- New York City’s subway system has plans to add a new fleet in 2022 with wider doors and high-tech features.
- Since the early 1900s, NYC’s subway system has become an iconic feature of the city.
- These photos show what the first subways looked like and chart the evolution of the transit system New Yorkers ride today.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
New York City’s first trains were above ground in the 1800s, according to a 2015 blog post from the New York Public Library.
Then, towards the end of the 19th century, they went from being at street level to elevated, according to the same post.
The Great Blizzard of 1888 highlighted the need for an underground transportation system when trains were halted and buried in snow, according to an opinion piece in the New York Tribune in March of that year.
In October 1904, New York City’s first underground subway opened, The New York Times reported.
The addition of the subway made it possible for New Yorkers to get from home to work faster, increasing the amount of free time commuters had at home, according to the same article.
By 1925, the average New Yorker was riding the subway 276 times a year, historical author Ronald Reis wrote in his 2009 book, “The New York City Subway System.”
In the 1930s, the city started a public line, IND, that swallowed the competing BMT (Brooklyn-based) and IRT (Manhattan-based) lines by the end of the decade, according to the same book.
The IND cars were faster than the BMT fleet and larger than the IRT trains, according to the New York Transit Museum.
The three separate subway lines merged into the New York City Transit Authority in 1939, according to Reis’ book.
In 1953, New York City introduced the subway token to replace the coin system at the turnstiles, New York Public Radio reported in 2012.
Source: New York Public Radio
Trains in the 1950s had porthole windows, according to the New York Transit Museum, giving them a nautical look.
Before the 1950s, subway cars didn’t have air-conditioning. Instead, they were cooled with fans.
In the mid-1950s, the city installed air-conditioning in subway cars for the first time, according to the New York Transit Museum.
Suorce: New York Transit Museum
But the air-conditioning failed within two weeks, with water dripping onto passengers, according to the same source. So, it was removed.
The first successful air-conditioned subways hit the rails in 1967, the Daily News reported in July of that year, adding that it made the ride 20 degrees cooler.
By the 1970s, graffiti artists had “turned the city subway system into the world’s largest doodle board,” The Sun reported in 1972.
Source: The Sun via Newspapers.com
The city painted many subways red to cover up the markings, The Daily News reported in 1972.
Source: Daily News via Newspapers.com
But graffiti artists kept using freshly painted subways as blank canvases, The Daily News reported in 1980.
Source: Daily News via Newspapers.com
This went on until the end of the 1980s, when the city increased security and sped up efforts to clean the marked cars, The New York Times reported in 1988.
“If a train on a clean line was hit, it was taken out of service immediately until it was cleaned,” the article reads.
According to a 1989 New York Times report, the New York Transit Authority said that the subways were graffiti-free at the time.
Also in the 1980s, the city came out with train cars that still serve the 3, B, D, and G trains today, according to Curbed New York.
Source: Curbed New York
In the early 1990s, the MetroCard – a modern token of NYC life – was first introduced, The New York Times reported in 2008. Unlimited cards weren’t introduced until 1998, according to the same article.
Jack Lusk, senior vice president for customer service at the city’s Transit Authority, told The New York Times in 1993 that the cards would be “the biggest change in the culture of the subways” since the three systems unified in 1939.
The new millennium brought in a new subway fleet, The New York Times reported in 2000.
The new cars had wider doors, according to the same article, and flip-up priority seating, according to the subway’s new car procurement contract.
The new cars also brought digital directions to life, The New York Times reported, including signboards, a public-announcement system, and light-up maps that showed riders their location.
Five years later, the newest cars on the tracks came out with digital boards that showed riders the order of stops and where they were, The New York Times reported in 2005.
Commuter Maria Romero told The New York Times that new cars felt “three times more advanced” than the subways on her daily route. Aside from updating fleets, as Gothamist reported in 2006, this was the last time there were new subway car models.
In 2022, the city plans to release its most advanced subway cars yet, according to a MTA press release from July 2021.
The doors will be 8 inches (20cm) wider than subway cars on the rails today, according to the same press release, which says there will also be an upgraded digital screen.
The cars are set to come out next summer, and eventually some of them will have open gangways instead of doors between cars, according to the same press release.
In another July press release, the MTA announced that the cars will have a larger space reserved for people who use wheelchairs. Wider doors will also make these trains more accessible for people who have disabilities, according to the MTA.