Subway as Public Transit: New York vs. London

Even before I went to London, I had heard tales about its extensive subway system. Known as “the Tube,” many boasted that the infrastructure was easier to understand, cleaner and safer than New York’s MTA service. In short, I was hearing it labeled as “better.” While the Tube is an impressive system, a closer look at its operation and costs draw into question its existence as a system of “public transit.”

New York:

New York’s underground subway system began in 1904. Over a century later, it is made up of 26 different subway routes on 9 different lines with a total of 468 individual stations. It spans across four of the five boroughs with a total of 229 miles of route track distance and 842 miles of track bed (most of New York’s system are three or four tracks across.) Transporting an average of 5 million passengers every weekday, the system carries over 1.6 billion people annually.

London:

Beginning in 1863, the Tube is made up of 11 different subway lines with a total of 270 individual stations. 250 miles of track spread across the neighborhoods of London. An average weekday hosts 3 million passengers, bringing an annual total to around 1 billion patrons. Like New York, the Tube began as a series of privately funded ventures that were eventually encompassed by municipal oversight and direction.

The train cars, also called “rolling stock”, of the Tube feature cloth-covered seats and colored handrails. Every car I traveled on was clean. The speakers announcing stations were clear. Comfort was a clear goal in the cars’ design and it was achieved. Averaging 8’6” wide, the average train is approximately 437’ long.  New York’s cars are often wider at 10’across with trains as long as 600’ to provide a larger average capacity. Though New York subways can transport more passengers per ride, once inside the digs are not plush, merely smartly infrastructural with plastic seat surfaces easily cleaned. Finding a car where one can actually hear the announcements is hit or miss.

While the street grid of New York provides for fewer crossings of train lines, London’s web of streets forces many tracks be carved deeper beneath the road surface. Most tunnels in the Big Apple are 15-20’ underground, but London’s can go as deep as 65’ (a healthy five story building.) Not only can getting down to the tracks take longer, but air movement at such depths becomes more difficult. In the London heat wave of 2006, the temperature in Tube tunnels reached 117 degrees Fahrenheit.

The scale of both systems is comparable with almost identical lengths of route distance. It is possible that the funding given to stations in London is offset by the money spent on track in New York given that most of their trains run on multiple, parallel tracks. This first discrepancy makes New York’s routes more expensive to build (the new 2nd Avenue Subway is pegged at nearly $1 billion per track mile) but provides invaluable benefit for maintenance. Single tracks can be closed for repairs while trains can be re-routed onto adjoining tracks while the Tube is forced to shut down service on lines entirely—a relatively common occurrence. Multiple tracks also allows for express route service, a boon to commuters traveling farther distances into the city.

Without a doubt, the average station in London is cleaner and brighter than those of New York. Most of the platforms are impeccably clean with lighting that escapes the “basement” feeling of many Manhattan subway stops. This could be in part because the Tube closes at 1:00am every night and opens again at 4:45am instead of the 24-hour service found in New York. A number of stations have also been recently refurbished, such as Southwark, which provide a modern, well designed surrounding. Their good condition helps make for a pleasant trip, but the heightened level of luxury comes at a cost: namely the fare.

If paid in cash, London’s standard tube fare is £4.00 (roughly $6.60) in comparison to New York’s $2.25. Admittedly, having an Oyster Card (similar in some ways to a Metrocard) can lower the base fair to £1.60 or $2.65. The maze of Tube tunnels are also broken into a series of 9 zones that are concentrically oriented around the center of the city. Traveling between zones can raise the base fair considerably where travel on New York subways is unrestricted. One can board in the southernmost part of Brooklyn and travel to the Northern tip of the Bronx for the same $2.25.

Monthly passes are more important to daily commuters, representing a reoccurring expense as a meaningful part of household finances. New York’s offers a $89 Unlimited Ride Metrocard where London’s monthly travel pass for travel in zones 1+2 is £99.10 ($163.51). Gaining access to more zones only increases the cost.

The resulting effects were noticed. As a New Yorker, I am used to seeing all manner of folks on the subway from stock brokers to janitors. The subway is a facility used by the entire city. However, in all of my London travels, those who shared my Tube rides all seemed to be middle-to-upper class folk getting around the city. While not having any more data than my own observations, the lack of a more varied ridership seemed to make the Tube out to be an urban amenity that was more exclusive than New York’s subways, which seems counter to it being an part of public transit.

