Comparing public transit systems: New York vs London

2016-12-24 3 min read

    I’m behind on my 2 blog posts per week goal since I’m traveling and want see as much as I can but plan on catching up next week when I’m back. Right now I’m on a high speed train going from Porto to Lisbon and have 2.5 hours to do a bit of writing. And what’s more appropriate than comparing the public transit system of New York with that of London, and generally those of the United with those of Europe.

    New York City has one of the world’s best transit systems with 233 miles of track and 24/7 service. This supports a population of 8.4 million spread out across 304 square miles. London, meanwhile, has 250 miles of track for a population of 8.7M over 607 square miles, and only started running a nighttime service 4 months ago.

    The trains themselves are different - London has smaller trains, both in the passenger capacity per car as well as the number of cars per train. This smaller size is offset by more cars running more frequently which makes transfers much quicker. Every station I’ve been to in London also showed the estimated arrival time of the next train; New York is getting better but only a few stations and lines provide this information. In fact it seemed as if even the London buses had these time estimates available since Google Maps provided accurate bus arrival times.

    London also has a more comprehensive payment system. New York is on the Metrocard while London is on the Oyster card. Similar to the Metrocard it can be used across a variety of transit options but also seems to extend to larger train stations in the area - think the equivalent of the Long Island Rail Road in New York. The usage is different as well - the Metrocard works via swipes but the Oyster card is designed around a wireless tap and go system that seems to be extending to paying directly with a phone. Another way to look at the Oyster card is as the next generation of the PATH SmartLink card. The one annoyance with the London system is that you need to tap when leaving a station since the system is divided into differently priced zones.

    Generally, it felt that London takes more pride in their transit system and wants to do more than the minimum while New York is just focused on keeping it operational. The London stations are cleaner and better maintained with many having their own unique look. Both systems get the job done and quickly take you from point A to point B but the overall experience just seems a tad more polished designed in London.

    The United States is not known for having the best public transit systems. It’s significantly less dense than Europe with a car owning majority that wouldn’t work well in millenia-old city grids. Europe, on the other hand, has the density and old city streets that make public transit a viable option. Strong public transit systems improve the equality of a city by making it cheap and easy for anyone to go anywhere. This allows the density of a city to rise and provide jobs that can be accessed at a low cost. Without these a city ends up being split into rich and poor neighborhoods with the poor either having to undertake an extraordinarily long or expensive commute to get to work. Europe seems to have figured this out while we discuss income inequality.