Snail Beats Subway

In the brave new world of urban mass transit, anything's possible. Just look at that escargot go!


Recently the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) announced that it had finally decided how to use the 63rd Street subway tunnel being built under the East River. That's one of New York City's great on-and-off public works projects that among other things lost Pres. Ronald Reagan the services of Raymond Donovan as secretary of the Labor Department after a Bronx prosecutor laid charges of conspiracy, fraud, racketeering, and other offenses against his company in connection with the tunneling work.

The East River tunnel is supposed, one day, to improve train service between Queens and midtown Manhattan, but as construction has dribbled on, there has been controversy about which line to connect it to on the east side. The under-river tunnel itself—already 14 years in the making—is due to be finished within the next two years. And the rail connection at the east end is going to be a whole lot slower. Called the K line Connector, it will go between 21st Street and Queens Plaza in Long Island. A mere 520-foot length of subway, this connecting line is going to take eight years to build, according to an MTA spokesman. That works out to 65 feet a year!

Now the usual metaphor for low speed is "snail's pace," and when I heard the eight-year estimate announced, it set me to wondering about the actual pace of snails. Prof. George B. Chapman, head of the Biology Department at Georgetown University in Washington, says that snails vary, like subways, in their slowness. Snails come in different speeds, depending on their types, the season, and the time of day. There are aquatic types and terrestrial ones, and tropical- and temperate-climate snails. They move faster at night than during the day, when their predators are around. And in winter they are much more sluggish than in summer.

Still, the fastest snail on record, says Professor Chapman, attained a speed of 8 inches a minute, which works out by my arithmetic to 960 feet a day. This little sprinter snail of Professor Chapman's acquaintance is obviously unfair competition for the MTA, which to keep up would need to knock off the 520-foot K Street Connector in a long summer day, say two seven-hour shifts.

As a metaphor for "slowth," the snail's pace is obviously grossly inadequate to describe New York's subway construction schedule. But inaccurate though the metaphor may be and unfair though it is to snails, we are probably stuck with it. Hence with apologies, in advance, to snails, the MTA's K Street Connector gets nominated for the REASON Snail Pace Award.

Subsequent to my snail research, the federal government put a hold on any more financing for the East River tunnel. Management of its construction was "wholly inadequate," lamented Urban Mass Transportation chief Ralph Stanley.

Peter Samuel is a newspaper reporter and the author of several previous REASON articles on the New York subway.