I’ve been doing a lot of subway riding this week. Going to places I haven’t been before, or just hadn’t been to in a while. It’s always nice when you can fill in the gray areas of your mental map and understand an area, instead of having it be a big void. It’s easy to succumb to the big void in big cities, especially if you are riding in a car, especially if you aren’t driving the car. Unless you take the time on foot, you can be very easily disoriented. Sometimes you may have been to an area really close to where you are, but you may not even realize it. I had a few of those moments recently where I came around a corner and suddenly noticed I was somewhere I had once been before.
The other day I wanted to go to the lowest tip of Manhattan, Battery Park. Whaddaya know, I was there fifteen years ago. Recently I was nearby to see the construction of the new World Trade Center tower, but this time I was taking the 6 train to the last stop and coming back North. Or was it the 4, or the 5? It gets tricky sometimes, for instance the 4, 5, and 6 are all green and generally go to the same spots in the middle of the lines, but they can also veer off at the extremities. So maybe I had to jump off at the end of 6 service and wait for the 4 to take me to Battery Park.
There were tons of tourists around Battery Park that day, and the famous bull had barriers around it and a line up of people waiting to take pictures. When I was there my first time, people could freely take a picture from any angle. The most popular being of the bull’s giant brass balls. Apparently, threats from Occupy Wall Street have prevented this bit of touristy photo op fun.
These pictures show the legacy of the early planning, or lack of planning in lower Manhattan. This is all the area from below the grid. You know about the grid right? “Everybody Loves the Grid!”
Try and visualize how these streets in the background all come together.
The next night I was coming home from the West side of Manhattan in the Chelsea neighborhood. This involved waiting for the blue E train. And waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Then there was an announcement about connecting to the F train, or was it about not connecting to the F train? I can never understand their announcements. So instead I got on the L at the next stop, to connect to the F at 6th ave, but I never go to 6th ave, and I had one of those Dungeons and Dragons adventures up stairs and down underground passageways wandering in search of the connecting tracks for my next destination. Fortunately, I didn’t encounter any large spiders, orcs, or muggers. When I made it there, the M train was pulling away, which was confusing and disappointing, because A) I didn’t know the M train ran through there and B) had I been there to catch it, I would have been able to take it most of the way home. Are you confused yet?
New York has one of the oldest subways in the world. It’s probably the most comprehensive and quite possibly one of the most complex to navigate, just look at this:
Buenos Aires, Argentina; first opened 1913, 68 stations, 30.1 miles of track.
Vienna, Austria; first opened 1976, 101 stations, 47 miles of track.
Sao Paolo, Brazil; first opened 1974, 64 stations, 46.2 miles of track.
Toronto, Canada; first opened 1954, 69 stations, 42.4 miles of track.
Shanghai, China; first opened 1995, 285 stations, 264 miles of track.
Paris, France; first opened 1900, 300 stations, 134 miles of track.
Berlin, Germany; first opened 1902, 173 stations, 91 miles of track.
Tokyo, Japan; first opened 1925, between the Yamanote line, Tokyo metro, Toei Subway that’s 315 stations, 218.1 miles of track.
Seoul, South Korea; first opened 1974, 314 stations, 241.9 miles of track.
Madrid, Spain; first opened 1919, 300 stations, 182 miles of track.
London, England; first opened 1863, London Underground & Docklands Light Railway together = 315 stations, 271 miles of track.
New York City Subway; first opened 1904, 421 stations, 207 miles of track.
421 stations! None of the populous cities of China, Japan, or Korea are within 100 stations of that. It makes for some interesting challenges to get to your destination sometimes. Imagine what the MTA goes through with the nearly constant schedule of new construction and maintenance. Then think of the logistics of keeping these running all over the city to keep people moving. I’ve been on some trains when from out of nowhere another train appears along side. They are usually two similar trains, but one may be the express train that doesn’t hit every stop. It’s pretty surreal because I’ve been riding along when the darkness outside the windows is broken up by the flash of lights from inside the other subway car. Suddenly you are staring at people ten or fifteen feet away from you while moving along at about 30 mph with one train maybe moving slightly faster and their images flickering by like an old movie as support beams and other barriers block you every few feet. Then one train turns away, rises, or drops and like that there is only darkness.
Riding the subway on this big network of tracks that takes me around the city is like being on a giant roulette wheel. Sometimes as I stand on the platform and the train pulls up I see hundreds of faces go by in each car and wonder how my luck will play out. Will there be anywhere to sit? Are there any pretty girls to flirt with? Did that bum shit his pants? Yeah you never know when it’s gonna be your lucky day.