Subways and individual cars during COVID-19

A new study suggests New York City’s subway system helped spread COVID-19:

The paper, by MIT economics professor and physician Jeffrey Harris, points to a parallel between high ridership “and the rapid, exponential surge in infections” in the first two weeks of March — when the subways were still packed with up to 5 million riders per day — as well as between turnstile entries and virus hotspots.

“New York City’s multitentacled subway system was a major disseminator — if not the principal transmission vehicle — of coronavirus infection during the initial takeoff of the massive epidemic,” argues Harris, who works as a physician in Massachusetts.

While the study concedes that the data “cannot by itself answer question of causation,” Harris says the conditions of a typical subway car or bus match up with the current understanding of how the virus spreads…

“Social density … was a result of many factors — business, restaurants, bars, Madison Square Garden, sports arenas, concerts, and the things that make New York happen,” Foye said.

New York City is already unique with its level of mass transit use. The large subway system helps people move around in a crowded city where both parking and driving a car can prove difficult.

The contrast to New York City is sprawling suburbia (including within the New York City region – see Levittown). Americans love to drive and the suburbs are built around cars, driving, and covering relatively large distances on a daily basis within a private vehicle.

With Americans already predisposed toward driving if they can, will COVID-19 increase their reluctance to take mass transit? Is driving safer in these times? (Of course, one could look at the number of deaths related to cars – accidents, pedestrians – and argue otherwise.)

New York City is not the only city dependent on subways; numerous large cities around the world need subways to move large numbers of people. Perhaps there will be new health measures in subways and other forms of mass transit moving forward. But, without fundamentally altering such cities and the benefits that come with density, subways cannot be removed or limited on a long-term basis – can they?

Mass transit as repository of microscopic organisms

A new study found all sorts of organic material in the New York City subway:

To get a clearer picture of what that ecosystem is made of, Mason and his team set out to map the vastness of the urban microbiome. Using nylon swabs and mobile phones, the group identified 15,152 different organisms lurking on railings, trash cans, seats, and kiosks in 466 New York City subway stations. Their findings were published this week in the journal Cell Systems.

The team also found that, on a microscopic level, the subway is littered with leftovers—evidence of what New Yorkers like to eat. Cucumber particles were the most commonly found food item, along with traces of kimchi, sauerkraut, and chickpeas. Bacteria associated with mozzarella cheese coated 151 stations. And other traces of pizza ingredients such as sausages and Italian cheese were everywhere. (The Wall Street Journal transformed much of that data into a clickable map that lets you explore the findings by subway line.)

And although Mason and his team also found particles of harmful bacteria related to the bubonic plague and anthrax, the levels were so low that they pose little danger to humans. “The important fact is that the majority of the bacteria that we found are harmless,” Mason said. Much more common were the protective bacteria that eliminate toxins and make the subway cleaner. “They represent a phalanx of friends that surround us,” he said…

Of the more than 10 billion DNA fragments that the team sequenced, about 5 billion were unaccounted for. That’s not to say that these DNA fragments belong to never-before-seen organisms. Rather, it shows that the library of sequenced genomes still has many empty shelves. Where beetles and flies were most prevalent in this sampling, evidence of cockroaches was absent—not because New York isn’t crawling with them (it is), but because scientists haven’t fully sequenced the cockroach genome yet. Once that information becomes available, cockroaches will become better represented in the sampling, according to Mason.

While I’m sure plenty of people will be grossed out by such knowledge, it highlights the level of microscopic complexity going on all around us and suggests there is a lot of scientific work in this area still be done. We know the bottoms of the oceans might be the last large frontier on Earth but it sounds like the NYC subway offers plenty of opportunities itself.

Now that we have such information about what is in the subway system, I want to know how the organic material interacts with humans on a regular basis. Where is this material? How many people are made sick and, conversely, does such a collection provide benefits for users?

“Graphic Standards Manual” for the New York City Transit Authority

Check out the decades-old guide for the signage of the NYC subways:

The New York City subway was a confusing mess in the 1960s, with inconsistent, haphazard signage that made navigating the system a nightmare for commuters. In 1967, the New York City Transit Authority decided to do something about it. They hired Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda of the design firm Unimark International to design an improved signage and wayfinding system. The designers spent four years studying the labyrinth of the subway, analyzing the habits of commuters, and devising the iconic visual identity of the NYC subway that is still in use today, documented in the 1970 New York City Transit Authority Graphic Standards Manual

Reed emphasized that the manual is meant to be read as much as seen. He pointed to a passage on letter spacing that demonstrates how Vignelli and Noorda expected serious attention to every detail: “A modular system has been devised, which offers consistent spacing for letters and words for the three sizes of type. This unit system must be scrupulously adhered to at all times as this will preclude any inconsistency, regardless of where or when any given sign is being manufactured.”…

“These guys literally spent months analyzing the traffic and behaviors of subway riders. Legend has it that Noorda spent weeks underground stalking riders to study their movements.”

