Robert A. Olmsted: An Appreciation

When we here at Regional Plan Association were hard at work on the Third Regional Plan in the early 1990s, we turned to our usual friend, expert and trusted wise man — Bob Olmsted. It was Bob who suggested how the Second Avenue subway could become the spine for a fourth subway system (after the IND, IRT and BMT), extending into the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, and even into New Jersey.

A decade or so later, when we were stuck on what to do with the new commuter rail tunnel from New Jersey, with NJ TRANSIT thinking about putting it under Penn Station or south of it; it was Bob who said, why not put it under 34th Street closer to the north-south subway stations? We took that idea to NJ TRANSIT, and they ran with it.

Last month, Bob Olmsted died at the age of 85. He was an extraordinary man. He was a transportation planner who knew more about the New York City's transportation system than any other person did, yet he was not stuck in the past. He was always trying to figure out what the next big thing was. Few people can be both an historian and visionary; Bob was one of them.

Bob Olmsted was a dear friend of RPA. Whenever we needed an opinion on an idea we had for the transit system, we turned to him. He responded generously with his time, but more importantly, he always knew how to make our idea better.

During Mr. Olmsted's 50-plus years of working in the transportation field, much of it centered in the New York Metropolitan area, he was involved in the conception, planning and the construction of many of the projects we now take for granted. He had a hand in the design of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the Port Authority Bus Terminal. He worked to preserve the commuter rail network in New York when few seemed to care.

In 1967, Bob joined the new Metropolitan Transportation Authority as its planning director. There, he put together the so-called grand design for the MTA: a plan to build 50-plus miles of new subway lines in the City and to bring the Long Island Rail Road into the east side of Manhattan. The plans were thwarted by the fiscal crisis of the early 1970s, but their wisdom has been repeatedly validated, with the construction underway of major elements of that plan — the Second Avenue subway and the LIRR's connection into Grand Central Terminal.

Bob was also a mentor and inspiration for countless students in five separate universities, many of whom chose to join the field of transportation planning in large part because of him. This writer was one of them.

In his semi-retirement years Bob used his encyclopedic knowledge of past rail transit plans as the foundation to think innovatively about the rail transit system for New York's future, all the while guiding and teaching the rest of us.

Bob knew every bellmouth in the subway system. (Most of us don't know that a bellmouth is a short section of subway left for future construction of new subway branch.) He knew what each one had been intended for, why it was not fully built out at the time, and what should be done with it now.

We will miss Bob but we will have his ideas that have already been turned into reality, and many more yet to be realized.

A memorial service for Robert Olmsted will be held Saturday, September 25, 2010 from 4 pm to 7 pm at the home of Elizabeth Olmsted and Randall Kau, 131 Riverside Drive (between W. 85th & 86th Streets), Apt. 9A, New York, NY 10024. Friends, family and admirers are invited. Please RSVP by Sept. 22 to [email protected]. Questions to Alan Olmsted at (347) 418-1988.