuardia to hold out for so long on the nickel fare.

Red July 22, 2010 - 12:15 am

Ha! Seriously though, Russianoff has been at the Straphangers Campaign since 1978, so you are not far off Josh.

John Paul N. July 21, 2010 - 2:08 am

I have seen the video you posted here before, on the MTA’s website. What it reminds me now is the graffiti subculture of that time is now being memorialized in books, websites, etc. While I don’t mind seeing these books in Barnes & Noble per se (1st Amendment), I question the timing of the publication of these books. What effect on the MTA will it serve to have those books coming out now? Is the graffiti art something we should glamorize at a point in time in MTA history similar to when it first started?

(Personally, I do think I’m overreacting, and I don’t completely agree of the problem in the affirmative, but I think some people who don’t ride public transit will think this argument is not a stretch.)

Kai B July 21, 2010 - 7:33 am

It’s probably true the MTA didn’t achieve all their goals by 2006 (although the article doesn’t exactly say what the detailed benchmarks were so we can’t say for sure).

However, with the big exception of the stations, the MTA did a pretty good job. Safety (granted this was mostly non-MTA) and car cleanliness (we’re nitpicking now by 1988 standards) are pretty great. I don’t understand much about track maintenance but it seems to me most if not all is in pretty decent shape. Trains don’t have to go 10 mph over sections of bad track that aren’t fixed for years.

Stations: Most of these are still pretty bad. Most are usable and the MTA does a decent job with some cleaning (albeit not throughout the day), but we’re talking aging materials here that need to be replaced.

Retro Look at Graffiti in the Subways [Video] - Bowery Boogie | A Lower East Side Chronicle July 21, 2010 - 2:47 pm

[…] Avenue Sagas points us to this retro educational video about the consequences of graffiti writing in the subways.  […]

Daniel Howard July 21, 2010 - 3:45 pm

Bonus points for the synthesizers.

dequeued July 21, 2010 - 5:12 pm

This blows my mind.
I’m too young to remember ever seeing graffiti on the subway.

Seeing pictures from 20 years ago is like seeing New York from an evil alternative mirror-universe, it’s really funny.

I lived in Williamsburg for two years, and, to me, the J train was always completely clean and safe, if a little loud and it did take it’s time crawling over the wmsburg bridge.

Jill July 21, 2010 - 9:49 pm

The video game style music in that video takes me back.

If someone hadn’t mentioned that there was no graffiti on the subway I wouldn’t have known, it is burned into my brain as being everywhere all the time. Recently I watched the Taking of Pelham 123, made in 1974 and there wasn’t a spot of graffiti anywhere in the film. Does that mean we had subway graffiti for only around 30 years?

Kai B July 22, 2010 - 9:15 am

If I remember correctly from “Style Wars”, a movie about the graffiti age, it started around 1970, and was wiped out by the late 1980s (the WSJ 1988 article says it’s almost impossible to find). So we’re looking at around 20 years.


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