The New York City Subway is the lifeblood of the city, yet it seems perpetually embroiled in crisis; though it’s currently caught in a terrible backlog of deferred maintenance, the city can’t function without it, as the mounting panic over next year’s L train shutdown makes clear. Yet as a circulatory system, it leaves certain limbs significantly undernourished. Why was there only one line for the whole East Side of Manhattan until the Second Avenue line finally opened last year? Why does the G train wind so lonely and awkwardly from Brooklyn to Queens? Why are the downtown Brooklyn lines such a chaotic thicket of difficult transfers, while other densely populated parts of the borough, like East Flatbush, are devoid of service?
The answers are embedded in the subway’s historic origins. While you may know that the subway opened in 1904, that’s not the whole picture. Though 1904 marked the opening of the first subterranean line — a lightning bolt slashing through Manhattan, consisting of the uptown half of what’s now the 1/2/3 trains and the downtown half of the 4/5/6, linked by the current 42nd Street Shuttle — by that time there had already been trains riding on elevated structures above city streets for nearly forty years. Initially powered by steam locomotives or experimental cable traction, by the early twentieth century the els looked essentially like modern-day subway lines, with high platforms for level boarding trains powered by electric third rails (though the train cars were still mostly wood). Some of those elevated lines — including parts of the M and J/Z in Brooklyn and Queens — are still in use today. And those vanished lines are crucial for understanding why today’s subway system goes where it goes — and why its gaps are where they are.
The nineteenth-century rail transit scene in New York was messy, and involved, at one point, Boss Tweed blocking the development of a pneumatic tube subway to encourage the construction of elevated rail lines in Manhattan instead. As the turn of the twentieth century approached, most of the el lines and their various operating companies were gobbled up by two corporations: the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), which controlled lines in Manhattan and the Bronx, and the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT), which dominated Brooklyn and had a few lines poking into the still largely undeveloped borough of Queens.
The IRT was specifically created by financier August Belmont Jr. to operate the subway the city wanted to build down the length of Manhattan, after Belmont’s construction company won the right to build it. At the same time, Belmont’s company acquired the rights from financier Jay Gould to operate the already extant Manhattan elevated lines up Second, Third, Sixth, and Ninth avenues. So when the subway opened in 1904 it could operate both together as a single integrated system.
The IRT was, in essence, a set of tentacles running the length of Manhattan, with some of the tips extending up into the Bronx and a single prong crossing the East River into downtown Brooklyn. At this point there were three lines on the East Side — the southern half of today’s Lexington Avenue subway, plus those Second and Third avenue els.
The BRT system included a since-demolished line running the length of Fulton Street; a thicket of elevated lines in downtown Brooklyn; and old steam railroad excursion lines out to Coney Island that had only been partially modernized. BRT trains originally had terminals at ferry piers along the East River, but by 1912 service just barely made it into Manhattan across the Williamsburg and Brooklyn bridges. (Yes, the Brooklyn Bridge used to carry subway lines to a BRT terminal at Park Row, across the street from City Hall.)
The 1912 date was key because with it came the Dual Contracts, a huge milestone in which the city used its muscle and its cash to shape the growing rail network and encourage more construction into the outer boroughs. The idea was that the city would put up the bulk of the money for the lines and then lease them to the IRT and BRT to operate; much of the contributions from the private companies would take the form of equipment and facilities. This would offload the risks and bureaucracy of day-to-day operations onto the private companies, though it would also allow them to reap the profits.
What followed was a flurry of construction activity that tripled the amount of track in the city in only a decade. By 1920, the IRT in Manhattan had taken on its familiar H shape, with extensions deep into Queens and Brooklyn; the BRT, meanwhile, featured a subway running from Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn all the way up Broadway in Manhattan and then across the river again into Astoria. And all those elevated lines were still operating as well.
But the end product had its quirks. The city ended up with not one but two systems, operated by rival companies who refused to cooperate with each other more than the bare minimum required. At the very few stations where you could transfer from one system to another, passengers had to pay a second fare to change trains. And forget about sharing track: The two systems used trains of slightly different sizes, making joint lines difficult to impossible. (This remains true today: The numbered lines are the old IRT system, which is why their cars are a little skinnier and shorter than those on the lettered lines.)
Amid resentment that the two private companies were more focused on fighting each other than serving their riders, the city decided to further complicate matters by adding a third subway system. The companies themselves didn’t make much money, in part because the city refused to allow them to raise their fares above 5 cents; the BRT actually went bankrupt in 1919 (in the wake of a train crash that killed more than ninety people), emerging reorganized as the Brooklyn–Manhattan Transit Corporation, or BMT. But there was still widespread belief that corporate management was lining its pockets at public expense.
