Home Asides GOOD: On the best transit system in the world

GOOD: On the best transit system in the world

by Benjamin Kabak

GOOD Magazine recently asked its readers to opine on their favorite transit systems throughout the world, and they published some answers earlier this week. The rest, which are available right here on GOOD’s Facebook page, ran the global gamut. People seem to love Paris’ Metro, and Tokyo’s system earned a few pluses as well. While one or two people mentioned New York, the bulk of the comments about our system concerned its cleanliness.

So why, I wondered, does New York’s subway system get such little love? It’s one of the few 24-hour systems around the world, and it powers the city. We have new rolling stock, and crime has declined precipitously over the past 15 years as ridership spikes. Perhaps, then, the problem is one of use vs. comfort and the reality of public perception. New York’s subway is very utilitarian in that it’s great for getting to and from various places in New York City and horrendous to look at. As the cars are new, the stations are not, and rats, garbage and grime mar most of the stops.

Is there a way to fix this image problem? Despite rising fares, the subways still remain very cheap in New York City, and the average fare, in inflation-adjusted dollars, is lower today than it was in 1996. Yet, until the system looks nicer, and the physical plant — that is, the stations — doesn’t appear to be falling apart, our subway system won’t earn too many accolades from those who ride around the world.

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Bolwerk January 29, 2011 - 11:55 am

There are some blemishes, but I never found NYC’s subway system ugly to look at. If anything is ugly, I find it to be the new rolling stock on the inside – those fluorescent lights are painful.

OTOH, I can see where NYC’s Subway image hasn’t kept up with the rest of NYC, or the image of the Paris Metro/RER, the London Underground, Tokyo’s systems, or countless effective rail networks around the world. Sure, things work well on the ground once you’ve figured out the map, understand we have trunk lines, etc.. We perhaps run on time well these days, but we don’t integrate our services. We get some points for operational effectiveness, but those points were earned by our grandparents, not us. We get some strikes too: waste, labor misallocation, poor maintenance, low rate and high cost of service expansion.

Perception and reality can be two different things. The reality is the NYC Subway works pretty damn well, despite its flaws. But it’s easy to see why the perception would be otherwise for casual users.

Someone December 21, 2012 - 4:09 pm

Wrong. Look at the 21st Street subway station on the G. http://www.nycsubway.org/wiki/.....town_Line)

Christopher January 29, 2011 - 12:08 pm

Perception also influences understanding of efficiency. If it feels and looks crappy, you’re only desire is to get out of it. I’ve always found DC’s Metro to be rather useless: stations are too deep, set too far apart, and service only a very narrow section of the core of the city. AND YET? It’s sort of a joy to use. It’s designed and built to emphasize the drama of travel. The stations are dramatically lit and huge. Weese was a huge fan of early 20th century train stations, instrumental in the restoration of both DC’s and CHicago’s Union Stations. He wanted that same drama for DC’s metro system. How the trains coming in and out of the station change the pattern of the lights. The play between the low height corridors and the very tall stations. These things matter.

NY’s approach like the approach of our entire city has been to go with utility over prettiness. That’s part of our appeal and charm, but it inspires a different kind of love. And you have to appreciate a certain level of roughness.

jj January 29, 2011 - 12:11 pm

NYC system is 700 miles long …. larger than Tokyo , Paris , Moscow put together …..

I can have a clean system too , if it’s only 3 miles long !!!!!

Jean-Francois P. January 29, 2011 - 4:55 pm

Ok but NYC is 11 times bigger than Paris !!!

Alon Levy January 29, 2011 - 8:54 pm

No. NYCT is 700 miles long if you add total track length (i.e. route length times 2-4), including non-revenue track. Route length is 220 miles, less than the London Underground.

Someone December 21, 2012 - 4:10 pm

But Tokyo is much more dense than NYC!

Phil January 29, 2011 - 12:48 pm

The Paris Metro is disgusting and falling apart. Not sure why people love it so much. In a way it’s a lot like New York, but at least RATP is automating it.

Eric January 31, 2011 - 12:36 pm

Visiting Paris for the first time last month, I was shocked to discover that I never–never–had to wait more than 5 minutes for a train. And it’s cleaner than the subway–no question about that.

tacony palmyra January 29, 2011 - 2:30 pm

It’s literally just that most of the stations are never cleaned well. It feels downright unsanitary waiting for a train.