This was really my biggest critique of the Tube. A subway system is a prized component of a broad alternative transit system. Public transportation is an invaluable institution that is essential to providing economic growth to multiple socioeconomic classes. As a connection between residence and employment, public transit is there to help fewer people own cars (a large investment with sizable reoccurring expenses), thus removing them from the downtown to make it more accessible to pedestrians and offering a cheaper way to commute while hopefully being more efficient as well. Making the subway better for those who can most easily afford it is arguably less important than it being a realistic option for a larger portion of the population. There is no reason for any public transit option to be a luxury amenity.

Ultimately, London’s Underground is a very impressive ride for its patrons who enjoy traveling in comfort, yet it comes with a steep cost of upkeep passed onto the customers. It is not surprising that New York’s system may not be as glamorous when it manages to maintain longer, bigger trains, more stations, and over three times as much track at a lower price. In my opinion, New York’s subways operate as a better piece of a public transit service. The Tube may represent a benchmark of what all systems should strive to reach when it can be provided at a more affordable level to a more diverse population.

Subway Image Credit: Wired.com + Flickr absolutwade

Tube Image Credit: webshots bruzzz + flickr swankspike

add to furl seed the vine post to facebook add to stumble add to technorati faves

About these ads

27 Responses to “Subway as Public Transit: New York vs. London”

  1. An excellent summary of the Tube. It’s currently being updated quite significantly and around 2016 should see the arrival of a fleet of new trains. They’ll be air conditioned, have no “carriages”, i.e. you’ll be able to walk from one end of the train to the other inside, making more space for passengers.

    The cost is high, yes, and the constant closures can be annoying. I wouldn’t agree though that it is only for the richer, as there are discounts for students, the unemployed, the elderly, and such.

    Also, the cost of London transport increased as of the 1st: a single zone 1 oyster fare is now £1.80 (though the £4 paper ticket fare remains unchanged). A single bus journey is now £1.20.

  2. Really useful article. Bookmarked. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Good article. I’m an American living in London so I’ve used both systems and I think your critiques are valid. Poor people in London mostly take the bus – the Tube is generally a “higher class” of passengers. They can get away with charging more, though, because it’s so much faster on the Tube to get anywhere. Because of the constant congestion on London streets, it can take hours on the bus to get somewhere just a few miles away. Also, the UK doesn’t have the same culture of providing a service that Americans do. They don’t really care if it’s accessible to everyone – the most obvious example of that being that about 75% of the Tube stations aren’t wheelchair accessible – they have stairs that have to be traversed. This also practically excludes baby carriages, etc.

    • Certainly good points, Catherine. As a sustainable piece of urban infrastructure, providing accessibility of all sorts is important. In recalling my time there, some of those tunnels would be all but impossible to negotiate by wheelchair. I did not get to see a great deal of traffic when I was there (it was surrounding Christmas) but I can see how it would play a role in limiting reasonable options for commuters and allowing for prices to stay higher as a result.

      Thanks for the heads up.

  4. Excellent article. I’m a New Yorker with a few ancestors from London (circa 1600s), and I’ve always been interested in the contrast between the Subway and the Tube. That said, I’ve never been to London and only have New York for experience; but from what I understand, from your article and from other sources, New York certainly has a very real advantage which is not always recognized in the U.S. and I’m guessing perhaps abroad. I think New Yorkers know that, yes the subway could be prettier, more comfortable, but New Yorkers love the subway because it works very well within the context of New York, which in the context of public transit in America, is simply the best we’ve ever had – or ever will.

    • Hi Tom,

      I believe you are not being impartial here. Although I agree that New York’s subway has an impressive number of lines and stations, it is certainly one of the dirtiest subway in the world. Subways in Europe are much cleaner (except Paris’ metro, which is almost as dirty as NYC’s subway). Even in South America the subways are cleaner (but it’s because they are much newer).

