Having lived in New York City for three years, I experienced at a the metropolitan subway system at a visceral level as did millions of others then (1980’s) and since. Back then I remember most vividly subway cars completely painted with graffiti (long since remedied with the the introduction on stainless steel, easily washable cars) and wearing a wool suit during the summer in a steaming subway cars that either had no/broken air conditioning. I remember thinking then is this what became of the most extensive, advanced subway system in the world?

For what it’s worth, having returned to NYC several times over the years, my take is things have vastly improved since I lived there. Still, this historical perspective is fascinating and helps provide insights as to how we got here. I didn’t see any recommendations, short of their mentioning the RER network in Paris connecting the ‘burbs with the city (my wife Robin and I also lived there when I was in grad school, so I have a perspective on that – generally quite positive). All told, I haven’t yet given up on the most extensive, amazing subway system anywhere on the planet.

In the first decades of the 20th century, New York City experienced an unprecedented infrastructure boom. Iconic bridges, opulent railway terminals, and much of what was then the world’s largest underground and rapid transit network were constructed in just 20 years. Indeed, that subway system grew from a single line in 1904 to a network hundreds of miles long by the 1920s. It spread rapidly into undeveloped land across upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs, bringing a wave of apartment houses alongside.

Then it stopped. Since December 16, 1940, New York has not opened another new subway line, aside from a handful of small extensions and connections. Unlike most other great cities, New York’s rapid transit system remains frozen in time: Commuters on their iPhones are standing in stations scarcely changed from nearly 80 years ago.

Why did New York abruptly stop building subways after the 1940s? And how did a construction standstill that started nearly 80 years ago lead to the present moment of transit crisis?

Many other world cities also slowed their pace of subway construction in the early postwar years. They, too, succumbed to the appeal of the automobile, or struggled with debt and destruction accumulated during the Depression and Second World War. But by the 1960s, this had changed. London opened two new Underground lines in the 1960s and 1970s. Paris began its vast RER project to connect all of its commuter rail lines, linking the rapidly growing suburbs with the historic core.

By contrast, New York’s subway system had deteriorated to such a dismal state that nearly all available funds had to be diverted to basic maintenance and overhaul. The city’s declining population and fiscal troubles made expansion nearly impossible.

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