Monday, 17 February 2014

The C Train, my childhood - and why the subway still gets me excited

It’s not a term that many people would associate with a journey on the New York City subway. But, as I trudged up the steps on Thursday from the C Train station at Spring St, I felt a warm glow of admiration. I emerged onto Vandam St to find that day’s blizzard – which would eventually drop 14 inches (36cm) of snow on parts of the city – still in nearly full flow. The transit system had nevertheless transported me with what seemed to be insolent ease from an above-ground station in Carroll Gardens down into the tunnels to downtown Brooklyn then, on another train, across the east river to the west side of lower Manhattan.

Vandam St in a snowstorm: a contrast to the order
beneath the streets
The journey’s smoothness was a tribute to the virtues of forward planning, teamwork and operational excellence that make for a smoothly-running transit system. At street level, by contrast, a rental truck whose driver had got it stuck on a pile of snow was blocking the street, holding up a snow plough.

Yet, just the day before, it occurred to me, I’d been raving about how magnificently satisfying my cycle ride to work had been. I’d braved well-below-freezing temperatures and persisting patches of ice and snow to ride to work on both Tuesday and Wednesday, enjoying the challenge of the unpredictable conditions and taking in magnificent views of the city spread out before me.

Wasn’t there a contradiction, I thought to myself, about my two positions? If I enjoyed using perhaps the most individualistic of mechanised transport methods – the bicycle – wasn’t it odd I also admired such an obviously shared form of transport as the subway? Moreover, it occurred to me, why wasn’t I alone in my shared enthusiasm? Why did so many of the cyclists and cycling advocates I knew have a decided preference for subways and buses over cars in conditions when they couldn’t get about by bike?

Trying to leave an F Train when the track ahead is on fire.
I can tell you what it felt like - just be grateful I can't
make you smell the acrid smoke.
I should start answering those questions by making it clear that not all – possibly not even most – of the subway journeys I’ve been forced to take for weather reasons in recent weeks have evoked the warm feelings that my trip on Thursday did. I’ve had plenty of long waits for trains and other disruptions, including the two-hour journey home I mentioned in a previous post. Worst of all was my experience on the morning of February 3. After unwisely guessing that the F Train to West 4th St would be my quickest route to SoHo, I found myself trapped underground for 40 minutes. The live rail in the station ahead was on fire and power to our train was cut while the fire department tackled it. I don’t especially recommend the experience of standing in a confined space with emergency lighting, no air-conditioning and a growing smell of acrid smoke in the air.
A G Train on a snowy day. My background tells me
it took teamwork and organisation to get this train running.
I should also confess that part of my feeling for subway systems stems from my background. My late father, who taught me to ride a bike, devoted his whole working life to subways – first in London, then in Glasgow. While my journey to work last Thursday might have seemed easy to me, I know that subways do anything but run themselves. My dad, I recall, diverted the taxi taking him and my mother to their 20th wedding anniversary dinner to the subway depot. A train had derailed at a critical point and he wasn’t going to relax until he was sure it was on its way to being put back.

I associate the New York subway also with my grandfather, who visited New York as a seafarer in the 1920s and told us wide-eyed children decades later about the marvels of express and local trains and the other complexities of the subway system.

As I spot some complicated bit of lineside equipment or work out some intricacy of the New York City subway system’s workings, I often feel a sharp pang at not being able to share it with my father, who died in 2002. “My train was diverted over the disused express tracks, dad!” “I got a good look at the snowblowing train!”

But there are also plenty of things about transit systems that cyclists can appreciate even if they haven't got my back story, I think. While many motorists seem to view their car as an extension of private space, I recognise clearly when I’m on my bike that I’m involved in a complex social interaction. The difficulty of communicating with other drivers is one of the things I least like about driving. It’s less of a stretch for me than for a driver or habitual taxi user to have to negotiate the scores of interpersonal transactions involved in using busy subway trains.
Copenhagen's cycle rush hour: they could have got
a nice train instead, lucky people.

It’s certainly no coincidence that cities that are good for cycling also tend to have good public transport. Copenhagen has a magnificent driverless metro system as well as good suburban S-Trains. Amsterdam has a formidable tram and suburban rail network. In the US, Portland, Oregon, has both some of the highest cycling and some of the highest transit ridership figures. Washington, DC, also enjoys a combination of relatively good cycling conditions and good public transit (even if the Washington metro’s train frequency and reliability could do with improvement). The careful planning and forward thinking required to build a good public transit network also tend to produce the kind of civic-minded thinking that prompts cities to curb car traffic, police streets well and put in good cycling facilties.

A partly-cleared bike lane: cyclists and transit users
have both been getting spotty service
New York and London, the two cities where I’ve most recently lived, fall in slightly odd places on the cycling-public transport continuum. Both suffered years of underinvestment. The 1930s-vintage lines that I use most heavily in New York are some of the city’s newest; London's underground steadily deteriorated between the 1960s and 1990s. Both cities veered off for decades in the direction of encouraging motor car use – under Robert Moses’ leadership in New York, inspired by his example in London. Moses fought to ensure badly-needed new transit lines were never included in his vast road-building projects.

There are days when, sorry, even I can't cycle
The spotty service I’ve experienced in recent weeks in New York is consequently an excellent summary of how the city is faring in both cycling and public transport. There are moments when the smoothness and progress from the worst times seems like a miracle. There are others when the main improvements from the city’s darkest days seem to be that the ageing trains are no longer covered with graffiti. The fire that kept me stuck underground isn't the only one I've encountered lately.

