US The Case for the Subway

16:51  06 january  2018
16:51  06 january  2018 Source:   nytimes.com

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Long before it became an archaic, filthy, profligate symbol of everything wrong with our broken cities, New York’s subway was a marvel — a mad feat of engineering and an audacious gamble on a preposterously ambitious vision. “The effect it is to have on the city of New York is something larger than any mind can realize,” said William Gaynor, the New York mayor who set in motion the primary phase of its construction. A public-works project of this scale had never before been undertaken in the United States, and even now, more than a century later, it is hard to fully appreciate what it did for the city and, really, the nation.

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Before the subway, it was by no means a foregone conclusion that New York would become the greatest city on earth. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants fleeing poverty and persecution were arriving on its doorstep every year, but most of them were effectively marooned, herded into dark, squalid tenements in disease-ridden slums. The five boroughs had recently been joined as one city, but the farms and villages of Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens might as well have been on the other side of the planet from Manhattan’s teeming streets. Bound up in the fate of the city were even larger questions: Would America be able to manage the transition from the individualism and insularity that defined its 19th-century frontiers to the creative collaboration and competition of its fast-growing urban centers? Could it adapt and excel in this rapidly changing world? Were cities the past or the future of civilization? And then came the subway: hundreds of miles of track shooting out in every direction, carrying millions of immigrants out of the ghettos and into newly built homes, tying together the modern city and enabling it to become a place where anything was possible.

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It was the arrival of the subway that transformed a seedy neighborhood called Longacre Square into Times Square, that helped turn a single square mile surrounding the Wall Street station into the center of global finance, that made Coney Island an amusement park for the masses. It was the subway that fueled the astonishing economic growth that built the city’s iconic skyscrapers. Other cities had subways, but none threaded through nearly as many neighborhoods as New York’s, enabling it to move large numbers of workers between Manhattan and the middle-class boroughs — a cycle that repeated itself every day, generating ever more wealth and drawing in ever more people.

As New York evolved over the decades, the subway was the one constant, the very thing that made it possible to repurpose 19th-century factories and warehouses as offices or condominiums, or to reimagine a two-mile spit of land between Manhattan and Queens that once housed a smallpox hospital as a high-tech university hub. When the city is in crisis — financial or emotional — the subway is always a crucial part of the solution. The subway led the city’s recovery from the fiscal calamity of the 1970s. The subway was at the center of the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11 attacks. The subway got New York back to work after the most devastating storm in the city’s history just five years ago.

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The questions we are facing today are not so different from the ones our predecessors faced 100 years ago. Can the gap between rich and poor be closed, or is it destined to continue to widen? Can we put the future needs of a city and a nation above the narrow, present-day interests of a few? Can we use a portion of the monumental sums of wealth that we are generating to invest in an inclusive and competitive future? The answer to all of these questions is still rumbling beneath New York City.

For all the changes in transportation technology since the first tunnels were dug — the rise of the automobile, the proliferation of bike lanes and ferries, our growing addiction to ride-hailing apps and dreams of a future filled with autonomous vehicles — the subway remains the only way to move large numbers of people around the city. Today, New York’s subway carries close to six million people every day, more than twice the entire population of Chicago. The subway may no longer be a technological marvel, but it continues to perform a daily magic trick: It brings people together, but it also spreads people out. It is this paradox — these constant expansions and contractions, like a beating heart — that keep the human capital flowing and the city growing. New York’s subway has no zones and no hours of operation. It connects rich and poor neighborhoods alike. The subway has never been segregated. It is always open, and the fare is always the same no matter how far you need to go. In New York, movement — anywhere, anytime — is a right.

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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. The public-private corporation that runs Hong Kong’s subway expects 99.9 percent of its trains to run on time, and they do. (If you are traveling to the airport, you can also check your luggage at a central downtown train station and not see it again until you’ve landed at your destination. Imagine!) China has been feverishly building new metro systems in cities across the country, a recognition that subways are the only way to keep pace with the nation’s rapid urbanization and the needs of its citizens. And it’s not just new cities that are seeing major investments in their subways. Two decades ago, the decline of London’s Underground became a national crisis; now it’s moving toward running driverless trains. For that matter, Los Angeles — Los Angeles — recently embarked on a 40-year, $120 billion project to build out its mass-transit system.

New York City’s subway, meanwhile, is falling apart. If you are a regular rider, you know this firsthand. But even if you aren’t, it has probably become difficult to ignore all the stories about the system’s failure: the F train that was trapped between stations for close to an hour without power or air conditioning, the Q train that derailed in Brooklyn, the track fire on the A line in Harlem that sent nine passengers to the hospital. The cumulative impression of all these miserable underground experiences — and all these stories about miserable underground experiences — is that the situation is hopeless, that the subway cannot be fixed. The subway has been wrecked, and in this era of short-term thinking and government mistrust, public-works projects with benefits larger than any single mind can realize are no longer possible. But it is possible to fix the subway. And we must. Our failure to do so would be a collective and historic act of self-destruction.

