The Secret History of America’s Underground Transportation

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
In 1863, the London Underground opened its doors as the first underground transportation system in the world. On its first day in service, over 30,000 curious Londoners tried out the new “tube.” After this, below ground rail transport spread throughout Europe. The trend reached the United States in 1897, when Boston built a four track tunnel. Chicago and New York City followed, constructing their own elaborate forms of rapid transit. Today, millions of Americans rely on the consistency and efficiency of public transportation. However, these trains did not arrive at where they are today without ups and downs. With this article, we’re taking a look back at the secret history of America’s underground transportation system.

 The First Trains in America

When the first subway system opened in Boston, it was composed of four tracks with only two stops downtown. Originally, it was designed to deliver people in the city’s residential outskirts to the city center in a timely fashion. Due to increased demand, the city expanded the underground tunnel system and established a portion that was above ground in outlying areas.
In 1892, Chicago began operating its mass transit system, referred to as the “L.” The system in Chicago was unique because it initially included no underground tracks, unlike its predecessirs. All the rail lines were elevated above ground, delivering locals to places all over the city. Then, in 1904, New York City opened the largest underground public transit yet. The initial tunnels stretched the nine miles between City Hall and 145th Street. Soon after, extensions reaching in the Bronx and Brooklyn were built.
For these extensions, there were two major subways systems in operation: the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT) and the Independent Subway System (IND). Elevated railways that had already existed, but had seen little use, were incorporated into the routes these two systems took. In 1908, a tunnel connecting New York and New Jersey was built, and by 1960, there was a railway connecting Manhattan to Staten Island.

Women riding one of the early New York City subways.By 1907, Philadelphia had also established its public mass transit, taking notes from the decisions of the major metropolises before it. Philadelphia built its system both above and below ground to best serve its residents. In 1972, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) opened in San Francisco, and the Washington Metro opened in Washington D.C. Since the 1980s, Baltimore, Miami, and Atlanta have developed and expanded their modes of underground public transport.

How Mass Transit Changed Cities

The popularity of new underground mass transportation systems was swift and largely unchallenged. Without a doubt, their travel efficiency and cost effectiveness appealed to commuters in larger cities. Their construction made big cities a more attractive place to live, thus drawing in people from across the country. Residents could go to work, pick up groceries, meet friends, and go out to eat easily without having to worry about their vehicle or traffic. After a time, in some cities, owning a car became obsolete.
Communities began shaping themselves around where underground transportation could deliver them. Mass transit likewise limited how far one would travel for work and school. Suburban life became more and more a reality, and a preferable way of living for some.
Catering specifically to densely populated areas, a single rail transit could transport 14,000 passengers, while the same space of above ground transportation could move only 5,000. Operators of these underground mass transit systems quickly learned that not only could they move more people in less time with less land use, but they required less energy and had smaller accident costs. By serving communities dense with restaurants, shopping, and entertainment, mass transit allowed these businesses to thrive by helping people from outlying areas easily reach them. Likewise, with the decreased use of motor vehicles, the need for public parking spaces declined, allowing cities to put that real estate to better use.

The Future of Underground Public Transportation

Underground public transportation has proven itself to be crucial to the overall success of a major metropolis. With the rapid growth of several of these major cities, public transportation has to find creative ways to keep up with the needs of residents. Some have proposed moving to an automatic train system, as they would allow for increased travel speeds and quicker reaction times to engage the breaks and help avoid collisions between trains. Systems in San Francisco and Washington D.C. have already begun implementing such innovations. However, the main drawback is that maintenance costs for automated trains are high, therefore increasing general operations costs.

One of the Chicago underground tunnels.Another option proposed is the personal rapid transit, or PDT. This is already being used in Morgantown, West Virginia. These are smaller cars designed to hold fewer people and travel via electronic motors. Riders choose their destination and are delivered there without stops, and at a fraction of the time it would take for today’s public transportation to cover the same ground. In Morgantown, riders pay only 50 cents per ride.
In the last century, underground transportation has taken enormous strides in improving its travel experience. With the help of modern technology, the speed and comfort at which a traveler can reach their destination make public transit a desirable form of transportation. From a mere four-tunnel route with few stops to the intricately woven tracks that exist today, underground transit had revolutionized how Americans commute.