Juliette Spertus

Architect and Curator
Juliette Spertus, curator of Fast Trash: Roosevelt Island's Pneumatic Tubes and the?Future of Cities, on the invisible infrastructure of pneumatic tubes in New York City, waiting to be reactivated.

Interview transcript: Juliette Spertus

Urban pneumatics have been around since the early 19th century. The first systems were installed in London in the 1860s, and the beginning of the pneumatic transport systems were actually for mail—like telegrams. In New York, the pneumatic mail system was first installed in the 1890s and it ran until 1953. It had 27 miles of two-way, 3-inch tubes for first class mail, which was mail being sent from post office to post office. But not between all post offices—it was a specific network of post offices linked by pneumatic tubes.

Stepping back briefly, one of the things that has always interested me about this is the relationship to the surface. In other words, pneumatics have always been an alternative to surface transport. That's always the way they've been chosen and implemented, but also why they've been discontinued. For instance, when the pneumatic system was discontinued in New York, it was because, like rail, pneumatics had become more expensive to maintain and operate than the roads and the delivery trucks. Even though it was better! Pneumatics were two, two and a half times faster than trucks, but it was discontinued because it was more expensive.

In fact, somebody pointed out, when we presented this at the Bar association, that those right-of-ways might actually still exist. Even if the tubes are not all connected, and if there are sections missing—and, obviously, the pump stations that keep the mail moving from point to point, if those aren't connected—you still had those rights-of-way. So you could technically come in with something else there and reactivate the pneumatic system.

So pneumatics have been used for mail, for waste, for dirty linen, and for all kinds of industry, like moving raw materials around a factory. It's still around, moving blood samples and medications around hospitals and pharmaceutical labs, and, of course, also for moving cash around banks and some department stores. And pneumatics are still used at the New York Public Library business branch, on Madison Ave. Not the Central Branch, where they discontinued the pneumatic system a couple of years ago.

Anyway, the systems that transport goods around are two-way systems, whereas garbage—which we focused on in the Fast Trash exhibition—is a one-way system. It's always waste going in one direction, so it's also much simpler. Another thing we found with garbage is that it's very modular; you don't want to make a massive, central terminal. Instead, there's an ideal size of the system that has to do with the number of inroads coming in and the amount of time spent running the system. Because it's not just a question of how big the tubes are; it's not just a question of how much waste you can take from one point to another. It's about how much time those fans are running. Pneumatics don't need to be running all the time—in fact, they can't run all the time. And they need to be open for different kinds of stuff. For instance, if you have lots of different types of waste that you want to keep separate—for example, if you have recycling, waste, compost, and corrugated cardboard—then each one of those is going to have to go into a different valve. That means a lot more time spent opening the valve and more time running that particular tube.

So the maximum amount of waste that a pneumatic system can handle has to do with the complexity and the number of inlet points—and, what's also interesting, is that it's a loop. It's like an organism. It requires time and distance. The further things are from the vacuum, the more energy it takes. So there's an ideal radius—a mile, a mile and a half. That's the maximum distance from the terminal point so that the system can still operate.