Atlas Is Still Shrugging-And Riding the Subway

When I take the subway, and enter into that labyrinth of tunnels and tracks that transport some five million of us daily, I think about Atlas Shrugged , that mad, 1,200-page homage to money and markets written by Ayn Rand, the late Russian émigré accustomed to wearing an embroidered silver dollar sign on her black cape, and one-time guru to Alan Greenspan and other important money men.

The first way they relate is obvious: The subway system, like the mythical Atlas, supports our world. It created the New York we know and usually love, of skyscrapers leaping out of the ground, filled with people. The built environment we think of as New York City grew out of the subway and its capacity to bring millions of people more or less at the same time to the same place. While Manhattan’s grid existed before the subway system, its skyscrapers did not–nor did its amazing employment density, which was based on moving millions into the city daily.

The late, great World Trade Center provides a good example. What if the Port Authority had built the towers without the No. 1 line and the PATH train beneath it and the ferry nearby? How much parking would you have needed so all those people could drive into Manhattan?

Well, using the standard suburban-developer’s formula of one parking space for every 250 square feet of office space, you would need 56,000 parking spaces for the World Trade Center’s 14 million square feet. Which means you would need 560 acres of parking, or basically all of lower Manhattan, because you can only fit 100 parking spaces per acre. So basically, you would’ve had to convert everything below Canal Street, from Tribeca to the Staten Island ferry, into a parking lot for one building complex.

Or you could build parking garages. If you built the garages with the same expansive 50,000-square-foot plates as the twin towers, you’d need two 190-story parking garages to sit beside the 110-story World Trade Center towers. You would also need a 50-lane freeway to get the people there and back.

Most people don’t understand transportation. They think we have these places–like Times Square or, say, a shopping mall outside Atlanta–and we figure out how to move around within and between them. Actually, it works just the opposite: We create ways to move around, and that creates places. The subway and train lines created the New York we love, the same way the interstate highways created the Atlanta suburban sprawl we hate.

New York is so different in its physical form because a subway, unlike a highway, can move many people quickly to more or less the same place. A highway moves 1,800 vehicles per lane per hour. A good subway can move 60,000 to 80,000 people per track per hour!

So we are creations, in a sense, of New York’s transit system. But, like the hard-working capitalists in Rand’s novel, the subway gets no respect and little attention. The casual rider doesn’t appreciate it; the feds feed it last, after lavishing money on Georgia interstates and mining subsidies to Utah.

So that’s one way the subway relates to Atlas Shrugged . The second way the subway relates is less obvious, but more crucial. It’s that Ayn Rand was wrong! In Atlas Shrugged , she details her theory that capitalists, like her hero, John Galt–those out to make a buck–create all the value in the world, and the rest of us are just freeloaders. To Ayn Rand and all her libertarian, neoconservative soul brothers at the Cato and Manhattan institutes, the people who create value and prosperity in this world are the Mike Bloombergs and the Bill Gateses. Government is at best a necessary evil, there just to tidy up the manly work done by the capitalists.

Now this makes sense to sophomores in college and John Tierney on the Metro page of The Times , but it’s just flat wrong. The world we live in rests on a vast system of publicly funded (and usually publicly built) infrastructure. Sure, people start companies and do neat stuff. But they use workers who receive public education, and they get places on highways, planes and subways that government has either built or massively subsidized. The free market doesn’t create infrastructure, at least not very well. John Galt and the other capitalists in Atlas Shrugged depend on government to build a transportation infrastructure for them,

educate their workers, and create a legal system that allows them to buy and sell. Government creates the infrastructure of capitalism: physical, intellectual and legal.

This is true in New York most of all. It’s no accident that New York, symbol of free-wheeling capitalism, has the most extensive and elaborate mass-transit system and social-welfare state. Compared to the rest of the country, New York is Sweden.

So who is this Atlas that’s carrying the world? It’s us, the taxpayers. And where does that leave us? In the hands of the politicians. The good news is that there are signs that Mayor Bloomberg gets it: He’s talked respectfully not only of the transit system, but of the parks, water mains and other systems that make our city work.

If we wanted to make this city even better, then the easiest way would be to pour money into the subway system first, and then the commuter rail, ferries and Amtrak. They are like blood lines to vital organs. A wish list would include the Second Avenue subway and bureaucratic changes like making the MetroCard common currency on all trains, ferries and buses, no matter what state they originate from.

But we shouldn’t just make the transit system more efficient; we should make it beautiful. It’s a sign of the hostility with which we regard public infrastructure that most of it looks like the underside of a kitchen sink.

A few years back, I rode the new No. 14 subway line in Paris to the Bibliothèque Nationale, those giant glass bookends that sit over a cool subterranean complex. The subway fit right into this Schrager-like aesthetic. The platforms were separated from the open tracks by a wall of glass. When the train pulled in, its doors lined up with these glass walls, and the two opened together. It had other nice touches. The stations were actually works of architecture, both inside and out.

Our subways could be like that: marvels of both engineering and aesthetics. The Second Avenue subway line, which would take people from the Bronx all the way to lower Manhattan, could be a showcase of the best in design and architecture.

Even when factoring in the better economy and increasing population of New York, more people than expected have ridden the subways and buses in the last 15 years. Why? Probably because the subway cars are no longer covered with graffiti, the stations rarely smell of urine and the M.T.A. has spruced up the stations with new flooring, tiles and railings. That’s been wonderful, but it’s just a first step.

As we contemplate our post-9/11 future, we can choose to make our city a better place in ways that are both sensible and efficient. We don’t have to be like the late Ms. Rand; we can take the subway.