Subways in Global Cities

Dec 30, 2015 1:30:00 PM / by Stephanie Sadler

“Connecting Global Cities” is a monthly column written by Colin Speakman, Resident Director for CAPA Shanghai.

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This is a sister post to Trains Connecting Global Cities which focused on how well those rail tracks could speed folks out of the city to connect with other parts of the country or even neighboring countries (think the Eurostar). This post is about how well a subway system helps the residents and visitors get around within the city itself.

NYC Subway Train
Photo: NYC subway by Chris Cofer

I have to start by recognizing that "subway" is not necessarily the universal term for these typically underground train services. In New York, it certainly is the correct term but in London, a subway is strictly an underground walkway that helps pedestrians cross a busy road; if you follow that sign and wait down there, you won't get a train! Of course London uses the term Underground or more commonly "The Tube". There are certainly signs in China's capital referring to the Beijing Subway but in Shanghai we talk about the Shanghai Metro. That is a term very much in use in Paris and Madrid too. Anyway, we generally know what we are talking aboutno matter the choice of term!

CAPA students waiting for Beijing subway by Colin Speakman

Another possible confusion is that some lines on some systems are not underground as they have been built on elevated tracks instead, but are still regarded as part of the network as in Shanghai. In other cities such elevated train services are called "light rail" instead (as in London). In yet other cases, some trains run partly underground and partly at street level, as in San Francisco, which is called the Muni.

Two Muni trains at Duboce Park
Photo: San Francisco Muni Trains by Steven Vance

For my purposes, I see most subways as underground which brings the advantage of avoiding surface level traffic jams but the disadvantage, at least for visitors, of travelling like a mole - pop head down a hole, race across town, pop head up again with no idea what lies between the two stations. Yet, particularly for visitors, the subway systems are far easier to use than public buses in unfamiliar cities and far cheaper than taxis. They are not, however, universally cheap means of travel. Until the end of last year, Beijing had a remarkable value deal which gave flat rate on all system travel for just 2 rmb (US 30¢). This year the same journeys there across the city have risen 250% in cost because of the introduction of distance-based fares, but that is still a deal compared with London where journey costs can be several British pounds across the city. London's Tube is notoriously more expensive than the Paris Metro, but still a huge saving over London's famous taxis.

Photo: Paris Metro by Cedric Lange

What makes a subway system relatively easy to use for visitors is a combination of readily available system maps (now downloadable on the web), color-coded lines and a reasonable amount of English in the signage. Of course, there are bus maps too, but has anyone seriously tried using one in a strange city? Just not the same. However, the metro systems in global cities do differ in many ways such as reach of the network, how late the trains run, how frequently they come, cost, ease of use including extent of escalators, stairs and elevators. In rush hours, can one get on the first train, the second train even? Let's see how CAPA's six global cities stack up.


The system in Buenos Aires is known as "Subte". It boasts six lines, 83 stations and around 1 million people ride it each day. It dates back to 1913, making it the first underground railway in Latin America, even beating Madrid by six years to be the first in the Spanish-speaking world. It has expanded in spurts as one would expect. The system is overcrowded and there are additional segments under construction. The Argentine capital is the only city in the country with an underground railway network. Fares are the equivalent of around US 60¢ per trip.

Echeverría station is one of the newer Subte stations by Gobierno de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires


Dublin came late to the subway party; the plans for it were set out as recently as 2005. The system is scheduled for operation in ten years' time. These plans are for two lines: one connecting the city with the airport and with six underground stations and another built entirely overland connecting with the first near the airport and heading through the Liffey Valley. However, funding for the second line is in doubt and it is not feasible for the foreseeable future. It looks like Dublin will start with one line.

Dublin Airport
Dublin Airport by ColmDeSpáinn


Reflecting the historic nature of the city of Florence, construction of a subway would be difficult, so there is not one there. At one extreme, the historic centre of city is walkable and many locals use bicycles to get around. For those who are less mobile, an extensive bus system delivers, including mini size buses in narrower streets and taxis are also plentiful.

Bicicletta per duePhoto: Riding bikes in Florence by Alessandro Scarcella


The UK's capital boasts the oldest subway system in the world, dating back to 1863. It has grown to 11 lines with 270 stations and capability to carry 1.3 billion passengers a year. It is an affordable option from Heathrow airport, where there are three tube stations, into the city centre, compared to the more expensive Heathrow Express train and licensed taxis. Currently services shut down around midnight, but there are proposals to launch all night weekend operation which have resulted in periodic strike action by unions opposed to the terms of the proposal. Lines in the center of London are underground but in connecting to the suburbs, the tracks are overground.

Clapham Common - 325/365
Photo: London Underground by Barney Moss


The de facto economic capital of China and the country's largest city by urban area dwellers needs a comprehensive subway network, and this was given a boost when Shanghai hosted the 2010 World Expo. Although the system did not begin until 1993 it has grown steadily, sometimes rapidly, to become the largest metro network by track in the world. It has 14 lines, 337 stations and carries around 2.9 billion passengers a year. While most lines are underground, lines 3 and 4 operate on elevated tracks and give a great view of the city.

A line 3 metro train arrives at an elevated station by Colin Speakman


There is not a subway system as defined in this article in Sydney. Instead, the city relies on a regular train system which has been upgraded to interconnect with the bus system. Some routes are known as metro rail and are in the process of being extended. More on this can be found under the Sydney in the CAPA World Trains Connecting Global Cities article (linked above).

Hello Sydney! First look at Sydney's new metro trains (1) Life size model delivered for public comment.
Photo: Sydney's new metro trains by John Cowper via Transport for New South Wales

Thanks Colin!

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Topics: Global Cities