Then there were the elevated lines. If you live near the current elevated structures in the outer boroughs, you know how noisy they are. The old-school els weren’t quite as bad, because many of them still ran quieter wooden train cars. But in ultra-dense Manhattan, real estate developers, who a generation earlier had loved the way the els opened up the northern reaches of the island to development, now saw them as a particular nuisance. Still, they carried tons of passengers, and the two private companies that operated them had 999-year leases on the rights to use them, so there was little incentive for them to heavily invest in underground alternatives.
The pivotal figure of the next phase was John F. Hylan, who had worked as a BRT engineer while studying law; legend had it he was fired for running his train too fast. When he became mayor in 1918, he began planning the doom of his former employers, convinced they were growing fat on their monopoly earnings and that a public corporation could reap those benefits for the city. (Hylan was also a promoter of bus transit on surface streets, earning him occasional villain status among streetcar conspiracy theorists.) In 1925, construction began on a new set of lines, to be operated by the city itself, and known as the Independent City-Owned Subway System, or IND. The new system, which opened in phases during the 1930s, was entirely underground and had stations that were palatial compared to those of the IRT and BMT.
While some of the new system ran to previously unserved parts of the city, this wave of construction largely aimed to undermine the private lines that were already there by providing a faster underground alternative to the slower, rickety els; Hylan was convinced that the IRT and BMT would be content to ride things out to the end of their contracts until 1952 unless pushed. The Sixth Avenue Line (today the B/D/F/M in Manhattan) made the IRT’s Sixth Avenue Elevated obsolete; the old line was torn down in 1938, and there was a persistent rumor that the scrap metal was sold to Japan for war use. The linked Eighth Avenue and Fulton lines (today the A/C in Manhattan and Brooklyn) were such a marvel they prompted Duke Ellington to write a hit song in their honor; they killed off the IRT’s Ninth Avenue Elevated and the BMT’s elevated Fulton Line, respectively.
As the end of the 1930s approached, the IRT and BMT threw in the towel and agreed to let the city buy them out, unifying the subways as a single system.
What comes next is one of the great tragedies of the New York City subway system. The city had been planning a second round of IND expansion even before the first set of lines went into service. The initial 1929 plan was delayed by the Depression, but as the finishing touches were being put on unification in 1939, a second iteration of the scheme was developed, with new subways to replace the remaining elevated lines and expand service further into the outer boroughs. The various plans the city developed over this decade have since become known as the Second System, although strictly speaking it was never a single organized plan.
The Second System was breathtaking in scope, but for the most part it never happened. New York hit a financial downward spiral that made such ambitions impossible; the biggest project that was actually realized was the crosstown line at 53rd Street that crosses the river to Queens. But when you look at the Second System map, suddenly some of the awkward aspects of the current subway make sense, as the missing lines would have filled in the gap that today’s riders can feel as they make their way around the system’s deficiencies:
Instead of expanding, the system contracted for most of the remainder of the twentieth century. As noted, the old el lines had carried wooden train cars, and they needed upgrades to carry the subway trains; in the tightened postwar financial situation, that wasn’t considered a worthwhile investment for the most part, and so the downtown Brooklyn els were demolished by the 1960s. And the benefits of a combined system weren’t as easy to achieve as the city had hoped. Internally, the MTA still refers to each line as IND, IRT, or BMT, and it’s taken heroic engineering efforts in some cases just to create what should’ve been obvious transfers between the original systems. It wasn’t only physical infrastructure that resisted attempts at change: When in 1968 the city finally opened a connection in Lower Manhattan that allowed Brooklyn BMT trains to travel on Manhattan IND lines and vice versa, commuters found the service changes so disruptive and confusing that in only a few years most of them were eliminated again. The tunnel went unused in revenue service until 2010, by which time almost everyone had finally forgotten that the subway used to be three different systems.
In 2017, after ten years of construction, a three-station stub of the Second Avenue Subway finally opened on the Upper East Side. The first brand-new line in decades, it was internally designated by the MTA as part of the long-vanished IND system. There is as yet no start date for its next phase. Plans to expand the new line down the length of the island aren’t funded yet, but at least they exist and are somewhat complete. There’s nothing even on the MTA’s wish list about expanding into corners of the outer boroughs where subway service was just around the corner eighty years ago. How bad is it? Where once the IRT and IND competed for the Bronx’s business, now the borough is pinning its hopes on Metro North — truly, a long way to fall.