Subways for City Transportation (1921)

From nycsubway.org

Electric Railway Journal · Vol. 58, No. 19 · November 5, 1921 · pp. 833-834.

Subways for City Transportation. By Robert Ridgway, Chief Engineer Transit Commission, State of New York.

When a Rapid Transit System Becomes Necessary -- Relative Advantages of Subways and Elevated Railways -- Facts About New York System. Abstract of paper presented at the annual convention of the American Society for Municipal Improvements, Baltimore, Oct. 28, 1921.

Rapid transit systems for cities are comparatively modern institutions and are the result of the phenomenal growths of urban communities during the past seventy-five years. In the smaller cities of a century ago there was nothing in the conditions to require local rapid transit, so, of course, no one gave much, if any, thought to the problems which were to vex the descendants of the more placid folks of those days except the few persons, always found in every community, who are gifted with a far-seeing vision into the future. Merchants and other business men of the small town or village of the past lived within walking distance of their shops and offices. This, of course, was before the days of the automobile. As the community grew in size and the distance between home and office became too great to walk morning and evening tramcars and omnibuses were considered sufficient to take care of the transit needs. The trend to the cities resulted in the wonderful growths indicated by the census figures of the past eight or ten decades and then the question of rapid transit began to be discussed. New York, being the largest of our American cities, naturally felt the urge first, and soon after the ending of the Civil War the agitation began which still continues and which, on account of its importance to the people, has often been made the political issue of municipal campaigns. It is one of the leading issues at the present time and has been and is being widely discussed from every possible point of view.

Every man is intensely interested in the local transit facilities of his city because they affect his comfort and convenience so intimately and because any of their defects or shortcomings are so apparent to him. He remembers that he had to wait for his subway train and was obliged to stand in discomfort all the way home when he ought to have had a seat. Water supply and sewage, while quite as important to his well being, have a relatively mild interest for him so long as the sewer does not become choked and back up into his cellar and wholesome water flows when the faucet is turned. The water supply structures and the sewers are out of his sight and he does not think of them until they fail to function properly. Few citizens think of what they cost or whether they are well designed and honestly constructed.

If the transit system of a city could be established before the population arrived, the city plan would in many cases be very different from what it now is. Whether better or worse would, of course, depend upon the wisdom and far-sightedness of those who did the planning, but it is impossible to look far into the future or to foresee the advance in the art of construction and the revolutionary changes which take place from time to time in the methods of transportation. Who in New York a century ago would have believed that the wide river separating Manhattan Island from Long Island would be bridged and tunneled as it has been since that time or that electric traction would have been developed to the state it has reached today? I am afraid if an attempt had then been made to lay out a rapid transit system to fit our present needs the experts would have made a sad mess of it because they would have had to deal with too many unknown factors. It is not wise to design transportation systems or other utilities for the needs of a time too far ahead. Railway structures and equipment, like battleships, become obsolete, and then, in part at least, are liabilities rather than assets, except the right-of-way, which in nearly every case retains and generally increases in value.


Subways have the great advantage of being out of sight. After they are built they permit the streets under which they run to be used to the fullest extent. Operation in them is noiseless to those on or above the street surface, and they do not obstruct light, air or access to property. While it is not as pleasant to travel below the ground as above it, train operation in subways is not affected by weather conditions and when the stations are located at shallow depths they are very convenient of access. Subways have the effect of materially enhancing real estate values in the portions of the city they serve, particularly in the vicinity of stations. The principal argument against them is the cost, which from New York's experience is from four to five times that of a steel elevated railroad of the same capacity.

Prior to the war, New York's subways cost to construct, including track, stations and other appurtenant work and including also the maintenance and underpinning of abutting buildings and the maintenance and restoration or reconstruction of surface and sub-surface utilities, but excluding the furnishing and installation of third rail, signals, lights and other equipment, from $700,000 per track-mile in an outlying portion of Brooklyn to $2,500,000 per track-mile in a very congested section of lower Manhattan. Similar costs at pre-war prices for a steel elevated railroad were about $275,000 per track-mile for a three-track line and about $235,000 per track-mile for a two-track line. These costs would be much greater at the present time. To put it in another way, a given amount of money for rapid transit construction would build from four to five times as much elevated line as subway. With these facts in mind it would seem that subways, notwithstanding their many advantages, must be confined to the congested portions of a city, using elevated structures or open cuts for the extensions into the less congested and outlying parts. It is a fact that other considerations than financial ones sometimes govern. For instance, an elevated railway could be constructed in the narrow street of the most intensely used business section of a city for a fraction of the cost of a subway, but public opinion might not permit it to be built there and might insist upon having the subway notwithstanding the much higher cost.

