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The sandhogs are still a force to be reckoned with beneath the streets of New York. An Irish flag hangs at the entrance to the excavation shaft, and before digging on the 7-line extension could begin, the city's new Roman Catholic archbishop paid a visit, tracing the sign of the cross over bowed hardhats. With the coming of the "mole," the most dangerous part of the sandhogs' jobs, digging into potentially unstable ground with picks, shovels, and percussion drills, was eliminated—but so were a good number of jobs.

At the turn of the last century, it took almost 8, men, working for two dollars a day, to excavate New York's first subway lines. The mole, the steam-powered hammer to the underground miners' John Henry, has turned out to be the biggest, toughest sandhog of them all. Around the world, hundreds of such machines are now at work, chewing through geology in an unprecedented push to increase human mobility.

In Beijing, Madrid, Delhi, and Los Angeles, TBMs are drilling beneath the feet of urbanites, in one of the most astonishing bursts of transit infrastructure building in decades.

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As the planet enters a new phase of urbanization, cities are looking to advanced transit systems as the way out of congestion, pollution, and economic stagnation. The mole may have taken the danger, and thus the glamour, out of tunnel digging, but it is allowing cities to build new lines on time and on budget, with no loss of human life. The fact that New York—which for decades stood alone among great cities in that its total track mileage was actually decreasing—is finally digging a new tunnel, is a sign of the times. After half a century of freeway building, the subway is back.

If all goes well, Redmond explained to me as we rode back to the surface, the work would be completed some time late in According to its critics, the 7-line extension, which will add exactly one stop to the existing network, is a "subway to nowhere"—a waste of precious resources in recessionary times. It was intended to serve a stadium for the Summer Olympics, but when New York lost the bid to London, plans for a second stop for Hell's Kitchen—a neighborhood sorely in need of another stop—were dropped.

The line will terminate at the largest undeveloped patch of real estate in Manhattan: the Hudson Yards, twenty-six acres of switches and marshaling tracks the MTA sold to Related Companies and Goldman Sachs in for a cool billion dollars. According to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, it is such long-term investments in infrastructure that will transform areas full of promise into "neighborhoods full of residents, park-goers, office workers and shoppers.

The price tag for extending New York's subway network by just one mile in the early years of the twenty-first century? Just over two billion dollars. The project, by any calculus, is ridiculously expensive. Thanks to the tunnel-boring machine, the actual excavation work is not a big provider of employment for the city. But laying new subway track—even a controversial project like the 7-line extension—may be the smartest investment New York has made in its own future in decades.

Were it not for the subway, New York as it is today would not exist. At a crucial time in the city's history, the engineers of this ingenious subterranean railroad cleared the streets of impossible congestion and decanted the population of the teeming, insalubrious tenements of the Lower East Side to the farthest corners of the boroughs.

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Because it was able to move so many people so quickly, the subway became the ultimate urban density amplifier, allowing the apartment buildings and office towers of Manhattan to be built side-by-side, and turning a square-mile island of gneiss, marble, and schist into one of the world's greatest metropolises, where millions could live and trade services, goods, and ideas swiftly and efficiently. Given how badly it was neglected in the twentieth century, it's a miracle that New York's subway survived into the twenty-first at all. In the mids, when the underfunded system's rolling stock was already forty years old, the city adopted an official policy of deferred maintenance, kicking off a long decline that tracked the city's sagging fortunes.

The nadir came in the early '80s, as motors fell from brackets and trains burst into flames with depressing regularity. In one of the worst accidents, an antique signal failed, causing a Manhattan-bound local to slam into the back of a train waiting in a Brooklyn tunnel, killing the motorman and injuring riders. When author Paul Theroux spent a week riding the rails in , he discovered a Dickensian underworld of loopers car-hopping purse-snatchers , skells vagrants , shoeflies undercover transit cops , and lushworkers drunk-rolling pickpockets , where transit workers were burned alive in token booths for kicks.

What an engineering marvel they eventually created in this underground railway! And how amazed they would be to see what it has become, how foul-seeming to the public mind. Tokyo is a product of being built on rail networks, Phoenix the private automobile, and Copenhagen, now, the bicycle.

  1. Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile by Taras Grescoe.
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  5. Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile by Taras Grescoe?
  6. My biggest issue with the book as a whole is that Mr. Grescoe is clearly a trainophile or railfan. He loves trains. However, he does emphasize them over other forms of transit, and in particular the bus. I found this particularly irritating given the position I have taken on this blog supporting bus transit and bus rapid transit. To be fair, Grescoe is not maligning buses, merely they come second in his preference for mass transit options, which is understandable in dense urban environments.

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    I compiled a list of references to support this bias, but I feel now it would be ridiculous to highlight them. He does offer space to critics of transit in the book, and they are treated with sincere consideration. Three of the chapters focus on Canadian cities: Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver though it shares its chapter with Portland, Oregon. His thesis is that the urban fabric should support human activities and the not automobiles.

    Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile

    He makes a compelling case with fascinating stories of normal people around the world who live in their cities off transit. Straphanger definitely feels like a book where individuals find the environment that suits them, whether that means moving to a new country, city, or simply changing neighbourhoods to find the quality of life the desire. No system can be applied universally, instead the existing environment must find a transit system that matches it.

    An enjoyable read and definitely worth checking out if these topics interest you. Sep 09, Krista rated it liked it. A combination of a manifesto against the automobile and an ode to trains. With a coda grudgingly giving credit where credit is due to the bus.

    One thesis is a worn one; we're running out of oil to power our personal automobiles and even if we go electric, most electricity comes from coal. So it's lose lose. But Grescoe approaches his ode not from an environmental standpoint, but from a social standpoint. And a community structure standpoint. And a health standpoint. The automobile has isolated us. Dallas-Fort Worth is as large as Israel. People have skin cancer on the left side of their bodies more often than the do on the right. We're fat. We are like this by choice; we have chosen the freeway over the light rail.

    We have endowed personal ownership of a car as a symbolic representation of liberty, freedom and prosperity. We've paved everything in sight and called it progress. We have laws that require a minimum number parking spaces per development that guarantees that transit won't have a chance. Developers operate with a formula that people won't walk more than feet to get to a parked car and build with that in mind.

    But if it's hard to drive, people take transit and transit improves and more people take transit and transit keeps improving. But if you make it hard to drive, you are ousted from office. So how do we invoke change? Grescoe looks at 12 cities all over the world; paragons of transit and paragons of the car. And the history is interesting.

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    The first suburbs were built within easy distance of the city and connected by commuter trains. But then the car came hiccuping off the assembly line and made the possibilities endless. Then in the s, Eisenhower built up our concrete infrastructure, not to help us go on Kerouac-esque odysseys of discovery but to make sure we could get the military where we might need them in case of an invasion and evacuate our cities in case of nuclear war.

    And that's the American way. Public transit is for poor people. Public transit is communist. I am an American. I work hard. I buy my own car. I pay my own way. Somehow I forget how much public money is used to keep the roads upon which I'm exerting my libertarian independence in useable form. Public transit is also dangerous. A target for terrorists. A killer. Of course, in Japan, you are more likely to die from your pajamas catching fire than you are in a train crash.

    I live in Kansas City. A city completely enamored with the automobile.


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    Though my neighborhood is an early suburb, built with trolley and streetcar access to downtown, all of those tracks are gone. One is now a well-loved jogging path. A MAX bus runs on the street next to the jogging path but there is no rail. And those who advocate rail are immediately labeled as crackpot sociopaths.