From The Archives

Think We Hate the Subways Now? At Least in 1977 It Only Cost 50 Cents

Plus ça Change Department: Forty-four years ago, Alexander Cockburn reported that riding the New York City subways was worse than hiding in the tunnels during the London Blitz


The Voice’s March 14, 1977, cover pulled no punches: why we hate the subways. Across four subsequent pages, writers Alexander Cockburn, Jack Newfield, and Timothy Crouse laid out the argument. Cockburn, leading off, compares riding Gotham’s subway system to when he was two years old and his parents would go into their neighborhood’s underground tube station in London as German planes dropped bombs on the city. The family would squat, he writes, with “other middle-class inhabitants of St. John’s Wood until the all-clear sounded.” He then moves forward three decades: “Traveling on the New York subway system is now one of the more frightful experiences Western civilization has to offer on a regular basis.” He gives a blow-by-blow account of a crowded, disjointed, and roughly hourlong commute from 96th Street to Union Square, concluding, “By now I am very highly motivated. I will work very hard so that I can make enough money to always travel by taxi, and so that I can pay for a good lawyer to defend me after I have kidnapped the senior members of the MTA and murdered them by throwing them onto the third rail.” He also points out the crime problem, noting a comment by the head of the Transit Authority, Harold Fisher: “He said the battle against crime in the subways is a ‘never-ending war against animals.’ Considering his life’s work appears to have been to turn everyone riding the subway into an animal, it would seem he has only himself to blame.”

While Cockburn asserts that “New Yorkers now travel to work on a mass-transit system that would cause a revolution in any Third World country,” Newfield digs into the numbers to reveal the lack of accountability among political leaders: “The fall of New York coincides with the rise of public authorities. The original unelected power broker, Robert Moses, imagined and created the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority in 1934. Today this empire of invisible bureaucracies numbers more than 200 and constitutes a fourth branch of state government.” Newfield’s article includes a rogues’ gallery of high officials who are failing the system, and a photo caption states, “The Voice will give 50 free tokens to the first person who catches any of these men riding the subway.” Just like today, the people charged with administering the subway rarely suffered the indignity of relying on it. Newfield provides a history on the mismanagement of the subway that is now only slightly more ancient history, but still as true: Fares go up, service goes down.

Finally, Timothy Crouse reports on riding the city’s bus lines. (He was no doubt assigned the task partly because he was author of a book critiquing the media coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign, The Boys on the Bus.) Crouse nails the bane of every bus rider in New York City — waiting seemingly forever for the number X bus, while three number Z’s come by your stop. Crouse goes on to say, however, that he still likes to ride the bus, even if you have to wait long for one, because once you’re a regular, “you get to know some of the personnel, like the driver who always plays jazz on his radio, not too loud, just enough to calm the winos.”