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Second Avenue Subway serves happiest ride in New York

It’s been a little over a year since the Second Avenue subway opened. Since then, countless New Yorkers have christened the new line, maneuvering the morning rush with commuter efficiency and finally settling, chins pointed at their iPhones, into a triumphant sense that yes, there’s a new subway, and yes, my New York moment feels better.

Today, the subway ferries nearly six million people every day; on the Upper East Side along the Second Avenue line, that’s about 200,000 riders. Not to mention that 24,000 folks aren’t cramming into the Lexington Avenue Line anymore, according to the MTA.

The new stations at 72nd, 86th and 96th Street even feel different. They’re deep and cavernous, and shine with a metallic-fluorescent newness that the year still hasn’t worn down. The walls are punctuated by beautiful murals. And if you listen closely, the stations are quiet. Imagine if the Union Square station was like that. It’s all a glimpse of what it’s like to bring three of New York’s 472 subway stations into the 21st Century.

second avenue subway

Admiring a mural

The new subway stations have readily accessible elevators, unlike the rest of the subways where fewer than one in five stations are accessible to the disabled. The stations are also climate controlled year round, with modern digital signs and countdown clocks. But ushering into the street level along Second Avenue is another story. The changes happening above ground are still unfolding.

Less noise, more business 

Construction caused perennial problems for the neighborhoods fenced off by crews finally making good on a century-long project. For a decade after the subway broke ground in 2007, the street shook with an incessant din that New Yorkers avoided, and businesses along Second Avenue suffered. Between 72nd and 96th Street, a little over half of local businesses moved or were shuttered by 2016, according to the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce.

“Having a great location taken out from under you seems to be the prevailing thing right now,” says Sean Sova, a longtime East sider who’s seen businesses come and go over decades on the Upper East Side.

second avenue subway

Young violinists perform by another mural

But the problems of being on Second Avenue were not the same as opening on Second Avenue. “People still invested so they could make money when the subway opened,” Sova said. And as we predicted, the Second Avenue subway has been delivering steady new business for over a year for those willing to make that bet.

Retailers have opened up and down the avenue as the subway breathes new life into long-time and new businesses alike. Old-school stalwarts like Schaller and Weber saw a 10% jump in sales in 2017. And at 94th and 2nd, there is even that tell-tale harbinger of change, a Starbucks. As reported in the NYPost, a local merchant’s association ball-parked as much as a 30% increase in foot-traffic at Upper East Side shops and restaurants in the year since the subway opened.

Retailers have appeared up and down the avenue as the subway breathes new life into long-time and new businesses alike”

Staying open in New York is an ordeal that’s getting worse, but not if you have patrons streaming out from under you.

Creeping rent on Second Avenue

Still, new business along Second Avenue has come with upward pressure on rents. Yorkville, home to two of the three new subway stations, has been most affected by the new subway.

second avenue subway

In almost every neighborhood in New York City rents are falling, but in Yorkville landlords are demanding more. According to a study by Streeteasy, asking rents have climbed by about 4% in Yorkville since the subway opened. The only other neighborhood that saw a bigger rise in asking rents is the Financial District.

There is little reason to think the trend will stop.”Access to public transportation remains one the biggest drivers of real estate in the city,” said Grant Long, a senior economist for StreetEasy, “so it was no surprise to see Yorkville take off.” The neighborhood premium will mean an even higher price-tag to stay put.

To Harlem and beyond

All in all, the first phase of building the Second Avenue subway cost $4.5 billion dollars. The second phase of construction will add three new stations uptown and connect the subway to the Lexington Avenue Line at 125th Street in Harlem – all to the tune of around $6 billion. When the golden opening happens in East Harlem, it will mean an end to 20 minute walks to get to the subway. And probably more Starbucks. But New Yorkers should have a long enough memory about what it takes to get there.

Let it sink in that taking 100 years to build a new subway is just skimming the surface of our issues”

The same issues that plagued phase one could just move uptown when the project breaks ground in 2019 – East Harlem fenced off, drowning in noise, and filling with vacant storefronts. And who knows for how long?

A broken system

Amid the howling problems with our subway, we should thank the Second Avenue subway for its pollyanna, almost calming effect. Maybe that’s what is so dissonant about riding the Q uptown.  Every New Yorker knows that the rest of the subway is in dire trouble. And isn’t a small part of us waiting for the other shoe to drop – a stalled Q train settling like a familiar nuisance in the back of our minds?

Let it sink in that taking 100 years to build a new subway is just skimming the surface of our issues. In the first three months of 2017, nearly three-quarters of New York’s subways were chronically late. A recent study also found that only 3% of the 840 miles of tracks are clean enough by the MTA’s own standards. And today’s signaling system, which dates to the 1930s, is so old that the antique replacements need to be made in-house by the MTA. Governor Cuomo declared that the MTA was in a state of emergency last year, and several options loom large on his agenda, like introducing congestion pricing and value capture proposals in the city.

Every New Yorker knows that the rest of the subway is in dire trouble.

When you descend deep into the ground to ride the Q, marvel at the new subway. Then, imagine if all of our subways were like this. As Jonathan Mahler recently wrote, “In New York, movement – anywhere, anytime – is a right.” There are miles to go before we can say that for sure.


John Aurelio
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