Few cities have subways, largely because they are so costly to build. New York, I believe, has a greater mileage of them than all other cities of the world combined because conditions there are such as to make subways necessary for the large, intensively developed areas.

Compared with subways, elevated railroads are simple to construct and can be built in far less time. In normal times, an elevated structure can be finished ready for track in from eighteen to twenty-four months of the date when work in the field is begun, and the discomfort to the public and interference with traffic on account of the construction confined to a small part of this period. The disturbance of the street surface and of the utilities underlying it is relatively slight. With a section of a subway on the other hand, from three to four years' time is usually required for construction and, except where it is at such depth that the work is done by tunneling methods, it requires generally the entire reconstruction of the street and of the sewers, water and gas mains and other structures beneath it.

An analysis of fifty-seven subway contracts showed the total expenditures on account of them to have been distributed as follows:

Item of WorkPercentage of Cost
Earth excavation 25.6
Rock excavation 15.9
Concrete 14.0
Riveted steel, furnished and erected 7.4
Rolled steel, furnished and erected 7.2
Steel rods, furnished and erected 1.0
Underpinning buildings 6.5
Supporting existing railroads 2.7
Construction of new sewers 3.8
Relocating pipes and ducts in street 2.8
Waterproofing, railroad ducts and miscellaneous work 13.1


It is not within the purview of this paper to go into the details of these contracts, which are of such importance to New York City and which have been and are being discussed so much, both favorably and otherwise. It is of interest, however, to know that the cost of constructing the dual system will be, when completed, over $400,000,000 and of equipping the lines and improving and extending the companies' own lines over $180,000,000. These costs include the city-owned lines built between 1900 and 1913, but do not include the extensive companies-owned lines constructed prior to 1913. About one-quarter of the construction cost and all of the equipment cost are borne by the two operating companies, and the two systems will include, when completed, approximately 70 miles of subway, 17 miles of railroad in open cut below street grades and on embankment, 126 miles of steel and concrete viaducts and bridges, a total of 213 miles of railroad and 619 miles of single running track. All but 10 miles of this total mileage of railroad is in operation.

The number of passengers carried by the dual system; that is, the rapid transit lines, for the year ended June 30, 1921, amounted to over 1,418,000000. The average on business days is about 4,172,500 and the maximum for one day was about 4,929,000.* [* This occurred in February, 1920, on the occasion of a snowstorm which partially tied up surface car traffic and thus increased subway traffic.] These figures are exclusive of the passengers carried by the surface lines, the bus lines and the suburban services of the trunk line railroads. The following table indicates the ticket sales at some of the more important subway stations of the congested zone:

StationNo. of Tickets Sold
Portion of original subway on lower Broadway and

Fourth Avenue now part of the new Lexington Avenue Line. (Borough of Manhattan)

South Ferry Station1,732,200
Bowling Green6,961,700
Wall Street9,435,100
Fulton Street14,803,100
Brooklyn Bridge15,238,000
Fourteenth Street15,862,000
Forty-second Street (Grand Central)28,970,900'
New Seventh Avenue Line (Borough of Manhattan)
Wall Street9,584,100
Fulton Street4,190,210
Park Place4,525,800
Chambers Street6,487,500
Fourteenth Street10,093,000
Thirty-fourth Street (Penn. Station)23,071,850
Forty-second Street (Times Square)29,568,260
Borough of Brooklyn
Borough Hall9,945,100
Atlantic Avenue19,929,720

The intensively developed portion of New York is beyond question a subway district, but the roads are taken out of the ground as the outlying or less congested portions of the city are reached, and the extensions are carried on elevated structures.

The stations are of the local and express types. The local stations are located from 1 to 1-1/2 mile apart and the express stations usually at longer intervals, generally from 1-1/2 to 2 miles apart. The typical local station has side platforms and those of the express stations are usually between the local and express tracks. In the Interborough Subway the platforms of the express stations are about 480 feet long to accommodate their ten-car trains, the cars of which are 51 ft. 2 in. long. The platforms of the original local stations now accommodate six-car trains, while those constructed within the past ten years are designed for the full ten-car trains. The cars of the Municipal Railway Corporation are 66 ft. long, and the platforms of their local and express stations are now made 530 ft. long, to accommodate eight-car trains.


Electric Railway Journal, McGraw Hill Company, Digitized by Microsoft, Americana Collection, archive.org.

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