The Lost Subways of North America

ROMAN MARS: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. If you’ve spent any amount of time driving through any major American city, you know what it’s like to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic–the experience of crawling along, listening to people honking, and feeling your soul leaving your body. But no one–no one–understands this pain better than someone from Los Angeles.

JAKE BERMAN: I got stuck in traffic on the 101 Freeway through Hollywood. And I was thinking to myself, “What am I doing behind this guy in a Jeep with too many bumper stickers? And why hasn’t my car moved for half an hour?”

ROMAN MARS: This is Jake Berman. He used to live in LA, so he understands this struggle all too well. But as Jake discovered, it didn’t have to be this way.

JAKE BERMAN: I found a very old map that was put out as publicity by the old Pacific Electric Railway that owned this massive electric railway system. And as part of their advertising, they had in huge letters “the largest electric railway system in the world.” And this flipped a switch in my head because this is Los Angeles.

ROMAN MARS: What Jake quickly learned is that LA hasn’t always been the car-centric city we know today. It was home to a massive public transit network.

JAKE BERMAN: At one time, Los Angeles of all places–the land of freeways, traffic, and smog–had an electric railway system that was four times the size of the modern London underground. So I was thinking to myself, “What happened here?” And so as I went down the rabbit hole, I found that this was the common story in North America–like nowhere else in the world–that the United States and Canada to a lesser extent abandoned mass transit in a way that other industrialized countries didn’t.

ROMAN MARS: This experience inspired Jake to write The Lost Subways of North America, a book about the subways of our past, present, and future–and why public transit in so many of our cities fall way short of our needs. In his book, Jake doesn’t just write about subways. He also looks at buses, street cars, commuter rail, and basically all types of urban public transportation. And he says that for public transit to work in any city, it needs to have four main characteristics–that is, for anyone to actually use it. A functioning transit system is fast, frequent, and reliable–and it goes places people want to go. So there are four ways to do it right? According to Jake though, there are many, many ways to do it wrong.

JAKE BERMAN: I like to think it’s like that old line of Tolstoy’s, “All happy transit systems are alike. Each unhappy transit system is unhappy in its own way.” So in Miami for instance, they have a metro system that is fast, frequent, and reliable–but it doesn’t go the places that people want to go. So very few people take the train. In Philadelphia, they have a really excellent regional rail system run by SEPTA, which is the name of the transit authority. And it goes to all the places that people want to go. It is fast, it is reliable, but they only run one train an hour, which makes a big difference in whether people are willing to take transit or not.

ROMAN MARS: The truth is many North America’s subway systems aren’t just unhappy. They are profoundly, miserably disappointing because it’s not like North American cities haven’t been trying to match the transit systems that you see in places like Western Europe or Japan. In fact, Jake’s book points to time after time when we seemed to be just inches away from a robust, utopian future of fast, frequent, reliable, and convenient trains–only to have one thing or a combination of things get in the way. So all unhappy transit systems are unhappy in their own ways, but their particular failures and what we can learn from them point to ways that maybe–just maybe–our cities can get the subways of our dreams. Jake and I are going to go through a handful of North American cities and discuss what went wrong to find out what exactly makes or breaks a transit system, starting with the Red Car of Los Angeles. When Jake found the map that launched his research, what he was looking at was the root of LA’s Red Car. Long time 99PI Listeners might remember our 2013 episode, The Great Red Car Conspiracy. In the early 1900s, the Red Car got Angelenos where they wanted to go. It was a system of electric street trolleys that connected seaside towns and suburban neighborhoods to downtown LA. In its heyday, there were more than 2,100 trains running every day across over a thousand miles of track. And the reason many Angelenoss today have never even heard of the Red Car has to do with monopoly, maintenance, and the greed of a 20th century robber baron named Henry Huntington. Henry Huntington and his company Pacific Electric built the electric railway system that was the largest and most impressive in the world at the time. But ironically enough, railways were not actually how Pacific Electric made most of its money.

