Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


A Century Of Subway Activism

It Happened In 1904:
Looking Back at 100
How The Subway Shaped New York
A Century Of Subway Activism
Times Square: 100 Years of Pleasure and Dissipation
Forgetting – and Remembering – the Slocum
Also: A page of NYC history sites

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 around town.

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.


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 cards.

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 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:


(L) Pressure 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 service cuts.

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:

  • buying new subway cars and buses;
  • rehabilitating scores of dingy, outmoded and inaccessible stations;
  • and 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 Campaign.


“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 30.

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