      I know NYC’s subway works 24×7 but, let’s be honest, it can easily take more than half hour for it to arrive if it’s too late in the night and, since it’s really slow, it can easily take another half an hour to go from downtown to midtown. And commuting for one hour or more (as New Yorkers are used to do) is just absurd.

      I’ve been living in Manhattan for four years now because I’m studying at NYU, and I must confess that, sometimes, I prefer to walk for 40 or 50 minutes than to take the subway. It’s really not hygienic at all, and the stations are so dark, old and dumpy that it simply depress me. I strictly prefer to take NYC’s buses or to just walk.

      • Wow, I’ve never had to wait for more that 3 minutes on a Tube platform for the next train…

  5. Well, while the subway platforms in London might be hot on occasional heat waves, the ones in NYC are plain hell for 3-4 months each year. London’s tube any day (been to London twice, also in summer, live in NYC). In NYC, I truly miss Prague subway which is modern, clean, and has no problem with fresh air.

  6. Interesting article.

    As a Londoner, born and bred and having visited NYC on occasion, I think your comments are quite spot on. However, The Tube is used by all – from morning commuters, to school children, old people etc; this may not have been apparent on your visit there.

  7. Hey a good argument and I’d say it’s largely accurate and balanced. I’ve lived in London for 5 years and New York for 3 months+.

    With regards to the types of commuters I think you are right but it’s not quite as stark as you may be implying. There is a “slower” tier of travel in London (i.e. the bus system). I think you need to mention how extensive this is, esp. in comparision to NY (i.e. there are are more buses going in all sorts of directions than there are tubes).

    As a result I guess people that are more cost concious will opt for the bus.

    The Oyster card system is also amazing. NY really should do a similar thing, rather than the paper based Metro card with it’s uneliable reader.

    I do like the fact the subway is wider and less packed. Your article says the subway carried more people, yet I must say the level of congestion in Manhattan, is nothing compared to London.

    However for me the two big differences are frequency of service vs hours of service. New York trains are infrequent (average waiting time of 5-10 minutes day time, and 15+ minutes night time — based on my experience to date) but do run between 1am and 5am.

    London trains are on average every 2-5 minutes day time and 4-10 minutes in the evenings though they do not run between 1am-5am.

    Whilst I like the fact I can get a subway late at night, having experienced standing for 15-20 minutes at 3am in a horrid train station waiting for a train to arrive, I’ve decided I’d much rather pay the $20 dollars for a cab ride to get me home. In London a late night taxi that’s available is very hard to come by, and the ride would have cost me the equivalent of $30.

    When it comes to imporiving both systems however, NY has the advantage. All it needs is a facelift and to double the frequency of trains.

    London has to upgrade it’s entire infrastructure to cope with the heat and passenger numbers.

    • Brad, thanks for stopping by and the thoughtful comment.

      I think that in the last year especially (since writing the article) the service cutbacks on the subways in NYC have been very noticeable to someone who has lived in the city for four years. Even as one who appreciates the system the waits have gotten to be a bit cumbersome, especially at night and on the weekends.

      I think you’re write that New York’s problems are certainly solvable–only a couple years ago trains were much more frequent before the recession fully set into the city’s budget. The infrastructure also does need significant renovation. One thing I find frustrating is that federal transit grants often have to be used for capital improvement, not maintenance or renovation. This puts cities like New York in a tough spot because either they expand a system that already needs upgrading (like expansion of the 7 line, new tunnels for the LIRR to Grand Central, or the 2nd Ave subway) or they forfeit the money. The system is working against the notion of a well-oiled transit network kept in a good state of repair.

      Hopefully we will see a return of funding to the MTA while you’re still a resident. Hope to see you around here again.

  8. I’ve lived in London most of my 30 years and have just spent the last 3months in New York (entirely over the summer) so these are my perceptions:

    London has some significant advantages over New York. But most of these are not structural. They could be easily copied by New York, as I believe some are, which would shift the balance.

    London’s most significant advantage is the signposting. New York’s sign-posting and explanations of where you need to go are truly terrible. Many times I’ve stood on a station platform, pretty certain I was going uptown, but not being 100% sure as there was not a single sign around to confirm it. London’s tube has signs everywhere that tell you where you are, which direction you’re going in, and what the next stop(s) are.