JAKE BERMAN: In the United States and Canada, it was very common and, quite frankly, the norm for ostensibly a train company to have another line of business where they made their real money. So in Seattle it was Seattle Electric. In Atlanta it was Georgia Power–which still is the power company in Atlanta–that ran the trains because those two businesses worked together really well at the time. If you wanted to electrify a neighborhood, you could also run a train line out to that neighborhood and kill two birds with one stone.

ROMAN MARS: So it was pretty common for power companies to have a subway side hustle. And in the case of Pacific Electric, that side hustle was all in the interest of making money on real estate. Here’s how it worked. Henry Huntington bought up a bunch of farmland. He turned that farmland into suburbs, and then he made those suburbs desirable and valuable by connecting them with–you guessed it–trains. All through the early 20th century, Pacific Electric just kept going like this. Henry Huntington would buy a plant, run a train through it, sell that land for profit, and then do it all over again. And as the Red Car roots got longer, LA’s sprawling suburbs started to take shape even before most Angelenoss owned a car.

JAKE BERMAN: If you look at the maps of the old Pacific Electric system, you can tie that to the great streets of LA. Santa Monica Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard had trains at one time. and all of the neighborhoods that were built up around there were designed around the train, even places deep into the suburbs like San Marino, right? These are places that were originally designed to be accessed via train.

ROMAN MARS: This may sound like an alternate better version of LA that could have been–a transit-friendly Los Angeles–one in which Jake never had to languish behind that Jeep with too many bumper stickers on the freeway. But the people actually using the Red Car didn’t feel that way. Even though it went to a lot of places people wanted to go, the cracks began to show by the 1920s. The trains were falling into disrepair, and that’s because the Red Car itself didn’t make money. It was just a convenient way to inflate property values. Henry Huntington didn’t care about how well it was running.

JAKE BERMAN: So once the real estate ventures began to run out of cheap land, there was no reason to keep running good passenger service. And for a 20 year period between, like, 1925 and World War II, the Pacific Electric’s passenger services were bleeding money because the company didn’t particularly care and they were making their real money by transporting freight and building homes.

ROMAN MARS: The final blow came with the rise of cars, which shared space with the street trolleys and slowed them down even more. Eventually, Pacific Electric was losing so much money that the company had to ask for public dollars to fund infrastructure upgrades. But by this time, Angelenos absolutely hated Pacific Electric and the Red Car.

JAKE BERMAN: The city council of Los Angeles said, “We are not doing this because the public doesn’t want it.” 20 years of really crummy service and their reputation of commercial ruthlessness had really soured the public on public transport as an institution.

ROMAN MARS: The result of all this is that LA became the car-centric city, even if it does have a modest regional subway today. As for the Red Car, it limped along through the 1940s and ’50s until finally–in 1961–it ran for the last time. Some of the trolley cars got shipped abroad to live a second life, but most of them were sold for scrap. This is in contrast to another North American city on our list, which today has a booming public transit system–a city whose subways aren’t lost, per se, but are completely painfully hobbled by good old fashioned bureaucracy. One of the most famous transit systems in the U.S. is, of course, the New York City subway. New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority or MTA has the largest and busiest subway system on the continent. New Yorkers love it. They hate it. They love to hate it. They love to love it. And whether you love it or hate it, you ride the subway.

JAKE BERMAN: The subway is indispensable. It’s something that needs to be there. And New York cannot function without a working subway.

ROMAN MARS: By and large, for over a century, New York’s transit system has stood as a shining example of what works. It’s the one place where you’re usually better off taking the train as opposed to driving to get from point A to point B. A big reason for this success is that most of New York’s subway system was built pretty quickly and efficiently. The first New York subway line started getting built in the year 1900. And by the time it opened in 1904, the train ran from City Hall downtown all the way to Harlem. By 1940, the New York subway system had over 400 stations. But by the mid 20th century, after going through a series of mergers, financial challenges, and a decline in ridership, all that construction basically ground to a halt. Since 1950, New York has added only 30 more stations. And as of today, the city has been trying to finish just one additional subway line–the Second Avenue subway–for almost 100 years.

