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How Boston raced—and beat—New York to open the Western Hemisphere’s first subway

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And the lessons for today

Construction along Tremont Street around 1900
City of Boston Archives

Doug Most’s The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway tells the tale of how those two cities moved slowly—then fast—toward constructing their respective subways a little more than a century ago.

Filled with outsized personalities and global drama, The Race Underground is pretty much a nonfiction novel for the public transit or train junkie in your life. (A PBS documentary based on the book aired earlier this year.)

We caught up with Most, an editor at the Boston Globe when he wrote 2014 book and now an executive on the newspaper’s business side, to ask him about the subway race and the lessons it might hold for today.

What were the missed connections as far as the early construction of the T? What directions could its early advocates have gone in in terms of routes and stops that they opted to avoid or just didn't consider?

Hindsight's always 20-20, of course. The tunnels that were built were narrow, and the turns were sharp. At the time, that construction seemed fine. But as the system grew, and ridership exploded over decades, the trains became overcrowded, but it was physically not possible to add cars to make longer trains.

When you ride big-city transit systems in other cities, the tracks are generally more straight downtown and the turns are more gradual, so trains can be longer. In Boston, these sharp corners are a huge problem hindering longer trains and the ability to carry more passengers per train.

The routes of the system have generally been accepted, with one exception: Boston opted for a very hub-and-spoke system, which means you constantly have to go in to go out. There is no easy way today to get from Cambridge to Brighton or Jamaica Plain, for example. You have to go all the way into downtown and then out to those neighborhoods.

Again, not ideal for getting from one neighborhood the next.

You write very evocatively about how the epic blizzard of 1888, which brought much of the Northeast to a standstill, spurred the idea of subterranean travel as a way around the weather above-ground.

How do you think concerns about the impact of climate change, particularly on the Boston region's waterfront areas, will (or should) impact transportation planning?

Well, it's hard to speculate. But I think cities are going to have to take a hard look at how much they develop their waterfronts and seaport districts. Boston is in the midst of this now, and it's terrifying to imagine it all being for naught if it's underwater in a century. But who knows.

Even with the blizzard and the general congestion of horse-drawn carriages and early automobiles, it still seemed to take forever for both Boston and New York to get down to building its subways.

What were the biggest holdups? You hear echos of this intransigence today, right?

Where to begin? Politics. Corruption. Technology. NIMBY-ism. They all combined in various ways to delay construction. And weather, too. And yes, if this sounds familiar, it is. The more things change, the more they stay the same, right?

Boss Tweed played a big role in the delays in New York City. And so did politics.

In Boston, it was inertia after getting close. One man who could have made it happen chose not to, and that delayed the project for years.

Business owners in cities struggled with the idea of subways -- they could not look past how much construction might hurt their business. Even if the finished product might help business.

And, of course, technology. There was a big reason why London built the world's first subway in 1863, but the next subway didn't happen for another 30 years: Technology. London's Underground was steam powered. Not exactly ideal for underground transportation, coal-powered steam.

Something better had to come along and that didn't happen until the 1880s. I write a lot about this in the book, a fascinating advancement.

Construction in Kenmore Square around 1914
City of Boston Archives

Finally, a really cool part of The Race Underground is the forward-looking epilogue. People thought publisher and inventor Alfred Beach was crazy for suggesting in the 1840s tunneling under New York, for instance. What's the holdup today as far as improving and broadening subway service in Boston (and in NYC)?

Is it that we're all just awaiting driver-less cars to disrupt everything? Is it the funding (or lack thereof) alone? Forget a supersonic tunnel from New York to L.A. Why can't the Red Line run more efficiently?

Oh, it's all of those and more. Funding is only a part of the holdup. The technology isn't there yet. It may be soon, but it's not yet. This is like going to the moon. It won't happen quickly. A decade, or longer.

But something new is coming, and it will be exciting. And faster.

As for the Green Line screeches and the Red Line stops all the time, I wish I had a better answer than this: Shit happens. No, seriously. The system is old and needs modernization. Tracks require tremendous upkeep.

No urban transit system makes money, they all bleed profusely. Boston is no exception.