Checking out the old South Ferry station before it closes forever

Mosaic station identification sign, South Ferry subway station, Manhattan (Heins & LaFarge, 1905)

First, the backstory.

On 16 March 2009, a new South Ferry subway station, the southernmost subway station in Manhattan, opened. The old South Ferry station, which originally opened over a century earlier in 1905, had served millions of commuters well, but it had always had its limitations. When the New York City Subway was originally built, local trains had only five cars, and so stations where only local trains stopped were built just long enough for five cars. This later proved insufficient, so local trains were extended, as were local stations — where possible. That’s the reason the beautiful original City Hall subway station was shuttered at the end of 1945, and it’s why the architecture and signage of some older subway stations abruptly changes partway along the platform.

City Hall subway station
The City Hall subway station, which was closed at the end of 1945. (Photo by Paul Lowry via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

The old South Ferry station, built as a loop where terminating downtown trains could turn around and return uptown — like the City Hall station — couldn’t be extended. But, unlike City Hall, it was too vital to close: there wasn’t an alternative station nearby, and it gave commuters a needed connection to the Staten Island Ferry. So it remained open, though only the first five cars of a ten-car train could platform.

Gap filler, South Ferry subway station, Manhattan
A platform extender fills the gap between the curved platform and the open doors of a waiting 1 train.

But, as I mentioned, it was also a loop, and you know what happens when you align a ruler-straight subway car with a curved platform? It leaves large gaps between the platform and the train — gaps that really are big enough for someone to fall into. Mind the gap, indeed! So the old South Ferry station had mechanical platform extenders that filled the gap in front of each train car. But that also made service at the station slower, since arriving trains had to wait for the gap fillers to extend and departing trains had wait for them to retract.

(There was also an inner platform within the loop, but the curve was so tight that trains could open only their center doors. It proved so problematic that the inner platform was closed in 1977, though the tracks are still used, particularly by downtown 5 trains which terminate at Bowling Green on weekends and use this loop to turn around and return to the uptown track.)

So in 2009 a new, modern South Ferry station opened. It was a true terminus, with the tracks ending on either side of an island platform. In addition to making the station fully accessible, it also allowed more frequent service on the 1 train: MTA New York City Transit could decrease rush-hour headways from four minutes to as frequently as 2½ minutes — 24 trains per hour.

But then, a mere three and a half years later, the unthinkable happened. On 29 October 2012, hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey and hit Lower Manhattan with a nearly two-meter (six-foot) storm surge which flooded streets, buildings, and tunnels, including subway tunnels and stations. Millions of liters of salt water filled and virtually destroyed the new South Ferry station and its sensitive, state-of-the-art electronics and other equipment.

Decorative tiles, South Ferry subway station, Manhattan (Heins & LaFarge, 1905)
Vintage 1905 ceramic tiles depict a sailboat. Fifteen of these tiles decorate the original South Ferry station.

Five months later, on 4 April 2013, the old South Ferry station was reopened to restore the 1 train’s vital connection to the Staten Island Ferry. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the New York state agency that operates the subway, had to figure out what to do about the old station, with repairs estimated at $600 million or more.

Now, four years later, the MTA’s Fix & Fortify repairs on the new South Ferry station are almost complete. Since the idea behind the repairs is to leave the transit system more resilient and able to weather future storms with less damage, once the old South Ferry station closes it may never open to the public again. So last Saturday, 18 March 2017, I took some time to visit the station and take in its early-20th-century details and design. Here are some photos and videos from my visit.

This video shows a train entering the station and gap fillers extending before the doors open.

In this video, the same train leaves the station. Notice the train pause while the driver waits for the gap filler signal to clear. Also notice how loudly the wheels scrape against the rails, despite the lubricant which is sprayed on the tracks to reduce friction.

The MTA plans to reopen the new South Ferry station in June 2017, after repairs that cost $344 million.

North America’s spectacular skylines: a 23-city time lapse

For all of their problems and failures, North America really does have some beautiful cities with spectacular skylines. Mitchell Hadden, a videographer based in one of those cities, Cleveland, created this awesome time lapse video of 23 of those cities—including one in Canada—with images he shot during his travels with Fox Sports over the past year. Check it out:

h/t CBS News

Tragedy visualized

A friend on Facebook pointed me to this video. When I read that the film’s 15 minutes were “well worth my time,” I scoffed a little. But I was waiting for a business call, so I figured why not kill some time. “Well worth it” proved to be right.

This is a beautiful and compelling visualization of the military and civilian deaths caused by World War II—stunning both in its visuals and in the sheer numbers killed. The first and largest part of the film details the mind-boggling human cost of the war: the toll of military combat in both the European and Pacific theaters as well as the loss of civilian life from military action, the Holocaust, and other war crimes. The second half puts WWII in the context of other military conflicts throughout history and discusses the relative peace in the world today, at least in terms of an individual’s likelihood of being killed in war.

It’s the work of Neil Halloran and accompanies his site fallen.io, which he describes as “an interactive documentary that examines the human cost of the second World War and the decline in battle deaths in the years since the war.” The site includes interactive visualizations of the data. Also on the site you can pay a “ticket price” as a contribution to support the project (the suggested ticket price is $2.50, which is a bargain at any cinema these days).

The numbers are staggering, and no one has probably ever created a more compelling visualization of them. And Mr. Halloran will be one to watch; with talent like this, I certainly expect to see his work again.

Rush hour in The Netherlands

Back when I was a student in The Netherlands, some of my Dutch classmates took me to a soccer game one evening, a match between Nijmegen’s hometown N.E.C. and NAC Breda. We got to the match on pretty much the only mode college students in Holland would use for such an event: our bikes. Night had already fallen by the time we arrived at the stadium, and some police officers directed us to where we could park our bikes. I struck up a brief conversation with them, hitting on the fact that I was an American student studying at Nijmegen’s Radboud University. They asked me what I liked most about their country. I gave them an answer that was perhaps not at the top of my list—that would probably be the Dutch people’s greatest gift to mankind, vla—but certainly on up there. And it was fitting for the situation: that I could ride my bike everywhere.

Now I live in New York. I have a bike. And I don’t ride it nearly as often as I would like. Part of it is that I’m usually a stay-at-home dad, and it’s tough to take kids on bikes everywhere I need or want to go. But even when I’m by myself, biking in NYC is intimidating. Despite the tremendous strides this and other U.S. cities have made in building bike infrastructure, it pales in comparison to that of our Dutch counterparts. And it shows, too, in the number of people who actually ride bikes. We can talk about the numbers and modal share. But I always tell people that they should see rush hour in The Netherlands. And, thanks to the miracle of the internet and, especially, that miracle of miracles called YouTube, you can see it for yourself. Here’s video of rush hour in Utrecht, a city in the heart of The Netherlands. (Rush hour in Nijmegen and most other Dutch cities looks much the same.)

In case you’re wondering, Nijmegen won after two rounds of overtime and a shootout.