On New Year’s Day, eager Upper East Siders and train enthusiasts gathered at the new 72nd, 86th, and 96th street stations along Second Avenue to be the first to ride the long-awaited Second Avenue Subway.
The project has been in the works for almost 100 years, and when it’s completed it will span from 125th Street in Harlem to Hanover Square in Lower Manhattan, 8.5 miles in total. For those living in Yorkville and East Harlem, commute times to Midtown will be at least 10 minutes shorter – and, as one would expect, this will correspond with an increase in real estate values. While sales prices have been increasing in the area, Rents surrounding the 72nd and 96th Street stations are estimated to see an increase of $462 per month, while rents in the area surrounding the 86th street station will increase by $330 per month. Given the significance of this new subway line opening – both in terms of history and in real estate – I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the history of the Second Avenue Subway and the NYC Subway system as a whole.
Before the Subway
New York City’s first public transit route was established in 1827. The route ran along Broadway from the Battery to Bleecker Street, and was traversed by a stagecoach pulled by a horse. The New York and Harlem Railroad, added in 1832, used horse-drawn cars with metal wheels which ran along a metal track. By 1870, the city’s first elevated railway, known as the El, was running along Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue. For the next few decades, elevated train service would be NYC’s main rapid transit service.
The First Subway
Many believe that the IRT ran New York City’s first subway in 1904. However, from 1870 – 1873, Alfred E. Beach ran a subway car under lower Broadway in a 312-foot tunnel, operated by “pneumatic pressure” – meaning, it was blown by a giant fan. Of course, this project was short-lived and not terribly efficient, but it was technically the first subway train in NYC.
The first official subway system opened on October 27, 1904. It was operated by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, known as IRT. The 9.1-mile subway line ran from City Hall to 145th Street and Broadway, with 28 stations along the way. Service was expanded to the Bronx in 1905, to Brooklyn in 1908, and to Queens in 1915. That same year, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (later known as the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation, or BMT) began service between Brooklyn and Manhattan. In 1932, the New York City Board of Transportation completed the Eighth Avenue line and created the Independent Rapid Transit (IRT) service to run it. For two decades, NYC’s subway system was operated by three different subway companies: The IRT, the BMT, and the IND. New Yorkers had to pay separate fares to ride all three rapid transit lines, and there were no connections.
The Creation of the MTA
On June 15, 1953, the New York State Legislature created the New York City Transit Authority, which would later be known as the MTA New York City Transit. This independent public corporation took over operation of all city-owned bus, subway, and trolley routes, and would later absorb the IRT and BMT lines as well. The city retained the IRT and BMT initials to signify the two divisions as distinct from the IND until the Chrystie Street connection project unified the BMT and IND divisions in 1968. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the City stopped referring to the identities of the three divisions on subway maps and in station announcements. Nine shuttles were added to connect the IRT, BMT, and IND lines at Dyre Avenue, Grand Central, South Ferry, the Lenox Terminal, Prospect Park, Ditmas Avenue, Metropolitan Avenue, Rockaway Park, and Far Rockaway. The lines were color-coded and appeared on the same map together for the first time in 1972. You can Massimo Vignelli’s iconic subway map below:
From the 1980s through the 2000s, the city began eliminating redundant trains along the unified lines and reduced the shuttles to three: one at Grand Central, another at Prospect Park, and one to Far Rockaway. JFK AirTrain service began in 2003, and New York celebrated the 100th anniversary of the subway in 2004. In 2015, the 7 line was extended to 34th Street—Hudson Yards, providing much-needed subway access to the far West Side.
The Second Avenue Subway
Though Phase One of the Second Avenue Subway project didn’t get underway until 2010, it was originally proposed in the 1920s as a way of managing the surge in subway riders after World War I. The plan was approved and real estate prices along the proposed subway route increased in value by an average of 50 percent. The cost was estimated at $98.9 million (1.4 billion today), though current estimates bring the total up to $17 billion by the time the project is completed. Unfortunately, the Great Depression, World War II, and a general lack of funding in the economically depressed 1970s delayed the project by many decades.
When the MTA broke ground for the Second Avenue Subway project in 2010, New Yorkers were skeptical and did not expect to ever see the project completed. Upper East Siders were pleasantly surprised when the three stations opened at 72nd, 86th, and 96th streets on January 1, 2017. What used to be a 40 minute commute to Penn Station for the average Yorkville resident has been reduced to just 16 minutes. These new stations will serve 200,000 riders per day, providing some relief for the 4-5-6 along Lexington Avenue, which serves almost 1.3 million riders daily. Eventually, the Second Avenue subway will run up to 125th Street in Harlem and will provide transfers to the 4-5-6, B-D-F-M, E, 7, and L lines. The city hopes to open Phase 2, from 62nd Street to Houston Street, in 2027 – 2029. Phases 3 and 4, which will extend to Hanover Square, are unfunded as of yet, so it is difficult to say when (or if) we will see these completed.
What’s Next for the NYC Subway?
Though other subway extensions have been proposed in recent years, it’s currently unclear whether those proposals will move forward. In 2015, Mayor DeBlasio suggested a new subway line along Utica Avenue in Brooklyn. The line would extend 3 and 4 service through the transit-deprived and low-inome area of East Flatbush. As recently as November 2016, the city said it was actively working with the MTA to set this into motion, though we haven’t heard any further news. Other proposals which have garnered public support are a Rockaway Beach expansion and a Triboro “RX” route which would connect The Bronx, Eastern Queens, and South Brooklyn. Continued (and increased) public advocacy could convince city and state officials to move forward with these projects in the future, though of course there is always the question of funding.