Downtown Train

6 Nov


Photo by DMT

I love public transportation.

When J. and I visited New York City three and a half years ago, I fell in love with the subway system.  There is something so amazing about hopping on the subway with millions of other people and being transported from one part of the city to another with speed and ease.

Photo by DMT

I’ve fed my fascination with the NYC subway by listening to the Bowery Boys podcasts, which detail the history of mass transit in New York City, and this has made me love it even more.

The story of Alfred Ely Beach and his pneumatic transit system captured my attention.  In 1869, Beach came up with the idea of utilizing the pneumatic technology used to move letters and packages to transport people from one location to another and began construction on what was supposed to be a small tunnel for pneumatic tubes.  He built a larger tunnel that could accommodate human traffic, and opened his block long system in February of 1870.  Believing that an extended system of transit had potential,  Beach lobbied the New York legislature between 1870 and 1873 for permission to build a city-wide pneumatic “people mover,” but his idea was opposed by politically connected property owners on Broadway, Alexander Turney Stewart and John Jacob Astor II, who felt the construction process would damage buildings and interfere with surface traffic.

“Beach operated his demonstration railway from February 1870 to April 1873. It had one station in the basement of Devlin’s clothing store, a building at the southwest corner of Broadway and Warren St, and ran for a total of about 300 feet, first around a curve to the center of Broadway and then straight under the center of Broadway to the south side of Murray St” [Scientific American 2010].  [Interesting side note: Beach published the blueprints for the railway system in the 1870 issue of Scientific American, a magazine he and Orson Desaix Munn bought in 1850 for $800.00 – that’s $23,000 in today’s dollars according to the consumer price index].

Beach lost support for his system when William Tweed’s Tammany Hall political machine was disgraced in 1871.  The Panic of 1873 dried up any possibility of funding for the project, and by that time other investors had begun building the elevated rail system that would become the 19th century’s answer to transportation issue in New York City.

Photo by DMT

The history of the subway system adds to my fascination with the actual experience of riding it.  Every weekday over 5 million people ride the subway, and this excites me because this means that there are hundreds of opportunities every day to meet new and interesting people on trips up – or down – town!  I imagine the conversations, the connections, the adventures, and the new discoveries made possible simply by stepping on a subway car!

Ever the pragmatist, D. has reminded me that this also means the possibility of “meeting” the germs of those 5 million people.  He keeps me grounded in reality and cognizant of the fact that my pre-move to do list will need to include a flu shot and investment in lots of hand sanitizer.

Photo by DMT

Given that my experience with the subway system is extremely limited, I’m fairly sure that I’ve romanticized what it will be like.  I know Rod Stewart will not be down in the tunnels late at night pleading to know whether he’ll see me tonight.  I also know that it’s highly unlikely that eye contact with a stranger will lead to love at first sight like in a Savage Garden video.  However, if I have romanticized it, I’m okay with that.  I think the New York City subway system could use a little romance.

And with 5 million daily riders, the possibilities are seemingly endless.


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