Secrets of the 7 Train

“We become New Yorkers on the subway.” So theorizes Professor William Kornblum (GC, Sociology) in International Express: New Yorkers on the 7 Train (Columbia University Press, 2017), co-authored with French ethnographer St├ęphane Tonnelat, which takes a deep dive into one of the city’s oldest underground train systems.

cover of book "International Express" by William KornblumNamed a National Millennium Trail in 1999, along with the likes of the Underground Railroad and the Iditarod, the 7 train first opened for service in April 1917. Now, it carries riders from Main Street in Flushing, Queens, to Hudson Yards in Manhattan, stopping along the way at stations teeming with immigrants from around the globe as well as longtime New Yorkers.

What seems like humdrum routine to most subway riders is a fascinating sociological phenomenon in Kornblum’s eyes. From choosing a spot on the platform and climbing the stairs to knowing how to get a seat on the train, he says, regular riders quickly acquire a special set of skills that enhance their relationship to the subway system.

And just as the subway’s physical and social environment influences riders’ attitudes and behavior, riders’ conduct affects the subway’s operations. Overcrowding is one key factor in ongoing subway delays, for example, aggravated by both fewer trains as well as passengers (some irate, some simply ignorant) who don’t enter and exit the cars fast enough.

Kornblum’s book comes at a particularly frustrating moment in the history of the New York subway. Having grown up in the city, Kornblum is no stranger to the ups and downs of subway dependability, but he concedes that public frustration with uncountable delays is growing.

Still, the subway — the city’s “largest and most diverse public space,” an ecosystem all its own — remains an integral part of the quintessential New York City identity. Kornblum urges the MTA to incorporate that social identity into its work and to design improvements with passengers’ feelings and behaviors in mind.

Being an engaged rider who successfully navigates the unspoken subway code of conduct is also crucial. On the train, there’s a “general assumption that everybody will behave,” which helps create a unique sense of community among passengers of all stripes, Tonnelat notes in a 2017 CityLab interview. Kornblum agrees. “[It advances] the cause that everyone shares: getting to the place we’re going.” 

Submitted on: AUG 16, 2018

Category: Faculty | General GC News | Sociology