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The New York City transit projects that never were

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From pneumatic trains to a floating airport

Norman Bel Geddes’s Rotary Airport design.
Courtesy Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

As commuters grow ever more impatient with an overcrowded and underfunded MTA, languish in summer traffic, and navigate the city's far-flung, congested airports, it's worth remembering: It didn't have to be this way.

The trains, planes, and highways that shuttle New Yorkers from place to place are the systems we ended up with, but had things gone a little differently, we could be looking at a very different city. One where pneumatic trains send riders across the city on elevated tracks, Manhattan's grid is crisscrossed by diagonal streets, or an airport floats in the harbor just off the Battery.

All of these are real projects that were planned for the city at one time or another in history, though none of them came to be—though they’re now brought to life in "Never Built New York," a new exhibit at the Queens Museum. Running through February 18, the show includes original drawings and models, as well as installations and animations, that depict alternate New Yorkscapes.

Alfred Ely Beach’s pneumatic transit system.
Courtesy The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Curators Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin, who also wrote a book of the same name, took us on a whistle-stop tour through some of their favorite unbuilt transit projects featured in the exhibit.

1870: Beach Pneumatic Transit

More than 30 years before the New York City subway debuted in 1904, inventor Alfred Ely Beach was hard at work on a very different plan for subterranean travel in the city: a pneumatic, tube-shaped train propelled by air from enormous fans. Though the New York State Legislature approved the plan, the local Tammany Hall government put the kibosh on the scheme.

But that didn't stop Beach from building a working section of system, about a quarter-mile of it which he constructed illegally right across from City Hall at the corner of Broadway and Warren Street. Though it only had one station and one car, it was open to the public and ran for three years before being shut down.

1872: Rufus Henry Gilbert's elevated railway

Elon Musk's concept for the Hyperloop might sound futuristic, but it's actually pretty retro. He was beat to the punch a century and a half before by another polymath, Dr. Rufus Henry Gilbert. Famed as a Civil War surgeon who performed amputations under fire, Gilbert later turned his attention to public transit. He put forth an idea for an elevated pneumatic train that would travel above the Manhattan streets through twin tubes supported by elaborately designed steel arches.

His steampunkish plan also included air-powered elevators to bring commuters up to the tracks and a telegraph system to send arrival information along the line—an innovation that even the modern MTA has yet to perfect. Though Gilbert got the go-ahead to build his system, the financial panic of 1873 stopped the project in its tracks.

A sketch of Rufus Henry Gilbert’s elevated railway.
Courtesy Library of Congress

1908: Charles R. Lamb's diagonal streets

As urban congestion began to skyrocket in the early 20th century, architect Charles R. Lamb conceived a design for Manhattan streets that would have radically altered the grid we know today. Drawing inspiration from European cities like Paris, he conceptualized a street plan that would have cut through Manhattan's right angles with wide boulevards. "It was not only to improve movement through the city, but also to try to change the way in which the grid had made New York so powerfully a mercantile place," Goldin explains. "So you would have these sort of serendipitous moments that become parks or places for monuments."

1919: Daniel L. Turner's expanded subway

To anyone who regularly rides the MTA, it's painfully obvious what's missing from the map: more crosstown trains in Manhattan, and more lines connecting the outer boroughs. A prescient 1919 plan by the Transit Construction Commission's chief engineer, Daniel Turner, smartly addressed both issues. His design would have quadrupled the amount of crosstown lines and added trains that traveled directly between Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island, anticipating the congestion and overcrowding that would come to plague public transit in the city.

"He wanted to get ahead of the development rather than trying to respond to the development," says Lubell. Alas, the plans were put on hold due to bureaucratic and financial constraints. But Turner's legacy lives in on, to some degree, in the long-awaited Second Avenue Subway, a beefed-up version of which was also included in his scheme.

1932: Norman Bel Geddes's Rotary Airport

Designer and visionary Norman Bel Geddes had plenty of futuristic dreams for New York City over the years. Among them was a proposal for an airport floating in New York Harbor less than a quarter mile from the Battery.

A Life magazine spread on William Zeckendorf’s “dream airport.”
Courtesy private collection

Resembling a massive aircraft carrier, the airport would rotate on massive ship's propellers to allow the airstrips to align themselves with the prevailing winds, allowing for optimal takeoff and landing conditions. After they landed, passengers could quickly arrive in Manhattan via a moving sidewalk in an underwater shaft, arriving at the foot of Broadway. Not a bad commute. Though Bel Geddes took out a patent for his ambitious project, it never made it past the concept stages.

1945: William Zeckendorf's Dream Airport

Few developers were better at getting press attention for their projects than William Zeckendorf, who employed architects like I.M. Pei and Le Corbusier and left an indelible stamp on the city. His wildest proposal was for an airport in the Hudson River built on a titanic, 200-foot-high platform stretching from 24th to 71st Streets. "It looks like the largest sheet of plywood you ever saw in your life," says Goldin. The airport would have gobbled up much of the West Side, though it allowed for boats to land in piers underneath. After Zeckendorf got his scheme featured in a 1946 issue of Life, his publicity grab made a powerful enemy: all-powerful city planner Robert Moses, who shot down Zeckendorf's plan with little fanfare.