From Horses to WiFi: The Evolution of NYC’s Subway

From Horses to WiFi: The Evolution of NYC’s Subway

There’s no more effective method of moving millions of New Yorkers around the city on a daily basis than the NYC subway. Even though it may not always run smoothly, it’s still the best way to get from Riverdale to Rockaway and everywhere in between. A look at the evolution of our mass transit system reveals an interesting journey all it’s own.

The origins of mass transit in NYC date all the way back to 1827, when a 12 seat stagecoach called “Accommodation” ran a short route along Broadway from Battery Park to Bleecker Street. Within a few years, the New York and Harlem Railroad had taken it a step further, laying down track for horse-drawn carts that covered 27 routes in Manhattan along Third, Fourth, Sixth and Eighth Avenues.

Of course, mass transit wasn’t the subway until it went underground. The first below-surface trains in NYC were actually part of a short-lived pneumatic system built in 1870, with trains pushed along a 312-foot tunnel by fan! Of course, this wasn’t feasible for a city-spanning operation, and it wasn’t until the opening of Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) in 1904 that New York had proper subway trains suitable for true citywide travel.

IRT service expanded quickly, covering all boroughs but Staten Island within a decade, but its tracks didn’t quite reach every corner of the city. Competing systems to fill those gaps popped up in the years to follow: the privately-owned Brooklyn Rapid Transit (later known as Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit or the BMT) in 1923, and the city-run Independent Rapid Transit Railroad (IND) in 1932.

These systems, while connecting with each other at some stations, were not folded into one until 1953 under the new Transit Authority, later renamed the Metropolitan Transit Authority or MTA. MTA now stands as a catchall term for every subway line, but talk to some old New Yorkers and they’ll probably still point you towards the IRT or BMT when offering up directions. Some old habits die hard.

Two years after the merger, the once ubiquitous above-ground lines in Manhattan were gone for good, though extensive elevated tracks still cover parts of the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. In fact, though the subway is probably best known as an underground phenomenon, a full 40% of the system runs on elevated tracks, reaching a height of up to 88 feet at the Smith-9th Street F and G station.

By the 1970s and 80s the system was well established but aging fast. Concerns about safety, financial instability, and a citywide population decline caused ridership to hit historic lows, and observers wondered what could be done. Graffiti covered nearly every car in the system, and outside of rush hour the subway was considered to be too dangerous and decrepit for even the typical New Yorker.

It was clear that the subway was in a crisis, but in true NYC fashion it was able to bounce back after a massive infusion of capital fixed some (but not all) of the subterranean system’s issues. Today, the subway and the city as a whole are as safe as they’ve ever been, but the MTA is still plagued by delays, overcrowding and heaps of unsatisfied riders. MTA leadership is still fumbling for an answer, and even Commissioner Joe Lhota has openly declared “it ain’t gonna be easy.” Even still, when New Yorkers need to get somewhere, more often than not the MTA will be going their way, even if the ride is slower than they might prefer.

Today’s subway system serves 472 stations over 665 miles of track on 26 different lines, a far more accommodating service than the horse-drawn carriages of centuries past. Tech advancements like WiFi and cellular service along with recently installed real-time arrival signs in every station mark our modern subway as a marvel for the 21st Century, with further improvements planned for modernizing and improving the system in the decades to come.

While it may be far from perfect, the NYC Subway has certainly come a long way. For the 1.7 billion riders swiping through the turnstiles every year, a look back shows there’s reason to be optimistic about the future.


The City Beneath NYC is About to Surface

The City Beneath NYC is About to Surface

Every day on the streets of New York City, 8 million people (and counting) are making moves–enjoying and enduring all the aspects of big city living. Manhattan’s famed gridded streets are the framework through which an almost unthinkably massive number of people conduct their work and their personal business. In a city that consistently reaches unfathomable heights, there’s a below-the-surface infrastructure that makes such movement and growth possible.

Keeping everything moving along is an intricate network of utilities, pipes, wires, tunnels, and overall a huge amount of invisible real estate, entirely underground. Without the plumbing, electric, transportation and other services made possible by the underground grid, the modern city simply wouldn’t be possible. This system lives in the shadows, and we can’t live without it. However, it’s not as streamlined a system as one might imagine.

While the above-ground streets are strictly managed and organized by city planners and zoning ordinances, it might surprise some to learn that in comparison, the underground is a bit of a free-for-all. Hurricane Sandy threw into light the fact that the subterranean city is unmapped by any central authority, making coordinated efforts to improve the system extremely difficult.

