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It’s Time to Fall in Love With Stuffy, Crowded Subways

Why Elon Musk is wrong about the future of transportation

Illustration: Cathryn Virginia

NNext year, a small segment of a single New York subway line is shutting down for 15 months — and it’s a very big problem. As the transit authority repairs a tunnel badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the L line will no longer cross the East River. Though the closure may sound insignificant, for many New Yorkers, the shutdown feels like an existential crisis. The L shuttles 400,000 riders between Manhattan and Brooklyn daily. Dwell on that number for a second: For a year and a half, a population the size of the entire city of New Orleans will have to find an alternative means of getting around New York every day.

To cope, the city’s departments have created an elaborate plan that involves six replacement bus routes, largely shutting down a crosstown thoroughfare to private vehicles, and closing the Williamsburg Bridge to any cars with fewer than three passengers. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs have spent years proposing both public and private transit alternatives to compensate for the shutdown. These include e-ferries, e-scooters, e-mopeds, gondolas, pontoon bridges, and an “ultra-luxe” shuttle called “The New L.” Only some of these will actually happen. (Sorry, Gondola and pontoon bridge aficionados.) Uber, Lyft, and other e-hails are poised to take financial advantage of the shutdown just as they have done with the subway struggles writ large. Meanwhile, the city’s bike-share system is expanding to cope with an expected surge in cyclists, and the city’s Department of Transportation is installing miles of bike lanes to accommodate them.

New Yorkers will soon see what a disaster really looks like.

But none of these efforts will be enough to replace the L. On a typical rush-hour morning, the L transports as many people under the East River as all the six East River bridges and tunnels combined. New Yorkers who scoff at the suggestion that the subway is anything other than a disaster will soon see what a disaster really looks like.

But in a perverse sense, the fact that the L shutdown poses such an immense challenge is a testament to the subway’s success. Andy Byford, head of the New York City Transit Authority and the official tasked with managing the L shutdown, routinely praises the daily “miracle” of the subway. And he’s not wrong. It’s ironic that the only transit mode that may save New York from the subway shutdown is the subway. The MTA expects other subway lines will absorb four out of every five displaced L riders.

Not many people these days consider the subway a success. Thanks to decades of mismanagement and bad funding choices, the subway is a constantly delayed, crumbling mess badly in need of billions of dollars of investment. Despite all that, the subway is still a daily miracle and the most powerful solution to public transportation ever conceived. What makes the subway such a success is not just the fact that the trains go through tunnels or travel particularly quickly. Instead, the subway is New York’s miracle precisely because of the one thing we hate about it. The subway is really, really crowded. And that’s what makes it good.

As urban areas continue to grow, Americans need to confront their intolerance for cramming together. Ubers, self-driving cars, and hyperloops titillate the imagination by promising a speedy, comfortable, and isolated vision of transportation — but all these promises are illusory. If we’re ever going to make cities work, we need to accept, and come to love, a fundamental truth: Packed urban transit is good urban transit.

BBefore the car took over, urban Americans were resigned to squeezing. American cities had robust transportation systems made up of streetcars, trolleys, omnibuses, and walkable neighborhoods. All these forms of transit are what we would now call high density, packing a whole bunch of people into small spaces. High-density transit cities benefit from emptier roads, which allows people to get where they’re going more reliably and makes them much more pleasant.

New York was once like this. Take a look for yourself at Broadway near Wall Street on a glorious spring Friday, May 13, 1902:

The Library of Congress description for this video describes the traffic as “very heavy,” even though by contemporary measures, street traffic is decidedly light. When the subway opened two years later, it let anyone who had a nickel — roughly $1 in today’s value — travel under the city at 40 miles per hour, all while still adhering to the principles of high-density movement.

Since the day the subway opened, its congestion has been a source of frustration, anger, and discomfort. In the first edition of the New York Tribune after the inaugural journey, the newspaper proclaimed it “the birth of [the] subway crush.” In 722 Miles, a book about the history of the subway, history professor Clifton Hood writes that the subway prior to World War I was likely the most crowded it has ever been. Only a small portion of the system had actually been completed, and engineers underestimated how popular the express trains would be.

But the subway crush transformed New York into what it is today. The subway allowed New Yorkers to easily traverse the city and provided an outlet for some of the world’s densest neighborhoods. “None of the most congested neighborhoods in the world today — in Dhaka, Nairobi, and Mumbai,” historian Tyler Anbinder writes in City of Dreams, “are as densely populated as were the most crowded neighborhoods of the Lower East Side in the decade before World War I.” The subway opened the Upper Manhattan and Bronx farmlands, along with the Queens marshlands, to families who could afford to leave the city’s slums. The city became a daily accordion, its people pushing in and rushing out, humming with economic activity.

The subway also shifted riders’ attitude and prejudices. It brought people from far reaches of the city very close together in a way trolleys never had. Whether this integration helped bust down race and class barriers, as some hoped, people at least put up with each other. This likely had — and continues to have — a profound effect on how New Yorkers view each other. As Richard Florida summarized in a 2015 study on the subject, “Cities are not always more tolerant, but it appears that those that are built to promote interactions between different sorts of people are.”

Americans need to confront their intolerance for cramming together.

But by the mid-20th century, U.S. cities were emptying, with middle-class Americans moving to the suburbs and the automobile becoming the country’s emblem of freedom and status. The car is the ultimate example of low-density transit, in which one person — sometimes more, but usually just one — takes up much more space than they need. Commuters were no longer forced to accept the existence of others, and space became the ultimate good. A 1949 Ford brochure, for example, declared that year’s car model was “a living room on wheels” — and the antithesis of the crush.

