Subways are the Life of Big Cities

Jonathan Mahler’s article in the New York Times Magazine is a great read, and speaks beyond New York to the problems facing virtually all metropolitan transit systems in the United States. Simply put, political leaders at the state, local and federal levels in this country do not conceive of mass transit as an essential component of economic and social life:

Most countries treat subway systems as national assets. They understand that their cities are their great wealth creators and equality enablers and that cities don’t work without subways.

Yet, the subway in New York is plagued by archaic machinery, understaffing, and political maneuvering that prevents addressing its problems, abetted by a political culture that hypes ride sharing and other private (and inadequate) substitutes for the mobility needs of millions of New Yorkers.

Even if you don’t have time to read the whole thing, you should scroll through to look at the photos of actual in-use controls for the nation’s largest subway system. They barely qualify as Steampunk.

It’s possible to disagree with some of Mahler’s prescriptive conclusions. In particular, he suggests that the solution to MTA’s funding problems is for the agency to aggressively leverage its expansion plans to entice developers in currently underserved areas to share the profits of speculative investment; if subway expansion can make outlying landowners rich by enabling more profitable development on their land, they can return the favor to MTA. Historically, of course, this has been the model of transit-enabled graft and profiteering and, in the case of 1920s Los Angeles, wholly inadequate to secure the long-term viability of transit systems.

Indeed, New York’s problem is certainly not that the city lacks a pool of wealth sufficient to operate a world class subway system. The problem is that the owners of that wealth refuse to accept an obligation to contribute sufficiently to a public good without being rewarded.

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