    The second is the, as mentioned above, The Oyster System. Which could, and should be copied. Finally, the third major benefit of the London tube is the electronic monitors which tell us when the next 3 or 4 trains are coming and where they are going. Something New York is only now introducing, and slowly at that.

    My view, if New York was to make their system cleaner and implement the above changes, which could easily be done, especially the signposting, it could start to pull ahead.

    London, however, is a much busier system. It may not do as many actual journeys a day, but it can get much, much busier. Try getting on the Northern Line at any Clapham Station on a weekday morning in rush hour, going north bound, and you’ll see what it’s like to get real intimate with some strangers. If you get on the train in the first place.

    And that’s London’s inherent issue. The infrastructure is that much older, and the lines that much deeper, that increasing capacity in any meaningful way is extremely hard. Updating lines or stations requires them to shut completely, as mentioned above, and the tunnels are dug in such a way that the amount of space in the cars is relatively fixed.

    With Tube trains coming as often as they currently do (every 2 mins is pretty normal) London’s capacity to expand is severely diminished. Which I think might reflect the price. It is more expensive in London, but they’re already at capacity most days, so making it cheaper would create more demand than is sustainable. Keeping prices up, while not that egalitarian, may be sensible.

    Plus, the tube is actually been a consistent offering in London. You don’t need to go that far back in New York’s history to a time when many people felt it was too dangerous to ride. Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point talks about how that got turned around.

    Whereas, unless I’m mistake, the Tube has always been a safe way to get to work for any class of person.

    I look forward to a New York subway with better signage. And a tube with aircon that runs all night.

  9. London is investing massively in schemes such as Crossrail, a new underground rail system, as well as the extension of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) as well as schemes such as Thameslink and new upgrades and rolling stock for the tube.

    There is also a high speed rail between London and Paris, with the new generation of trains set to cut rail journey times between to the two cities to under 2 hours. There is also the prospect of further high speed rail schemes such as HS2.

    London is improving it’s public transport including rail and tube links, so the system may noticeable improve in coming decades.

    Hopefully London’s sister city New York will also be improving it’s system in order that both cities continue to be world leaders in so many areas.

  10. Have you seen many elevators to allow for access into New Yorks Subway system. No….. Didn’t think so. To criticize ‘the tubes’ wheelchair accessability is ridiculous after witnessing first hand how few wheelchair access points there are in New York.
    Also with regard to New York having a larger distance to cover, you must remember that London has a much more extensive overground train system.
    As a side note I have also noticed how much easier it is to find a London Underground Station, they are clearly marked and directions to an entry point are sign posted from up to half a mile away. Tube maps are given out for free, and there seems to be a larger amount of staff operating the tube system, who are always extremely knowledgable and helpful.

    • Ross, thanks for your comment. Elevators may not be the norm for New York, but they’re certainly not in London either and the difference is that in many cases elevator insertions seem to be impossible given the depth of some of the stations.

      When it comes to the train network, I think that when compared to most other American cities a European city like London would have it handily beat. However, the success of New York’s transit system is in part due to the numerous rail networks that compliment the buses and subways. The Metro North, NJTransit, PATH and Long Island Railroad are all communter lines that bring in millions of commuter trips every year. The Metro North and LIRR are the two most heavily traveled commuter railroads in the country (82 million and 81 million respectively).

  11. matt58135@yahoo.com Reply May 27, 2012 at 9:13 am

    Good summary in my opinion… and good comments

    I’ve lived in both cities for many years and I have to say that New York’s service is FAR more reliable and although has its issues (I lived in Williamsburg during while the L was consistently shut for maintenance nearly every weekend for years for example) – the NY system is subject to far fewer interruptions- especially during peak periods, and its riders are less tolerant of daytime closures. I may be a bit bias as I sit hear typing this on my sofa in South London a Sunday afternoon for maintenance when all of the train service within miles is shut for maintenance for the entire day!

    I’d say that the NY system also has a superior design in terms of express and local service to cover large distances in manageable amounts of time… London has few examples of this, maybe the Metropolitan line qualifies as an example of this, but in general, it’s slow going if you need to cover some miles in London.

