New York’s subways were born of activism. During the
1890s, reformers had a vision for the city. They
dreamed of a reliable and inexpensive transit system
that would allow workers to escape a squalid lower
Manhattan and commute to and from affordable housing
To a great degree, their vision came true. As subway
lines opened between 1904 and 1940, so did thriving
new neighborhoods from Harlem to Sunnyside to Bay
Ridge. The subways shaped the city.
That tradition of activism continued, becoming
particularly pronounced in the last 25 years as riders
have fought to bring the subway and bus system back
from near collapse.
UP FROM THE ABYSS
In the late 1970s, the decline of the city’s transit
system echoed the city’s decline. The subway was
notoriously unreliable, covered with graffiti and
plagued with spiraling crime, fires and derailments.
By 1981, subway ridership fell to its lowest level
since 1917 and bus ridership also plummeted.
While city subways and buses are far from perfect
today, riders and transit advocates have won
tremendous progress since the early 1980s.
Today, trains are nearly 20 times more reliable than
they were then. Ridership has bounced back to levels
not seen since the 1950s. Graffiti on subway cars has
been largely eliminated, and transit crime, fires and
derailments have all been dramatically reduced.
Starting in 1997, riders could transfer for free
between subways and buses — ending almost a century of
griping about “two-fare zones” in neighborhoods from
Sheepshead Bay to Coop City. A year later, the
Metropolitan Transportation Authority began offering
unlimited-ride monthly, weekly and daily passes.
Today, more than half of all trips are taken on these
Of course, none of this happened by accident. Since
1981, more than $30 billion (that’s billion with a B)
has been invested in the subways and buses, and
another $15 billion in our two commuter-rail lines.
The money was used to replace or rehabilitate every
subway car and bus. The MTA expanded the subway fleet
by 400 cars and increased the number of buses by 800
in order to meet growing service demands. It
refurbished nearly half of all subway stations, and
$750 million was invested in automating turnstiles to
make fare discounts possible.
HOW TO SAVE A TRANSIT SYSTEM
How did the riders win these victories? Transit
activism played a major role.
One good example is the Franklin Avenue Shuttle. The
four-stop line would not exist but for local activists
in central Brooklyn who struggled for more than two
decades to rebuild the line, a vital transit link in
Flatbush, Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Transit officials, eager to abandon the shuttle, had
long neglected it. In winter, officials would
routinely close the shuttle because they feared it
would derail. Riders bought tokens at station booths
riddled with bullet holes, and portions of platforms
were sealed off because they had burned or collapsed.
But over many years, community leaders — like Helmuth
Lesold, Mabel Boston and Francis Byrd — worked to
restore the line. They were a constant prod at town
hall meetings, news conferences and meetings with
transit officials. They convinced the New York State
Assembly to force the MTA to give the shuttle a $75
million top-to-bottom makeover.
The shuttle reopened in 1999, replete with bright
accessible stations adorned with murals and windows
created by local artists.
Time and again, the Straphangers Campaign, where I am staff attorney, and which is itself celebrating its 25th anniversary, has watched
communities fight for their subway station or their
neighborhood lines and bus routes:
- In the early 1980s, the organizing and outrage of
West Side activists turned the 1, 2 and 3 from the
worst subway lines in the city to among the best.
- Transit officials sought to abandon the Intervale
Avenue station in the Bronx after arsonists destroyed
it. But business and civic leaders protested and, in
1992, persuaded transit officials to rebuild it.
- Students at the College of Staten Island and
Queensborough Community College won new bus routes to
their campuses in 2001 and 2002.
And over the years, there have been memorable meetings
where New Yorkers have confronted elected and MTA
officials about the state of transit in the city:
from transit riders and workers kept the fare at a nickel between
1904 and 1947. (R) Marilyn Ondrasik founded the Straphangers
Campaign with support from the Fund for the City of New York
and the New York Foundation.
