If New York City subway cars were a horror in the 1970s — covered in graffiti and falling apart — 40 years later it’s the entire system that’s a horror, a crumbling infrastructure plastered over with shiny new trains, wifi, arrival times, and cheerful new stations. In the cover story for The New York Times Magazine, Jonathan Mahler traces the unseen factors that turn an already-grueling commute into a nightmare. He also looks at how the subway reinvented inequality in the city, making a few people very rich and establishing how new areas would gentrify, pushing residents beyond the reach of public transportation. “The case for the subway is the case for mobility,” Mahler writes “physical mobility, economic mobility, social mobility.” Without mobility, what will New York become?

New York won’t die, but it will become a different place. It will happen slowly, almost imperceptibly, for years, obscured by the prosperity of the segment of the population that can consistently avoid mass transit. But gradually, an unpleasant and unreliable subway will have a cascading effect on New Yorkers’ relationship with their city. Increasingly, we will retreat; the infinite possibilities of New York will shrink as the distances between neighborhoods seem to grow. In time, businesses will choose to move elsewhere, to cities where public transit is better and housing is cheaper. This will depress real estate values, which will make housing more affordable in the short term. But it will also slow growth and development, which will curtail job prospects and deplete New York’s tax base, limiting its ability to provide for citizens who rely on its public institutions for opportunity. The gap between rich and poor will widen. As the city’s density dissipates, so too will its economic energy. Innovation will happen elsewhere. New York City will be just some city.

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