Thursday, February 6, 2014


I just finished reading a terrific new book that hit the shelves earlier this week. Do I really read that fast? No, I had an advance reader copy.

The book is THE RACE UNDERGROUND by Doug Most and it tells the story of the race to build the first subway systems in two major American cities: Boston and New York (spoiler alert: Boston built the first subway but New York's was bigger).

It's a fascinating story with an large cast of players. There are engineers, politicians, businessmen, bankers, contractors, visionaries and hard working laborers in this story. Oh, and two cities desperately trying to update and upgrade their respective mass transit systems. By the late 1800s it was obvious in both cities that horse drawn carriages, elevated trains and even electric trolley cars were insufficient to handle the ever growing populations in both metropolises. Different plans were conceived in both cities but Boston's won approval and financing first in 1897 making it the first subway system in an American city. But by the time New York City finally approved a subway construction plan in the early 1900s, the system that was built was on a much larger scale that the one in Boston.

Building these systems was no easy feat and both projects were fraught with danger. There was a deadly gas explosion in Boston and a dynamite shack exploded in the Murray Hill section of New York City. But the systems were eventually built and very quickly became a daily routine of urban life.

I've ridden the Underground in London (the first subway system in the world) and the New York subway and I found both systems easy to navigate, fairly inexpensive and incredibly efficient at moving mass numbers of people long distances in a very short time.

The most interesting aspect of this book for me (besides the compelling narrative) is how closely the situations in Boston and New York more than a hundred years ago so closely echo the situation found in current day Austin, Texas. The debate about urban rail in this area continues apace and while there are pros and cons to building rail here, it's clear that something must be done to accommodate our rapidly growing population. I had an opportunity to ride the Metro Rail line yesterday (the one and only urban rail line we currently have) and I found it to be cheap, easy and efficient. I will definitely use the train again and so will all of my fellow commuters. The train was packed in both the early morning journey into downtown and the late afternoon trip back to the suburbs. I suspect that eventually more urban rail will be built here but it's going to be a long and expensive process.

I recommend THE RACE UNDERGROUND for anyone interested in American history in general and in transportation history specifically. It's a story well told.

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