History of the New York City Subway

The New York City subway system has been an iconic representation of American metropolitan transportation since its opening in 1904. Subways provide a solution to crowded cityscapes, offer a cheaper alternative to cabs and cars (which place the cost of gasoline, parking, and insurance on one commuter instead of many), and allow people to live in one borough and work in another. Woven into books, movies, and popular culture over its hundred-year existence, the New York City subway system has bled into other areas of history while simultaneously creating its own.


Contract for Construction

Construction of New York City's first subway line began with a contract between the Rapid Transit Construction Company and New York City on Feb. 21, 1900. The contract, worth $35 million and built upon a winning bid by John B. McDonald and financing by August Belmont, gave the Rapid Transit Construction Company, later called the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, the right to all tracks they built and a 50-year operating lease. The length of the lease is a sign of the high expectations for the new subway system, although many New Yorkers had their doubts that the potential risks of riding the subway, such as tunnel collapses and tuberculosis from the underground air, would outweigh the advantages.


Construction of the First Line

The first line of the New York City subway was built using the "cut-and-cover" process: open excavation, blasting, and brute work by men with pickaxes at night followed by removal of debris by day. Several obstacles hindered construction and required rerouting, including sewer and water lines, gas and electrical mains, natural bedrock, building foundations, the Columbus Monument, and occasional basements and bank vaults. While accidents did happen during the construction process, The New York Times reported only three serious ones, causing a total of 16 deaths and 125 injuries. These obstacles made the project's completion four years after its inception quite impressive.


Opening Day

The completed first line opened on Oct. 27, 1904, to the immense excitement of the public, 150,000 of whom would ride it by the end of the day. The line ran a total of 9.1 miles from City Hall in lower Manhattan to 145th Street and Broadway in Harlem, and it featured 28 stops, including Times Square and Grand Central Terminal. At 2:35 p.m., Mayor George McClellan controlled the first train, filled with contractors, investors, and employees of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company. The line opened to the public at 7 p.m. that day, cost a nickel to ride, and would soon become a daily part of life for newly minted subway commuters.


Expansion and Competition

After the success of their first subway line, IRT planned expansion throughout Manhattan. Additions to their line from 1904 to 1908 brought the New York subway system to a total of 23.5 miles. At this time, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT) became a competitor of IRT. BRT, incorporated on Jan. 18, 1896, served as a holding company, buying existing transit lines until it acquired a near monopoly on Brooklyn transit in 1909. Wanting to enter the Manhattan subway business, BRT signed two contracts with IRT on March 19, 1913. These contracts divided expansions in greater Manhattan and Brooklyn between the two companies, with the initial costs paid for by the city. This helped the New York City subway system expand at a faster rate.


City Takeover

During his two terms in office, from 1918-25, New York City Mayor John F. Hylan worked to eliminate both the IRT and BRT, renamed Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT) following bankruptcy in 1918, in favor of city-run lines. This attempt came at an opportune time: More people were riding the New York subway than ever before, and overcrowding was an issue. While demand was increasing, BMT and IRT were actually losing money. The 1913 contracts fixed fares at five cents, pitifully low following post-World-War-I inflation. Hylan thus proposed unifying both companies under a branch of the NYC transportation department. In order to buy out the competition, the city needed its own subway system; this was accomplished in a 1925 plan for city construction of three brand-new lines, independent from those owned by BMT and IRT.

On Sept. 12, 1932, the Independent City-Owned Subway System (ICOS) lines opened to the public. On opening day, this city-owned company had a mere 300 subway cars, compared to BMT's 2,472 and IRT's 2,281. A period of rapid expansion by ICOS would change this: Lines expanded into Queens and the Bronx by the end of 1933 and again in 1939. In 1940, unification came when BMT and IRT surrendered their contracts to ICOS, placing all lines under city control. This merger helped standardize the New York subway system and provided greater access to the subway throughout the city, helping to reduce overcrowding.

  • History of the Independent Subway: This article from the official NYC subway website outlines the creation of ICOS and provides information on the routes that were taken over and built.
  • NYC Rapid Transit: This thesis from Columbia University discusses the history of the New York City subway system, including specifics on the contracts signed by BRT and IRT.


Post-War Changes

American involvement in World War II and the use of raw materials and labor for the war effort made subway expansion in the 1940s nonexistent. In the early 1950s, things began to change for subway commuters. The five-cent rates that had existed for over three decades rose to ten cents in 1948 and again to 15 cents in 1953. Due to the turnstiles' inability to handle two different-sized coins, the rise in fares coincided with the introduction of subway tokens. While a few expansion projects were completed at this time, such as the lines from Rockaway Park to Wavecrest and the Bronx to Coney Island, the subway system focused more on maintenance and paying off the lines built in the late 1930s during this period.


Rise of the MTA

In 1965, the New York Legislature established the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority (MCTA). In 1968, the name changed to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), but the responsibilities remained roughly the same: regulating all forms of public transportation throughout New York state and absorbing previous branches. In 1967, the opening of the Chrystie Street Connection succeeded in linking the ICOS and BMT routes at 6th Avenue and Nassau Street; this was the largest project since ICOS's creation and coincided with the introduction of a new system of fonts, names, and colors to denote the routes. This overhaul was confusing to users at first but became the basis of the current system.


Graffiti and Danger Underground

Graffiti artists began taking over New York City in the 1970s, and the subway was hit especially hard. Violence increased as well, and robberies and assaults on the subway were commonplace. By the 1980s, more than 250 felonies were committed on the subway each week. Fear caused a decline in ridership, especially among middle-class commuters who could afford another means of transportation. Unfortunately, fewer riders meant less money for the transportation system, money that could have hired more security staff or cleaned up some of the omnipresent graffiti. It would take a citywide effort to combat crime to improve subway conditions.


Cleaning Up New York City's Subways

David Gunn, president of the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA), launched a program in 1984 to combat graffiti. In 1989, the MTA paired with the transit police of the NYCTA to place more officers in and around the subway stations of New York. Once the NYPD joined in a 1990 citywide effort to combat crime, subway crime dropped significantly and the focus again turned to improving the system. The MTA pitched a project in 1982 to reach a "state of good repair" in the subway. This project focused on updating the system with upgrades to stations and train cars.


Modern Challenges

Several changes to the New York City subway system have taken place in the 21st century. The subway began to become automated after the introduction of the MetroCard in 1994, a process which continued into the 21st century. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks shut down parts of the subway system for several hours and badly damaged several stations, including the Cortlandt Street 1 station, which would be closed for 17 years. In 2003, the MTA introduced plans for electronic signs displaying train routes and times, and subway tokens were phased out entirely in favor of the MetroCard. On Aug. 27, 2011, the MTA temporarily shut down the subway in anticipation of Hurricane Irene, marking the first weather-related shutdown in the subway's history. And in 2012, the FASTRACK program was introduced to improve the quality and timeliness of subway repair by shutting down parts of a line over consecutive weeknights.