The Need For Infrastructure Improvement in the New York City Subways

The New York City subways have a problem with flooding that has only gotten worse in recent years. It will continue to worsen unless substantial infrastructure improvements are made.

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Ayshi Sen

“For many Bronx Science students the subway is one of the only reliable ways we can get to school,” Yvonne Fong ’23 said.

On September 2nd, 2021, all 36 subway lines shut down due to intense flooding after Hurricane Ida. This left thousands of New Yorkers stranded late at night at subway stations all over the city, forcing them to find other ways of getting home — and most importantly, proving the need for improving subway infrastructure. 

This, unfortunately, is not the first time that New York subways have been affected by storms. Earlier this year on July 8th, 2021, heavy rain from Hurricane Elsa had similar effects on the city’s transit system, where many stations were flooded and the A line was suspended. 

With no other way of leaving the flooded stations, people walked out of many stations throughout the city, such as the 157th Street station, with water levels reaching as high as their knees. 

Nearly a decade earlier in 2012, the city had a similar crisis with Hurricane Sandy. Both subways and busses were suspended due to flooding within the span of hours, leaving commuters stuck at their locations. After the storm, several tunnels sustained damage so severe that this damage is still being fixed today. 

As global temperatures continue to rise, we will see an increase in sea level and more unpredictable weather, causing more frequent flooding and more severe consequences. Yet, the big bucks seem to be going towards improving the appearance of subway stations, rather than safeguarding them against these devastating events. For instance, in the past 12 years, Transit Authorities have spent 1.4 billion dollars renovating the Fulton Street station, with a large dome and other cosmetic changes, without any actual changes to fix the tracks or help with the water issue. Focusing on looks over function does very little to solve the larger issues at hand. Ignoring the infrastructural issues will leave the city unprepared for future natural disasters. 

The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) should substantially halt spendings on cosmetic renovations in order to address the larger infrastructural issues. By replacing dated equipment, New York City subways would be more prepared for violent storms in the future, which climate data reveals that we will see. 

Victoria Diaz ’22 recalls the craze after Hurricane Ida in the subway stations, “I’m no architect, but those videos of the Subway after Hurricane Ida were crazy. There was water coming in from the roof of the train station, and people had to swim their way through gross subway water. I feel that the infrastructure is dated for many subway stations throughout the city. Something like this can be avoided through maintenance,” Diaz said. 

For example, despite there being 300 water pumps throughout the stations in the city, the outdated equipment proved insufficient in curbing the city’s water crisis. During Hurricane Elsa, the pumps failed because they were poorly maintained and were consequently overloaded with the amount of water entering the stations in such rapid fashion. To solve this issue in the future, the number of pumps in stations should not only be increased, but any old or failing pumps should be replaced with new and more powerful ones. 

Daria Smirnova ’24 said, “When I visited other countries, their subway infrastructures have been very effective and efficient, so modeling New York’s Subways to be similar could help make things better”

New York City’s subway system is old and has been in use for years. Subways in many East Asian countries are newer and therefore better able to withstand the effect of climate change. Countries such as Taiwan also have elevated entrances to stations in an attempt to keep water out of them. Their stations also have more efficient systems for draining water out of the stations.

China also plans to create a more porous landscape to prevent water from collecting in one place. Replacing concrete with permeable pavements would allow storm waters to drain through the paving onto a stone reservoir rather than collecting on the surface. China also plans on creating green roofs or planting more trees to collect some of the rainwater and lessen the run-off in streets or subway stations. 

Although this may cost more money in the short term, it is an investment into the future. New York City has spent millions on controlling floods and mitigating leaks, but at the end of the day there needs to be a more long-term solution. Newer stations with better designs will be an investment into the future. By allocating more money for subways now, New York City will avoid problems in the future. 

If New York City’s water problem goes unaddressed, it could have adverse effects on commuters throughout the city and go so far as to threaten their lives. For instance, in Zhengzhou, China, fourteen passengers died after a train was stuck between two stations following torrential rain and heavy flooding in the tunnel. Improving subway infrastructure in the city to be more flood resistant could help prevent deaths and ensure passenger safety. 

Moreover, the city’s subway system provides a more accessible method of transportation compared to options like Uber. For instance, during storms or heavy rain, catching a cab could take hours. Without subway service, many people will be left without the means of getting to work, school, or returning home.

Autumn Magar-Matsuokaa ’23 said, “My mother was in the subway when Hurricane Ida hit and was surrounded by a few feet of water and had to walk home in floods.”

Additionally, during Hurricane Ida, nearly half of the class of 2024 was scheduled to come to Bronx Science for orientation. Due to the pandemic, most students opted for the fully remote option for the entire 2020-2021 academic year, so it would have been the first time they were physically inside Bronx Science. However, the extreme flooding forced the school to reschedule, and some students unfortunately were unable to make the rescheduled date, affecting their transition back to school.

“I know from my friends that the Big Sibs gave tips specific to transition back to in-person school and suggestions on time management. Had I been able to attend orientation, I would have been more prepared about what to expect going to school in person,” Smirnova said. 

Most students at Bronx Science commute from boroughs outside the Bronx, and nearly two-thirds commute from Queens. If subways are suspended more often, many students who rely on the subway will be left without a way of reliably commuting to school. 

Diaz also said, “This would be terrible. I live in Queens, and I rely on the subway, as I don’t use a private bus service.”

Of course, it would be nearly impossible to fix all of the city’s subways at once, as this would require vast changes in the MTA budget, but these changes are necessary in order to keep up with the changing environment. With a daily ridership of over two million people, the MTA needs these improvements in infrastructure, which are necessary for a safer and more efficient subway system. 

Victoria Diaz ’22 recalls the craze after Hurricane Ida in the subway stations, “I’m no architect, but those videos of the Subway after Hurricane Ida were crazy. There was water coming in from the roof of the train station, and people had to swim their way through gross subway water. I feel that the infrastructure is dated for many subway stations throughout the city. Something like this can be avoided through maintenance,” Diaz said. 

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