The MTA actually cut back on its cleaning crews recently, right? I guess it doesn’t matter much as they never did a very good job. And their efforts are always thwarted by, as the example you’ve mentioned here, people hauling the leaking trash bags and leaving a stream of garbage juice all over the floor.

I was waiting for the train late at night at the 7th ave D/E stop a couple weeks ago and there was a huge pile of full trash bags with rats scurrying around them at the far end of the station. You can’t blame that kind of stuff on riders.

Bolwerk January 29, 2011 - 4:33 pm

My (limited attention span’s) understanding was that some laid off token booth clerks could be rehired as cleaners, so perhaps they’re at least looking at this problem.

Anon January 29, 2011 - 3:01 pm

Protest Nasser metro station in Cairo: Jan26th

Anon January 29, 2011 - 3:11 pm

Source Video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3yuPlQv-sU

I found the first One because it was in English —
Unbelievable how they commandeer the train

BK —-you really should post this

John-2 January 29, 2011 - 7:07 pm

New York probably has the most practical system — 24-hour service, stations mostly close to the street for easy access, and express trains on the trunk lines through midtown, which also serve to double the capacity for those trunk lines. But it does tend to have a hodge-podge “look” due to not only the changing station designs over the years, but also the failure to keep to a uniform style on some of the original stations and the IRT/BMT platform extensions.

The lack of uniformity combined with some definite neglect (if Chambers had a line that went north in Manhattan past Delancey, it would never be in the condition it is today) means the look of the stations is going to keep NYC from ever ranking at the top of the list. But if you’ve stayed out a little longer than planned at work, a bar or a friend’s house and suddenly notice it’s 1:15 in the morning, you’re not screwed on how to get home as with just about every other big city mass transit system in the world.

Alon Levy January 29, 2011 - 9:13 pm

To put things in perspective for everyone here, the difference in rapid transit ridership between Tokyo and New York is a factor of about 7, which is about the same as the difference between New York and Chicago.

J B January 29, 2011 - 10:08 pm

Most people haven’t lived in a large number of cities with transit, so their impression of most transit systems they’ve seen is fairly shallow, and based on appearance rather than usefulness. Every time I go back home I find there are some small things to like about the NYC subway, namely its close stations and extensiveness (compared to Taipei, anyway), express service, shallow stations and 24 hour service. That said NYC has some major drawbacks, for example some transfers are horrible, and, yes, the stations are in horrible condition.

Loosh January 29, 2011 - 11:26 pm

Blaming the maintenance and nastiness problem on the NYC Subway’s size isn’t the whole story. The London Underground is larger (in terms of miles of routes) and far cleaner. It isn’t air conditioned, but then neither is New York’s. The problem in New York is the same problem as in all of America’s older mass transit systems: 60 or 70 years of underinvestment that continues today. The 186th street station cavern collapsed for a reason and this is it.

I’ve used Paris’s subway and it is far nicer than New York’s. It is nearly as old and some of the stations are a little worn out, but they are all very clean. The trains are also a lot more frequent – never more than 8 minutes or so apart, every 2 minutes at rush hour – and very consistent. Every station has countdown clocks, so you know when the next train is coming. They’ve also renovated the old cars to feel more modern, which isn’t the case in NYC. Their newest line, 14, is completely automated and they’re in the process of automating their oldest line, 1. Try doing that with NYC labor unions – fat chance. The greatest thing about Paris’s metro, though, is its coverage of the city. Literally every corner is within 1/4 mile, 1/2 mile at the most, of a subway stop. So, Paris has my vote for best system.

Kai B January 30, 2011 - 4:48 pm

Rather interesting regarding the automation. France (and Europe in general) actually has much more powerful labor unions (I’m sure you’ve seen the nasty strikes).

Most European systems have been OPTO for the last couple decades and I believe there’s little opposition to automation as the former motormen become roaming train supervisors (ie. you’re not moving to ZPTO). At least this was the discussion when I was living in Vienna.

