Tuesday, April 22, 2008

New York Subway from an Aussie perspective.

An Aussie’s impression of the New York Subway system.

First some local geography.

New York City is probably the most extraordinary piece of urban geography in the world. It consists of 5 boroughs centred on Manhattan an 18km long island about 4km wide on average. To the west is the wide, mighty Hudson River with New Jersey cliffs clearly visible across the wide stretch of water. The ‘East River’ on the other side of Manhattan is smaller but still a substantial waterway over which pass the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensborough bridges from south to north. The ‘Triborough’ Bridge in the north links Manhattan, Bronx and Queens and is used by most taxis to get from JFK and La Guardia airports to Manhattan (at most times of day the more direct route via Brooklyn or Queens is far too congested while the northern route is mostly a freeway).

Across the East River from Manhattan lie Brooklyn in the south and Queens in the north. These are the butt ends of Long Island which continues for another 170km out into the Atlantic Ocean. Above Queens is the only part of New York City which is on the mainland, the Bronx across Long Island Sound and the Bronx River (which flows in BOTH directions according to the tide). Staten Island lies 6km south of Manhattan and is connected to south Brooklyn by the Verrezano Narrows Bridge. There is also a bridge to New Jersey closely resembling the Sydney Harbour Bridge, making Staten Island the most direct route from Long Island to New Jersey and all points south towards Washington DC. In an almost direct line lie Newark Airport, Trenton (capital of NJ), Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), Baltimore (Maryland) and Washington DC.

While Staten Island has one long separate subway line of its own, all the other boroughs are connected by about 25 lines. Most have origins in the Bronx/Queens and take a trajectory down midtown Manhattan, reaching Brooklyn by bridge or tunnel. The lines cross each other in dozens of places and in most of these spots, marked by a joined circle on the classic subway map, free interchange is possible (open circles are express stops).

Central Manhattan has 5 major north/south lines coded in red, orange, green, blue and yellow for 7th, 6th, Lexington, 8th Avenues and Broadway respectively. Each has four tracks, two for local and two for express trains. These lines separate and merge, sometimes more than once to finally emerge above ground in the suburbs many kilometres away. It appears that the lines were numbered until 9 was reached (probably over 100 years ago) and then the letters A-Z were used. The Broadway lines go at slight diagonals and so some east west movement is possible apart from the L line which crosses every Avenue from 8th to 1st (and thus linking all lines at 14th Street) before going to Brooklyn by tunnel. The Broadway/7th Ave line was probably the first built because it is numbered 1, 2, 3. This was also linked with a number 9 which vanished on 9/11 (although it is still featured on some old signs and on the NY1 television Subway Updates). Number 1 is the ‘via local’ train, stopping at every station from South Ferry right up to the northern tip and across an opening bridge to the west Bronx at historic Van Courtland Park. Parallel lines 2 and 3 are the fast lines which occupy the other tracks and hurtle passengers at about 80km/hr under the busy streets of New York, sometimes skipping up to 60 streets at a time (there are 20 streets per ‘mile’ which is about 1.6km). Otherwise, local stations are usually 7 to 10 streets apart, which is just under a kilometre. Most New York streets are narrow and one-way but wider 2-way streets occur at intervals of approximately 7 streets. Thus important crossings occur at 14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd, 57th, 59th, 72nd, 79th, 86th, 96th, etc. Most express trains stop at these but exceptions make it essential that one check carefully before setting out, or checking the maps which occur on every station and carriage on the system.

Since Lexington is a narrow Avenue, the four tracks are on two levels. Others have no communication between the uptown and downtown platforms, being many metres distant. Hence it is not wise to just walk down any stairway with the big green “M” sign. One needs to know that the entrance is appropriate for your line as well as your direction of travel. However, everyone gets lost, even locals often ask questions! ‘Is this a via (pronounced veeah) local or express?’ or ‘are these the up-town tracks?’

For east-west travel the cross-city buses are to be recommended. Also, once paying a fare on such bus route a subway ride is free within the hour.

Thus, although Fifth Avenue divides the island in half (all numbers start from here) there is only one line to the east and 4 to the west (red, yellow, orange and blue). To balance this, there has been a proposed Second Avenue subway on the drawing boards for almost 100 years. Yet another recent decision has put more certainty on its eventual completion.

And so what is it like to travel on a subway train? There are unique features about New York commuters. I have been on underground trains all over the world … Rome, Shanghai, London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Tokyo, Hong Kong. New York’s crowd is unique in several important respects.

In New York subway carriages there is always someone reading a hard-backed book. There is also usually someone reading a thick education reference ‘manual’, often of an exotic subject such as ‘nuclear sub-galactic astrophysics’ or ‘irrational economic theory and practice’. Another passenger will have a ruled paged ring binder or original clip board, each almost extinct in the rest of the world. I have never seen anyone use a lap-top computer. Some people sleep. People carry the most amazing things. Boxes, balloons, trolleys, musical instruments, children and other baggage, sometimes in ‘commercial’ quantities.

The faces in the crowd are indeed diverse, comprising all of humanity, presuming that no remote tribes remain undiscovered. They are old and young, white, black and all other hues. Many young people seem quite precocious in looks and demeanour. Train beggars/buskers are commonplace, using everything from professional ‘one stop’ vocal acts to pathetic cardboard signs.

Physically, the New York underground comprises sets of ten carriage trains, all aluminium, single decked narrow cars running on 4’8½” gauge lines with third rail electric supply. Each carriage has two eight-wheel twin bogies and all cars appear to have motors and air brakes. There is a guard in the end of the fifth carriage who shares the opposite beginning of the sixth for platforms on the opposite side. Like most Americans their working conditions are quite disadvantageous. All external doors are automatic while there are communicating doors between each carriage which self close.

The fare is a flat rate $2 paid on entry using a plastic “Metrocard”. When these are refreshed with sums of $20 or more there is a free two trips so $24 is credited, making each trip around $1.70 approximately.

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