New York's Underground Moving Sidewalk That Never Was

At the turn of the 20th century, the moving sidewalk was the future of urban transportation. As much as airplanes soaring in the sky and automobiles rumbling on the streets, the moving sidewalk represented a bold new vision for tomorrow. This idea of rolling pavement appealed to people in major cities who didn't yet see the rise of the automobile as inevitable and were looking for an affordable alternative to more elaborate infrastructure like subway trains. The 1903 vision above, drawn by Sydney Adamson, was supposed to be the fulfillment of every forward-looking New Yorker's dream.

Running at a top speed of nine miles per hour, this first underground moving sidewalk was supposed to connect Williamsburg and Bowling Green. From there, more would be constructed throughout the New York area. The plan was put before the New York Rapid Transit Commission and was said to have found support with prominent New Yorkers like Stuyvesant Fish. But alas, it wasn't meant to be.

The illustration above comes from the February 28, 1903 issue of Harper's Weekly, 10 years after the first moving sidewalk was constructed for public use at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. The article that accompanied this illustration explained that it was time to take this mode of transportation out of the novelty stage and into practical use. The moving sidewalk was supposed to be just over the horizon, and New York wanted to get there first.

Harper's Weekly outlined the plan that was being put in front of city authorities:

The plan is to dig a subway under these streets from twenty-five to thirty feet wide. Stations will be opened every two blocks. The continuous trains are simply flat platforms with seats on one side and a space on the other, so that one may accelerate his speed by walking if he wishes. There will be no more congestion than on the sidewalk of an ordinary street, for the reason that there will be no waiting for trains. There are no heavy locomotives or motors to be hauled and no housing for the cars. The tunnel will be lighted and will also be heated moderately in winter. The plan is to charge one cent in rush hours and two cents at other hours for transit. It will require something like 10,000 cars or platforms all looped together to make up the great train.

The magazine continued, explaining how the stepped platform system allowed people to get on and off the moving sidewalk with ease.

The method of operating these platforms is well known. There are two so-called "stepping platforms" running alongside the train platform. The passenger steps on one platform moving at the rate of three miles an hour. He then steps on one moving at the rate of sixe miles an hour. From that he steps on the train going at the rate of nine miles an hour, where he finds a seat. These seats are to hold, say, four persons, and are to be three feet apart. To alight from the train the passenger simply steps from one platform to another of diminishing speed, and finally gets off at his station. There is great elasticity of carrying capacity, and the cost of operation is declared to be much lower than in the ordinary kind of municipal transit.

In 1900, the Paris World's Fair experimented with a stepped platform transportation, though it didn't have any seating for people who would prefer not to stand. You can see (sadly pixelated) video of this system below, shot by none other than Thomas Edison.

The moving sidewalk of New York was sadly never built; Americans were ultimately much more comfortable with enclosed transportation like the subway and light-rail cars of today. And though the construction costs were initially higher, rail proved to be much more dependable and efficient for moving masses of people around. And even though the dream resurfaced continuously at mid-century—and often parodied in shows like "The Jetsons"—it never found a broader application than your average airport terminal.

Another strike for Mr. Jetson, then. But if Elon Musk has his way, at least those pneumatic tubes of his could be shuttling the ironically mustachioed of Williamsburg out of town before decade's end.