New York City can be a pretty miserable place in the summer. The unrelenting heat. The baking trash and urine on the street. The stale, nearly unbreathable air. It’s all awful, and explains why so many people take an out-of-town getaway nearly every chance they get during the sweltering season. But perhaps the nastiest aspect of New York in summer is the scorching heat in the the city’s 283 underground subway stations.
Last Thursday, during the middle of a heat wave, the Regional Plan Association (RPA), a local think tank with some serious credibility, went down onto the MTA's ten busiest subway stations to measure the heat. Their findings ought to come as no surprise to any straphanger who’s sweated through a shirt during the summer heat. The high temperature recorded outside that day was 86 degrees. The average heat on the platforms at those major stops? 94.6 degrees.
The hottest temperature recorded in the data dig was on the downtown 4/5/6 train platform at 14th Street-Union Square, which registered at a blazing 104 degrees at 1pm on Thursday. The uptown 1 train platform at 59th Street-Columbus Circle also exceeded triple digits, with a recorded temperature of 101 degrees at 10:55am.
The RPA notes that the sweltering temperatures found in subway stations is not only a poor experience for straphangers—it also poses a health risk. The city’s Health Department issues notices any time heat indices exceed 95 degrees, stating that such temperatures and the air quality that comes with them are especially dangerous for older adults and infants.
Excessive heat on subway platforms has a medley of causes, and the RPA has documented several of them. The air conditioning units on the subway trains themselves expel heat as they cool the cars, raising temperatures underground. Add in inefficient braking methods and century-old ventilation systems, and the city’s great equalizer turns into its great heat box.
This issue is only going to get worse as global warming becomes more of an issue, the RPA says. The average temperature in New York City has increased by 3.4 degrees since 1900, a trend that points to even hotter conditions underground.
The subway in the summer doesn’t have to be such a miserable place, though. The RPA has suggested a whole host of measures that could cool down the platforms, ranging from turning down the AC on the cars themselves to instructing train operators to pump the brakes to installing sliding doors on platforms that, along with providing a safety buffer for commuters, would help shield them from the heat.
But like nearly every other issue with the New York City subway system, it will likely take years to remedy. In the meantime, straphangers can at the very least take solace in the fact that heading down to the Union Square station during the summer is the closest thing one can get to a publicly-subsidized sauna session.