Today, big U.S. cities are filling up again. Almost two-thirds of Americans live in cities; New York and Washington, D.C., for example, have 700 more people per square mile than they did in 2000. But many of these urbanites no longer tolerate the hordes that our grandparents or great-grandparents did. I recently met someone who lives in one of the densest, most transit-friendly neighborhoods in New York but bought a car in anticipation of having a kid, as if it was self-evident that anyone with a kid needs a car. Minutes later, she lamented the city’s incorrigible gridlock. She exemplified the tension of so many new urbanites: They want the perks of high-density living without the inconveniences that come with it. It’s an untenable arrangement on which private companies seek to capitalize.

OOver the past decade, countless tech startups have poured into the transportation space and turned the promise of comfortable, even spacious, city living into a sales pitch. The vow to make this untenable arrangement tenable. As of yet, none of them have succeeded. In fact, some of them have only made things worse.

Not that long ago, ride-share companies argued they would solve urban congestion. In 2015, Uber founder Travis Kalanick said he envisioned “a world where there’s no more traffic in Boston in five years” thanks to his company. Unsurprisingly, transportation experts, city planners, and even ride-share companies themselves acknowledge they have only made traffic worse, not just in Boston but everywhere.

Recent investment in autonomous vehicles (AVs) by Uber, Lyft, Google, and any number of competitors could be useful for suburban and rural areas, but they are largely irrelevant in terms of moving large populations around an urban area. Even in their rosiest projections, AVs are still low density. The supposed traffic flow improvements AVs might bring apply only to highways, not urban grids.

“The fact of a vehicle being automated or not has only marginal influence on the overall capacity of the transportation system,” transportation expert Yonah Freemark told me. “Currently, trains can offer service for 20,000 to 40,000 people per direction per hour. A highway lane can move something like 2,000 cars per hour. With automation, the latter number may increase to 3,000.”

Or, as transportation planner Jarrett Walker put it, “technology never changes geometry.”

Then there’s the recent Silicon Valley investment in bike-share and scooter companies, offering a new vision for getting around cities. To be fair, these options are a form of high-density transit, the kind governments should be doing everything in their power to encourage.

But scooter and bike companies aren’t viable replacements for trains and buses, and they don’t even claim to be. Rather, they see themselves as most useful for short neighborhood trips or solving the so-called last-mile problem in connecting people to mass transit. In that sense, they hope to replace some number of car trips, but also some walking journeys.

Then there’s the ultimate pipe-dream solution to urban transportation: the hyperloop. Elon Musk launched this venture, in his own words, because he’s all too often stuck in traffic but hates public transportation. “I think public transport is painful. It sucks,” he infamously declared at a Tesla event. “Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time… And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of whom might be a serial killer. Okay, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport that goes where you want, when you want.”

“Letting [Musk] design cities is the essence of elite projection.”

Walker, who has dedicated his professional life to public transportation planning, called out Musk’s remarks on Twitter as “a luxury (or pathology) that only the rich can afford. Letting him design cities is the essence of elite projection.” To which Musk replied, “You’re an idiot.”

Even if Musk could successfully build a network of hyperloops — a gigantic “if” indeed — it’s not clear how it would, in theory, fit into the transportation landscape. Never has Musk or any other hyperloop booster proposed cramming people into pods for quick trips. His projects in Chicago and Los Angeles involve moving cars or 16-passenger “pods,” about the capacity of a Ford Transit van. Walker suggests that if ever implemented, the hyperloop will be more like an intercity train competing with air travel rather than with buses and subways. But Walker cautioned against betting on the hyperloop: “I don’t know whether the hyperloop is a thing, because the hype is so extreme that it obscures a clear view of the product.”

Musk himself acknowledges the hyperloop is not supposed to be high-density transit. In fact, it’s the exact scenario he invented the hyperloop to avoid. When asked at that same event why public transportation seems to work just fine in other countries, like Japan, he replied, “What, where they cram people in the subway? That doesn’t sound great.”

InIn some ways, what scares me most in transportation initiatives is doubling down on America’s original misstep with the automobile. The car turned transit into a commodity where people with means traveled quickly, comfortably, and alone. Everybody else was merely in the way. When we splintered off into our own pods, we lost a sense that we were all in this together.

But we don’t have to give in to private whims. The likes of Musk — or Uber and Lyft, for that matter — do not have to determine our futures. It’s a tough ask for a country that long ago ceded transportation to the private sector, but the reshaping of urban life presents an opportunity. The time is now, before it is too late, for cities to take charge and demand that luxury and comfort come second. Everyone being able to get to where they need to go, affordably and reliably, comes first.

And this won’t happen unless those of us who live here enthusiastically embrace crowded transit as good transit. This is why, despite the occasional unpleasantries, I take great comfort in squeezing onto the subway. It means there’s still hope. Tomorrow morning, at the Bedford Avenue stop on the L, an eight-car train will pull into the station. On its own, that train will shuttle the equivalent of 500 taxis. The train will look full, but it will not be full. The determined commuters will squeeze into every available space until there is less than one square foot per person. They will take off their backpacks, suck in their stomach, and make a little bit more room. The doors might have trouble closing, but they will close. Two minutes later, it will all happen again.

Aaron Gordon is a transportation reporter based in New York City and the author of Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter about the subway.

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