Today in History – October 27, 1904 – the New York City subway first opens. The New York City Subway is the largest subway car fleet in the world, operates 24-hours-a-day, and (along with the connecting bus system) supports a ridership of approximately seven million daily. That’s now. Although smaller private ventures operated earlier, the official opening of the New York City Subway system was October 27, 1904. Although it was operated by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, the system served only Manhattan until it was expanded to the Bronx in 1905. It reached Brooklyn in 1908 and Queens by 1915. The system took a break from this period of rapid construction to help Britain with The Great War, as they called World War I.
William Barclay Parsons, Chief Engineer of the Rapid Transit Commission until the subway opened in 1904, was very vocal about the social implications of engineering. In a March 1905 address at Purdue University, “Rapid Transit in Great Cities,” he argued that large-scale engineering projects of the day required “something more in the way of a foundation than an enthusiastic dream; there is needed from the beginning the cold analytical methods of a trained and educated mind.” That educated mind, however, would be “concerned not only with calculations, but will also have to study men and their needs, questions of industrial demand, the law of finance, and much in regard to legislation.” Even in the early 1900’s, Parsons foresaw the important relationship between engineering and society—good perspective to have as he left the just-opened NYC Subway system to serve on the Isthmanian Canal Commission in Panama.
By 1940, the city itself had purchased all of the subway lines as well as the elevated lines, eventually creating the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Air-conditioned cars were not in use until July 19, 1967, when they were introduced on the “F” line. Air conditioning units were added through retrofitting until new subway cars came with the feature installed in 1983.
The use of the transit system is estimated to keep approximately 700,000 cars out of New York City’s central business district daily, saving 400 million pounds of soot, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and other toxic substances from entering the air each year. The NYC subway system has been a leader in deploying clean technologies—NYC Transit signed a charter on “Sustainable Development in Mobility” on Earth Day (April 21) in 2004. This will come as no surprise to those who have live or work in New York City or have friends there—it’s hard to find a City-dweller who even owns a car. By not having a car, residents more than save the money needed to cover the cost of riding NYC Transit as well as the occasional taxi cab. The system’s Environmental Management System meets ISO 14001 standards, including improved and enhanced environmental performance, pollution prevention and resource conservation, increased efficiency and cost reduction, and employee awareness of environmental issues and responsibilities.
The Stillwell Terminal at Coney Island station in Brooklyn sports
a 60,000-square-foot photovoltaic roof that produces 250 kW.
The Roosevelt Avenue-74th Street Station in Queens is the point of entry into the subway system for many who fly into LaGuardia—it’s a short ride on the Q33 bus to get there from the airport. That station produces 65 kW of power—in addition to a roof system, thin-film solar panels are installed on the elevated subway platform.
The Roosevelt Avenue-74th Street Station
Roof Solar Panel System is part of a system
that produces 65kW.
The latest in power-reducing measures in the NYC Subway are
“New Millennium Trains” that have regenerative braking.
These cars are currently in use on the 2, 4, 5, 6, L, and N lines.
In addition to the benefits to commuters and reducing the environmental impact of transportation into New York City, the infrastructure of the NYC subway is a useful conduit for emergency services. After the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, the transit system brought 3,500 employees and enough heavy equipment to cover five city blocks to the affected area within hours. The rubble from the disaster buried over ¼ mile of the #1 and #9 line between Liberty and Barclay Streets and took just over a year to clear.
New York City Subway provided 1.563 billion rides in 2007 and was fourth in the world in ridership behind Tokyo, Moscow, and Seoul. A significant amount of history and lore about the NYC Subway system is found at www.nycsubway.org, including behind-the-scenes look at the technology of the system. Poetry inspired by an NYC Subway station is also available.
For more information see the Engineering Pathway’s curricular resources on subways and tunnels. Or visit the Civil Engineering Education, Engineering Mechanics Education, Mechanical Engineering Education or the Engineering Science Education disciplinary communities.