I genuinely love the New York subway. I love the flat-backed wooden benches, the dark stains of old gum mashed into the concrete, the mustached Macy’s models camped out along the walls. I love the croaky performers and their three-song sets, the comatose drunks hunkered down in the corner, the expectant rush of warmish air that blows over the platform as a harbinger of the oncoming train. This love doesn’t really stem from some kind of fondness for the filthy and the downtrodden, in the way some people might cherish their beat-up ’84 Civic or adore a funny-looking baby. I don’t, in other words, love these things for themselves. Rather, I love them for this thing they signify, which I think this city does pretty damn well. I love them because they represent Democracy.
Democracy: rule by the people! The New York City subway consists of 872 miles of track stretching from south Brooklyn to the north Bronx. Grab a map and for a little more than two bucks you can connect yourself between whichever pair of dots your heart desires on its vast arterial network. Hop on the B in Morningside Heights and within an hour you can be making sand castles at Brighton Beach. Hit up the L from Chelsea and half an iPod album later you’re down in Rockaway Parkway. “Hard-to-reach areas” like north Greenpoint and east Queens are serviced by the bus with the effectiveness of one of those new Swiffer handles.
And here’s the crux: no matter where you go, from Times Square to Gravesend to Van Cortland Park, the stations will all be perfectly, equally, shitty. The MTA doesn’t discriminate! Upper east side stations? A little shitty. Financial district? A little shitty. Forest Hills? A little shitty. Williamsburg? A little shitty. What a beautiful system! What precision! Where every modicum of inefficiency and dysfunctionality is so equally distributed! MTA has realized—brilliantly—that there is enough litter, rats, exhaust, and claustrophobia to go around, and so to complain, then, about the predictable unreliability and general decrepitude that characterizes New York’s public transit system would be to flout the golden rule of egalitarianism. Bankers in the Financial District have to deal with the same silly card-swipe system as store clerks in Crown Heights.
Consider, in comparison, the transit systems of two other cities with which I am also generally familiar. London's system, for example, does not adhere to the credos of genuine fairness and impartiality that characterize New York's. Did you know that the base rate for a single London ‘tube’ ride is about $6.50? A pre-paid Oyster card brings the price down by about half—but that’s for only one “zone”. If you travel from the zones in the outer part of the city, you could end up paying as much as $7.40 for a single ride. This price disparity negatively impacts precisely those who can least afford to pay it--the less fortunate crowd on the outskirts of the city who have to travel more than one zone to get to work.
And then there’s Paris. When tourists think of Paris, they naturally conjure up the areas within the historic city limits. Here, traditional indicators of high civilization—soaring cathedrals, well-groomed parks, ornate bridges—make certain promises which we would be surprised not to see duly fulfilled in the city’s underbelly. And the subway of Paris-proper, with its quaint retro-style cars, manual door-handles, and plush upholstery, appears, at first, not to disappoint. Wait more than five minutes for a train and you start wondering if there is some kind of mechanical malfunction (unlikely) or union strike (likely) going on. Timed clocks and pleasingly tiled stations add that touch of je ne sais quoi to your trip’s enjoyment. The French have it all figured out, no?
Au contraire. In fact, the portion of the city serviced by this subway system contains about two million people—only about a fifth of the Paris population. To get to the banlieues—the “suburbs,” where reside the less fortunate majority—you have to switch to another, shittier transit system entirely. You’ll be lucky if this train comes twice in an hour, and even luckier if you remember to leave your Saturday evening festivities early enough to catch the last train at 1:30am.
At these accusations the French might throw up their hands say, "Boff, mais non! C’est un commuter-rail, le RER! It's not the same thing!" But then, that’s exactly the point. New York City’s subway system, having included in its network rail-lines extending to all boroughs, has stacked the deck against itself. Put it this way: theoretically, we could call all the trains outside of Manhattan ‘commuter rails.’ That would put us on a par with the French, and would be a good way of reducing the amount that people expect from the tracks extending beyond the city center. But we don’t do that. And what we’re left with is a sprawling system, the fourth largest in the world, which, as though brushed over with the careful strokes of a fine-toothed comb, accommodates in equal measure the muck and vigor that are the hallmarks of the human multitudes it serves.