Continuing our series of comparisons between the London Underground and the subterranean mass transit systems of other cities worldwide (see previous bouts with Moscow and Tokyo), we go up a gear and enter into a subway stand-off with our old adversary from across the pond, New York City.
Back in 2014, a writer for The Guardian by the name of Bim Adewunmi was utterly ripped to shreds on the internet after she called the New York City Subway system "patently ridiculous" and "the work of a sadist, cooked up in a fever dream and delivered with a flourish and an unhinged grin.”
She took issue with the subway maps, which she called "a mess of fonts and colours" and with the whole idea of making multiple lines the same colour:
The city's subway map is dense and needlessly complex,” she said. “Where in London the Central line (red) is distinct from the Piccadilly (dark blue), which is markedly different from the Hammersmith and City line (pink), New York's map has designated the same forest green to the 4, the 5 and the 6 lines. The B, D, F and M all rejoice in exactly the same shade of violent orange. And I'm almost entirely certain that the blue of the A, C, and E lines is the last thing you see before death's sweet embrace. Why would you do this? The whole thing resembles a child's approximation of a city transit system: it makes no sense.
The response to this on Twitter was intelligent and well thought through, naturally, with comments including "NYC is not for simpletons with the brain of a cane toad and beauty of a blobfish" and "the Subway is fairly simple actually, just stop being dumb".
The thing is... to a large extent, Adewunmi is right and we can fully understand where she's coming from. To any visitor, the New York City Subway system is a challenge. We have friends who think the Paris Metro system is easier to understand and they don't speak a single word of French. We don't know if we'd go as far as to call it the work of "a fevered sadist," but it is not as clearly laid out as it could be, especially at stations. Sure, if you've lived in New York for years, you've probably worked it out, but compared to the London Underground, navigation can be tricky. And that's something many New Yorkers freely admit.
We've experienced both city's systems and can say that if you took the best elements of the London Underground and put them together with the best elements of the New York City Subway, you’d probably have one of the best underground mass transit systems in the world.
The first big difference is how the journey is undertaken. In London, you pay for the distance travelled between touching in and touching out, generally measured in zones. In New York, it’s a flat fare regardless of where you’re going. However, one trip equals one fare. You can change lines, but should you need to suddenly turn around for any reason, you have to wait until you get to a bigger station with a centralised area. It also means that the equivalent trip from say, Holloway Road to Heathrow costs the same as Holborn to Holland Park. Naturally, there are pros and cons on both sides of these different approaches, depending on your daily commute.
Probably the biggest problem with the New York City Subway is trying to comprehend the mess of different trains that all run on the same coloured lines. It is very easy to accidentally get onto an express train and fly 15 stops past where you need to get off. However, once you have mastered it, and you do need to miss out a whole bunch of stations in-between your start and stop point, this can prove quite useful.
The stations themselves can be as confusing as the train network. There are multiple entrances and exits, rather than just a big one and each specific entrance/exit relates to whether the platform that it leads to is going uptown (north) or downtown (south). So, you’ll probably have to cross the road a few times to get the right one. Some of the bigger stations, like Penn Street, Fulton Street and Grand Central, have centralised areas where you can change platform without having to exit, but there aren’t many like this.
The stations in New York aren’t as bright or as clean as their UK equivalents, instead they look much more gothic, gritty and possibly even gloomy, but that’s a matter of personal taste (and by the way, we think the platform at Mile End looks just like a typical New York City Subway station). There isn’t much in the way of maps on the walls and the actual station name is often on a sign on the side of the cast iron pillars making it quite hard to spot from sitting inside the train carriage. The platforms and stations themselves aren’t air-conditioned; instead they have lots of vents, since the street is sometimes only 10 metres above you. This means they can get very hot during the summer and pretty cold during the winter.
However, the carriages are air-conditioned and it is very effective. In London you’d never find yourself wishing a train would come along for the added reason that you can cool off inside rather than waiting in the heat on the platform. They are also so much bigger, which means tall people don’t have to hunch, ever. In fact, generally speaking, the carriages are much better than those in London. No, they’re not as modern, but the plastic seats don’t feel as disgusting to sit on as London’s festering, germ-magnet material seats and can be quickly wiped down should you feel so inclined. There’s also room under the seats to slide suitcases and bags, which is very useful.
Personally, we also prefer the almost art-deco aluminium design of New York’s trains. Both London and New York boast Wi-Fi on their underground networks, but in reality both are still a little patchy. You can get connections at the stations, but in-between it’s non-existent. As for passenger weirdness, well, we’d call that a draw. You can watch this lady chopping onions on the Subway, or maybe catch a suit sniff a line of coke on the tube.
Actually getting your Subway card to open the barrier is a whole new nightmare. At some point, we’d like to get a radar gun and determine exactly what speed it is that the cards have to be swiped through, but we already know that a variation, faster or slower, of just an infinitesimal amount will result in requiring another attempt and a chorus of tuts from the New Yorkers behind you. That said, how many times have you been at full momentum at Bank when someone in front of you hasn’t kept their Oyster card topped up?
The fact remains that the contactless smartcard technology of the durable plastic Oyster is so, so much better than the ridiculously flimsy MTA card of the Subway. It’s worth remembering though, because it’s structured on a flat fare system, you don’t have to tap out in New York. Put the two together and you’d have a winner.
For a tourist, the New York City Subway can be a nightmare, but that itself is a very New York state of mind and they’re proud of it. Not that long ago a street vendor near the World Trade Center was busted for charging tourists $30 for a hot dog. The reaction of many New Yorkers in the comments sections and so on, was 'it’s your own damn fault if you get ripped off, get wise or get out'
No one here will hold a door open for you, ever. It’s not that they’re deliberately rude, they just have absolutely no concept of anyone else. They’re not malicious or vindictive, they just don’t give a shit about you. No one in New York will stand up and offer an elderly or pregnant person their seat. When we once tried to do this all that happened was the elderly person looked up quizzically and said she was fine standing.
In New York City, you can get killed from falling building materials, hit with exploding man hole covers or pushed in front of a train. It’s a jungle over there — and New Yorkers wouldn’t have it any other way.
In short: the London Underground is easier to navigate, the New York City Subway has bigger, actual air-conditioned cars. The stations are cleaner in London, New York is cheaper. The staff are so much nicer in London, you don’t have to travel to the centre of the Earth to get to a train in New York. The space issue counts for a lot, it’s not just one tick in a box for New York. Yes, London has an older network, it covers a bigger area, but New York has more stations, more lines (technically speaking) and carries more people each year. London is way more expensive, but New York does run 24 hours a day, while we've only got 24 hour service two days a week, on a handful of lines. Many will disagree, but we're calling it... a draw.
By Scott Snowden @LorumIpsum
See our previous articles in this series, with the tube taking on counterparts in Moscow and Tokyo.
Feel free to share your opinion in the comments section below.