As for the design itself, he added, “there are moments of beauty in the most minute details. For example, the four-degree reduction on the diagonal bar of the arrow, which allows for visual accuracy, rather than mechanical calculation.”

A classic behind-the-scenes project that gets little attention though the signs are seen by millions. By now, the signage is iconic just like the lettering and signage of the London Underground and the Paris Metro. It’s hard to imagine the signs looking any other way yet because of New York’s position in the world, another system might have become equally iconic.

The public to ride the mail delivery system once used under London

The Post Office Underground Railway once used below London is set to open soon to the public:

The Post Office Underground Railway—AKA the Mail Rail—was the world’s first driverless electric railway. It launched in 1927 and was used to transport tons of post from one side of London to another, with stops at large railway hubs such as Liverpool Street and Paddington Station, where post could be collected and offloaded for transportation around the rest of the country…

The idea is to create special battery-powered passenger carriages to take people from the car depot and some of the tunnels in a one-kilometer loop. Visitors will be taken 70-feet underground, through Mount Pleasant Station, and will stop to view audiovisual displays recounting the history of the network and what it was like to work down there…

The railways have a 61cm gauge (the width of the track), on top of which small carriages traveled without drivers thanks to electric live rails. In the stations there are two tracks, with carriages going in each direction.

The service continued to operate until 2003, when it was closed down—it had become much cheaper to transport mail by road.

Looks like a cross between a Disney ride and the Tube. I suspect there may just be a tourist market for this ride…see this post from April 2011 about people exploring the system as well as the interest in looking at underground Paris.

Such lines underneath cities may not be all that unusual. Chicago had an underground delivery system as well since it was far more efficient to move some items underground away from the street-level traffic. This was also the impetus behind creating Lower Wacker Drive. How many major cities have such tunnels underground, how many of them are well secured (free from ne’er-do-wells or flooding issues), and are these all tourist opportunities waiting to be opened?

Super Bowl byproduct: first regional mass transit map for New York City

The Super Bowl prompted officials to put together a regional mass transit map for New York City for the first time:

Festivities for the big game are spread between Manhattan’s Times Square, Newark’s Prudential Center, and the MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands. So getting around by public rail involves, depending on your route, the PATH, NJ Transit, the MTA subway, the Long Island Railroad or even Amtrak.

To make life easier, the New York/New Jersey Super Bowl Committee asked designer Yoshiki Waterhouse of Vignelli Associates to merge all the systems onto one diagram.

The result is the closest thing the New York City area has to an all-in-one rapid transit map. The host committee has been passing them out to fans and media and has made it available online. But if you’re a regular New Jersey to Manhattan commuter, or just a design fan, you should probably get your hands on one of one these before they end up as an expensive collector’s item.

While there are clearly a lot of things going on in this map, it doesn’t make much sense that this is the first full transit map. (Technically, it doesn’t include buses but that is another story.) Why might this be? One assumption could be that the average visitor or tourist isn’t terribly interested in leaving New York City on a typical visit. Plenty of visitors might want to go to Brooklyn but how many want to take a train to Long Island or the Prudential Center in New Jersey? Another answer could be that for trips within New York City, the city and others clearly see the subway as the only way to go because of its efficiency and coverage.

The Pyongyang Metro

What does the subway look like in North Korea? See pictures here.

The underground stations are ornate but dimly lit: patrons squint to read posted newspapers while patriotic music echoes faintly across the stone floor. Most of the 16 public stations (there are rumors of secret, government-use-only networks) were built in the 1970s, but the most grandiose halls – Puhoong and Yonggwang – were constructed in 1987. Mosaics and metallic reliefs extolling the virtues of North Korean workers and landscapes line the walls.

The subway cars were acquired from Germany, and despite a green and red makeover, the remnant graffiti scratched into windows and paneling belies their past lives. And as with every other public and private space throughout the country, portraits of past leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il look down from the ends of each car, smiling and ever-present.

It would be interesting to hear more about the number of people who use this system and what parts of the city are served. In theory, shouldn’t more socialistic/totalitarian states have better mass transit systems? Countries that emphasize individualism and consumerism, like the United States, might be more open to transportation options, like cars, that support or enable these values. But, countries that have more communal or equality rhetoric could pour more resources into methods that would help move great numbers of people efficiently.

Housing facades hide subway infrastructure

Not all the necessary equipment for subways fits underground. Here are a few examples of how cities use facades to hide the subway:

On a street in Brooklyn that takes you towards the river, where the cobblestones begin paving the road, there is a townhouse that deserves a second look. Despite its impeccable brickwork, number 58 Joralemon Street is not like the other houses. Behind its blacked out windows, no one is at home; no one has been at home for more than 100 years. In fact, number 58 is not a home at all, but a secret subway exit and ventilation point disguised as a Greek Revival brownstone.

If you think about it, this could happen a lot in cities and not too many people would know. It is a clever way to not let necessary infrastructure mar what otherwise are pleasant streets.

