London Underground vs New York Subway: Which is the best?

NYC Subway

Which is better: the London Underground or the New York Subway?

The London Underground turns 150 this week. The Tube began operation on 10 January, 1863 with a steam train travelling between Paddington and Farringdon – and it’s barely stopped since.

We all know how important underground trains are to the life of a major city: the shutdown of New York’s MTA system during and after Hurricane Sandy showed just how critical subways/metros/tubes can be.

Having just returned from three months working in New York, and on the occasion of the Tube’s big 1-5-0, I thought I’d conduct this (mostly) unscientific comparison of the two.

Two great cities; two great transport systems. But if you had to rely on one or the other, which would it be?

Service

If TfL is to be believed, passenger satisfaction with the London Underground is at its highest since surveys began, in 1990. In August-September 2012, the Tube scored an 83% approval rating and LU operated 98.8 percent of scheduled kilometres.

The New York Subway, meanwhile, scored a 75% approval rating in a survey conducted in 2012. A Straphangers Campaign report found that trains operated a regular service 79% of the time.

Pigeon on Tube

Mind the flap. Image: Mike Towber

Not quite like-for-like measurements, granted, but I’d say the Tube edges it here. It’s worth noting, however, that the Tube’s estimated weekday ridership is 3.6 million, versus 5.3 million in NYC.

From an anecdotal point of view, I’ve experienced fewer stops in tunnels in New York than London. But frequency of trains is higher on the Tube.

Of course, the New York Subway has one huge trump card – it runs through the night. Though you’d have to be a pretty brave soul to take the A train at 3am, the option is there. London, meanwhile, shuts down around 12-12.30am, to allow ‘fluffers’ to clean the dust off the lines.

Verdict: 1-1

Safety and cleanliness

Let’s be honest, the New York Subway’s never had a great reputation. It is far, far safer than it was 20 years ago, and Subway users don’t think twice about having their iPhones or iPads in full view (even rolls of $20 bills, in one case I saw).

But there’s no denying the Subway is dingy and dirty, and leaks when it rains, while the tube is spotlessly clean.

Verdict: 1-0 London

Trains

Both networks run fairly iconic trains – though London’s now have the edge on modernity thanks to upgrades on the Victoria and District Line (most New York Subway cars are getting on for 40 years old).

But the Subway rolling stock can pack more people in, as the tunnels aren’t arched like their British equivalents. Riding the train in NYC involves fair less stooping of your head to get on board.

Verdict: 1-1

New York Subway map

I am where? Image: jshyun

Ease of use

An old complaint of tourists to New York is that the Subway is confusing to navigate. It’s all about the train, stupid: forget the colours or the names of the lines. A 4 train may look like it runs to the same places as the 5, but it only shares track with it for part of the way.

Then there’s the confusion between locals and expresses, which are not always clearly marked, either on the platforms or the train. And the fact you can have two or even three stations with the same name that are blocks apart (three 86th Streets in Manhattan, for example). And some Subway cars don’t have even Subway maps inside them. What’s that about, New York??

In London, by contrast, you have a set of clearly defined lines; you just need to know the direction. And this is made clear by maps and diagrams and signposts carefully positioned at junctures (or decision points) in stations. And you have Harry Beck’s map.

However, New York has express trains, and London could certainly do with a few of those.

Verdict: 1-1

Cost

It’s $2.50 for a single journey in New York versus £4.50 ($6.80) in London (£2.10 if you’re paying by Oyster). It’s $29 for a weekly travelcard, compared to a £30.40 ($48.80) 7-day zone 1-2 travelcard in London.

London Underground commuters

Tube passengers: taking out an extra mortgage. Image: makipon/Flickr

Yes, the Oyster card beats the flimsy MetroCard in terms of usability, but at these prices, the New York system is an absolute steal.

Verdict: 1-0 New York

Extent

There are 11 lines on the London Underground with 270 stations, running to 402km. There are 34 lines on the New York Subway with 421 stations, running to 337km.

