The London Underground system turns 150 years old this month. In honor of this occasion, I’m publishing the results of a five-year independent study of the Tube and its 108-year-old American cousin, the New York City Subway. Below is a comparative analysis of the two systems, based solely on the observations of one person with no social science credentials, no car, and a chronic people-watching habit.
Size: New York’s subway carries 1.6 billion people a year to 468 stations on 660 miles of train track. London shepherds 1.1 billion to 270 stations across 249 track miles. Advantage: New York.
Map aesthetics: The Tube map – designed in 1931 by the civil servant Harry Beck, with few major alterations since – is a modernist masterpiece. It’s bright and clean and beautiful and no one cares that it bears no geographic relation to the London above it. MTA’s map looks like a Body Works cross-section of a dead man’s scrotum. Advantage: London.
Value: A single ride on the subway is $2.25, whether you are going crosstown or from the Bronx to Brooklyn. The shortest Tube journeys start at £2.10 and steadily increase. A single ride from the outer boroughs of Zone 6 into central London – a trip thousands of commuters make daily – is £5 one way for the average rider, or nearly $8. This does not include butler service. Insane. Advantage: New York.
Willingness to move down: In a crowded subway car, the importance of “moving down” – the distribution of standing passengers equally throughout the length of the car – is an article of faith. Failure to move down is grounds for intra-car abuse and ostracization. Tube riders unable to get a seat tend to limit themselves to an invisible vestibule directly in front of the doors. This scrum delays boarding and results in the infuriating spectacle of half-empty trains pulling away from crowded stations. This is why so many people died on the Titanic. Advantage: New York.