The Underground Economy: New York’s Absolute Dependence on Hidden Infrastructure


As dusk and temperature fell on Thursday evening, New Yorkers quietly lined up on the east side of downtown Manhattan. The line stretched over blocks. Some people stayed up for hours. When they reached the front, their reward wasn’t a set of hot concert tickets, a superstar’s autograph, or a TV studio audience membership. Instead, a yellow-clad city traffic cop counted them as he loaded them onto Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) buses. Each bus replaced a segment of a subway train going to Brooklyn, and each was packed hand-to-hand with passengers willing to stand for another half hour, at minimum, to get to a transit hub and Brooklyn. , then make their way, finally home.

Bus routes point to two lessons from Hurricane Sandy. First: New Yorkers have a strong work ethic. Many retail workers who traveled yesterday likely spent more time commuting to work than working for pay, before having to travel back in the opposite direction. A saleswoman told me that her morning trip to a store on Madison Avenue took her nearly three hours; the evening trip would exceed that. Two: New Yorkers – and New York – can’t work without their century-old subway system. Nor can they work without the many miles of electrical equipment that weaves its way under the dense streets.

New York’s reliance on public transportation was already visible on Sunday afternoon, the day before Sandy arrived. That morning, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Joe Lhota, the head of the state-run MTA, announced they would shut down subways and commuter trains by 7 a.m. PM and buses soon after. They must have done this a good 24 hours before the storm hit, as their workers needed time to bring the cars and buses to higher ground and to remove some electrical and electronic equipment from the subway tunnels. By late afternoon, Manhattan looked like a Disneyworld town after the amusement park had closed for the day. Downtown retailers had put up signs telling passers-by they would be closed until further notice. A few straggling tourists stared at the empty patch of ice where Rockefeller Center skaters usually skated. It became even more apparent on Tuesday, in the aftermath of the storm, that without subways, buses and commuter trains to get downtown and downtown Manhattan the more than 2.6 million people who arrive on an average fall weekday, the island is more of a curiosity for stranded residents and travelers than a place of commerce and creativity.

By Wednesday, however, it was apparent that people wouldn’t be staying in Manhattan long. That morning, public transportation remained closed, as the MTA worked around the clock with contractors from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pump out water. of seven flooded subway tunnels under the East River. But the workers and owners of New York’s bodegas, stores, restaurants and more couldn’t bear to lose any more money. If they were lucky enough not to face destruction at home, they would get into their cars and vans and drive into town from the boroughs and suburbs.

They created one of the biggest traffic nightmares Manhattan has ever seen, clogging bridge interchanges for hours as three major automobile tunnels remained flooded and closed. Once in Manhattan, the gridlock made it downright dangerous to walk around as you weaved your way through cars at every major intersection in the city. The chaos was unbearable. City Hall’s Department of Transportation quickly rigged a jury-rigged plan to restrict car entry into Manhattan to those with three or more occupants, announcing it Wednesday afternoon. By Thursday, Carmageddon was largely over.

One thing had made the difference even more than the vehicle restrictions: the subways were running hesitantly again. The buses the MTA had restored Wednesday morning simply couldn’t replace the subways. Still, there were big gaps in Thursday’s subway service. The MTA could provide trains from the Bronx and parts of Queens to downtown Manhattan, as well as parts of Brooklyn. But until he dried out the tubes and restored power, he couldn’t send trains into lower Manhattan or Brooklyn.

Hence the “bus bridges”: 330 buses running from downtown Brooklyn via the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges via midtown Manhattan in an attempt to close the service gap. Although Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted Sunday’s New York City Marathon to be a symbol that New York was open for business and pleasure, the real symbol was the bus convoys that got New York moving again. Waits were long and service slow, but MTA managers and workers remained organized and knowledgeable throughout. The MTA’s actions showed encouragingly that the agency will always find a way to get New York moving.

As of Friday afternoon, it’s unclear how long it will take to fully repair transmission assets in the region. The MTA is still waiting for power to run the subways downtown. The Metro-North Railroad and Long Island Rail Road offer limited service, as does New Jersey Transit. But the tubes and PATH train stations between Manhattan and New Jersey are still flooded. The Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, too, remains filled end to end with 85 million gallons – what Cuomo called “a mile of water.” The army pumps empty it. The ever-cut subway service between Manhattan and Brooklyn is the blackout in lower Manhattan: subways run on electricity.

The people who live above 40th Street in Manhattan have retained power. Restaurants and bars were packed mid-week, and on Halloween a subdued holiday atmosphere reigned, with trick-or-treaters mingling in the streets with shoppers and diners on the Upper West Side, Midtown and Hell’s Kitchen. Hungry tourists waiting for their airlines to announce return flights thronged bodegas, while New Yorkers lined up at small family stores to buy wine.

But these lucky Manhattanites could only buy food and drink because the stores were occupied by owners and their clerks – and they were there in large part because of Governor Cuomo’s support of the MTA’s heroic efforts to keep a clear passage between Manhattan and the rest of the city and the world. As Cuomo put it Thursday, Manhattan works because “15, 20, 30 stories below the surface” are “water pipes, subways, conduits, the whole honeycomb of construction underground.” And that leads to one final lesson from the storm. It is fashionable to think of New York as an information-rich economy. But the info-economy is totally dependent on the outdated infra-economy. If the river annexes your subway tunnels and electrical substations, no government agency heroically intervenes, and grocery stores stay closed, you’re not going to build social media apps in your bedroom.

Bonny J. Streater