Catching the Train

An Illustrated History of New York City's Subway

New York’s population swelled throughout the nineteenth century. Attracted by the promise of new opportunities, immigrants and rural Americans flocked to the city, pushing its geographic boundaries further and further north. It soon became clear that the city needed some form of public transit.

The city’s first omnibus debuted in 1827. Seating about a dozen passengers, these horse-drawn stagecoaches were the first form of affordable transit for everyday New Yorkers. But rides weren’t comfortable—made from wood and metal, omnibuses trundled along the uneven, cobblestone streets of lower Manhattan.

Five years later, in 1832, the world’s first streetcar began operating in New York. Streetcars were also drawn by horses, but their wheels ran along steel tracks, making them more comfortable and efficient than omnibuses. Streetcars forever changed the city’s landscape, as they allowed people to live farther and farther away from the downtown commercial center.

In March 1888, New York was rocked by a blizzard that would soon be known as “The Great White Hurricane.” The blizzard took 400 lives and literally froze New York’s transit system; streetcars were buried in snow and passengers forced to venture into the cold. New Yorkers soon began to call for an underground railway like London's, which opened in 1863.

Led by William Barclay Parsons, engineers began drafting plans for subway lines in 1894. Construction began six years later, running from Lower Manhattan to the Bronx. The work was treacherous; workers burrowed through mountains and under rivers, and accidents and injuries were common.

In 1904, the Interborough Rapid Transit opened to the public. For a nickel, riders could travel the length of Manhattan, bringing them in contact with people and places they might never encounter otherwise. New lines were built throughout the early twentieth century, making the city increasingly easy to traverse.

For over three decades, a series of private companies operated New York’s subway lines. But in 1940, the city bought and consolidated these companies into a single system, making the subway easier to navigate than ever. The subway hit its highest rate of ridership that decade, with over two billion passengers using the system in 1946.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority assumed control of the subway in 1968. The next decade and a half saw the lowest subway ridership since World War I, due to unresolved maintenance issues and the rundown condition of trains. MTA still operates the subway.

The late 1980s and early 1990s brought about a new subway system. Trains and signs were cleaned of graffiti, long-neglected maintenance updates were made, and tokens were replaced by the MetroCard, which allowed unlimited rides for a set price. Ridership steadily rose throughout the end of the twentieth century.

Subway ridership continued to climb throughout the early 2000s. Today, the subway operates 472 stations on 28 routes that are used by approximately 1.7 billion passengers every year. But challenges remain, as the subway remains notorious for unexpected delays and crumbling infrastructure.

In 2019, the MTA announced that it will invest $37.3 billion in subway improvements. The Fast Forward plan will fund disability-accessible station renovations, track upgrades and a new fleet of subway cars. It will also expand the Second Avenue Subway, a line that opened in 2017 after being initially proposed in 1920.

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