Home Subway History Review: Traveling through The Routes Not Taken

Review: Traveling through The Routes Not Taken

by Benjamin Kabak

9780823253692 The Routes Not Taken, Joseph Raskin’s thoroughly detailed an illuminating look at the various unbuilt subway routes that litter New York City history, begins with a simple premise: It is amazing that our subway system, in its present form, flaws and all, exists in the first place. We spend a lot of time imagining fantasy maps, pouring over details from lost and forgotten extensions and trying to catch a glimpse of the past’s future provisions. We never think about how we got to where we are today.

After Raskin’s first chapter though, reality sets in. While the subway system somehow encompasses 468 stations and 722 track miles, the more tantalizing elements are those lines and extensions that never saw the light of day. The D train, for instance, ends at a stub tunnel at 205th St. that was supposed to be the Burke Ave. subway. Meanwhile, in Queens, the mystery of 76th St. runs deep on the Internet, and plans to send trains to College Point or even the Nassau County line remain a relic of the past.

I’d urge any student of New York City history to read Raskin’s book. At times, it gets lost in the details as the author charts yet another community group meeting or business association that fights for a subway line. But those details are what makes this book so vital. New Yorkers fought for subway lines everywhere. They fought for subway lines down Utica and Nostrand Avenues; they fought for subway lines up and down the East Side. Raskin tracks each and every one of these fights, meetings, politicians’ positions and the myriad plans released by the Board of Transportation, the Board of Estimate and everyone else with a stake in the fight.

What’s most telling to me about Raskin’s book are how so many of the themes resonant today. The biggest recurring problem is, of course, NIMBYism. We know and hate NIMBYism today, and the last 100 years of New York City history were no different. NIMBYs fought long and hard against elevated lines that, even 80 years ago, were a much cheaper way to extend the subway system. NIMBYs are why the East Side has been a near-transit desert since the 2nd and 3rd Avenue Els were torn down.

But then some NIMBYs fought against underground lines too. Some groups wanted stations and routing shifted one or two avenues north, south, east or west. Others feared a few years of construction would disrupt street-level business. It was the ultimate in short-sightedness as today, and for decades, neighborhoods with subway lines are far better off than neighborhoods that successfully fought against them.

Beyond the NIMBYs though were the deep-seated institutional problems that affected transit expansion. I found Raskin giving Robert Moses to many excuses toward the end of the book, but the man both threw up barriers to transit and took money away from it. He knew how to get his projects funded while both the BOE and BOT couldn’t deliver money for that Burke Ave. subway in the Bronx. Meanwhile, whenever a new subway extension would inch closer to reality, an interborough warfare would break out. The Queens Borough President would bemoan expenditures in the Bronx while the Staten Island delegation wanted its cross-Narrows subway before a Utica Ave. line would see the light of day. Ultimately, this fighting is why it took years for the old New York, Westchester and Boston Railway to become the 5 train’s Dyre Ave. line and why only a segment of the LIRR’s Rockaway Beach Branch is part of the subway.

Finally, Raskin analyzes the financial realities that plagued the city as well. He dives into the controversy surrounding the 1951 bond issue. Hundreds of millions of dollars that were supposed fund a Second Ave. Subway went instead of modernizing an aging system. But the real problem was the fare. Since subway fares were so politicized, no one could stomach the blowback of raising the fares. By the time the city discarded the nickel, the subways were operating at a crushing loss, and the hope of using proceeds to fund any subsequent system extension were dashed. We dreamed big but never with any money behind it.

So we return to the idea of our system today. It’s a marvel that it exists as it does and works as it does. But we need to move forward. If New York is going to grow, the subway must grow with it, and we know, from Raskin’s work, that the plans are out there if we dare to dream big enough.

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Michael K February 12, 2014 - 1:03 am

Hopefully the fate keeps rising while we inch towards full system automation.

The subway may turn into a slush fund that way.

John T February 12, 2014 - 8:13 am

So true! But the 20 year plan just released by the MTA is too timid, and where are today’s community groups pushing for subway extensions? Anyone in Co-op city want a #6 stop, or extending the E or J to SE Queens? No politician will take the lead for work that won’t be finished until they are out of office, which is why the MTA’s role is to provide long-run goals.

