Is the subway the best in the world?

I recently posted this on NYC Transit Forums; thought it would be interesting here as well. It’s a response to the question of whether or not the New York City Subway is the best rapid transit system in the world even though it’s not exactly the prettiest or nicest to use.

I’d say that the New York City Subway is one of the world’s best, but not the best in the world, in part because that’s impossible to rank. What counts and how do you weigh it? If you like pretty stations, then Moscow probably wins. Efficiency? Tokyo. History? London. Rapidly growing? São Paulo. The subway has some incredibly good features and some not so good ones, but it definitely works incredibly well considering its age, complexity, and history.

There are two ways to look at the subway compared to its international peers. The first is to point out that, if all are equal, New York City is far behind many other cities in terms of technology, cleanliness, ease of use, and fare collection and integration mechanisms. Probably the only system with over one million daily users without thorough real time information and computerised signalling (apart from the L and the IRT), headways are much larger than they should be, especially during rush hour. Much of the system is at capacity, although with proper investment it shouldn’t be too hard to increase passenger throughput. Because the subway uses outdated equipment, so much of the system is run manually, a liability that significantly increases wait times and hinders growth and reliability. Part of this problem is unavoidable, even with computers, because of the fact that the subway is perhaps the only system that has distinctions between lines and services, with the end result of serious interlining complexity. Add that to the express/local division and it’s no wonder that CBTC and real time information implementation is so difficult and costly. Of course for cleanliness NYC is behind, but that’s also a product of those who ride it and the sheer scale of the system (over 400 stations spread along the largest routing of any rapid transit system) that makes cleaning a difficult task.

However, looking at the subway in terms of what it’s been through since 1904, it’s pretty remarkable that it functions so well. Few other rapid transit systems have gone through such success and then neglect. Juts look at the subway back in the ’70s and ’80s when it was about to fall apart compared to now with NTT and a ton of station renovations. In that regard NYC has done pretty damn well.

That all being said, the subway does have some features that really do enable it to work well and set it apart from the rest of the world. The most obvious (besides 24/7, which to me is more of a gimmick than anything else; how many people are riding the subway at 4am, even when considering how round-the-clock this city is) the extensive use of a local/express division, not only in Manhattan but also in Brooklyn and Queens. In particular the IRT Lexington Avenue/Eastern Parkway Line setup south of Brooklyn Bridge is brilliant in its use of interlining express lines in Manhattan to a local/express setup in Downtown Brooklyn. It’s also incredibly extensive and dense, even when compared to many European cities.

Overall, I’d say that the NYC subway occupies a position in the top league of rapid transit systems throughout the world, and which is the best is subjective at most.


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