I started this post on the Long Island Rail Road and finished it on the AirTrain. Yes, I’m on my way to JFK, and musing about infrastructure.
Accreted urban infrastructure (today’s, yesterday’s, Robert Moses’, and on and on back to whatever motley crew of Dutch and English filled in Lower Manhattan’s canals) is everywhere in New York. Indeed, metro NYC must benefit from the densest infrastructure (especially given its land area) of any settled place in human history, with the possible exception of London. And infrastructure is the single most important reason that New York, and especially Manhattan, remains such a desirable place to live and do business. Infrastructure is what makes Manhattan levels of density bearable in the first place, which in turn enables all the positive second-order social effects of such a dense environment.
And all that infrastructure is the result of hundreds or thousands of smart, forward-looking choices made over the past 300 years.
Consider the infrastructure I’m using right now: from where I live and work, I have my choice of two separate and mostly non-overlapping public transit pathways to JFK, and three or more to Newark Airport. All of of those routes will get me to their respective airports in about an hour, give or take; all cost about $12 or less. (Apparently, Google Maps’ transit planner isn’t yet aware of the Newark AirTrain; any human smart enough to make it to Newark Penn Station can probably do better than Google thinks.) We in New York take these things for granted, but they should not be taken for granted, as a visit to any place of comparable size with an “infrastructure gap” (like, for instance, Los Angeles, where I grew up) will make immediately clear to you.
Those smart choices didn’t happen by accident; in each case, someone decided that they were worth the pain and cost of planning, construction, ongoing operating subsidies perhaps forever. (Don’t discount the costs of coordination and promotion, either: the fact that I consider “A train to Penn Station; LIRR commuter rail to Jamaica; Port Authority dedicated rail to the terminal” as simply “the train to JFK” constitutes a marketing triumph by the Port Authority.) And each component of these systems took years, sometimes decades, to put in place. New York City has been extending and tinkering with the subway system more or less continuously for 106 years.
What are we going to need in 50 years? 100 years? We’d better get moving.
Now, if only someone would build a dedicated high-speed link to La Guardia Airport, we’d be in business. Then again, La Guardia is the most overtaxed (and the most convenient to the central core) of our three major airports, so it was probably smart policy to link to the others first.