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History of Public Transportation in New York City Print E-mail

3rd Avenue Elevated RailroadThe 5,000-square-mile region served by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) since 1968 has always depended on a network of transportation routes and systems for its vitality and development.  This vast territory, centered on Manhattan Island and New York Harbor, was first tied together – and defined as a region – by railroads and steamboat lines in the 1830s and 1840s.  Ever since, New York City’s growth has continued to depend on the ability to efficiently move increasingly large numbers of people within its own residential and commercial districts and from the urban core to outlying farms, towns, suburbs, and villages.  As the city expanded, so did its commuter environs.

Transportation is the region’s lifeline.  It ensures that workers can get to their jobs, that life-sustaining and life-enriching goods can get to the marketplace, and that increasingly mobile New Yorkers can satisfy their requirements for travel and recreational pursuits.  Whether powered by horses, steam, electricity, or petroleum, public passenger transit by rail and road has been critical to the economy and quality of life in the metropolitan region.

On the Streets …

Horse Power
Public transportation in New York City began in the late 1820s with horse power. 

OmnibusOmnibuses were oversized stagecoaches that ran along a fixed route.  They were meant to seat fifteen passengers, although they were often cramped with more – both inside and on top!  The driver stopped when passengers tugged on a strap attached to his ankle. 

HorsecarHorsecars, streetcars that rode along embedded iron or steel tracks, were designed to carry more people and offer a smoother ride than omnibuses.  Passengers asked the conductor, who rode at the back, to signal their stops to the driver by ringing a bell.

Horse-drawn vehicles jammed city streets because their numbers weren’t regulated.  In addition, horses were slow, they had trouble climbing hilly streets, they ate lots of hay and grain (and produced lots of manure), and most could only work an average of five years.  The deadly outbreak of equine influenza (horse flu), which caused the death of many horses in 1872, showed that a single power source for public transportation invited disaster.

Cable Cars
Cable carNew York City’s first cable car line opened in 1883 on the new Brooklyn Bridge.  Cable Cars were moved by steam-driven machinery in a powerhouse, which continuously drew a loop of wire cables through a slot beneath the street.  When the cable car operator wanted the car to go forward, he gripped the running cable with a special device.  When he wanted to stop, he released the moving cable.  Cable cars were useful on grades that were too steep for horses.  But once electricity became available for trolleys, the value of steam-powered cable was limited, ending the run of cable cars in New York City in 1909.

TrolleyFor seventy years trolleys ran in all five boroughs of New York City.  Trolleys operated by electrical power delivered through wires running overhead or in underground conduits.  They were faster and cleaner than horsecars and cheaper to build and operate than cable cars.  However, the rapid increase in fuel-powered cars and trucks in the 1920s doomed the trolleys.  Running on fixed tracks in the middle of the city’s streets, trolleys became a nuisance in traffic and getting on and off them was dangerous.  During the 1930s and 40s, motor buses gradually replaced trolleys, though some trolley routes continued into the 1950s.

Motor Buses
MotorbusNew York was the first American city to use motor buses for public transit.  In 1905 the Fifth Avenue Coach Company introduced gasoline-powered double-decker buses that operated on crosstown and uptown lines.  Within two years, it had replaced all of its horse-drawn vehicles with motor buses.  Motor bus service expanded greatly in the 1920s and 30s.  In a bold move, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia ordered that motor buses replace all electric-traction vehicles, including trolleys.  More than 700 buses were purchased for the Manhattan conversion in 1935-36 that established the standard in bus design, with two doors, a rear-mounted engine and transmission, and a hoodless front end.  Today, nearly 5,000 buses operate in all five boroughs, covering almost 3,000 miles of routes.

Above the Streets …

Elevated Trains

Elevated TrainNew York City’s earliest form of rapid transit was the elevated railway, or el.  The first elevated line with passenger service was the cable-powered West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway, which opened in 1868 and ran for just a few years.  When the New York Elevated Railway introduced small steam locomotives to replace cables in 1871, the age of the els had arrived.  Designed to run on tracks nearly three stories above city avenues, the elevated trains drastically changed the ways in which New Yorkers viewed their city and lived their lives.  By 1880 most Manhattan residents were within a ten-minute walk from an el.  By 1903 the elevated systems in Manhattan and Brooklyn had shifted from steam to electric power, offering a smoother, cleaner ride.

The els ushered in aspects of urban life that we now take for granted – from being able to live, work, and shop in different parts of the city, to constantly interacting with people from different neighborhoods and backgrounds.  Although the els were dirty and noisy and blocked sunlight from the streets below, they allowed people to travel quickly and cheaply throughout the city for nearly a hundred years, helping transform New York into a bustling metropolis. 

