The World's Most Impressive Subways

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Subways are as much a part of big-city living as high-rises and gridlock, and they get about as much love. For many people, subways are crowded, noisy places only marginally better than being stuck in traffic -- and most of them are. But the best of them are not only efficient, they reflect the character of the cities they serve and the people they carry.
In honor of the first test run of Chicago's "L" train, we're touring the globe by subway. Please let us know about your favorite subways in this article's comments

Left: The Tokyo Metro and Toei lines that compose Tokyo's massive subway system carry almost 8 million people each day, making it the busiest system in the world. The system is famous for its oshiya -- literally, "pusher" -- who shove passengers into packed subway cars so the doors can close. And you think your commute is hell.

The Moscow Metro has some of the most beautiful stations in the world. The best of them were built during the Stalinist era and feature chandeliers, marble moldings and elaborate murals. The extravagance gave way to bland utilitarianism under Nikita Khrushchev but returned during the 1970s. With more than 7 million riders a day, keeping all that marble clean has gotta be a drag.

Everything about New York is larger than life, and its subway system is no exception. It's got 468 stations, 842 miles of track and twice as many daily riders (5 million) as every other rapid-transit system in the United States combined. The city that never sleeps has a subway to match. It's one of the few in the world that runs 24/7.

Londoners call their subway the Underground, even though 55 percent of it lies above ground. No matter. When you've got the oldest mass-transit system in the world, you can call it anything you like. Trains started chugging through cut-and-cover tunnels in 1863 and they've been running ever since. Some 3 million people ride each day, every one of them remembering to "Mind the gap."

The Berlin U-Bahn (for undergrundbahn, or underground railway) opened in 1902 and grew rapidly until the city was divided at the end of World War II. Then things got complicated. The system was divided along with the city, with trains from East Berlin all but ceasing service to the west and trains from West Berlin bypassing railway stations in the east that became known as Geisterbahnhöfe, or ghost stations. The one exception was Friedrichstraße station, a transfer point and border crossing for entering East Berlin. The system was unified after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and now carries more than 400 million people each year.

The Paris Métro stands alongside the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and Louvre as an icon of the city. The system is renowned for its Art Nouveau architecture and is so ingrained in daily life that Parisians have a saying -- "Métro, boulot, dodo." (Metro, work, sleep.) And where else but Paris would you find museum pieces from the Louvre displayed on subway platforms? They're replicas, but still …

Shanghai is the third city in China to build a metro system, and it has become the country's largest in the 12 years since it opened. Shanghai Metro has 142 miles of track and plans to add another 180 miles within five years. By that point, it would be three times larger than the Chicago L. The system carries about 2.18 million people a day.

The Hong Kong MTR has the distinction of being one of the few subway systems in the world that actually turns a profit. It's privately owned and uses real estate development along its tracks to increase revenue … and ridership. It also introduced "Octopus cards" that allow people to not only pay their fares electronically, but buy stuff at convenience stores, supermarkets, restaurants and even parking meters. It's estimated that 95 percent of all adults in Hong Kong own an Octopus card and they generate more than 10 million transactions each day.

The award-winning Metro Bilbao opened in 1995 and proves that even subway stations can be architectural masterpieces. The system was designed by Sir Norman Foster whose work includes the Gherkin in London, the Reichstag dome and Hong Kong International Airport. Foster embraced a modern design, favoring steel and glass, and Sarriko station won the 1998 Brunel Award for Railway Design. The station benches won the Spanish National Industrial Design Prize in 2000.

It's old, it's crowded and it's noisy as hell, but Chicagoans love the L like they love deep-dish pizza. The nation's second-oldest rapid-transit system is one of the city's Seven Wonders, behind the lakefront and Wrigley Field but ahead of icons like Sears Tower. The railroad junction known as Tower 18 -- where lines converge from four directions -- was for decades the busiest in the world. The L was also the world's first elevated electric railway.

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