Each authority and utility that works below the surface has their own set of information that can sometimes prove unreliable, as unexpected finds below ground often force construction crews to improvise in dangerous conditions, further compounding the confusion and making the job more treacherous than it needs to be. It’s to the detriment of lasting city improvement and worker safety that a detailed picture of exactly what’s beneath our feet is so hard to come by.

That might not be the case forever. Consultant Alan Leidner, working with infotech consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, has spearheaded a project to collect all that disparate data from utilities, contractors, and city government and more to create a single unified map of New York’s underground.

This project might end up being a huge money saver for NYC. According to Bloomberg, digging mistakes damage our underground infrastructure to the tune of $300 million per year in repairs and lost time. The sooner Leidner and company can plot out the tangle under the streets, crews will be able to work more efficiently and quickly–something construction-wary New Yorkers of all neighborhoods will be able to celebrate.

A firsthand dive into this underground is usually reserved for transit workers, utility repairmen, and the odd amateur spelunker (which we do not recommend, as it’s dangerous and against the law). Once Leidner’s map is complete, however, a precise guide to what’s beneath your feet will give NYC a fascinating look at what truly keeps the city functioning, and holds the potential to make the city smarter than ever.

The map is part of a larger project dealing with Geospatial Informational Systems (or GIS). GIS describes a computerized data system that can collect and interpret data about how spaces are utilized, a sort of smart GPS. The potential for this project to aid in smart city design means it’ll carry benefits around the world, not just in New York’s neighborhoods. It’s likely Leidner’s work will one day lead to faster emergency response times, better traffic flow, and maybe even better public transportation both above ground and below.

Since the 1800s, NYC residents have looked to subway maps to help them traverse the sometimes-overwhelming city streets. Thanks to high tech computer surveying combined with old fashioned data collection, tomorrow’s New Yorkers will benefit from a new map, one that they won’t have to see in order to help them get around the city more efficiently. For a system that’s hidden from view, it’s only appropriate.

NYC’s Century on Top of the World

NYC’s Century on Top of the World

It’s not breaking news the NYC has some of the most historic and impressive skyscrapers in the world. It may surprise you, however, that for nearly 100 years this city was home to a continual chain of world’s tallest buildings, each one overtaking the last Manhattan superstructure. These 5 towering edifices each gave way to the next pinnacle of city and worldwide construction across two centuries until the rest of the world eventually caught up in the 1970s. Over those shining years, there was nowhere a person could rise higher than in New York City.


New York World Building

Years as world’s tallest: 1890-1894

Before the iconic Flatiron building showed the world the potential of constructing with steel, downtown’s Park Row hosted the world’s tallest (non-cathedral) building for four late 19th Century years: The New York World Building. These headquarters of the now-defunct eponymous newspaper towered above it’s lower Manhattan neighbors, and was the first structure to overtake the spire of Trinity Church, previously the area’s vertical apex.



Singer Building

Years as world’s tallest: 1908-1909

Before long, steel-frame construction pushed the old height limits into the stratosphere, and the age of skyscrapers was underway. One early NYC example that survives only in memory is the Singer Building, adjacent to what is now the World Trade Center complex in the Financial District. While it was only the world’s tallest for one year, this structure named for the sewing machine manufacturer stood until 1968, when it made way for One Liberty Plaza, in the process becoming the tallest building to ever be purposely demolished.



Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower

Years as world’s tallest: 1909-1913

Lower Manhattan had long been the epicenter of sky-high construction, but as the 20th Century progressed, architects and business owners were looking further uptown to build their new cathedrals of commerce. Not to be confused with Park Avenue’s MetLife building, this Madison Avenue tower’s distinct spire exhibits its early-20th-century origins while bearing somewhat of a resemblance to the subsequent holder of the world-tallest-building crown, back on the southern end of the island.

The Beaux Arts-styled Woolworth Building

Woolworth Building

Years as world’s tallest: 1913-1930

Completed just four years after the Metropolitan Life tower on 23rd Street, Lower Manhattan reclaimed the tallest building title thanks to this beaux-arts masterpiece towering above Broadway’s Canyon of Heroes, directly across the street from City Hall Park. While its ornate facade is still impressive over 100 years after it was built, the real attraction of the Woolworth Building is the ornately decorated lobby, with detailed mosaics within a cavernous vaulted ceiling.



