Dinner without the Subway

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“New Yorkers, widely considered to be tough and selfish, are suddenly eager to share cellphones, drink beer with strangers at their local bars, and to cook meals at home — since without subways there is no way to go out for dinner and get home easily.”

Mitchell Moss, CNN.com, October, 30 2012

The statement that a New Yorker can’t go out to dinner without the subway is perplexing, all the more so  in that it comes from an NYU professor of Urban Policy and Planning who presumably has spent some time living or at least working in Manhattan. The comment was a footnote in a much longer article which had an entirely different focus, but as a former Manhattanite it was enough to catch my eye. In a city with a Walkscore of 85 (99-100 on most of the island) you can hardly step out your door in many neighborhoods without stumbling into a restaurant or at least a take-out joint. Of those neighborhoods that lack restaurants within walking distance most also lack quick access to a subway station. The idea that the subway is necessary for most New Yorkers to “go out for dinner” is odd claim. Was this a quickly written oversight on behalf of the professor? Perhaps he is just exceedingly picky about which restaurants he frequents. You could presume he meant go out to dinner with friends but then the issue would be more the location of his friends than the location of the restaurant and cooking at home wouldn’t solve that problem.  I should note of course that his account accurately reflects that for many city residents taking the subway to your favorite pasta or to catch up with an old friend over fries is much more convenient than taking a taxi or driving a car (if you even have one). However for the many residents who bypass the kitchen on a daily basis, when it comes to simply getting fed, nothing beats walking down to the end of the block.

ImageThe subway closure has been labeled “debilitating” and this is in large part true. Thirty-seven percent of New Yorkers rely on the Subway system daily to get to work. In addition to the 1.6 million who live on the island, another 2 million commute into Manhattan from elsewhere (I couldn’t quickly turn up a commuter number for the whole city). For some Manhattanites, taking the subway is as much a convenience as a necessity. Ten percent already walk to work. On an island 2 miles wide and 10 miles long, many more likely live within a 20 or 30 minute walk of work or school, which is quite a luxury in a country where the vast majority of citizens are lucky to live within a 20 minute walk of a bus stop. And of course many could take the bus (the horror!); granted the number of buses required to get every New Yorker to work would be unwieldy as evidenced by the overcrowded buses Wednesday morning.

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Walking to School

Certainly the subway is the lifeblood of the city’s economy (and to some degree the nations as home to Wall Street other national headquarters). But the daily chores of those who actually live in the city limits, as represented by visits to the grocery, the diner, a few local shops, the hardware store, local schools, playgrounds, and usually at least one decent sit-down restaurant, can actually go on without much fuss without subway because the city is composed of a dense web of walkable neighborhoods. Of course other storm issues such as power outages and delivery delays may prevent those local businesses from actually providing service during a crisis, but the issue is not the lack of a subway to get residents to the door.

What kind of impact will this event and its media coverage have on the hearts and minds of potential transit users and car ditchers across the country? Will some fear becoming too reliant on public transportation? Manhattan always makes a good news story so there’s an over-reporting bias that risks leading some to believe they have abundantly more challenges than the rest of us. Of course suburban systems are vulnerable too. When Hurricane Hugo hit my suburban neighborhood 45 minutes inland in 1989, downed trees made it impassable by car. Schools remained closed for up to two weeks. We were thrilled when we regained power and were given the green light to drink tap water without pre-boiling. There are certainly huge implications of the subway shutdown and any sort of long-term closure would be hugely disruptive, but the picture that all elements of daily life are disrupted by the closure is misleading. Perhaps part of the problem is that the city that never sleeps, and increasingly the country that never stops working, expects normal life to resume so soon after disaster strikes.

One thing I think we can all agree on, it never hurts to be within walking distance of your local bar & grill.

Update: A fellow urbanist, John Massengale in New York, informs me that going out dinner is in fact an issue for those living south of 40th street due restaurants suffering from “no electricity, no refrigeration and a shortage of staff.” There are also issues with credit card processing and ATMs. Store shelves in lower Manhattan are sparse.  Of course as another colleague noted if the restaurant on your block doesn’t have power, your kitchen probably doesn’t either. Uptown in contrast the restaurants are full and the shelves are stocked. Downtowners do have the option of walking a few miles uptown, cabs are available and buses are returning.  If you have a gym membership a walk uptown could also mean a hot shower.  I would also note that Moss’s distinction between beer and restaurants may be valid. Better drink it before it goes sour! Highlights and challenges: A brick oven pizzeria in the Village able to operate without power gives away free pizza. A restauranteur considered opening by candlelight but deciding against because of lack of functioning bathrooms.

Articles & Updates on City Life During and After the Storm: 

The author is a former resident of Manhattan and weathered Hugo in Summerville, South Carolina.

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