Below the Streets…


SubwayTo ease New York City’s demand for rapid transit, city authorities determined to build a subway that would meet two objectives.  First, it would quickly and efficiently move people about in crowded Manhattan.  Secondly, it would move them out of crowded Manhattan.  Subway lines would extend out to vast tracts of undeveloped land, where new neighborhoods could be created, helping to turn a cramped island city into a sprawling metropolitan area.

The IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit Company) began construction on the first subway line in 1900, and less than four years later, the IRT began whisking New Yorkers beneath city streets, carrying over 100,000 riders on its very first day.  Subways, traveling at close to 40 miles per hour, were much faster than trolleys (6 miles per hour) and elevated trains (12 miles per hour).  Passengers appreciated features of the system, including choices between local and express service, fewer weather-related delays than street transportation, and the single fare they had become accustomed to on other modes of public transit – five cents regardless of the distance they traveled.

Most of the subway system we know today was built swiftly during a great burst of construction from 1913 to 1931.  To encourage rapid growth, the city divided subway contracts between two companies.  This arrangement, known as the "Dual Contracts" or "Dual System," awarded rights to the IRT to expand existing Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Bronx lines.  It awarded what later became known as the BMT (Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation) contracts for new lines in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens.  Additional lines were added by the IND (Independent Subway System) in the 1930s, helping to hasten the end of many older elevated trains that ran the same routes above ground.  In 1940 the city unified all three subway lines under public ownership.  New York City Transit was created by the New York State Legislature in 1953 and became part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority when the MTA was created in 1968.

New York City’s subway system is one of the busiest and most extensive in the world, serving nearly five million passengers every day with 26 train lines operating on over 800 miles of track.  The subway runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and connects all boroughs except Staten Island.  Plans included expanding the system to Staten Island, but the route was never built.  However, Staten Islanders can depend on the Staten Island Railway, which became part of MTA New York City Transit in 1971, linking 22 communities across the island. 

Beyond the City…

Commuter Trains and Buses

As New York’s metropolitan area expanded, the need for public transportation to shuttle commuters to and from the city’s business centers increased.  A number of private railroads and bus companies, once operating independently, were eventually consolidated into two commuter train lines and two commuter bus lines – now all part of the MTA network – in order to provide improved service to hundreds of thousands of passengers daily.

The Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), originally chartered in 1834 as a route from Brooklyn to Boston, has linked Long Island and New York City since the 1880s.  Since that time, the LIRR has played a large role in the development and economic growth of the Long Island communities it serves.  With tracks extending from New York City’s Penn Station to the eastern tip of Long Island – 120 miles away – LIRR is the largest commuter railroad in the nation.  It is also the busiest, serving an average of 274,000 weekday passengers. 

The nation’s second largest commuter railroad – after the Long Island Rail Road – Metro-North Railroad serves nine counties in the tri-state region of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.  Metro-North's roots can be traced back to the New York & Harlem Railroad, which began in 1832 as a horsecar line in lower Manhattan.  Today three main lines operate out of Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, which opened in 1913 to serve the predecessors of Metro-North.  Two additional lines, running west of the Hudson River, operate out of Hoboken, New Jersey. 

Long Island Bus links nearly 100 Long Island communities and 48 LIRR stations to areas throughout Nassau County, western Suffolk County and into eastern Queens.  The agency was established in 1973 when MTA unified ten private bus lines.  Today, the 54 routes of Long Island Bus generate over 100,000 weekday commuters. 

The newly formed MTA Bus Company was created in September 2004 to assume the operations of seven bus companies.  The merging of the companies into MTA Bus began in January 2005 and was completed in February 2006.  The seven companies operated 46 local bus routes in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens and 35 express bus routes between Manhattan and the Bronx, Brooklyn, or Queens. Together the seven companies had 1,228 buses, which makes MTA Bus the eleventh largest bus fleet in the United States, serving 400,000 riders daily.

New York City is distinguished from all other American cities by its use of public transportation.  From horse-drawn vehicles to the subways, buses, and commuter lines of today, public transit has been the overwhelmingly dominant form of travel for New Yorkers.  According to the 2000 U.S. Census, New York City is the only locality in the United States where more than half of all households do not own a car (the figure is even higher in Manhattan, over 75%; nationally, a mere 8% of households do not own a car).  About one in every three users of mass transit in the United States and two-thirds of the nation's rail riders live in New York City and its suburbs.  Transportation truly is the metropolitan area’s lifeline.


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