JAKE BERMAN: They were promising to build the Second Avenue subway in the 1930s. They would tear down this elevated line–which was ugly, old, noisy, and kind of an eyesore–and replace it with a clean, fast, underground subway line. That didn’t happen. And for the bulk of the 20th century, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, Apollo 11, the Berlin Wall, and 9/11, they still hadn’t finished the Second Avenue subway.

ROMAN MARS: What’s the current status of the Second Avenue subway?

JAKE BERMAN: The Second Avenue subway has a mile and three quarters right now, and they promised 10. So neighborhoods like Spanish Harlem, the East Village, the Lower East Side–they were promised this really great service to the east side for decades. And it still hasn’t happened yet. And it became a kind of municipal joke among New Yorkers such that there are snippets on Mad Men where people are shopping for apartments on Second Avenue, and the real estate agent is saying, “Oh, this is on Second Avenue. When the Second Avenue subway gets here, you’ll make a mint.” And I’m thinking to myself, “Aha. I get the joke. This thing is set in 1965. Got it.”

ROMAN MARS: After almost a hundred years of the Second Avenue subway planning, all that New York’s got to show for it are three new stations on the Upper East Side, which were finished in 2017. It’s the perfect example of a system that is so close to having it all. It could be fast, frequent, reliable, and widespread if it weren’t for a political gridlock that sets it apart from functional systems all over the world.

JAKE BERMAN: Being able to do these kinds of things at scale requires extremely patient planning at the front end. But once you make a decision to go, you do things as quickly as possible. So if you think about a place like Madrid, they built subways in bulk for decades, and so they got very good at it. They have all of this institutional knowledge, and they have the capacity to do this within their own bureaucracy. That’s not really the case in the United States. Instead, you have a million different changes once the plans get released in New York.

ROMAN MARS: In other words, Madrid makes a plan and moves forward with it quickly at large scale. But that’s not the case with New York because even if the MTA started out with the best plan imaginable, there’s often too many factors slowing things down. For one, there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Decisions about the subway system have to be made jointly between the mayor, the governor, and various government consultants and contractors who all have to agree on the same plan.

JAKE BERMAN: Everyone wants to have their two cents, even though everyone agrees that this subway line really needs to get built. Or at least there’s a political consensus that these subway lines need to get built.

ROMAN MARS: To make matters worse, doing things so slowly is expensive. By building piecemeal instead of all at once, the MTA loses out on the economies of scale. Each station ends up being built to its own unique blueprint rather than a standardized layout. And instead of having experts on staff, the MTA hires different sets of contracts on a per project basis, which means that a mile of subway track in New York costs six times more than in Berlin or Tokyo. It’s just too expensive and too slow to grow in the way that riders need it to. The next city on our list is Atlanta, Georgia. There was a time when Atlanta was so close to having a really amazing subway system, but ultimately it was derailed by the same force that had tanked initiatives in many, many other North American cities. And that is plain old racism.

JAKE BERMAN: I don’t think it’s an accident that the big turn against public transport coincided with the period of desegregation. There’s no other way to slice it.

ROMAN MARS: Back in the 1950s, post-war Atlanta was booming. Along with other American cities in the Sunbelt, Atlanta experienced a rise in population after World War II. Cheap and widespread air conditioning brought a solution to the unbearably hot summers. And many manufacturing jobs were moving to cities in the south. Atlanta wasn’t just booming though–it was proud. As the most racially progressive city in the former Confederacy, Atlanta called itself “the city too busy to hate.” As people flooded into Atlanta, city planners decided to build a new expressway so all these people could move around the city. But a lot of residents opposed the highway construction. There was an Atlanta ant-ihighway movement that sprung up in the 1950s along with calls to build a new state-of-the-art Atlanta metro.