The 1980 Transit Speakout: A thousand people packed
an auditorium on the West Side of Manhattan and vented
on then-MTA Chair Richard Ravitch. One handed him a
violin and said he was fiddling while the system
burned; another said that people in the Bronx called
the Number Two train the “Never Two.” A panel peppered
Ravitch with tough questions, and a sixth-grader rated
each answer as a “Yes,” “No,” or “Run Around.” Ravitch
left discomforted, but the next day the forum made the
front page of the Sunday Daily News. Ravitch carried
that clipping around with him for months, waving it at
state legislators who, several months later, approved
a $7 billion, five-year transit rebuilding program.
Demanding Service: In 1991, New York City Transit
officials proposed the most significant round of
service cuts since the 1975 fiscal crisis. They held
hearings and got an earful. A mother from the Lower
East Side pointed out that cutting a route would force
her children to transfer at a corner infested with
drug dealers. Senior citizens on Grymes Hill on Staten
Island showed how eliminating weekend bus service
would isolate them from friends, church and shopping.
To his everlasting credit, after the hearings,
then-MTA Chairman Peter Stangl withdrew all the
The Yellow School Bus: In 1995, former Mayor Rudolph
Giuliani threatened to cut $128 million in funding for
the student transit passes that more than half a
million children rely on to get to school and
extra-curricular activities. Scores of students,
parents, education advocates, and elected officials
crowded a public comment session to denounce the
proposal. A deal saved most of the funding.
The Eyes and Ears of the Subways: In 2000, New York
City Transit proposed closing scores of station booths
and said no hearings were required. Along with a
handful of elected officials, community groups and
Transport Workers Union Local 100, the Straphangers
Campaign differed. The courts agreed, the public
showed up in droves, and transit officials pulled back
on 112 of 177 proposed closings. (The same issue will
play out in November, with the MTA proposing cutting
another 164 booths.)
Now, the MTA plans to hold hearing on November 8, 9
and 10, on proposals to raise subway and bus fares.
The public can make these meetings as memorable as some
of those in the past. (For more information on the
hearings or to comment by e-mail, go to the MTA Web site.)
Certainly, as it marks its centennial, transit needs
riders’ voices more than ever. The system confronts
many severe challenges.
The MTA faces large and growing deficits and has
proposed fare increases and service cuts, less than 18
months after the biggest fare hike in city history.
Starved by the state and city governments for adequate
funds, much of the agency’s financial woes are due to
soaring bills it must pay on the billions of dollars
it borrowed to rebuild the system. The MTA’s debt
service will double between 2004 and 2007 from $800
million annually to $1.6 billion.
At the same time, the MTA is proposing a new $27.6
billion five-year rebuilding program. This plan
deserves public support because the system has
critical needs, especially in its core program:
new subway cars and buses;
- rehabilitating scores of
dingy, outmoded and inaccessible stations;
maintaining the basic infrastructure.
Officials have also proposed a wide array of transit
expansion projects. Some of the projects are essential
to the city’s long-term future, like the Second Avenue
Subway. Some are debatable, like a costly link between
the Long Island Rail Road and Lower Manhattan.
But however worthy, none should move forward if the
MTA cannot also continue its robust program to rebuild
the existing system. New York should not go the way of
London, which built a new subway line while letting
its fabled Underground deteriorate.
New revenue sources are desperately needed to rebuild
and to maintain fares and service at attractive
levels. More than ever, we need business, labor and
civic leaders and — most of all — the riders to speak
up for transit.
Will Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael
Bloomberg save transit riders from having to pay more
for less? Will the governor and the mayor continue 25
years of transit reinvestment and rebuilding? The odds
are much better if riders ask them to.
A new round of victories would be the best way to
celebrate what riders have done to win the rebirth of
city transit over the last 25 years.
Gene Russianoff is staff attorney for the Straphangers
“The Riders and the Rebirth of City Transit: 25 Years
of Advocacy by the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign” is on
display at the Municipal Art Society until October
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