The subway's challenges regularly remind me that I prefer to cycle when I can. I also enjoy the exercise, the fresh air, the views from the Manhattan Bridge and cycling's relative reliability. Cyclists also avoid some of the hassles that come in winter as the homeless and disturbed crowd onto subway trains for warmth.

But, on days when the weather gives me no choice, the subway reminds me of the excitement I still feel at living in this mad experiment of a city, scattered on the islands and peninsulas around New York Harbour.

"This is a World Trade Center-bound E local train!" -
words that still sound oddly exciting to me.
Even the littlest detail of the journey can send that welling up in me. There’s the rattling of an express train through a local station, its lights flashing as they pass the support pillars. There are the names that evoke a thousand novels, songs and films. There’s the bizarre mixture of all kinds of cultures and classes one finds crammed onto many subway cars.

All are summed up sometimes in the announcements that squawk out over the public address as I step onto the train.

“This is a Manhattan-bound A train,” I hear with childish excitement. “Next stop: High St-Brooklyn Bridge. Stand. Clear. Of the closing-doors!”


  1. I've been to NYC a few times and the subway system there always impresses me. Unlike Stockholm's somewhat "sterile" and relatively tiny system, the NYC subway just oozes "age and wisdom". Like a wrinkled old person who has a ton of stories to tell.. :-)

    1. Dmitri,

      Thanks for the comment.

      The express and local system, the 24-hour operation and many other aspects of the New York subway's operation are all marvels.

      However, I will mention one thing about the Stockholm system. My father visited Stockholm to see your subway in the 1970s, during planning for the Glasgow Subway's modernisation and was hugely impressed with the station where the station cavern is unlined and there's paint straight on the bare rock. There's nothing quite like that in New York.

      All the best,


    2. Hi,

      Yeah there are several stations like that actually now, and I find that to be a clever way to save money without any drawbacks, all the while looking pretty cool :-)

      But the subway has not seen any expansion since 1994, and it's been badly needed.

      And my biggest pet peeve: bikes are never allowed.

      And it just doesn't have that atmosphere of New Yorks subway, I'm not sure what it is really...

    3. Dmitri,

      Well, modern metros are more bland, standardised and efficient. The New York subway isn't even standardised among the different lines built by the three different organisations that built the system.

      The bikes thing is annoying. One's allowed to take a bike on the New York subway outside peak hours. It's just generally very unpopular if one does it...

      All the best,


  2. Dmitri,

    Montreal used to have a bike ban. To show how ridiculous it was, protesters took all kinds of other things that were as large as a bike onto the subway. Bikes are now allowed on the Montreal subway.

    Which, btw, has rubber tyres. Very quiet.

    1. Kevin,

      Thanks for the comment. Bikes are allowed on the NYC subway, outside peak hours. But the dirty looks that any cyclist who brings his bike on the subway gets are a pretty powerful deterrent to ever using that right.

      All the best,


    2. I'll take dirty looks over a ban any day.

      As for protests, Stockholm residents are way too passive for that kind of event, and also the Swedish bureaucracy is way too complex... We're working on it through political channels though.

  3. Dear Invisible,
    You make an interesting connection between the cyclist and their will to engage public transport which was lived out through a recent experience. A visit to Edinburgh concluded with a trip to the airport with my manager. The airport bus is cheap and efficient but the preference was the taxi at three times the cost. It seemed that their personal preference was the reason, perhaps their experience of living life in a car made them unsure of the bus.

    I appreciate places & people, to have an immersive experience as I travel and I find that bicycle or public transport will give that opportunity where as the car removes it. So I wonder; did I always appreciate what was around me or has being a cyclist taught me that?

    1. Doug,

      I frequently have arguments such as that if I ever have to travel with colleagues, I favour public transport.

      I think people think being in a private motor vehicle gives them control of a situation. The fact that so many people think that means, of course, in many circumstances that none of them does.

      As for temperament, I think I became a cyclist because of a pre-existing inclination - but that being a cyclist has made the inclination more profound. Does that sound like what's happened to you?

      All the best,


    2. I think that part of the reason cyclists are more likely to use public transportation is that they have been able to escape the car mentality and are no longer blindly following what car culture has taught. You start to realize that you are free to choose the right tool for the job. You start to evaluate the costs and benefits of each means of transportation.

  4. I recently rode the NYC subway while there at the Youth Bike Summit. A woman came through one of the connecting doors talking to herself or to someone on an unseen phone connection. She sat across from us, and without comment or provocation spit across the aisle at the feet of the man to my right. The man to my left broke up laughing in disbelief saying "That is so NASTY" out loud over and over. I just kept to myself -- a true New Yorker at that moment.

    In DC we are also allowed bikes during non-peak hours. I hate that -- when I need to go to the city, I need to go during peak hours, and living out in the suburbs, taking my bike the whole way means 1.5 hours added each way. I can't wait until our new station opens with the 200+ secured bike room!

    1. SouthLakes,

      I hope you enjoyed the bike summit. I'm sorry we didn't provide better weather. Sadly, the subway in cold weather ends up sheltering a disproportionate number of those with mental health and other problems.

      As it happens, I was down last week in Washington, showing the family the sights and we were impressed with your metro, albeit not with the train frequencies. I noticed there was already signage for the new silver line (which I'm guessing is the one near you) so I hope they get it open soon.

      All the best,


    2. So we traded places? Sorry about that frequency thing. They figure tourists will put up with weekend delays while they're doing maintenance. And yes, we can't WAIT for the Silver line!

      By the way, this morning, Diane Rehm show, Doug Most talking about his new book about the Subways -- dug (get it, Doug?) in Boston and NY in the 19th century. The Race Underground. Absolutely fascinating listening. (I was trapped in car to take kid back to college)


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