Bolwerk February 12, 2014 - 1:21 pm

I’m always astounded by how anti-subway (and anti-rail in general) modern transit advocates can be.

SEAN February 12, 2014 - 2:54 pm

It relates to the falisy that BRT is the one size solution to all transit problems – even those who are anti transit.

Bolwerk February 12, 2014 - 4:07 pm

Think that’s more a symptom than the disease though. In 2004, the rage was still all monorails-monorails-monorails.

But it’s generally forgotten that the Bush Administration that made a major push for BRT to undermine rail.

Michael K February 12, 2014 - 4:43 pm

as Jarrett Walker says, Stop the vehicle fetishes.

bob5 February 13, 2014 - 10:46 am


Use rail only when rail is appropriate and funding is available, otherwise BRT is often a better solution. Even when BRT isn’t a perfect solution, it’s substantially better than nothing.

Anon256 February 13, 2014 - 8:05 pm

BRT is often worse than nothing, for example when it’s built by paving over a rail corridor, or when bus lanes are used to justify highway expansion and then converted into general traffic lanes (benefiting cars and undermining transit). Of course, rail can be worse than nothing too, for example when money is spent to replace a bus route with a slower and less frequent mixed-traffic streetcar. There is no substitute for competent planning decisions.

Billy G February 14, 2014 - 1:03 pm


so selfish

much hate

ride motorcycle

Nathanael February 16, 2014 - 4:04 pm

Anon256 is correct. Example: Pittsburgh paved over an existing railroad right-of-way to build a busway. It was very expensive, but much less successful than expected.

Worse example: the space for the second track on the *extremely popular* Metrolink San Bernadino Line in the Los Angeles area is wasted by the *unsuccessful* El Monte Busway.

SEAN February 12, 2014 - 9:13 pm

But it’s generally forgotten that the Bush Administration that made a major push for BRT to undermine rail.

I actually remember the speach Bush JR gave on the topic. The take away was when BRT fails, we’ll just take it away since we already new it would fail.

Jerrold February 12, 2014 - 11:03 am

You meant the SECOND and Third Ave. Els, right?

Benjamin Kabak February 12, 2014 - 11:12 am

Yes, and I made the correction. But please do email errors instead of leaving them in the comments. I would really appreciate it.

John-2 February 12, 2014 - 2:20 pm

To be fair, there was just over a mile of First Avenue el, from 23rd to Houston Street, in order to make it more accessible to those on the Lower East Side, where by the time you get to Houston, Second Avenue is almost a mile west of the East River.

al February 12, 2014 - 12:32 pm

I wonder why the BOT and IRT didn’t consider running electric trolley buses on the 2nd or 3rd Ave El structure. They’re much quieter (65db) than steel structure elevated trains (90-100db), and especially through the curves (105db). Think of them as precursors to rubber tire metro.

Stephen Smith February 13, 2014 - 1:52 pm

Real estate interests really wanted those elevated structures to come down. (Notice how all of the larger-than-tenement buildings on 2nd and 3rd Aves. are post-war?)

al February 13, 2014 - 4:05 pm

I understand real estate interest (and auto and trucking) in taking down the 2nd and 3rd Ave Els, but why didn’t IRT or BOT consider using existing technology to buy time by eliminating noise and vibration issues. It was well known by 1910 that even with the electrification, the circa 1885 Els were a serious nuisance to local residents and businesses.

Anon256 February 13, 2014 - 9:29 pm

I think early trolleybuses didn’t have the capacity or reliability for such heavy use, and by the time the technology improved the push against els was stronger. Also, the cost of installing pavement or other road surface on the el structures would have been substantial (if even structurally possible), and the els shared tracks with subway trains in the Bronx and Queens which would have no longer been possible.

Nathanael February 16, 2014 - 4:06 pm

The noise and vibration issues were largely due to the underlying steel structure. They would have been pretty bad even with buses running on top of the structure. The places old steel Els have been retrofitted have generally wrapped the steel beams with concrete, which does change things.

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