Empire State Building

Years as world’s tallest: 1931 to 1970

Undoubtedly NYC’s most iconic building, the Empire State Building on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street has been an unmistakable symbol of the city’s spirit since it went up in 1931. This art deco masterpiece arose in an impressive 13 months, and immediately became a magnetic attraction for tourists and filmmakers alike. From King Kong to Sleepless in Seattle, the Empire State Building has captured imaginations worldwide, and been interwoven with the character of both city and country in a way unlike any other building could. Long overtaken as the world’s tallest, the ESB still stands high as an emblem of the promise and ambition of the people of New York.

The Iconic Parades of NYC

The Iconic Parades of NYC

Whether celebrating ethnic pride, a holiday, or an excuse to strut your finest costume creations, there’s nothing like a parade. In a place like New York City, there’s never any shortage of good reasons to throw a moving party down one of the many major thoroughfares. Though there’s still plenty to do in the chill months, New Yorkers are always eager to get outside and celebrate-no matter the occasion. Read along for the fascinating origins of some of NYC’s most famous marches.


Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Considered by many to be the main event in NYC parades, this march is the world’s largest and has an unlikely backstory. While it currently begins on 77th Street and Central Park West on the Upper West Side, the first Thanksgiving Parade in 1924 actually began all the way in Newark, New Jersey and was sponsored by local department store Bamberger’s. Macy’s took the helm the following year and brought the parade to Manhattan, where it has been hosted ever since. Organizers added animal balloons in 1927, with original character balloon Felix the Cat arriving in 1931.


Puerto Rican Day Parade

There are few groups who know how to throw a block party as well as NYC’s sizable Puerto Rican community. This parade stretches up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan from 44th to 86th Street, but unofficial parties dot the landscape throughout all five boroughs on the second Sunday in June. The parade began in 1958 and has become a major attraction on NYC’s cultural calendar. Drawing over two million spectators every year, the official parade is one of the largest outdoor events in the United States.

NEW YORK-Members of the U.S. Coast Guard Pipe Band march up Fifth Avenue in the 250th St. Patrick's Day Parade, Manhattan, N.Y., March 17, 2010. This year marks the 250th iteration of the longest running and largest St. Patrick's Day Parade in the U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Seth Johnson

St. Patrick’s Day

Thanks in part to New York’s sizeable Irish-American community, This parade is the largest St. Patrick’s Day gathering in the world (yes, including Ireland itself). It’s also one of the oldest, with marching first happening in 1762 by homesick Irish soldiers in the colonial British Army. Today’s parade goes up Fifth Avenue from 44th Street to 79th, coming to a close right outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Can’t make the festivities? Like it’s Thanksgiving equivalent, NYC’s is the only St. Patrick’s Day parade in the country that’s aired live on national TV.


Halloween Parade

This Greenwich Village march is where Manhattan’s creative types can really put their best (costumed) foot forward. Local artists started the parade in 1973, and puppeteers soon saved their best work for October 31st. The neighborhood’s status as a beacon for artists means there’s never a shortage of fun and creative costumes and floats. Unique among NYC’s parades, the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade allows anyone in a costume who shows up on time to march without any registration process. This open-door policy means that recent parades have featured over 60,000 costumed revelers.


Mermaid Parade

A tribute to Coney Island’s status as a seaside escape, the mermaid parade has been the city’s foremost celebration of summer since it began in 1983. In a city filled with unique attractions, this parade’s showmanship and craft make it unmissable for adherents of the outlandish. Costumes include not only the titular mermaids, but various other sea creatures, sailors, pirates, sharks, and just about any other oceangoing character Brooklyn’s creative minds can come up with. Celebrities ranging from Queen Latifah, to Harvey Keitel, to Moby have claimed the throne of King and Queen of the proceedings.

5 NYC Neighborhoods that Defy Expectations

5 NYC Neighborhoods that Defy Expectations

There’s probably a certain image that pops into your head when you think about the typical “New York City neighborhood.” Maybe it’s brownstones, or taxi-swamped streets, or something abutting one of the city’s amazing parks. While those aren’t inaccurate, the diversity of this city manifests in surprising ways. One of which is these interesting spots that, if you were transported here out of nowhere, you’d never guess that you were in NYC.

Ramblersville/Old Howard Beach – Queens

An old fishing village that became part of NYC in the unification of 1898, Ramblersville or Old Howard Beach is a unique spot within the already one-of-a-kind, highly diverse borough of Queens. Streets with names like Broadway and Church Street might bring the thoroughfares of Manhattan to mind, but are in fact winding roads, some even comprised of wooden slats rather than asphalt. This quiet neighborhood is accessible by the A train, but if you really want to fit in, you might be better off arriving by boat!

