Corey Johnson on the subway

Jeff Reed/NYC Council

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson recently proposed an initiative—Let’s Go—that argued for municipal control of the city’s public transit and laid out the math behind how it could be done.

The MTA, historically, has been an organization rooted in systemic inequality. To the millions of immigrants, workers, and professionals who rely on New York City’s transit, the buses and trains are more than just a mode of transport. They are a way of life, an inherited cultural heritage, and even a social gathering place. Over half of the city’s residents take some form of mass transit to get to work, and this commute is spent in close quarters with the art, smells, and people that make up New York. To the great dismay of the city’s transit experts, however, the most well-known aspect of the municipality’s trains and buses is not their expansiveness or history, but rather their inefficiency. The system’s incompetency disproportionately impacts low-income and minority communities. Reducing this inefficiency by restructuring the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is essential to re-imagining a New York City that is built and run by the millions, not just the few.

The transit system’s ability to function properly has been in great peril since its genesis. Overcrowding, politicking, and the inefficient distribution of funds has left New York rapid transit struggling to dig itself out of the hole it was born into. The city’s transit system is run by the MTA, but the MTA’s structure is confusing and limits accountability. It’s not owned by the city, nor the state, nor does it seem to have any prominent figurehead in charge. Asking a New Yorker to direct their frustration with the MTA at any particular individual is impossible. A lack of accountability means that the city’s rapid transit does not stand a chance at making substantive improvements. No one is held answerable for faulty switches that cause delays, slow expansion projects, or bloated budgets. Thus, officials are incentivized to use the MTA for their personal priorities and to appeal to their own constituents.

Ineffective rapid transit is more than just a minor hassle. A cumbersome and deficient MTA has a serious disparate impact on different socioeconomic classes. Wealthier individuals can afford homes closer to their job, which significantly reduces commute time, or can avoid the MTA altogether by living within walking distance of their work or by owning a car. Lower-income and outer borough residents, on the other hand, have no option but to ride the MTA. Many New Yorkers take one, two, or even three trains or modes of transportation to get to their destination. Each additional segment drastically increases the risk of some delay affecting their commute. In 2018, the average New Yorker spent about 12.5 days a year commuting to work, but outer borough residents–who make up roughly half of employed New Yorkers–spent as many as 31 days out of the year traveling to their job. This disparate commute time translates into wealthier students having more time to study than poorer ones, outer borough parents who have less time to spend with their children than Manhattan-based ones, and the preservation of a cycle that favors the wealthy while disadvantaging the poor. By virtue of its existential role in the lives of New Yorkers, an inefficient MTA harms social mobility, community bonds, and further divides a city already heavily stratified and segregated by race and income.

The MTA’s history is deeply intertwined with segregation and inequality in New York City. The subways evolved from a system of train lines called “els” (elevated railways) that once loudly declared themselves up and down Ninth Avenue. In the mid-to-late 1800s, these elevated lines spewed smoke and noise throughout the city, leading to property value depreciation along their route. At the same time, the city was experiencing a massive population and economic boom, which translated to development in a few concentrated areas, mostly downtown Manhattan. Wealthier New Yorkers began to look to escape the crowds by heading to the north of the island, leaving immigrants and less affluent citizens behind in the more congested spaces. The elite, however, still needed a way to conveniently travel downtown. In response to real estate lobbyists and wealthy residents, New York City sought to invest in private subways. The Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) won the ensuing bidding war, and they successfully built a 9.1-mile long subway stretching from City Hall to 145th Street and Broadway.

The new IRT subway was successful, but there was immediate conflict. Progressive reformers wanted to build new lines to help move immigrants from crowded slums to the outer boroughs. Over two-thirds of New York City’s population lived in tenement housing where “three room[s] . . . would often house up to ten people” and “where twenty people could share a single toilet,” according to “Tunneling to the Future: The Story of the Great Subway Expansion That Saved New York” by Peter Derrick.

At the time, Manhattan housed over two million people. More people resided on the twenty-three-square-mile island than thirty-three of the nation’s forty-six states, according to “722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York” by Clifton Hood. The city’s reformers recognized the growing population as unsustainable and responded by pushing for diffusion. The IRT refused to build additional lines, took over its only competitor, and exerted pressure over the city with its monopoly powers, Hood wrote.

After a long political battle, the Dual Contracts were signed in 1913, leading to the construction of the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Company (BMT). The first subway line may have been built for the wealthy to distance themselves from the poor, but the second–the BMT–came from humanitarian concerns. Even today, it is easy to connect subway lines and the surrounding neighborhoods to the population they were meant to serve. The income of northern Manhattan, which the IRT was built to serve, is vastly different from the average household income in Woodside, Corona, and Jackson Heights (where a few of the BMT’s new stations were built). With the IRT and BMT came the emergence of new communities throughout Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens. These new pockets transformed the demographics of New York City by deconcentrating the city’s population from Manhattan to the outer boroughs. Between 1910 and 1940, the population of the city increased by fifty-six percent, but the number of people who lived in Manhattan actually fell by nineteen percent. Like reformers hoped, the dual systems enabled New Yorkers to move out of Manhattan and into new areas.

The Dual Contracts eventually became the MTA we know today, but the city continued to have a difficult relationship with their public transportation. Robert Moses, the prominent city planner, wielded his immense power to mold New York City into his vision of modernism. In his eyes, mass transit was on its way out—automobiles were the future. He built highways, bridges, and parks that split low-income communities, lacked a public transport element, and took funding away from the city’s rapid transit systems. All of these decisions, of course, disproportionately impacted poor New Yorkers, the majority of which did not own a personal vehicle. Robert Caro, Moses’ biographer, stated “[w]hen Robert Moses came to power in New York in 1934, the city’s mass transportation system was probably the best in the world. When he left in 1958 it was quite possibly the worst.”

Since its inception, New York City’s mass transit has been connected with inequality in one way or another. In that sense, today’s MTA is no different. But the transit system is currently facing an existential crisis, mostly caused by years of mismanagement but now exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. This may be the last chance New Yorkers have to push for MTA reform before it is forever too late. Currently, the MTA is a public benefits corporation, which means that it is neither entirely a private business nor a full public agency. In theory, public benefits corporations are independent agencies that can focus on their objectives rather than the whims of the voter. But in the case of the MTA, the transit agency has become a piggy bank for officials. Weighed down by its massive debt, it essentially has no power of its own.

New Yorkers have a few options: They can either choose to live in the status quo, which will spell eventual disaster for the MTA; lobby for bailout and then an actual independent MTA; or demand that the city or state government take control of the systems. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson recently proposed an initiative—Let’s Go—that argued for municipal control of the city’s public transit and laid out the math behind how it could be done. Some critics of Let’s Go have a hard time imagining a world where the governor of New York gives up the power it has over the MTA and lets New York City become even more of an independent entity, so in some ways, a state-owned system may be more feasible. Whatever decision ends up being made, there needs to be someone who takes responsibility for the MTA’s decisions and can be held accountable for when they do not go well.

The transit system is New York City’s lifeblood. Students can attend college in the Bronx and live in Brooklyn. Couples can grab breakfast in Little Italy, lunch in Chinatown, and finish their night in Little India. Families can travel to and see some of the most famous museums and cultural centers in the world for under three dollars each. New York City without its subways and buses is an entirely different place. The MTA, now, more than ever, needs help.

Shariful Khan is a student at Yale Law School.