Chapter 02: Plans for Relief
Rapid Transit in New York City and in the Other Great Cities · Chamber of Commerce, 1906
Rapid Transit Necessary. The conditions existing in New York illustrate the proposition that city growth demands rapid and certain means of travel between different sections and the general center. In the absence of the progressive developments that have taken place during the last one hundred years, the growth of population would have been checked and business interests impeded in large measure. For purposes of commerce the people of a great business center are far more effective when they have the means to go to and fro as the occasion demands, with the least possible loss of time and the least inconvenience and fatigue.
At the beginning of the last century the people of New York had, for the time, reasonable facilities of transit. The city was so small that stages could reach readily all parts of the island then occupied. The two rivers were not barriers to movement. At a very early date people found it not inconvenient to do business in New York and to live on Long Island or in New Jersey.
Steam Vessels. With the introduction of vessels propelled by steam, about 1820, a noted development took place. Transit across the rivers was facilitated, and residential places of importance grew up on the opposite shores and along the rivers well to the north and east. The ferries and the steamboat lines established were very notable, surpassing any development of the sort elsewhere. They left little to be desired in that direction.
In 1850 the island population was served, so far as interior transportation was concerned, by stages and omnibus lines, and still later tram cars were introduced.
Grand Central Station. The first practical gain in rapid transit was made in 1875, when trains were brought into the Grand Central Station at Forty-second street over a four track system, two of which were intended for local trains. The elevated railroads appeared in the seventies. A short section in Greenwich street was erected in 1870; but it was not until ten years later that the several structures were completed to the Harlem River.
Elevated Roads. The elevated system was a very notable accomplishment. Criticism of it from an engineering standpoint were numerous and severe. When M. De Lesseps was whirled around the track at One-Hundred-and-tenth street he said, "American engineers are audacious." The precipitation of trains to the street was predicted freely. The record indicates that the elevated roads are safer than surface steam-roads. It was said that the constant jar and strain would impair the metal to such an extent that the structure would become unsafe. The original columns and girders are still doing duty. Fifteen years ago a thorough examination was made of the principal members, including tests of the steel. It was found that the physical properties of the metal had undergone no change.
The population north of Fourteenth street has increased threefold since 1870. Doubtless a large part of this gain is directly attributable to the elevated system.
Brooklyn Bridge. The next advance was made in 1883, when the Brooklyn Bridge was opened. The territory adjacent to the Brooklyn end of the bridge, although so near to the business part of Manhattan Island, had remained largely undeveloped. The bridge and the system of elevated roads that followed closely upon its completion brought the outlying sections within reasonable traveling time to New York. The growth of Brooklyn has been rapid ever since. It was said, many years ago, that Brooklyn could afford to build a new bridge every ten years.
Cable Cars. The system of propelling surface cars by cable was introduced in 1884. It answered its purpose admirably for some years, and was then displaced by the electric system. By these systems the cars were enlarged and movement accelerated.
The Future. It may be that ten years ago, or even five years ago, many people in New York believed that existing systems were the best that could be devised; that the electric cars on the surface and the elevated trains were entirely satisfactory; and that nothing remained but to extend accommodations as population increased. They had become used to the trouble of climbing to stations well lifted above the streets. They had forgotten about the dangers of "roads upon stilts." They ignored the discomfort to dwellers along the lines. They recognized how unsightly the structures were, but sank regrets in view of their utility. They equally minimized the objections that may be raised against the use of streets by a surface system that is noisy to a degree, that greatly inconveniences ordinary traffic, and that in each and every year maims and kills many victims. It is possible to-day to predict with safety that the elevated structures will all be taken down. It is at least possible to hope that the enormous cars now propelled rapidly over our streets by electricity will be disused in the more or less distant future, and a system of transportation introduced that will be more convenient and less objectionable. For it would be unreasonable to suppose that the evolution of the past in the matter of transit for cities is to end with the methods now in use. The ultimate goal is a system, or systems, that will be not unsightly, that will be noiseless to a reasonable degree, that will not cause undue inconvenience to any persons or interests, that will be safe for passengers and not dangerous to others, and that will be rapid. This is the goal; and in view of progress heretofore made, and in view of progress at large, one may say with confidence that it will be reached.