PATH: NYC’s Other Subway System

As I mention on most of my tours, the population of Manhattan goes up to over 4 million during the average weekday.  Of this number, over 250,000 arrive into Manhattan from nearby New Jersey aboard the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) railroad.  Using two lines, commuters from Newark, Jersey City, and Hoboken cross the Hudson into the city every day.  While there are technically four lines (servicing Newark, Jersey City, and Hoboken), the main services go from Newark to the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan and from Jersey City to Herald Square in Midtown Manhattan.

PATH owes its beginnings to the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad.  Its tunnels were constructed between the 1890s and 1910s in several stages—including a stoppage at the turn of the century after a major accident in which many workers digging the tunnels died.  The system was very popular—in fact inspiring the work, Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos, until vehicular tunnels under the Hudson were opened.  The railroad limped along until it was acquired by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 1962—in order to help solidify their claim on the World Trade Center site, where the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad’s station in New York was located.  The Newark to World Trade Center line was heavily damaged in the September 11th Attacks, but has since been rebuilt and put back into operation—crowned with Santiago Calatrava’s $4 billion station.

While it may look like a subway, PATH is a commuter rail system.  Because the PATH system goes through mixed rail yards in New Jersey (where there are other passenger and freight trains), the cars conform to federal rail standards, as do the train’s engineers and conductors.  PATH also runs 24 hours a day—making it one of the few rail systems in the U.S. to do so.  Rail customers cannot transfer directly between PATH and NYC subways, although many stations have close connections and the PATH system uses the MTA’s Metrocard fare system (a direct transfer at the final PATH station to the NYC subway system at 33rd street in Midtown was sealed due to security reasons although signs on the walls still allude to the connection).

While it is not likely that you will use the PATH system to take a Sights by Sam tour (although the 9th Street Station is near where my Villages tour begins), PATH forms an important transportation link in the metropolitan area and is helpful for people looking to get to nearby New Jersey cities or see the New York Red Bulls play at their stadium in Harrison.

Grand Central Terminal

Only in New York would mere commuters arrive in the most stately of train stations.  Grand Central Terminal has welcomed travelers into the city since 1913.  Although Penn Station has the title for the busiest train station in the country (and even that is far from the busiest in the world),  it has 44 platforms and 67 tracks, the largest in the world.  Grand Central also has a cachet that is richly deserved among train station enthusiasts and visitors to the city.

The current terminal, once property of the New York Central Railroad, was built to replace the former Grand Central Depot and Grand Central Station that once graced the site.  Completed in 1913, it was designed by Warren and Wetmore.  The terminal was New York Central’s answer to the recently completed Penn Station, built by the rival Pennsylvania Railroad.  Grand Central and Penn Station would be in competition until the rivals united as Penn Central in 1968.  The Pennsylvania Railroad had already demolished Penn Station’s overground sections to get money to the struggling company.  Penn Central sought to reduce the costs to the company by repurposing the Grand Central Terminal site as a skyscraper with the station underground.  The station became the center of a preservation battle until the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of New York City’s historic preservation laws.  The terminal would gradually be restored and come under the management of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.  A massive project to connect the terminal to the Long Island Railroad and alleviate commuter pressure on Penn Station is currently underway.

Grand Central Terminal contains the most well-known meeting place in the city… the clock over the information booth in the central concourse.  The clock is valued at over one million dollars.  The star of the terminal, however, is the mural painted by Paul Cesar Helleu, which shows the constellations of the Northern Hemisphere.  The perspective, however, is flipped so that it is the view from heaven instead of the one we mere mortals see.  A shopping arcade and market remain popular among the thousands using the station daily.  Of interest to tourists are the Grand Central Oyster Bar on the dining concourse (known for its whispering galleries made of Guastavino tiling).

Grand Central Terminal remains a nerve center of Midtown Manhattan.  Its development helped to make Midtown the preeminent business center of the city.  Additionally, a space as utilitarian as a train station is elevated to a high art form here.  Consider seeing Grand Central as part of a Sights by Sam tour of Midtown Manhattan.

The Yellow Cab

One of the more ubiquitous symbols of a city are its taxicabs.  London is known the world over for its black cabs.  Hong Kong is known for its color-coded fleet of Toyota Crowns, and Indian cities have 1950s-vintage Hindustan Ambassador cabs plying their lanes.  New York is well represented by the yellow cab.  These conveyances form a crucial piece of the city’s transportation network, giving native and visitor alike a bumpy experience on their way between points A and B.

Cabs were first instituted in New York when horses still strode through the city.   Motorized taxis replaced carriages in the early 20th century.  Until Mayor LaGuardia was elected in the 1930s, the industry was largely unregulated.  During the height of the Great Depression, the city instituted a system of medallions to cut down on the number of taxis in the city (it was estimated that over 30,000 cabs were on the streets, with many not being able to collect any fares).  In 1967, the color of the cabs was set as yellow to make official taxis instantly recognizable (according to one legend, it was the police commissioner’s wife’s favorite color).  Yellow cabs tended to concentrate in Manhattan and around the two airports in the city, leading to vast areas of the city being underserved.  This led to black livery cars (illegally) picking up fares in the outer boroughs and Uptown Manhattan.  The advent of the borough taxi program in 2012 led to a fleet of lime-green taxis allowed to pick up in the Outer Boroughs and in Uptown Manhattan in order to bolster cab numbers and bring on-demand transportation to these areas.