    On the other hand- London has a few pluses overlooked in the article, though mentioned in some of the comments…. In London’s favor- is that London has an extremely significant commuter train (e.g.- non tube) infrastructure within London, far more extensive than the LIRR and Metro North’s presence within the 5 boroughs, and London’s non-tube commuter services have the same zone / oyster cost structure as the tube… This is a major benefit for London as it makes the station network coverage far closer to 100% of the geographic footprint of the city, and perhaps makes commuting cheaper in London than NY for certain demographics… I’d bet that people living in Queens who take the LIRR every day, and then need the Subway pay a fair amount more than somebody with a zone 1-3 or 1-4 or 2-4 travel card in London, or even someone in London who just uses their oyster card each day in this situation.

    Another point for London is that the different rail systems (Tube, overground, Southern trains, Midland, Virgin, Southeastern etc) have more consistency in how they operate to the end-user than the similar comparison in NY (the subway, Metro North, LIRR, NJT including PATH etc)… Though NY has the abiliity to transfer bus to Subway, or bus to bus, something London will probably never choose to do. I never understood why governments don’t converge the different systems more… In Japan- the subway systems in each system all share the same iconography, ticket structure, map styles etc… you ride it once and you’re fine… even if you speak no japanese… hard to believe the amount of difference this makes to the rider

    • Matt,

      Thanks for the great commentary. It’s great to get a view from someone with weathered experience of both systems (I am admittedly much more schooled in NYC’s transit system).

      I’m still surprised that London’s above rail system/commuter lines would trump those of New York, but I did not ride in any when I was there. One thing I would still wonder about though is that I am curious whether the combination of NJ Transit, PATH, Metro North and LIRR still moves more people than the London network does.

      You’re definitely right about the added cost of LIRR + Subway though. I lived on Long Island for a year and took advantage of both systems everyday, which was easy to do, but carried a cost.

      I am definitely with you on the topic of offering better integration between systems. I think more and more people are asking these kinds of questions, especially since–as you point out–there are a growing number of examples of other places that show it can be done. New York faces a particularly steep hill ahead in that arena given that I believe that the various transit organizations share a fair bit of animosity towards others, making it notoriously difficult to coordinate on the urban and regional scale. Throw Amtrak into the mix and it’s even worse. Thanks again for the comment, hope to see you around again.

  12. The tube is a very valuable service. The major london terminal stations handle 469 million passengers 2010-2011. These terminals all encompass the city centre, and are all connected to the london underground. The tube then has to handle the job of carrying these commuters from its own lines as well as those from the overground. The two largest city working areas are The City (the original area of london known simply as the city) and Canary Wharf. Now essentially our tiny tube trains carry huge numbers of passengers who live probably up to 75-100 miles away, and funnel them all underground to essentially 1 station (Bank) or Canary Wharf. The point being that for a system that isnt as big as new york’s, or have as big trains as new york’s, the tube still somehow manages to work 21 hours a day with trains running only a minute or two apart. The ease of the new york subway designers to follow your simple street grid allowed for bigger trains and express lines, but for a city that still runs for more than 2000 years. the tube accomplishes far more than what the subway could in such restrictive environments. peace

  13. I think you must have thought that only upper to middle class people in London use the Tube because of the way they look. People in London look and dress more upper class and classy than in New York.

  14. London Underground and London Transport generally are undergoing a massive investment program with new rolling stock, new stations to meet the needs of Crossrail interchanges and an extension of the northern line to Nine elms and Battersea. The tfl website has most of the details. In terms of game changers the biggest change for London is going to be Crossrail, a deep underground rail line under central London running from Reading in Berkshire right across London out to Essex. Crossrail is currently the largest construction project in Europe and is set to be completed later this decade. There are also plans for a Crossrail 2 running North to South as opposed to West to East (Crossrail) and there may even be a Crossrail 3 in the pipeline.

    London also have a number of light rail systems such as the Docklands Light Railway which is currently being expanded and there is a tram system linking parts of South London. In terms of local and network rail, London’s system is vast and has recently been improved through the completion of London Overland and Thameslink.