JAKE BERMAN: And the fact was that the anti freeway and pro-metro movement had both Black and white supporters. And in particular the kinds of rich white folk who were opposing the freeway network were on board with this.

ROMAN MARS: Across racial lines, people wanted this subway–that is, until desegregation. When Atlanta’s buses were desegregated in 1959, many white people, even in the city too busy to hate, stopped taking the bus.

JAKE BERMAN: So much public transport cut down during the era of desegregation. Atlanta’s bus ridership dropped by double digits when the buses were desegregated.

ROMAN MARS: It turns out many white people only wanted public transportation so long as they didn’t have to share it with Black people. Before the metro could actually be built, white support petered out, and the idea was dead in the water–the lesson being that ultimately it doesn’t matter if the subway you’re building is fast, frequent, reliable, and goes everywhere people want to go if half the population refuses to use it.

JAKE BERMAN: Atlanta’s not the only place where this happened. You also see this in Detroit, where the northern suburbs of Detroit fought for decades to not take $600 million in federal money to build a subway because there was a lot of fear in the northern suburbs of Detroit to having Black people come into these otherwise white neighborhoods. Even in places like–say–the San Francisco Bay Area, you have a major cutdown of the BART system due to racism in San Mateo County, which is immediately to the south of San Francisco.

ROMAN MARS: San Mateo County, by the way, was 96% white in the 1960s when this was all happening. And the people that most vocally resisted BART very much wanted to keep it that way.

JAKE BERMAN: Which meant that the lines beneath Geary Boulevard across the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County as well as the line to Palo Alto, where Stanford is, both got canceled because there was no money.

ROMAN MARS: For any city to have a comprehensive and successful public transportation network, it is so important that the communities that make it up are willing to fund it and use it. So every time a white suburban neighborhood bows out of a subway line, it shakes the very foundation of the city’s entire public transit. And too often the result is a much scaled back system that can’t go everywhere people want to go. After the break, how the United States turned away from public transit and instead watched its cities become crisscrossed with highways–and how Canada learned from our mistakes. Subway systems across North America have each struggled in their own way to meet the four benchmarks of solid public transportation. But there’s one law that impacted every U.S. city and gave cars an advantage over public transportation that continues to this day. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 changed the game. Coming off the tail of World War II, the U.S. government believed that America needed big roads spanning the country in order to move troops should there be a ground invasion in the future. So under the act, the government subsidized almost the entire cost of building new highways. We never did have that ground invasion, but we’re still dealing with the consequences of the act. For one, it did provide an easy way to move between cities. But it also incentivized cities and states to literally bulldoze many Black neighborhoods to make way for all the new development. It also happens to be one reason that America really loves cars. But there’s a notable place in North America where the Federal Aid Highway Act didn’t apply, and that would be Canada. As highways went up like crazy in post-war America, Canadian cities saw a cautionary tale in all this. So when Seattle built highways in the 1950s, Vancouver–just across the border–decided to do things differently. I want to talk about Canadian cities and how they kind of had this sort of benefit of seeing what highways did when they were planning. Could you talk about that a little bit?

JAKE BERMAN: So Vancouver got started late on its freeway system. And for a point of comparison, Seattle got started with its freeway building extravaganza after World War II. Vancouver didn’t really get started with the planning process until the ’60s, so there was about a 10 to 20 year gap in there where Vancouver could see the results happening in its neighbor three hours to the south. And what they found was they didn’t like those results. They didn’t like the smog. They didn’t like the pollution. And further afield, they saw the results in Los Angeles. There was a strong political contingent that used the specter of Vancouver turning into the next LA that ultimately defeated all of the freeway plans for greater Vancouver.

ROMAN MARS: Wow. And so what did they end up with?

