History of New York City transportation


ED GLAESER: Here in New York, we’re in city that is stupor mundi– that is a wonder of the world. And it is a city in which the physical layout of the city is also a wonder. And in some sense, it reminds us of how extremely difficult it is to handle eight plus million people on this very sort of narrow amount of land. And infrastructure makes that possible. Help us think through it. So what are the problems that the New York’s most important forms of infrastructure are trying to solve? KATE ASCHER: Well I guess the most important thing, which goes way back, is that New York City is more than just a skinny island. So you can’t fit eight million people on Manhattan. You can fit it in five boroughs. But those five boroughs are of course not connected by land. So probably the most important infrastructure in New York is actually the bridges and tunnels that connect and weave it together between Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, between Bronx and Manhattan, and of course between Staten Island and Brooklyn. So without the bridges and the tunnels, you really don’t have a city that could actually work. GLAESER: Five boroughs. Absolutely which reminds us the water is both New York’s blessing, but also its curse. So it starts right with the need to get goods into and out of the city, right, because this is a harbor. I guess it starts with the wharfs. Can you tell us a bit about 17th and 18th century wharfs? ASCHER: Well New York really started as a port. I mean most of the oldest cities in the world started as ports because trade was so important. But it literally was just a jumping off point for the Dutch West India Company because they wanted to go and trade. And so this was a convenient harbor. And everything started from there. The harbor started in a place where you would not know it now, it started on the Lower East Side and around where the seaport is, which is now a tourist attraction as opposed to a working seaport. But in the 18th century, and certainly in the 19th century, there was a dock and a wharf at the end of every street, if you can imagine that. Partly for freight, partly for people that were also moving across from New Jersey to New York, or from Brooklyn to New York, because, of course, at that time there were no bridges and tunnels. GLAESER: Then gradually we started having horse-drawn buses and other forms of transportation that would move you uptown, move the north south. ASCHER: Correct, correct. So the horse drawn carriages, private cars, stagecoaches, started with stagecoaches, moved to street cars, eventually they actually ran in tracks on the road, was wonderful except that there were no rules. So you had people’s private carriages, and then you had the streetcars, and then you eventually would have the steam drawn vehicles down the street. And at some point somebody realized, that was totally, totally chaotic. Well in the middle of the 19th century, because of course, steam you know from the steamboat, and then steam came in, and steam was not only powered things on the streets. Ultimately the first elevated trains, when people decided the streets were too crowded, they needed to put some mobility up. The original elevated trains were, of course steam as well, which was very dirty, and very noisy, and very sad for the people who were walking underneath them. So you can imagine that the streets became more chaotic. And then you added a whole other layer on top before you added a layer underground. GLAESER: Cars also came to the city. And, you know, were a source of both mobility and continual heartache. Tell me about that. How did the city deal with cars? How did they revolutionize this. And of course, this is a lot of what Robert Moses is associated with. ASCHER: It’s a good chapter in a bad chapter in some sense. I mean Robert Moses was famous for building most of the highways, and bridges, and parkways. Originally, remember he was Commissioner of parks. So he did parkways that allowed people to recreate. It wasn’t to get anywhere. It was to get out of the city and enjoy the green spaces that were around the city. They ultimately became highways and roadways that were much more functional in purpose. So those roadways not only ringed Manhattan, they went out to Long Island, they went in all sorts of places. And they great until the 1950s, 1960s, and thanks to a lot of other federal government policies, they actually allowed the suburbs to grow and New York City to somewhat hollow out, certainly Manhattan, to hollow out during that period of time when the city really needed residents and the taxes that those brought. So those roads were great, in terms of allowing people to get to the beach, and to the great green spaces beyond. They were not so great as sort of vehicles for, essentially, promoting growth in the suburbs.

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