    In terms of London’s International links, St Pancras International Station will soon receive the latest Eurostar trains cutting the train journey between London and Paris to 2 hours, with Lille only just over an hour away and Brussels one hour and thirty minutes away. The recent annoncement of new direct train services from St Pancras International to the Swiss Alps and to the South of France is also very welcome, with further new direct links to be announced over the next few years.

    In terms of the tube, I find small things like cushioned seats compared to the horrible plastic seats of the NYC Subway make journeys much more comforatable, whilst maps and information are also far more readily available on the tube as opposed to the NYC Subway. As for access for the disabled, it is now law that the disabled must have the same access to transport, retail and public realms as everyone else in the UK, and there is on-going work to improve disability access on the system.

    Finally lets not forget the new routemaster bus and other investments such as River buses and the new cable car at Greenwich in London. All of which are currently improving London’s transport experience.

  15. the London commuter rail network is VASTLY larger than NY and there is a HUGE night bus system giving full city and suburban 24hr coverage.So to compare only the underground tube versus the subway is not like to like .Also all the above are fully integrated fare wise far better than NY.

    • Tom, thanks for stopping by. I’d need to do a big more research for a direct comparison of commuter rails, but NY has relatively large commuter rail access. NYC is the end of three commuter rail lines (LIRR, Metro North & NJ Tranist). Taking LIRR out to the end at Montauk is 112 miles to the East (about the distance between London and Birmingham). Taking Metro North to the end to Wassaic or Waterbury is 92 miles to the North. Taking NJ Transit to the end at Trenton is 66 miles to the West. So that’s a range of at least 150 miles from one end to the other–fairly substantial. Can London boast the same? All of those three lines also have ridership of over 80 million a year.

      • Yes, in comparison, London’s overground rail system is vastly more extensive. The Docklands light railway alone carries >300,000 daily – i.e as much as the NYC rail lines. And then you have all the other London overground rail lines. If you also take the main lines to the end of the line as you have done (i.e say the great main western line to oxford/reading/twyofrd) you would get even more idea of the scale.

        Further, the bus network in London is also huge – i.e much more extensive by orders of magnitude compared to the rail systems. It uses the same oyster system, with electronic boards to tell you when and where the buses are going to, what the next stop the bus is coming to, what significant landmarks are available at the stop, and offers vastly more routes than either cities subway systems.

        Obvously, the NY subway does have some advantages – principally the 24hr service. But then imo this is easily coutnered by the fact that the tube’s trains are far more frequent – every 2/3 mins and though NYC is 24hr, it essentially is not very useful when you have to wait 30mins for a train at night.

  16. The Subway’s usability is a nightmare. You think you know which train you want, so you follow the signs. You reach the designated platform, but your train never shows up on the indicator. Suddenly you turn around to see who’s breathing down your neck and notice an A4-sized sheet of paper saying that ’2′ trains stop at the local track.

    First of all; I have no idea what a local track is. There are no signs to a local track. The signs say ’1′, ’2′ and ’3′, but there’s no mention of any “local”. Luckily, I’m a railway nerd, so I know that the ’1′ is the local, but come on! I go downstairs to the concourse and finally find what I should have spotted in the first place; another A4-sized sheet of paper (written with a Ball pen, for variation), saying “2 & 3 trains stop here —->”..

    1-0 to London for wayfinding.

    Being both a railway nerd *and* a designer, I know that the Subway is a nightmare to communicate, too. But there are people out there who do a hell of a lot better than the powers that be (dare I mention the KickMap?). I love that it runs 24 hours a day, I love that it has express trains. But having such feats is not worth much if they’re not properly communicated.

  17. Introducing zone fares in London was a disaster.
    Prior to zonal fares one paid basically a mileage charge. There were plenty of machines that could print a ticket and make change.

    Now the ‘Tube” is essentially a rip-off.
    My father worked or the tube and he said it was possible to have an “Outer Circle” line as well as an “Inner Circle” line, but of course an outer circle would show that the
    zone system of fares is a total rip-off. I know that investment must be made in the tube. The only real solution is to duplicate some of the most heavily tralled routes with deeper and larger tunnels so tha “specialised” rolling stock would not be needed.
    The so called Private Finance Initiative system has ensured that the tube will just goes down “the tubes”.

    it

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 810 other followers

%d bloggers like this: