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’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.
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