Broad Channel – Queens

There are a few seaside neighborhoods in NYC that defy the traditional image of a New York locale, but it’s pretty rare for one to have its own subway station. Broad Channel, an island sitting between Howard Beach and the Rockaway peninsula in Queens, is home to the MTA’s least trafficked station, seeing a mere 91,208 passengers in 2016, over 900,000 fewer riders than the station that directly precedes it, Howard Beach-JFK. For those that do choose to hop off here, the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is an unmatched spot for bird watching and spotting wild terrapins and horseshoe crabs.



Seagate – Brooklyn

Waterfront living is no rarity in Brooklyn, but residents of this neighborhood right next to Coney Island live unlike any other that sits within the city’s borders. Seagate, as the name might suggest, is a gated community, self-sufficient in that residents pay dues to an association that provides them with private sanitation, street lights, and even their own private police force. Just one express bus line comes to Seagate from Manhattan, and trains are not close, making this burg a quiet spot away from it all, but well within the confines of Brooklyn.



Little Neck – Queens

A neighborhood that likes to think of itself as a small town embedded in the big city, Little Neck sits right on the Long Island border. Visitors would be forgiven if they mistake this area for suburban LI, as the calm streets and tree-lined vistas make this place feel farther from NYC in spirit than it is by actual distance. Prospective visitors should know, however, this spot isn’t completely isolated from the city. Little Neck residents are connected to the rest of NYC via the Long Island Rail Road as well as the Grand Central Parkway.


City Island – Bronx

The many peninsulas that jut out from the Bronx provide havens from city life, with places like Harding Park and Throggs Neck having their own personality apart from their close neighbors in the borough. Most remarkable of all, however, is likely City Island, a New England-esque escape known for fresh seafood and an especially isolated locale. Car-less visitors from other boroughs have a real trek ahead of them to get here, but once they arrive after a multi-train and bus journey, they can treat themselves to the finest seafood this side of Cape Cod.

5 NYC Neighborhoods with Revolutionary History

5 NYC Neighborhoods with Revolutionary History

You know all about Gettysburg, Bunker Hill, and Valley Forge, but it might surprise you to learn that many important developments in America’s founding revolution took place right here in New York City. These 5 spots are not just great neighborhoods to visit — they’re a living lesson in American history.

Van Cortlandt Park – The Bronx

One of NYC’s largest parks, this patch of land abutted by neighborhoods like Riverdale and Norwood was the site of the headquarters of both sides during the conflict. Both George Washington and British General William Howe would (at different times, of course) use the Van Cortlandt House in the park’s southwest region as a staging area. The Van Cortlandt family land was bought by the City of New York in 1888 and now stands as one of the Bronx’s finest natural attractions.


Fort Wadsworth – Staten Island

This neighborhood, named for the historic battery built to defend New York Harbor from British ships, boasts unmatched views of the Statue of Liberty and Lower Manhattan. Sitting directly on the Narrows adjacent to the Verrazano Bridge, riders on the Belt Parkway or the bridge itself have probably taken notice of the distinctive fortress. The structure once known as Flagstaff Fort now stands today as a tourist attraction and educational site.

Fraunces Tavern – Manhattan

Visitors to the Financial District can drink like George Washington in this historic site where the General gave his famous farewell address to his officers after the war was won. Now home to both a bustling modern bar/restaurant and historical museum, Fraunces Tavern has been restored after years of use as a tourist attraction. Designated a Historic District, the Tavern and adjacent buildings stand as an oasis of Old New York in the ultra-modern FiDi area.

Old Stone House – Brooklyn

In JJ Byrne Park between 4th and 5th Avenue in Park Slope, nestled among the playground and basketball courts, visitors can enjoy a piece of Revolutionary history. This restoration of the 1699 Vechte-Cortelyou House commemorates the 1776 battle, a major loss for the nascent American military. A small museum inside the modest house contains relics and recounts the long battle, the largest of the war.

Nathan Hale Statue – Manhattan

While there’s some controversy concerning where he was actually hanged for spying by British loyalists, the most well-known memorial to Revolutionary martyr Nathan Hale is located in the heart of Lower Manhattan in City Hall Park.  The eternal words he’s remembered for (another source of controversy) are inscribed around the base: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” The statue’s style might look familiar to New Yorkers, as the work of its sculptor Frederick William MacMonnies (a Brooklyn native) is featured across the city, from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch on Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn to Civic Virtue next to Queens Borough Hall.