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The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the government agency that operates the subway, uses the catchall word “incident” to describe all the various events that impede the system’s healthy functioning. Every one of these incidents triggers an investigation resulting in an incident report, a minute-by-minute account of what went wrong and the steps taken to resolve the issue. Thousands of these reports are produced every month. A random sampling of incidents from a single recent day include: “Signal Trouble,” “Switch Trouble,” “Unruly Person(s),” “Track Circuit Failure,” “Delayed by Track/Work Gangs,” “Water Condition,” “Fire/Smoke Conditions,” “Debris on Roadbed,” “Brakes Fail to Charge” and “Sparks Issuing.” Among the most common were “Excess Dwell Time” and “Insufficient Capacity/Crowding.” Translation: too many passengers, not enough trains.

All these problems lead to one really big problem: The trains are terminally late, obstructed daily by a cascade of system failures. During the first three months of 2017, three-quarters of the subway’s lines were chronically behind schedule. The worst offender, the 2 train, was late nearly 70 percent of the time.

For a delayed rider wondering whom to blame, it’s tempting to begin with the people you can see, the 7,000 or so men and women — track cleaners, inspectors, flaggers and other orange-vested M.T.A. employees — charged with preventing these incidents and keeping the trains moving. On a steamy morning in August, I sat among a small group of them in a dingy, defunct public elementary school in Gravesend, Brooklyn, that serves as the M.T.A.’s Transit Learning Center. Taped to the classroom wall were yellowing tabloid clips of a different kind of subway horror story — “MAN UNDER!, RAIL HORROR: HIT THIRD TRACK AND LIVED!” — a tableau that lent the one-day safety course, a requirement for all M.T.A. employees and contractors, some of the flavor of those grisly low-budget driver’s-ed videos designed to scare teenagers straight.

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“If you should do something silly today, like get hit by a train, you cannot sue New York City Transit,” my instructor, Jim Fortin, said as he distributed release forms to the class. It’s a common occurrence: A passenger is killed on the tracks pretty much every week. The course would end with a walk on a live track. If I survived the day, I would receive a laminated license qualifying me to work in the tunnels of the New York City subway system — “in the hole,” as it is known.

Fortin walked us through the potential hazards that awaited us. He taught us the proper arm motions to use if we ever found ourselves needing to signal to an oncoming train to stop. After a short multiple-choice test and a break for lunch, we were issued orange vests, flashlights, helmets and safety goggles. Our group walked to a nearby N station, rode a few stops, transferred to the R and got off at 53rd Street, where we walked to the end of the platform and climbed down a ladder onto the tracks. Fortin soon directed us to what he called “clear-up spots,” small, shallow openings built into the walls of the narrow tunnels that we had been taught that morning to identify. A train was coming. I stuffed my flashlight into my back pocket and tucked myself into the tiny space, remembering Fortin’s instructions: “Get in. Get centered. Don’t move.” I could hear the train approaching and see its headlight out of the corner of my eye. In about 30 seconds a string of 45-ton steel cars was thundering by, just 18 inches from my frozen body. It was terrifying, but also thrilling, like the entire industrial revolution was speeding past my face.

At point-blank range, subway cars seem invincible. In fact, they can be laid low by something as insignificant as a broken bolt or a can of soda — which, when resting against the third rail, might heat up and ignite a scrap of newspaper, causing a track fire, the source of hundreds of delays every month. Every inch of the system’s rails is supposed to be checked twice a week for imperfections. Much of this work happens overnight, when the frequency of trains on this 24-hour system decreases and workers are able to move more freely on the tracks. “While the rest of the city is sleeping, there’s a whole industrial ballet going on underground that most people have no idea about,” John Samuelsen, a track inspector who now runs the Transport Workers Union of America, told me. “It’s like friggin’ Brigadoon down there.” And yet a recent study found that only 3 percent of the tracks in stations meet the M.T.A.’s own standards for cleanliness.

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Workers face an even more insidious challenge than trash in the form of water. Many parts of the system are below the water table, and its lines course through neighborhoods that were once lush farmland. On a dry day, the M.T.A. pumps 13 million gallons of water from the system. Over time, the water corrodes the system, rusting and rotting its infrastructure — and yet sealing and grouting these leaks often requires rerouting service on lines, further frustrating riders. Next year, the L train will begin a shutdown that will last at least 15 months for repairs to its East River tunnel, which flooded during Hurricane Sandy. Some 225,000 people will have to find a new way to get in and out of Manhattan every day.

No matter how diligent they may be, 7,000-odd orange-vested maintenance workers are simply not enough to keep the deteriorating system — with its 665 miles of passenger-carrying track, enough to reach all the way to Indianapolis — on schedule. All the real problems must begin elsewhere, further up the chain of command.

Pretty much every decision that destroys your commute happens not below ground but above it, in an unmarked building on the West Side of Manhattan called the Rail Control Center. Here, men and women sit at computer consoles behind large wall-mounted schematic track and station displays in a high-ceilinged, windowless command space, directing the changes — moving a local train to an express track, taking a train out of service — that determine the daily transportation fate of thousands, sometimes millions, of passengers. When I visited the facility several months ago, I was greeted by the official who oversees all these disruptions, Barry Greenblatt. A tall, slender man in a gray suit with two Bic pens in his shirt pocket and a silver tie clip so tarnished that you barely make out the letters on it — “M.T.A.” — Greenblatt is the authority’s vice president and chief officer for service delivery, Department of Subways. It’s his job to run the trains.

Greenblatt, a 31-year veteran of the M.T.A., grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, without a car. “I started riding trains and buses by myself pretty much from the time I was 5 years old,” he told me after we settled into a conference room overlooking the command center. He became a bus driver when he graduated from college, fulfilling a childhood dream, and has been an employee of the M.T.A. ever since, gradually moving up the ladder to his current position. “We operate the trains,” he said. “We try to run them on time — 5.66 million average daily riders, 1.7 billion annual riders. Right now, there are 585 trains out there. We will run 8,477 one-way trips over the course of a day. We hope to have 8,477 on-time trains. We’re not going to do it today.”

Greenblatt’s morning began with a 2:30 a.m. phone call: An operator moving a train out of storage at a yard in East New York, Brooklyn, had driven through a stop signal, damaging the switch beneath him. “The first question we would ask is whether it is going to have any impact on service,” Greenblatt said. A few hours later, at 5:10 a.m., he received a text message about another incident: A passenger had called from the Park Place station, near City Hall, to report that there was smoke on the tracks. Seven minutes later, the New York City Police Department reported via an internal-communications line known as “the 6 Wire” that a transformer may have exploded in the station. Greenblatt managed the response. Service on the 2 and 3 lines was rerouted, and several teams were deployed to Park Place to figure out what was going on. They soon discovered that a chunk of metal, about 18 inches long, had fallen onto the tracks, breaking through the third-rail protection board and shorting out the power.

“If you bridge the third rail, which has 600 volts of electricity, to the signal rail, which has 12 volts of electricity,” Greenblatt said, “it’s going to blow things.” The Rail Control Center’s chief officer, Paul McPhee, showed me a picture on his phone of the charred board, which looked as though it could have been pulled from the fire pit at a campsite. It took about two and a half hours for the temporary repairs to be completed and full power to be restored. The trains could now start running again but were required to move at reduced speeds in the vicinity of the station. “We’re operating in a degraded mode right now,” Greenblatt said.

Systemwide, the biggest source of subway delays is simple overcrowding. In the 1990s, after a derailment killed five passengers and a collision killed a train operator, the M.T.A. started actively slowing down its trains. This has reduced “throughput” — the number of trains that move through the system at any given time — which has increased crowding. And when the subway becomes more crowded, it grows slower still, with trains stuck in stations while knots of passengers fight their way in and out of cars. As ridership grew from 2012 to 2016, the end-to-end running time during peak hours on the numbered lines increased by more than six minutes. Average train speeds are now slower than they were in 1950.

The subway could be both faster and safer if all of it were controlled by a computer-based signal system, which would automatically ensure that trains are always operating at the maximum safe speed, with the narrowest possible distance between them. Instead, much of the subway uses a signal system that dates to the 1920s and ’30s. What that means didn’t really hit home for me until I visited the signal-repair shop at the 215th Street rail yard in Manhattan. Technicians were hunched over cast-iron gadgets — stop motors, compressors, track relays — that looked as if they belonged in the workshop of an eccentric antique collector. In the machine shop downstairs, I saw workers making mounting brackets and ball bearings; even the system’s most basic parts are so obsolete that they have to be manufactured in-house. “A lot of the equipment we really can’t purchase,” the M.T.A.’s assistant chief of signals, Salvatore Ambrosino, told me as we watched a technician assemble a tiny motor. “Our only option is to rebuild.”

What would rebuilding the subway actually look like? Replacing the signal system is just one in a long list of needs, some of which were recently compiled by the Regional Plan Association, a civic group that has been studying New York infrastructure for decades. Most of the system’s 472 stations need some kind of major repair or wholesale renovation. Elevators need to be added — fewer than one in five stations are even partially accessible to people with physical disabilities. Cracked tiles and rusty columns need to be replaced. Stairwells and entryways need to be enlarged, flood-prone openings need to be waterproofed, ventilation plants need to be rebuilt. All the platforms need to be sealed off from the tracks with automatic sliding doors to prevent passengers from throwing trash on the rail bed and block them from falling, jumping or being pushed under a train. Sharp turns in tunnels throughout the system need to be reconstructed so that they are less severe, allowing for higher speeds and thus more trains. The Regional Plan Association stopped there, but you could go further. The roadbed beneath much of the track needs to be chipped out and replaced with fresh concrete and new drains. About 3,000 of the system’s 6,400 cars date to the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. About half of those need to be rebuilt with modern motors, wheels and brakes, as well as open gangways between the cars to increase capacity. The other half need to be replaced altogether.

In the meantime, Greenblatt and his staff take it day by day, managing incidents as though they are an inevitable force of nature. When I asked him about the so-called F-train meltdown that became a media sensation in June — hundreds of passengers were stuck in a tunnel for more than 40 minutes in a 40-year-old train that lost power — he told me he was surprised the incident received so much attention. When he left work that night, it had not felt any different from any other day on the job. And in a sense, it wasn’t. The F-train meltdown was just one of the 8,122 incidents reported during the month of June. “I don’t know if I like the word ‘meltdown’ so much,” Greenblatt said. “Things happen.”

It is Gov. Andrew Cuomo who, by a strange quirk of New York history, is ultimately responsible for the subway. As governor, he appoints the chairman of the M.T.A. — a sprawling government bureaucracy with 70,000-plus employees overseeing nine bridges and tunnels, two commuter railroads, the New York City bus system and the subway — as well as a plurality of its directors. More to the point, he effectively controls the state budget that funds the authority. It was Cuomo who pressed the M.T.A. to complete its endlessly delayed construction on the first phase of the Second Avenue subway — three new stations; two new miles of track — before the end of 2016 and who presided over its opening in January 2017 like a proud parent. In the months that followed, though, the subway’s many underlying problems burst open like a broken water main, and angry riders made a point of affixing the hashtag #CuomosMTA to their proliferating complaints on social media.

After initially trying to shift the blame to the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, Cuomo has of late been trying to recast himself as the subway’s can-do savior. He convened an advisory panel, called FixNYC, to study the idea of implementing a congestion-pricing plan to help subsidize mass transit. He created an open competition called the Genius Challenge: Come up with a viable plan to fix the subway and win $1 million. And on a rainy, wind-swept night in early September, his press office invited a small group of reporters and local camera crews to assemble in a soggy, grime-caked ventilation room beneath the Union Square station to watch him roll out his latest plan. Spotlights hung from rusty columns; a dozen or so chairs were arrayed before a lectern and a video monitor. A little before midnight, Cuomo made his dramatic entrance through a large vented manhole, climbing down a metal ladder in pressed chinos, tasseled boots and a windbreaker bearing the New York State seal, and announced that he was doubling the fine for littering in the subway to $100 and buying some new jumbo-size vacuum cleaners to clean the tracks.

The moves were part of Cuomo’s $836 million “NYC Subway Action Plan,” which was unveiled last summer by the newly installed M.T.A. chairman, Joe Lhota, who had also run the authority several years earlier. The matter of who is going to cover that $836 million remains a matter of some controversy. Cuomo offered to pay for half and said the city should cover the rest. De Blasio refused, noting that the city had already given the M.T.A., which it did not control, billions of dollars in taxes. The plan remains only partially funded.

This is a familiar quandary for the subway. When the M.T.A. first took control of the system in 1968, the idea was to use toll money from bridges and tunnels to subsidize the subway, but this scheme supplied only a small part of what was needed. For years, the state and federal governments picked up the shortfall, but beginning in the 1990s, Gov. George Pataki and the Republican-controlled Congress refused to cover the M.T.A.’s rising costs. It has been scrambling for new streams of income ever since.

Cuomo, for all his homilies about American greatness being the product of “what we built,” has also rejected some efforts to add new revenue sources to the subway. In 2015, a state assemblyman from Brooklyn, Jim Brennan, wrote a bill that would have steered a small but escalating percentage of state personal-income tax to the authority. Cuomo’s staff dismissed the idea. “They said the M.T.A. wouldn’t be able to spend the money, the construction industry was already at capacity,” Brennan told me. “Of course, when I would talk to Tom Prendergast” — the chairman of the M.T.A. at the time — “and his top people, they would go: ‘Yes, yes, we can spend the money! Give us the money!’ ”

In fact, the M.T.A. has often proved all too capable of spending money, with construction costs well beyond what other cities spend on similar projects. It’s fair to blame the whole New York political establishment — Cuomo, de Blasio and their counterparts stretching back decades — for presiding over the subway’s decline. But the real political problem is, at root, a structural one. The subway subsists on an ad hoc patchwork of taxes implemented and overseen by a governor who represents millions of voters well beyond the greater metropolitan area. Brennan estimates that New York City is responsible for 55 percent of the state’s revenues, but that doesn’t change a fundamental political reality for its governors: People who don’t ride the subway don’t want to pay for the subway. You might say the subway is a victim of the same rural-urban divide that has come to define American politics today. A more parochial version of this divide exists in the city itself, where representatives of car-centric outer-borough neighborhoods continue to fight congestion-pricing plans that could deliver hundreds of millions of dollars every year to the M.T.A.

How much money does the subway really need? The Regional Plan Association has done some preliminary estimates based on the current cost of M.T.A. projects. They calculated that renovating the 30 stations most desperately in need would run $14 billion. Dealing with those sharp turns to increase speeds and capacity would cost $5 billion. Adding 61 track miles with new stations — mainly in neighborhoods without subway access and with large and generally low-income populations that are heavily dependent on mass transit — would run another $62 billion. Replacing the signal system would cost $27 billion. The group didn’t look at replacing or overhauling cars, but a recent M.T.A. contract priced them at about $2 million each, so buying all of the new cars that are needed would cost nearly $3 billion.

Just this partial list — I haven’t included the platform doors, for instance — brings the total to about $111 billion. It’s a big number. But not when you put it in context. New York City and its environs generated $1.7 trillion in gross metropolitan product in 2016. That’s roughly 9 percent of the nation’s overall G.D.P. How much of that activity is dependent on the subway? About a year before Hurricane Sandy, a state-funded group of scientists and engineers produced a comprehensive (and as it happens, prescient) report on the damage that a hundred-year storm surge could cause to the system. One of the study’s authors, Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at Columbia University, told me that losing the subway for a month would cost the city about $60 billion in lost economic output.

The reality of this apocalyptic scenario hasn’t sunk in. Absent sufficient resources, the subway has been left with diminished ambitions and empty spectacles. Inside the ventilation room at Union Square, Cuomo delivered some remarks about the scourge of garbage in the subway and then led the group out onto the waterlogged tracks. A few industrial-strength vacuum cleaners stood waiting. The governor posed for a picture with a Starbucks cup he had picked up off the rail bed and then took a turn on the hose of the 83-horsepower Vac-Tron, sucking up watery gunk that would no doubt be back with the next heavy rain.


The subway has been saved before, and the man who saved it was Richard Ravitch. Stocky, white-haired and gruff, Ravitch, now 84, is the type of civic macher you don’t see much anymore, an urban idealist who has spent his career moving back and forth between the public and private sectors. His grandfather fled the pogroms in Russia, and — classic New York story — created a successful construction business from nothing. He lost everything in the Depression, and then his son, Ravitch’s father, made his name building apartment buildings on Central Park West.

Ravitch followed his father into the real estate business. In the 1960s, he served on President Lyndon Johnson’s National Commission on Urban Problems, and in 1973, after 12 years of trying, he completed Waterside, a $78 million, 1,470-unit development for low-and-middle-income families on the East River, just south of the United Nations. A couple of years later, Ravitch played a critical role in rescuing New York City from its fiscal crisis, helping to persuade the teachers’ union to invest $150 million of its pension fund in a new series of city bonds. And in 1979, he was named chairman of the M.T.A.

Ravitch didn’t need the job or even really want it. He waived his salary and took to wearing a bulletproof vest in public after someone threatening to kill him shot an M.T.A. police officer at his office. But he was a child of the New Deal and a passionate believer in the subway, which at the time was in even worse shape than it is today.

During the fiscal crisis, drastic funding cuts had spun the subway into a downward spiral of deteriorating tracks, malfunctioning cars, increasing crime and falling ridership, a steep decline that tracked the city’s own postindustrial collapse. To reverse the trend, Ravitch prepared a detailed breakdown of the costs of repairing and replacing all of the system’s outdated equipment and proposed a sweeping plan to help fund the work. He argued at the time: “The transit situation, though lacking the drama of imminent bankruptcy, represents an equally grave threat to our economy, the social equilibrium and the survival of the greatest city in the world.”

The subway’s importance to the city begins with a single, durable economic principle: Cities create density, and density creates growth. Economists call the phenomenon agglomeration. Not only does geographical proximity reduce costs, but it also facilitates the exchange of knowledge and spurs innovation. It’s a principle that holds true for better and worse and regardless of the industry. The free-market economist Edward Glaeser has pointed out that the junk bonds and leveraged buyouts of ’70s and ’80s Wall Street were as much the product of human collaboration as they were of corporate greed. The urban-planning professor Elizabeth Currid-Halkett coined the phrase “the Warhol economy” to describe how this same sort of cross-fertilization and idea-sharing works in New York’s art, fashion and music worlds. As industries grow, they attract and create new, connected ones: Book publishers beget book agents, tech start-ups beget venture-capital firms and so on. It all begins with the ability to pack large numbers of people into small spaces and then unpack them at the end of the day. Without the subway, this process breaks down, and the city dissipates.

Ravitch took his case to editorial boards and legislative leaders. But there was a problem. No one wanted new taxes. So Ravitch cold-called David Rockefeller, the longtime head of Chase Manhattan Bank. “I said, ‘Mr. Rockefeller, this is an audacious request, but would you get up at 5 in the morning and let me show you the subway system?’ ” he told me one afternoon in his office at Waterside. “And he said yes.” Ravitch then suggested that Rockefeller bring along the chairman of MetLife and the president of AT&T. All three went and saw the dirty, graffiti-scarred system firsthand. As Ravitch tells the story, that was all it took: Rockefeller called the majority leader of the State Senate and told him to “give Ravitch what he needs.” The tax package passed, and Ravitch ultimately raised $7.7 billion — more than $17 billion in today’s dollars — much of which was spent replacing cars, refurbishing stations and increasing maintenance.

The turnaround was not immediate. A year after Ravitch’s tax plan was enacted, annual subway ridership dropped below one billion. But before long, as the system gradually became safer, more reliable and less unsavory, it started to trend up. By 2015, ridership had hit 1.7 billion, a level not seen since the late 1940s.

The rejuvenation of the subway has been intertwined with a protracted period of staggering economic prosperity — agglomeration at work. New York rebuilt the subway, and the subway rebuilt the city. It was one of the great urban renaissance stories of our modern era. But now that the city is thriving, it faces another challenge, perhaps an even greater one: how to spread this staggering wealth more evenly. The subway might again be a central part of the solution.

If the story of the subway is the story of density, it is also the story of land — and more to the point, the story of land value. Before the first tracks had even been laid, real estate speculators were gobbling up farmland and empty lots along the proposed route and then quickly flipping their parcels at huge premiums to builders. When the subway recovered from its last major crisis, it again began throwing off enormous returns for the owners of the land above it. From 1993 to 2013, the average price for a co-op or condo in TriBeCa rose from $182 per square foot to $1,569. In the process, prime real estate in Manhattan was transformed from a place where people lived and built businesses into a high-yield investment in which absentee owners parked their money and watched it grow.

As Manhattan’s business-district centers became denser and its scarce real estate more expensive, the growth started to spill out, following the subway’s snaking lines across the river, into Brooklyn and Queens. “Developers build things where the subway works, and we build far fewer things where it doesn’t,” Jed Walentas, the 43-year-old principal of the real estate development company Two Trees Management, told me recently over lunch at a cafe in Dumbo, Brooklyn’s answer to SoHo. “We put density where there’s transit.” Walentas, who was wearing the familiar Brooklyn uniform of jeans, New Balance sneakers and a blue hoodie, and his father, David, own a good chunk of Dumbo, an investment that has made them rich — house in the Hamptons, vacations heli-skiing — beyond the wildest dreams of most New Yorkers.

I’ve known Walentas since the early 2000s, when I rented a desk in one of his many buildings in the neighborhood, a turn-of-the-century factory that has since been converted into multimillion-dollar condominiums. This is pretty representative of Dumbo’s overall trajectory over the last two decades. It’s a stark transformation that would have been impossible to predict when his father first started buying up the neighborhood’s underutilized properties in the early 1980s, before it was widely known as Dumbo. What enabled it to happen wasn’t just the neighborhood’s excellent subway access — it’s sandwiched between the F line and the A line — or the city’s economic recovery, or even the exodus of rich people priced out of Manhattan by even richer people. The transformation of Dumbo required something much simpler: a change in the zoning law. For years, the neighborhood had been restricted to only manufacturing uses, a legacy of the city’s losing battle to retain industrial jobs in the 1960s. In the late ’90s, Walentas and his father were able to persuade the city to jettison these old rules and allow them to completely remake the neighborhood, filling old factories with loft apartments, design-and-tech-centric offices, retail stores, artists’ studios and new condo towers. In the subsequent 20 years, as the neighborhood changed, average condo prices rose from $200 per square foot to more than $1,500. More recently, Walentas has pushed north into Williamsburg, leveraging similar rezonings there to turn a former textile factory into the trendy Wythe Hotel (near the L train) and a 19th-century Domino sugar refinery (J, M and Z) into three million square feet of office space, retail stores, parks and apartments.

Like most good-government tools, zoning sounds boring, but it is in fact a secret means by which cities are shaped and fortunes are made. If the subway delivers density, zoning determines where that density goes by doing things like placing limits on how tall buildings can rise or how many dwellings they can contain. New York’s zoning codes are byzantine, the product of years of pushing and pulling between the desire to allow the city to evolve and grow and the impulse to keep development in check. These codes have helped preserve the city’s historic buildings and neighborhoods while preventing its streets from being forever cast into darkness by endless rows of skyscrapers. But they have also had the effect of restricting the supply of housing, which has driven up prices, especially in neighborhoods with desirable buildings and good subway access. “I rent studio apartments for $3,400 a month,” Walentas told me. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

New York is facing an affordable-housing crisis. In response, the city is incentivizing developers to build below-market-rate housing with property-tax exemptions, while also adding regulations that require them to incorporate more affordable housing into their higher-end projects. But securing one of these affordable units is not easy. Of the roughly 2,300 apartments in Walentas’s Domino project, about 700 will be reserved for lower-income tenants. The first 105 affordable units were recently made available at monthly rents ranging from $590 to $964; 87,000 people entered the lottery for them.

Walentas is a developer. If you want housing to be more affordable, he says, build more houses. “The way to put downward pressure on rents is not to have fear of making things better,” he told me. “It’s to make things so pervasively better that people have more choices.” In his words, it’s “insane” that so little of the wealth that the subway generates flows back into the system. In Hong Kong, the company that runs the subway also controls the property around it, earning huge amounts that it can then reinvest in service enhancements. The M.T.A., by contrast, is largely cut out of the land profiteering that it enables: Of the authority’s roughly $16 billion budget in 2017, about $460 million came from a tax on residential real estate transactions. An additional $520 million came from a tax on commercial sales. To put those numbers in perspective, several years ago, a group of economists calculated that the land in New York City — just the land, not the buildings on it — was worth about $2.5 trillion. One thing New York City has plenty of is money, and much of it is bound up in real estate, a kind of blank canvas with unlimited economic promise.

Toward the end of our lunch, I asked Walentas a hypothetical question: What if the M.T.A. could offer the real estate community development rights as a kind of bargaining chip? Would it underwrite subway upgrades and expansions into underserved areas in exchange? “Oh, yeah,” he said without hesitating. “It’s just math. You can make the money come right out of the air with a pencil.”

The subway has made a lot of people very rich. And without carefully constructed zoning laws that foster inclusive growth, it can create the kind of gentrification that contributes to America’s growing income divide. That divide has been especially acute in New York City. The Fiscal Policy Institute, an economic think tank, reports that between 1980 and 2015, the share of the country’s income going to the wealthiest 1 percent increased from 10 percent to 22 percent. In New York City, it went from 12.2 percent to 40.9 percent. The subway can help narrow that divide by doing what subways do best: increasing density. For all the recent growth in neighborhoods like Dumbo and Williamsburg, large pockets of the city remain underpopulated and underdeveloped. Many of these neighborhoods already have good subway access. One of them is in a section of Brooklyn called East New York.

East New York is predominantly black and Hispanic, with a small South Asian community. Its median household income is about $35,000, and some 35 percent of its 35,000 or so residents live below the federal poverty level. East New York was gradually hollowed out by the same cycle of disinvestment that ate away at a lot of formerly middle-class neighborhoods in New York and other American cities over the course of the 1960s and ’70s. The city’s manufacturing jobs had disappeared, and the white middle-class flight from the neighborhood was underway, helped along by avaricious real estate brokers who issued alarmist warnings about East New York’s future. In the process, East New York became a victim of what economists call spatial, or geographic, inequality: As its population shrank and its demographics changed, stores closed and city services declined, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

And so for the most part it remained, until recently, when the gentrification that had been pushing east across Brooklyn along the L train began to creep into East New York. A neighborhood that had long been starved of resources was now in danger of being hit by a wave of development that could push out longtime residents. What was to be done?

The answer will be a kind of grand experiment in urban planning, made possible, of course, by the subway. East New York was recently rezoned to invite both residential and commercial development to revive the neighborhood, but with a combination of regulations and incentives that will ensure that half of the nearly 6,000 units of new housing would be affordable. This time, as the subway draws new residents to a neighborhood, the city will take a stronger hand in shaping its demographics and trying to ensure that its existing population isn’t priced out. The hope is that the whole neighborhood will become more dense, and the resulting prosperity will be widely shared. All with just the stroke of a pencil and the subway.

The concept dates to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s era, when the Obama administration awarded New York a grant for cities looking to build more affordable housing near mass transit. De Blasio has now turned it into an early cornerstone of his promise to build or preserve 300,000 affordable apartments around the city. In addition to the subsidies it will provide to developers, the city has pledged to contribute $250 million to building schools, parks and a new community center in the neighborhood. “This sort of targeted investment has never been done before in any community,” the local City Council member, Rafael Espinal, told me as we toured the neighborhood on a recent afternoon. Espinal, the son of Dominican immigrants, grew up in the adjoining neighborhood of Cypress Hills and was an important advocate for the rezoning, over the objections of some who argued that the increased development would only accelerate gentrification in East New York. “If we didn’t move forward with this plan, the reality is that people here would have been displaced,” he said as we passed the construction site for one of the neighborhood’s first new developments, Chestnut Commons. It’s a mixed-used development built around an apartment complex with 274 units of affordable housing; more than 80 units will be set aside for households earning up to $25,770, some of them specifically reserved for formerly homeless families.

