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.
Availability of shitty free newspapers: Both cities offer commuters two free papers per day. While New Yorkers must guiltily choose each morning between dueling Metro and amNY hawkers, London's papers are wisely spread across the morning and evening rushes. Boredom is averted in both directions. The grisly murder that broke in the morning Metro could have a suspect by the Evening Standard. The quality of these papers depends on your answer to this question: Is there such a thing as too many photographs of Kate Middleton attending things? Advantage: London.
Sense of community: In neither system are riders permitted to make eye contact with anyone, ever. Reasons for this differ. The mood on the subway is one of barely suppressed rage that transcends demographics. It's a place where rich and poor can shove one another like equals, where black and white come together to hurl epithets at old men blocking the doors. To challenge another rider is to invite confrontation - I didn't have a problem with you, motherfucker, but I do now. The Tube is a subterranean sponge into which all of London's social awkwardness soaks. In all but extreme cases, offended riders will swallow their anger to avoid the unpleasant alternative of confronting another human being: I did have a problem with you, you gormless fuckwit, but now that you are looking at me I am going to go back to reading the Guardian. Advantage: London.
Wildlife: Tube mice are smaller and harder to spot than their American counterparts. Personally, I like the subway rats. They're so cute! So scrappy! Where are they going? What exotic diseases are they carrying? Have they just arrived in this country and are searching for the Russian-Jewish mouse family they lost en route? I've never had a pet. Advantage: New York.
Likelihood of being murdered: Up until a few weeks ago, New York actually had the edge on this one. There were two Tube murders in 2010, and none on either system in 2011. But then 2012 closed with the horrifying deaths of two people pushed onto the tracks, and now New Yorkers have to worry that shoving people to a gruesome death before an oncoming train is a thing now, like sour frozen yogurt. Advantage: London.
Interior design: Subway cars are built to transport humanity from one station to another and hose down its residue as quickly as possible. Tube benches are carpeted, which is great if you like the idea of a permanent archive of strangers' bodily fluids. (This is also a nation that carpets its bathrooms.) Hard plastic armrests spaced generously along the bench ensure that a few passengers ride in comfort while the rest huddle wretchedly near the doors. Did I mention it's £5? Empires have fallen for less. Advantage: New York.
Frank approach to facts of life: A suicide that delays a train in New York is a "police investigation." In London, it's a "person under train." Damn. Advantage: London.
Operating hours: The subway runs 24-7 in the city that never sleeps, baby! The Tube runs 19 hours a day in a city that sleeps between midnight and 5 a.m. Advantage: New York.
Entertainment: Mariachis! Doo-wop! Breakdancing! 23 hours and 15 minutes of the day, New York offers unparalleled people watching and freelance performance art. London makes up for it all at 11:45 p.m. with the Last Train Home, a nightly caravan of drunkenness where vomit and nonsensical soccer tirades interweave like a Vegas water show. Advantage: Draw.
Moxie: The Underground has more than proved its mettle on this one - the photos of Londoners sheltering in Tube stations during the Blitz are iconic. But MTA's performance during Hurricane Sandy was nothing short of astonishing. Any system that looks like this on Tuesday and is moving people on Thursday gets my respect. For all the complaining we do on both sides of the pond, these are undeniably two very cool centenarians. Respectfully, I call a tie. And that seat.
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