Alon Levy January 30, 2011 - 7:13 pm

In France they actually are moving to ZPTO, on the Métro – Line 14 is already driverless, and they’re converting Line 1. It’s not just for operating costs, but also for capacity, since computer-controlled trains can have shorter headways.

(The RER A is even busier, but its trains are much longer, and the newer trains are special three-door bilevels. When I rode one of those bilevels at rush hour, in the peak direction, I almost forgot that the line has nearly twice the passenger density of the Lexington line.)

Chicken Underwear January 30, 2011 - 7:34 am

and New Yorkers complain a lot. I am not saying that is a bad thing, but sometimes it is uninformed.

paulb January 30, 2011 - 11:40 am

Here are the subways I’ve ridden: New York (home), Montreal, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Chicago, BART and Muni (SF), Paris, London, Budapest, Prague. Especially with respect to the subways in Europe, NY’s always seems very industrial–kind of like being in a huge factory. Everywhere there’s rough plaster and concrete, exposed conduit and fixtures, steel columns, seeping, cracked surfaces, old paint coming through, dirt. It’s loud. Or, another analogy: It’s the unfinished basement of the house above it.

It’s more than neglected maintenance, it’s the way it’s designed and built. It is very practical and when I was young I found it fascinating and to a certain extent still do, but now I find it very difficult to like. I wish it were different.

Tsuyoshi January 30, 2011 - 12:43 pm

Especially if you’re comparing “transit” systems rather than just “subway” or “metro” systems, Tokyo is by far the best. Second place could go to Seoul, Osaka or Paris.

New York is hardly even in the same league. Transportation policy here, like in every other American city, is dictated by the widely-held assumption that transit is primarily for people that can’t afford cars. This is why the stations are disgusting, the fares are cheap, and the service hasn’t been significantly expanded for decades, the subway only covers about 2/3 of the city, nearly all new development is required to have underpriced parking, and the suburban train lines are virtually useless except for commuting.

When anyone complains about the New York subway, the old “it runs 24 hours!” usually comes up, but only people who are too poor to afford a taxi really appreciate this – the headways between midnight and 6AM are 20 to 30 minutes. If you’ve ever actually been on a train at 3AM, you might notice that they’re practically empty. It’s actually something of a disadvantage, as other cities perform their track maintenence at night, whereas New York does it on the weekends. The weekend disruptions we have here do not occur in other cities.

paulb January 30, 2011 - 12:54 pm

Well said.

Justin Samuels January 30, 2011 - 6:56 pm

Indeed. The other thing is, NY over the years has lost quite a bit of its ta base. The only major private industry left is banking, and NYC lost three major investment banks, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, and Bear Sterns. So the state doesn’t have an unlimited amount of tax revenues to throw at the MTA.

Alon Levy January 30, 2011 - 7:25 pm

Well said. Just one nitpick: average fares in New York are about the same as on Toei or Tokyo Metro – about $1.50 per trip, counting bus+train trips twice.

tacony palmyra January 30, 2011 - 10:07 pm

I wouldn’t say the trains are all practically empty at 3AM. Uptown trains are sometimes surprisingly crowded at this hour. Nobody’s getting off below 96th St (people who live in THOSE neighborhoods all take cabs) but they’re sometimes full of Bronxites heading home. The cruel irony is that when the hours when the express trains start running local during “late nights” are the hours when it’d be most convenient for these riders. The people who live off the 79th St stop don’t need more service at that hour.

Bolwerk January 30, 2011 - 10:12 pm

The L is certainly pretty packed most of the night between 14th and Dekalb or Myrtle. 😐

Wayne's World January 31, 2011 - 11:38 am

The Metro in Paris is a pain in the neck. You have to take circuitous routes to get anywhere and switch trains. I LOVE the NYC subway system. It is the BEST.

Quinn Hue February 1, 2011 - 12:11 am

As opposed to taking circuitous routes to get anywhere and switch trains in New York?

Someone December 21, 2012 - 4:07 pm

The Tokyo Metro and London Underground are among the best metros (besides NYCS) because they have some of the newest and most convenient features in their subways. NYCS hardly has money to ven match these metro systems. The “open 24-7” feature in the NYCS is only due to the NYCS needing additional revenue during the night. But NYCS has its good stuff too; it’s one of the oldest, most historic, and expansive metro systems in the world.


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