Neil Garry

Neil GarryPlanning the Future Subway

Consider the Second Avenue Subway, first envisioned in 1919; first proposed in 1929; first segment opened in 1967 (the Chrystie Street connection); three disconnected segments dug in the 1970s; groundbreaking for the current project’s initial phase – 96th to 63rd Street – in 2007, with work to be finished in 2016; and completion of the other three phases – from 125th Street to Hanover Square – who knows when?

Compare that to the entire Seoul Metropolitan Subway in South Korea, first proposed in 1970, first line opened in 1974, now a system of nine lines with another scheduled to open later this year and four extension projects in the planning stages. And, by the way, the fare with the equivalent of a Metrocard is about 83 cents.

Obviously, many differences in history, culture, finance, geology and infrastructure separate these subway systems in roughly comparable metropolitan areas, but does something more fundamental account for their disparate, um, track records? “South Korea is not as wealthy as the United States, but its economy has grown rapidly through innovation. In the last decade they have come up with some innovative ideas in transportation planning. They’re committed to creativity,” says Neil Garry (Hunter master’s in urban planning, 2011), who received a Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant to study transportation planning in Seoul. The program, sponsored by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, is part of the U.S. government’s flagship international exchange program. Its goals are promoting international understanding and finding solutions to shared concerns.

“Just consider how much better Korean cars have gotten in the last 20 years.”

In his opinion, one key difference is that Korea has “highly educated people in jobs that here are disbursed politically.” Another is that in the United States and New York City, “too much money is going into roads. We’re giving our streets away to people who own cars,” in effect subsidizing car ownership with free or inexpensive street parking, instead of pricing parking meters at levels that would encourage drivers to shift to mass transit. In contrast, he says, “In Seoul, they just tore down a freeway.”

And “The way Seoul improved its bus system was not with money, but by making the system more efficient and attractive. That drew more people to public transit. They sold more tickets and that’s how they were able to reinvest. The end product is better,” he says.

Garry, who came to the United States from Chile when he was 19, started his master’s work in Australia. He shifted to Hunter when his wife, Laura, enrolled at New York University; she begins work toward a Ph.D. in Spanish literature at the CUNY Graduate Center starting in September.

When he completes his Fulbright research, Garry intends to return to New York to pursue a career in transportation planning.

Meanwhile, Garry has gotten some boots-on-the-ground experience in New York City subway concerns. He was part of a team of Hunter urban planning master’s students who, as part of a mandatory “studio” group project, tackled a request by Manhattan-Queens Rep. Carolyn Maloney to research ways to mitigate the impact of Second Avenue Subway construction in the Upper East Side. They met in May with her New York chief of staff, Minna Elias.

“The students did a very thoughtful job of evaluating the conditions that required the subway to be built,” Maloney says. “They were strong in calling for the full-build subway, and they identified many of the problems that have made building the subway difficult for surrounding businesses and neighbors. I am pleased that the students put together such a compelling presentation that showed a tremendous amount of work.”