A Brief History of Air-Conditioning on the New York Subway

The city has tried to provide a cool summer ride since 1905, with varying degrees of success.

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EPA

One of the nice things about New York City in the summertime, aside from all the people fleeing elsewhere, is the reliable comfort of air-conditioned subway cars. "It wasn't always like this," Benjamin Kabak of the transit blog 2nd Ave. Sagas recently reminded us. In a great retrospective that deserves its annual bump to the front page, Kabak guides us through the "turbulent" history of how New York finally controlled the temperature on its subway trains.

Kabak brings the story back to 1955 and a trial run that fared pretty well. The city's transit authority outfitted a subway car with an air-conditioning system and measured the temperature inside at 68 to 73 degrees. The authorities didn't pick the best day for such a test — outside it was just 62 degrees — but they declared their effort a success anyway. The air-conditioned car was hotter than the city streets, but it was still about 15 degrees cooler than the other cars.

Still it wasn't until 1967 that the city found a long-term solution to its air-conditioning problem, with The New York Times calling the new cooling systems on the F train "a hit." It would be many more years before the entire fleet caught up with the new standard. In the meantime riders employed various tricks to determine which cars on each train carried the luxury. Some looked for a small grill on the roof of the car; others looked for closed windows.

Kabak leaves off in 1983, when only half of the city's subway cars were air-conditioned, but the next decade saw enormous progress. By 1993 roughly 99 percent of New York's 6,000 subway cars were air-conditioned — with 7 train riders the unlucky 1 percent. Today every car is temperature-controlled and if its cooling system doesn't work then transit officials aren't supposed to add it to a train. Of course sometimes they do, like when Mayor Bloomberg found himself in a sweltering car back in August of 2002.

In fact many attempts to cool down New York's subway cars — if not technically "air-condition" them — came well before 1955. One early effort, from back in August of 1910, equipped an I.R.T. train with four electric ceiling fans. The fans were pretty modest devices, operating at one-twelfth of one horsepower, and even the superintendent in charge of the new system admitted to the Times that the effect was mostly psychological:

"It isn't really any cooler. We're just stirring up the air. But you notice how much more comfortable it is. Now, there isn't any Christian Science about this. If you don't believe it, go into the next car, where there are no fans and feel the difference."

The (eventual) success of New York's air-conditioned cars came at a price subway riders are still paying today. The energy needed to run the cooling systems emits a great deal of heat that gets trapped in the subway stations as trains idle for passengers. In other words, as subway cars have cooled down, subway platforms have heated up. "No question it's a tradeoff having subway cars that are air-conditioned," one transit authority spokesman told the Times back in 1989.

Schemes to cool down the stations themselves date back as far as schemes to cool down the cars. In June of 1905, for instance, the city installed a dozen basic office fans to ventilate the Brooklyn Bridge station. Riders welcomed the attempt, according to the Times, but the only thing it seemed to accomplish was to make the station darker, because lights had to be removed to provide the fans sufficient electricity. (In the same article a scientist calls the damp station air healthy because it's "pregnant with ozone," which was considered good for fighting malaria.)

A century and change later the situation isn't much different. In August of 2009 WNYC took digital thermometers onto various platforms around the city and reported temperatures ranging from the upper 90s all the way to 106 when a train passed. (It didn't take long for reporter Beth Fertig's hair to start "looking really frizzy.") Even directly under a fan near the S train in Times Square the temperature was still a ripe 91 degrees. The coolest platforms were at Grand Central Station — chilled air is piped in from the main terminal above — which measured in at 87 degrees.

Other cities control the temperature of their stations as well as their cars. The platforms in Washington, D.C., are cooled by "chiller units" that keep stations a reported 6 degrees cooler than outside from May to October each year. The question of why New York can't do the same has been asked and answered many times, but New York magazine offered a concise reason a few Augusts back:

There’s little formal ventilation in the majority of New York City stations. Instead, air is passively released through ceiling grates and circulated when trains blast through the tunnels. (It’s impossible to provide air conditioning in stations, because the system wasn’t built with space for the machinery, and there are too many openings to the street.) In 1999, the MTA did begin installing a system called regenerative braking, which captures some of the released heat from the trains’ brakes and feeds energy back into the third rail, but that changed little.

But while the city may have trouble retrofitting older stations for air-conditioning, it intends to control the climate on future platforms, such as the Second Avenue line and the westward extension of the 7 train. Onward and downward with the heat.

Top image: 1974 file photo courtesy Environmental Protection Agency.

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