Current estimates state there are over 13,000 cabs in the city.  They are regulated by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission.  These include both yellow and borough cabs.  In recent years, taxis have been facing increased competition from rideshare services, bringing the value of medallions down (which were at one point in the millions).  In the mid-20th century, many cab drivers were driving as a way to make extra money or as a second job.  Today, most drivers are recent immigrants to the city and country.  Although not of note to most visitors, city law prohibits cars used as cabs from serving in that capacity for more than five years, regardless of mileage.

You may be using a cab to arrive at or leave from a Sights by Sam tour.  Remember when riding in a taxi to buckle up, note the number of the cab (which will follow a 1A23 format if yellow or AB123 format if a borough taxi).  You should also remember to take your items with you as they may not be found again if you leave them.  It may also be hard to hail a cab between 4 and 6 PM (as this is during a major shift change for most cabs).  Despite rumors to the contrary, most cabbies are courteous and know where they are going.

Holland Tunnel

Every workday, the population of Manhattan doubles as an army of 1.5 million commuters storm the island.  Commuters come by land and sea (with what I imagine are quite a few by air as well).  Many commuters and visitors come into Lower Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel, one of the notable crossings of the city.

The idea for a vehicular tunnel crossing the Hudson River was postulated as early as the first decade of the 1900s, following the completion of railroad tunnels by the Pennsylvania Railroad.  Originally, designers wanted a bridge (including some designs of a “London Bridge” motif with buildings on the bridge).  This was shelved as the Hudson River was the epicenter of the Port of New York at the time and it was feared a bridge’s construction would interfere with river-borne commerce.  An innovative proposal consisting of a tunnel consisting of two tubes with two lanes each was agreed upon.

Contrary to popular belief, the Holland Tunnel is not named for the country nor that same country’s association with the city.  The lead engineer of the project was named Clifford Holland, the project’s initial engineer.  Holland did not live to see the project completed, so Norwegian-born engineer Ole Singstad  led the project to completion. Begun in 1920 and completed in 1927, the tunnel was one of the first that was strictly vehicular in the world.  It is now managed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the seaports, commercial airports, and crossings between New York and New Jersey.

The tunnel is revolutionary in that it solves the problem of pollution by cars with a system of ventilating fans.  Large, high powered fans, via ventilation towers in Jersey City and New York, exchange the air every ninety seconds.  Trucks are not allowed in the tunnel (due to safety restrictions and that the height of the tunnel is about a foot too short for your average semi to enter).  The tunnel is a characteristic white color that is believed to reduce road rage—it is brushed regularly with a special “toothbrush truck” the Port Authority has on hand for that purpose.  About 35 million vehicles use the tunnel annually.

Although existing in the same city as the soaring George Washington and Brooklyn Bridges, the Holland Tunnel is still notable.  Although thousands pass through it every day without noticing, the structure is a remarkable piece of civil engineering and a symbol of human ingenuity.  This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.

Under the Streets

Under the very streets of New York is one of the most important sights to behold, yet important for ferrying over three million people through the metropolis daily.  The New York City Subway, with 469 stations and enough track to go from Manhattan to Chicago, is essential to the functioning of the city as we know it.

Before 1904, when the current system opened, a crowded, seemingly never ending mass of horse carriages plied across the city.  The horses powering these carriages produced thousands of gallons of waste daily. This was in addition to the dead horses, which had to be removed.  For many, transportation was done via streetcars and cablecars, but these were dangerous for pedestrians in some areas (the Brooklyn Dodgers earned their nickname from fans dodging trolleys careening around their ballpark).  There were several elevated lines, but these were initially powered by steam (sending their pollution onto the streets below) or blocked out light to the bottom of the street (such as on the Bowery).  A new solution had to be found.

Inspired by developments in London in the mid 1800s, underground rail was sought.  Inventor Alfred Ely Beech developed a short subway line that was powered by large fans blowing the car from one terminal to the other in the late 1800s.  This line was short-lived due to political issues.

In 1900, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) began building its lines on the east and west sides of Manhattan and opened in 1904.  The IRT was soon joined by the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT) and later the Independent Subway System (IND, run by the city, as it was built independently of private investment).  The City of New York wound up owning all three systems a little before World War II.  Being three different companies, the stops often overlap, with many stops converging in Lower Manhattan as the idea was to move as many people as possible to the business district for work in the morning and back home at night.  The old systems are all incorporated into the current system: the IRT (numbered lines), the BMT (J through Z lines), and the IND (A through G lines).  Many lines can run in a local-express configuration, and the system is the largest of its type in the world that runs all day, every day.

The subway, in addition to being mostly utilitarian in its purpose, does have art in it such as Guastavino tiling, while other stations have intricate mosaics (Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall has pictures of the great bridge and Astor Place has beavers, which allude to the source of the Astor Family’s wealth in furs).  Several stations also have pieces from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Arts and Design Program, which features local and well-known artists.

The next time you are traveling from point A to point B in our great city, take a moment to look for hidden design accents and marvel that this is the busiest, hardest working system of its type in the country and an instant symbol of the great city.  This is one of the many things you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.