I started reading Fogelson’s Downtown with the intention of learning more about elevated trains, and though I’ve been slightly disappointed in that regard (more to come on that after I finish and attempt a more comprehensive review), he does include a lot of interesting history. I’m posting this more so that I remember it, but the first paragraph offers an interesting rejoinder to those who say that els could never be viable because of the blight factor, and the Second Avenue elevated line makes a cameo towards the end:
In view of the longstanding and deep-seated opposition to elevated railways, the construction of elevated highways is more than a little puzzling. This opposition has grown so vociferous that by the 1920s most Americans had come to believe that elevated railways should never have been built in the first place. Despite assurances by several leading engineers that it was possible to build els that were quiet, clean, and attractive (and would not reduce property values), they remained convinced that under no circumstances should any more be constructed.
The cities should not only stop building elevated railways, many Americans insisted; they should start demolishing them. This idea, which had surfaced in the first two decades of the century, caught on in the 1920s, especially in New York and Boston. In favor of it were abutting businessmen and property owners, who believed that the removal of the els would improve trade and raise values. Allied with them were public officials (among them Julius Miller, borough president of Manhattan and chief advocate of the West Side Elevated Highway), who thought the demolition of the els would foster economic development; traffic experts (including New York City Police Commissioner Enright, another advocate of elevated highways), who assumed that the removal of the elevated structures would facilitate the flow of vehicular traffic; and others who felt that the els were unsightly, unnerving, and anachronistic, a once valuable form of urban transportation that had long outlived its usefulness. By the mid and late 1920s – or even earlier, according to the New York Times – most Americans were convinced that it was only a matter of time before the elevated railways were removed from the city streets. Noting that the Sixth Avenue el “ought to have been taken down years ago,” New York mayor John F. Hylan predicted in 1924 that there would soon be no elevated structures left in Manhattan. Two years later the Massachusetts Division of Metropolitan Planning reported that popular sentiment would eventually force the demolition of at least some of Boston’s elevated railways. The els “are doomed,” wrote architect Ernest Flagg in 1927, “and the sooner they go the better.”
And they went, though not as soon as expected. At the behest of the Forty-second Street Property Owners and Merchants Association and other midtown business interests, the New York state legislature approved the demolition of a short elevated line on East Forty-second Street in 1923. Two other spur lines were torn down later, one in 1924 and the other in 1930. During the late 1930s New York City also demolished the Sixth Avenue el, whose owner, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, had gone into receivership several years earlier. (Sixth Avenue property owners had urged the city to tear down the el and replace it with a subway in 1923. They had even offered to pay the cost. But the project had gotten bogged down because many New Yorkers felt the el should not be demolished until the Sixth Avenue subway was finished.) Shortly after, the city also tore down the Second and Ninth avenue els in Manhattan and a few lines (or parts thereof) in Brooklyn, the remains of the defunct Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Company. A decade later the city tore down the Third Avenue el, the oldest in New York, a “relic,” wrote the general manager of the New York City Transit Authority, of a “bygone era.” After its demolition, there were no els left in lower and mid Manhattan, only in upper Manhattan and some of the outer boroughs. Change came more slowly in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston, where the authorities were reluctant to tear down the els, no matter how “undesirable” they were, until they could be replaced with subways. But after World War II Boston began to demolish them too.
Elevated rail lines are far smaller in footprint than elevated highways, and although highways may have been quieter than rail lines a century ago (though I’m not sure if this is even true), the technology has surely shifted in rail’s favor with regards to noise. And even if the technologies were equally obtrusive on a per-mile basis, you much fewer less elevated rail miles to transport the same amount of people as with an elevated highway – perhaps even almost an order of magnitude less:
John A. Miller was one of the few Americans who was puzzled by the construction of elevated highways. “Elevated railways with a capacity of 40,000 persons per hour in one direction are [being] torn down,” he wrote in amazement in 1935, “while elevated highways with a capacity of 6,000 persons per hour are being erected.”
Fogelson points out that one advantage that elevated highways had over rail was that they were often built alongside rivers, though there’s no reason rail couldn’t be built similarly (from what I understand, this is something that Japan does quite frequently). But mainly the difference in opinion between rail and road seems to be the simple fact that elevated railways ran through desirable areas, whereas highways were built after blight had already set in (indeed, they were seen as a cure for blight, however ridiculous that might seem to us today). In other words, the wealth that created the elevated lines was their undoing. (Ideology might have had something to do with it – els were built privately whereas elevated highways were built by the government – but I don’t think it was a huge factor.)
Anyway, hopefully I’ll get to say more about els when I write the book review, but I’m curious to know what you commenters think. Last time I posted about them some people accused me of playing down their negative externalities, but after having looked into it a bit more, I still think that they’re an underrated mode of transit (less noise and a smaller footprint seem to be the selling points). Benjamin Hemric even sent me a link to the Monorail Society’s website, and while I went into it with massive biases (I blame the best Simpsons episode) – which are not assuaged by the site’s shitty design, I should add – I came out thinking that they might actually have some merit. The Seattle Monorail has soured a lot of American’s against the technology, but you cannot condemn a whole mode of transportation based on the failure of American planners, who, let’s be honest, can screw up just about anything. Japan apparently even has private monorails, according to the site. So, what do y’all think – are els viable 21st century solutions? What about monorails?