Verdict: 1-0 New York

Age

New York’s first Subway train rolled out of the station in October 1904. London, as we’ve seen, is celebrating its 150th anniversary.

Verdict: 1-0 London

Annoyances

Anecdotal again, but I’d say you’re more likely to be bothered by panhandlers and crazies on the NYC Subway. On the Tube, you’re more likely to be bothered by flustered tourists and football fans trying to find their way back to Euston.

The Tube has mice. The Subway has rats.

Verdict: 1-0 London

Innovation

It’s New York’s turn to shine. Three simple words: air-conditioned cars. Also, at some stations, the Subway has bits of moving platform – yes, moving platform! – that jolts outward when the train comes to a halt, allowing you to mind that gap once and for all. Clever.

Verdict: 1-0 New York

Upkeep

They both have weekend engineering work. Go figure.

Verdict: 1-1

FINAL RESULT: London 7 New York 7

Surprised? I certainly am; I thought London would nick it. But with a late rally, the New York Subway has pulled level. It’s just as good as the London Underground. Unless you need to get to Hendon. Then it’s not.

Images: makipon, jshyun, M Towber

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7 responses to “London Underground vs New York Subway: Which is the best?”

  1. KSalty says :

    The subway is definitely dingier, darker, dirtier than the tube- but you can speed across Manhattan in minutes. Tough one.

  2. calmyourbeans says :

    Reblogged this on calmyourbeans.

  3. linyangchen says :

    Thanks for this very interesting comparison. I’d find it really challenging to do it myself, as some of the criteria could be seen as both good and bad things by different people. I’m grateful to have experienced both of them!

  4. Vida London says :

    I’ll admit, the criteria is a bit slippery: the advanced age of the Tube could be considered a good or a bad thing. Good, because it’s so comprehensive; bad, because it breaks down a lot.

  5. Nick says :

    There are no films about gangs of teenagers marauding across London on the tube, being chased by other gangs of teenagers. But then, if the tube was 24 hours we would never have met and learnt to love the N29. Hmmm. perhaps I have mixed feelings about that one.

  6. Vince T. Hines says :

    Visiting New York for the first time is an interesting experience. New Yorkers are like no one else. As polite as they are, they often do not make eye contact, they rush to their destination, and rarely talk to strangers. While visiting New York City for the first time, you will probably be using the subway. If you are not careful, you might never get to your destination. The subway in New York City is one of the largest subway systems in the world in terms of track mileage and number of stops, and one of the only 24 hour subway systems in the world.

  7. bamford1000 says :

    I keep seeing all these London Underground v New York Tube posts when the real difference isn’t the Tube but the fact London has a vast heavy rail network both on a local/regional level and a national level when compared to NYC. There are 18 major train stations in London and many commuters don’t even use the tube, they just get off at Liverpool Street or any one if the other stations and go to their city jobs. London also has an international rail link with Paris, via St Pancras, with new trains set to cut the London – Paris journey time to around 2 hours.

    On top of this London has an extensive bus network (new Routemasters) including night buses and river buses, there are trams in South London and the Docklands Light Railway which is currently being extended is also a useful transport link. Whilst London has a vast array of Black Cabs whose drivers are amongst the best any where as well as cheaper mini cabs.

    In terms of the future the Tube is currently undergoing a massive refurbishment, with vast new stations linking it to Crossrail, new rolling stock such as the fully air conditioned ‘S’ Class coming in to service and new more efficient air conditioned trains such as the Siemens Inspiro planned for the deeper lines, There is also to be an extension of the Northern Line to Battersea, whilst CrossraIl the largest building project in Europe involves running heavy rail trains under tunnels across London, will change London transport forever and is scheduled to be completed later in the decade,

    Of course all this investment is currently adding to the current cost of travelling in London, but London’s Transport Network has during some periods in the past suffered from under funding and the current massive investment is needed at a time when London’s population is predicted to break the 10 million barrier by 2030,

    Finally a new cycle ways are also being proposed, which will further enhance London’s transport options.

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