Why New York's new Second Avenue subway changes nothing

Second avenue subway NYCFlickr/MTALong overdue.

New York’s long-awaited, long-overdue Second Avenue Subway line will officially open to the public on the first day of 2017 — nearly 100 years after it was first discussed.

Even before the turn of the century, the need for an additional subway line east of Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side was imperative.

I know because I lived on E. 87th Street, a block and half from the East River, for several years and often struggled with the overburdened 4-5-6 trains, passengers waiting six deep on the platforms.

The new line will be constructed in three phases, eventually running from 125th St. to lower Manhattan; the finished section connects 96th St. and 63rd St. It’s a godsend. But as lovely as the new stations might be, and advanced as the construction methods may have been, the Second Avenue line fails to address the NYC Subway’s biggest problem.

The vast network of trains, tunnels, and elevated lines unites the cities boroughs and enables millions of New Yorkers to get around easily and (relatively) cheaply. Alongside the London Underground and the Paris Metro, it’s one of the Big Three most-used and most-beloved mass-transit systems on Earth.

And the NYC Subway is the most unpleasant large-scale public space in America. It’s old, hot, loud, smelly, crumbling in places, moderately unreliable, dank, overcrowded, full of garbage, and infested with rats. It’s not as bad as it was in the 1970s, when lurching, graffiti-covered trains were the rule, but it hasn’t been substantially improved in the decades since New York recovered its affluence.

I rode the Subway constantly between 1989 and 2004. I hated every minute of it. When I lived in Los Angeles, I occasionally rode the LA Metro, a much more modern system. I loved every second.

Recently, after doing everything I could to avoid the NYC subway, I returned to semi-regular ridership. The episodes are easily the most depressing part of my entire life.

For a city as big, rich, and ambitious as New York, this is baffling — more baffling than the fact that it took 100 years to get the Second Avenue line started, after numerous starts and stops. New York is a city of symbols, cast in engineering: the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building, Grand Central Terminal, One World Trade, the High Line.

But the Subway overtakes them all, in scale and in a sort of proud and willful embrace of thoroughgoing scuzziness.

I’ll admit that there’s a bit of throwback allure to this — when you enter the underground realm, you’re returning to a less airbrushed and sanitised New York. The New York of the Subway is emphatically real.

But I think that’s a cop-out. The number-one thing that New York could to to make everyone’s life better is make the Subway a more pleasant environment. Heck, the famous map is considered a masterpiece of graphics design. Just studying it makes you feel better.

The efforts are there. We have more air conditioning. There’s cell-phone service and wifi, here and there. The stations are somewhat cleaner. The modernised trains make less horrifying noises when they grind into the stations and are graffiti-proof. You can hear the public-address announcements, on an off the trains. The MTA employees are, in my experience, helpful and professional. The Subway is, to my eye, well policed — that sense of omnipresent menace I felt in the late 1980s is gone.

I don’t like to attack New York icons. But when it comes to the Subway, I think the city is missing an opportunity to undertake a massive aesthetic rehabilitation program. And I don’t mean on the art-and-design front; the Second Avenue line, as well as other new stations throughout the metropolis, look much better than the more weathered quarters of the underground world.

I mean on the basic quality-of-life stuff. The MTA is moving in the right direction: earlier this year, the first two phases of a massive track cleanup were undertaken. Two additional phases will improve the MTA’s ability to remove huge amounts of garbage from the tracks.

But the entire system is vast and well beyond the capabilities of the MTA to make it a truly marvellous or uplifting environment. That’s why the Second Avenue line — which could end up, short-term, being the most obsessively cared-for in the entire system — changes nothing. The NYC Subway has always been a beautiful means to an end. But it will never be a beautiful place to spend time.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

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