A History of the NYC Subway

Jonah Vimont, Staff Writer

New York City is one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world; home to over eight million people and tens of millions of tourists every year. As its grown over the past hundred years, the city’s subway system has grown as well; going from a nine mile stretch of underground tunnel to a vast network spanning well over 650 miles with close to 30 different lines. However it wasn’t always this way and the subway system’s history has been subject to multiple ups and downs before getting to where it is now. 


The 86th Street Station, one of the oldest in NYC which opened in 1918 (Credit: Author)

The idea for an underground transportation system first arose at the end of the 19th century and was pushed for after several large scale snowstorms struck New York. This prompted the first plans for a subway line to be approved in the 1890s and construction to finish the first underground line in 1904. The first strip of subway ran under Manhattan from City Hall station up to 145th street. However, before this, there were already several above-ground lines operating in the lower Manhattan area. Despite there being above-ground subway lines, people quickly saw the benefits of having a below-ground system as it wouldn’t be as hard hit by major natural events such as snow storms, high winds, or lots of rain. 


CityHall Station in present day (Credit: DJ Hammers Trains*)

The initial subway line is no longer in service however at the time it was christened the “Manhattan Main Line”. After it was completed, other lines were soon constructed. These early subway lines were built by either the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit Company) or the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), two privately owned companies. The city then started to join the companies in building out the subway system encouraging further competition and faster advancements.


In the 1940s the city bought both of the companies and slowly began merging the two subway systems into one. Around this time, the New York City Transit Authority was also founded with the intention of controlling all aspects of transportation in the city including buses and cabs.

Moving through the 70s and 80s, the subway system faced widespread challenges with crime on the rise and illicit graffiti taking predominance over the subway cars and stations . This resulted in ridership dropping significantly to levels seen during the early 1900s. Despite all of this, development of the subway pushed forward and the system continued to expand adding new stations and over 1,000 new subway cars. 

The NYC Subway System when it opened in 1904 (Credit: Times Magazine)

Over the past 20 years the subway system has continued to grow with new stations being added and older stations being renovated. In recent years, Penn station has begun to undergo a series of renovations reportedly taking 4-5 years and costing well over 5 billion dollars according to MTA’s official website. Despite these pushes for growth, there have also been a fair number of setbacks and challenges the subway system has faced. Some examples of these were the 9/11 attacks that resulted in multiple stations near the Twin Towers collapsing and shutting down. More recently, Hurricane Sandy caused widespread flooding resulting in multiple stations being shut down for extended periods of time and encouraging restoration projects across the system. 

As time has progressed the fares have also seen several changes in the way they are processed and the cost of riding the subway. Throughout the first 70 years subway fares would be periodically raised by 5 cents going from $0.05 in the late 1940s to $0.35 in the 70s. From there, the increases have been more significant and larger, sometimes jumping up as much as $0.50 in a single change. As of 2023, the price may rise further to $2.90 following a 5.5% increase that was delayed during the pandemic. 


An OMNY Tap-to-Pay station. OMNY has been heavily pushed for by the MTA and has been implemented in over 450 stations. (Credit: Author)

Overall, the New York City subway system has undergone some major changes since it was first established. These updates have established the system as one of, if not the best, transport systems in the world. Although many New Yorkers take it for granted and often criticize aspects such as delays, and reroutes, it helps to transport millions of people everyday and serves as the connection between the parts of our city.