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Fixing the American commute

We blame cars for transportation woes, but can new technology turn them into saviors?


Few commuters today would describe the experience of traveling underneath the Hudson River from New Jersey to New York as exceptional. But that’s exactly how newspaper writers of the day described a then-miraculous train trip in 1909. This system of iron-clad tunnels connecting New York and New Jersey, a progressive transit project finished during the first decade of the 20th century and overseen by builders, engineers, and statesman such as William Gibbs McAdoo, was “one of the greatest railroad achievements in the history of the world,” transforming an often frigid 10-minute journey across the water on ferries into a three-minute, climate-controlled run. Passengers arrived at the original Pennsylvania Station, a Beaux-Arts masterpiece that was greeted with “exclamations of wonder” when it opened in 1910, and observers from London were awed by the superior transport system. The Holland Tunnel, devised by master tunneler Ole Singstad, was opened in 1927 by President Coolidge in an elaborate ceremony using the same ornate golden key that played a role in the opening of the Panama Canal. Summing up all of the infrastructure built during that period to connect the island of Manhattan to the burgeoning populations of Brooklyn and New Jersey, the New York Times asked the rhetorical question, “How much better off are the young men of this hour than their fathers?”

Today’s travelers have, to put it lightly, lost that sense of awe, and likely envy the commutes of previous generations. The subterranean journey has become an existential slog, with semi-regular power outages plaguing train riders and traffic jams clogging the Holland Tunnel.

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