It reminds me of seeing Hollywood sets where the exterior looks like a city or neighborhood but then you walk inside and there is nothing there. Here is an example of the interior of a city street scene on a Hollywood lot:


This could be an interesting premise for a science fiction story: the city looks real but there is nothing behind the facades…

London’s iconic Tube map turns 80

First distributed for free on a trial basis in 1933 because officials didn’t think it would be successful, London’s Tube map turns 80 this year:

Instantly recognizable the world over, the simple yet elegant diagram of the 249-mile subway network is hailed as one of the great images of the 20th century, a marvel of graphic design. Its rainbow palette, clean angles and pleasing if slightly old-fashioned font (Johnston, for typography buffs) have endured since hurried passengers first stuffed pocket versions of the map into their raincoats in 1933.

“It’s a design icon,” said Anna Renton, senior curator at the London Transport Museum. “You shouldn’t use that word too often, but it really is.”…

Inspired, some say, by electric-circuit diagrams, Beck straightened out the lines, drew only 45- and 90-degree angles, and truncated distances between outlying stations. Then he submitted his unusual schematic rendering to the London Underground’s publicity department…

The design led to imitations around the world. Within a few years, it was copied by the transit system in Sydney, Australia. The New York subway map of the 1970s also paid homage to Beck’s brainchild.

And it still inspires design efforts today.

It is interesting to read how this map became so successful even as it skewed the actual spatial relationships between lines, stations, and London itself. The map may make more conceptual and aesthetic sense but it doesn’t fit aboveground London. I don’t know if anyone has ever tried to test the mental work London residents have to do to match the map to the city.

Cool images of underground subway construction in NYC

Building new subway lines is a massive undertaking and this gallery of photos gives some indication of the scale of the work. Here is what New York is undertaking:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has taken on three massive projects: East Side Access, the No. 7 subway line extension, and the new Second Avenue subway line. Construction for the projects is taking place deep underground, much of it simultaneously. The three projects span 14 miles and are expected to be finished in 2019 at an estimated cost of $15 billion.

This indicates a few things: New York has the kind of capital and ability to build such lines and the trouble it takes to construct such things suggests new lines must be needed in a city where a large percentage of residents use mass transit on a daily basis.

Tying subways to the concentric rings of the Chicago School

Joel recently noted an academic study that suggests subway systems converge on a similar form. Whet Moser of Chicago argues that understanding subway patterns requires considering how cities grow and the concentric rings model of the Chicago School of urban sociology.

This is where I get skeptical that subways converging towards a “common mathematical space may hint at universal principles of human self-organization.” The subway systems the authors study were built within a relatively narrow band: 1863 (London) to 1995 (Shanghai). But they’re all also very old cities. Shanghai has a dense central business district, dating back to its long history as a port town; Moscow’s rings radiate out from the Kremlin and Red Square, following old fortifications; Beijing grew out from a model of urbanism that way predates Burgess and Park:

Many researchers reached consensus on urban morphology of the Old Beijing from physical composition. It is agreed that the Old Beijing was laid out exactly according to the concept of the Chinese utopia capital city in the book Kao Gong Ji, Notes on Works, written more than 2,000 years ago. The ideal city form is ‘a walled square city of nine by nine li (4.5 kilometers) with nine north/south main streets and east/west main avenues, three gates on each side, the ancestral temple on the left and an altar on the right of the palace, municipal administration buildings in front of the palace and a marketplace behind it’ (Fu, 1998; Liu, 1986).

So: who cares? If it’s just a neat little mathematical model, what’s its relevance? It’s relevant when the model becomes prescriptive, as the authors of “World Subway Networks” write:

In the case of Beijing, Seoul and Shanghai, it seems that their relative ‘youth’ is why they have not yet reached their long time limit.

Translation: since the subways were started after 1971, they haven’t fully converged on that ideal “core and branch” shape and ratio…

In short, Beijing is stuck in Park and Burgess’s concentric zones, and wants to move towards Harris and Ullman’s multiple-nuclei model. At the very least, it’s neat to see these comparatively dated theories of urbanization at the forefront of 21st century development. But the Beijing subway system may be following a multiple-nuclei model…

In other words, urban sociologists started to figure out that the concentric rings model doesn’t seem to fit all cities (though it still seems to overlay nicely on Chicago, it doesn’t fit other places like Beijing or newer Sunbelt cities in the United States). First came the multiple nuclei model in the 1940s and then a whole new paradigm, the political economy approach, started to emerge in the 1960s. The political economy prescriptive relies less on prescriptive models and instead focus on a different mechanism: whereas the Chicago School emphasizes competition for land and cities growing as people seek out cheaper land, the political economy model focuses on the profit motives of developers, politicians, and business leaders.

So if we looked at subway growth and locations in the political economy perspective, we could examine why lines and stops were built in certain places. Using two other forms of mass transportation as examples, we know that a good number of railroad and streetcar owners in the mid to late 1800s built lines to their new real estate developments. In other words, these lines were not built to service existing residents but rather to spur new development. I bet you could find some scholars who would argue that subways may sometimes be built to wealthier neighborhoods rather than poorer neighborhoods because there is more money to be made in these connections.