We ended up back at the Broadway Junction subway station, the inspiration for the rezoning plan and the home to five different lines and a stop on the Long Island Rail Road. Broadway Junction is dark, dingy and overcrowded. Some 100,000 people pass through this station every day, and yet the blocks surrounding it are largely barren. The rezoning plan envisions a rebuilt Broadway Junction as the commercial anchor for the whole project. It takes some imagination, but if you squint hard enough, you can see it: a brightly lit, newly renovated transit hub, providing the density needed for retail stores, office space and government and academic institutions, bringing new economic energy to the neighborhood and — while we’re imagining things — a much better subway for the people who live in East New York.

The revitalized blocks around Broadway Junction — desirable to people with more money, affordable to people with less — would reduce spatial inequality and provide current residents new jobs. And with a faster, more reliable subway, those same residents could also commute more quickly not just to Manhattan but to hospitals, nursing homes, health care clinics and community colleges in the outer boroughs, the source of a lot of the city’s more recent job growth. In New York, transit dictates opportunities.

The case for the subway is the case for mobility: physical mobility, economic mobility, social mobility. The business leaders, politicians and engineers who made the subway all those years ago understood that promise, and it remains the most profound message of the system even in its decline: The city can be built, and the people can come, and they can thrive — millions of them, then millions more.

That revelation has sustained us for more than a century, and some among us still see within our broken subway the stubborn glimmers of genius. When Max Diamond was a preschooler in Park Slope in the late 1990s, he turned his wooden train set into an exact replica of his local line, complete with all four tracks and the accurate location of each switch. By the time he was 8, he could identify and describe in detail all the different types of cars in the subway system. By the time he was 11, he knew the track layout of the entire system, not just the different stops on the different lines, but the hundreds of places where the tracks connect and the precise locations of the multitude of switches and signals. In the eighth grade, he started his own YouTube channel, where his subway videos, which he posts under the handle Dj Hammers, made him something of a celebrity among subway buffs.

In 2016, Diamond was hired by the M.T.A. as a paid intern, and at 21, he now crunches numbers in its performance-analysis unit while he works toward an economics degree at the City College of New York. We met one fall afternoon at the Fulton Street station in Manhattan, just a short walk from the M.T.A.’s headquarters, and boarded a Brooklyn-bound J train — an R42, he said, dating to 1969. We got on the first car, moving quickly to the large picture window at the front of the train, as has been Diamond’s custom since he was a toddler, and wended our way through the tunnels beneath Lower Manhattan before emerging into the fading sunlight on the elevated tracks across the Williamsburg Bridge.

Like most regular riders, I tend to think of the subway as a necessary evil, the least worst way to get where I’m going, which made it a little disorienting to spend time with someone who rides the subway for fun. But in its early years, hundreds of thousands of people did just that every Sunday. According to the historian Clifton Hood, it was called “doing the subway.” Diamond calls it “railfanning.”

The subway is a very different sort of marvel today. What’s miraculous at this point is that it still works at all. The fact that it does, that even after decades of neglect it is still somehow managing to carry New York’s economy on its back, may be the best argument for giving it everything it needs, and then a whole lot more.

And what is the alternative?

Here’s one possible scenario: New York won’t die, but it will become a different place. It will happen slowly, almost imperceptibly, for years, obscured by the prosperity of the segment of the population that can consistently avoid mass transit. But gradually, an unpleasant and unreliable subway will have a cascading effect on New Yorkers’ relationship with their city. Increasingly, we will retreat; the infinite possibilities of New York will shrink as the distances between neighborhoods seem to grow. In time, businesses will choose to move elsewhere, to cities where public transit is better and housing is cheaper. This will depress real estate values, which will make housing more affordable in the short term. But it will also slow growth and development, which will curtail job prospects and deplete New York’s tax base, limiting its ability to provide for citizens who rely on its public institutions for opportunity. The gap between rich and poor will widen. As the city’s density dissipates, so too will its economic energy. Innovation will happen elsewhere. New York City will be just some city.

That doesn’t have to happen. The subway still exists, and the people who operate it still bring a kind of subtle genius to their work. As we rode deeper into Brooklyn, Diamond told me about something he had seen the night before. He had been monitoring the Yankees’ playoff game on the internet, not because he cares about baseball but because the heavy crowds during the postseason often spur rare service patterns.

His instinct was right. “Trains started at Yankee Stadium and went down the D line to 36th Street, then switched over to the N line to Coney Island, then continued through the Coney Island terminal, before switching to the Q line to Brighton Beach,” Diamond told me. This sort of move wouldn’t be possible in most other cities, where subway lines operate independently, but in New York they overlap and intersect, making a single, cohesive, interchangeable whole. “It was actually pretty brilliant,” he said in a reverent tone, as the blue sky in front of us began to darken.

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