JAKE BERMAN: Well, then they ended up with the famous SkyTrain, which was the product of a weird confluence of circumstances. Vancouver bid and won a World’s Fair for 1986, and it was a world’s fair about transport. Now, Vancouver didn’t have anything special in their transport department, and so the provincial authorities had to go scrambling to find a transport system that they could build between 1980 and 1986.

ROMAN MARS: Without really any other options, Vancouver asked the government of Canada for help building a train system in their city before the big event. And basically the Canadian government said, “Yes. But under one condition.” They planned to use the World’s Fair as a product placement for a Canadian rail car company that had been floundering for years.

JAKE BERMAN: And the government of Canada decided that this was a perfect opportunity to bail out a failing rail car manufacturer that was owned by the province of Ontario. The province of Ontario had developed this automated subway system that nobody wanted to buy. As a result, the government of Canada said, “Fine, we will fund your world’s fair. We will fund your construction of your subway. But you must use this technology.” The company is based in Ontario, and not even the Toronto Transit Commission wanted to buy this thing.

ROMAN MARS: The new system was so hard to sell in part because it did have this one major drawback. It required non-standard components, which meant cities wouldn’t be able to easily switch vendors down the line.

JAKE BERMAN: Thankfully, it worked, and the SkyTrain is a huge success. But it had huge risks to what they were doing at the time.

ROMAN MARS: And all because they were trying to impress or fulfill this mandate of this transportation-based expo.

JAKE BERMAN: Oh, yeah.

ROMAN MARS: So could you describe the SkyTrain–how it works and what it’s like to be on it?

JAKE BERMAN: So the SkyTrain is elevated, like the one you have in Chicago. The difference is its trains are shorter and it’s fully automated.

ROMAN MARS: Meaning the SkyTrain runs without a driver?

JAKE BERMAN: Yeah. So because they’re automated, you can run frequent service all day. And as far as operating costs, this dramatically reduces them compared to having a manned system.

ROMAN MARS: How common is the automated system? Why doesn’t everyone do that?

JAKE BERMAN: Most modern subway lines can be designed with automation in mind, but it’s very difficult to retrofit them to an existing subway system, which was not designed without a driver. So in a place like Chicago or New York or Boston or–for that matter–Montreal or Toronto, it’s really hard to convert a system from manual control to fully automated control. In North America, Vancouver is really the best example of an automated system that works well. There are some in North America which were designed for partial automation, like BART in San Francisco or the Washington Metro. But because these ancient systems haven’t always been maintained the right way, a lot of them are still stuck on manual control.

ROMAN MARS: Interesting. Jake, this is such a fascinating book. I love it so much. I really enjoy talking with you. I really appreciate it.

JAKE BERMAN: It was a pleasure.

ROMAN MARS: Jake’s book is called The Lost Subways of North America, A Cartographic Guide to the Past, Present, and What Might Have Been. Not only will you find great stories about the subways of North America, it also features beautiful transit maps that Jake illustrated himself. I had so much fun looking at these maps, so make you check it out too. 99% Invisible was produced this week by Sarah Baik. Edited by Kelly Prime. Music by Swan Real. Mix and sound design by Haziq Bin Ahmad Farid. Kathy Tu is our executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. Delaney Hall is our senior editor. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Emmett FitzGerald, Gabriella Gladney, Martín Gonzalez, Christopher Johnson, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Neena Pathak, Joe Rosenberg, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown Oakland, California. Home to the Oakland Roots Soccer Club, of which I’m a proud community owner. Other teams may come and go, but the roots are Oakland first, always. You can find us on all the usual social media sites as well as our new Discord server. There are, like, 3,000 or 4,000 people talking about architecture and talking about The Power Broker and talking about the stories on the show and all kinds of things–music, movies, everything. It’s a nice group over there. Check it out. There’s a link to that, as well as every past episode of 99PI at



Host Roman Mars spoke with Jake Berman, author of The Lost Subways of North America. This episode was produced by Sarah Baik and edited by Kelly Prime.

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