When I first announced my move to London, many of my friends back in the states were envious of this amazing life experience. "You're so lucky! I would love to move to Europe," they would profess. Ironically, the moment I landed in London, every Brit I met called me crazy for moving from the states. "Why the hell would you move here?!? I would give anything to move to New York!"
New Yorkers and Londoners have passionate, love-hate relationships with their respective cities. Both are undeniably diverse and culturally rich yet insanely overpopulated and expensive. They somehow bring out the absolute best and absolute worst in all of us. With over 8 million residents each, few things are more polarizing in London and New York than their public transportation systems. Love it or hate it, they are absolute necessities, each moving over 1 billion riders every single year.
So which one reigns supreme: The London Tube or the New York Subway? Now that I've been an Oyster card-toting Londoner for 7 months, I thought I'd take a crack at a head-to-head comparison. I have employed a *very* accurate, scientific 100 point scoring system across 10 criteria. When I first started this process, I wanted to be as objective as possible and honestly had no idea which one would score higher. Read on to find out which one ends up on top!
This one is a complete no brainer. A standard one-way fare on the London Tube will run you £4.70 if you pay by cash and £2.20 if you have an Oyster card. This is only for travel within Zone 1. It gets more expensive the further outside of central London you venture. In comparison, the average cost of a single ride on the New York Subway is $2.75. That makes a ride in London nearly twice as expensive as a subway ride in NYC. Granted, $2.75 is still pretty expensive, especially considering it only cost $1.50 as recent as 2003.
On a somewhat unrelated note, one main qualm with the NY Subway is the MetroCard itself. The city needs to update these swipe cards with touch cards or contactless payment options.
London and NYC have 2 of the most extensive public transportation networks in the world. New York's just happens to be that much bigger. This infographic from Timeout is very telling. The New York Subway system carries 400 million more riders per year across twice as many lines and nearly twice as many stations. However, the current lack of lines on the far east and west sides of Manhattan is a glaring omission. Hopefully, this will be changing in the coming years with extensive expansion in the works.
Londoners shouldn't feel totally shafted. You seldom find yourself way outside of walking distance from a Tube station. If you do, the city has an amazingly connected (and efficient) bus network.
This one is pretty easy. You either like rats or you don't. Seeing these vermins wander the track is a daily occurrence in New York. In terms of the trains themselves, it's a hit or miss. Hop onto the wrong car, and you could find yourself maneuvering around leftover food, mystery liquids or even a dead shark. In contrast, London Tube trains manage to stay fairly clean except for the occasional old newspaper.
Here's where things get a bit more subjective. Cleanliness aside (we already docked enough points from NYC on that one), I actually find Subway cars to be a bit more comfortable than Tube cars. The first thing you will notice is the lack of air conditioning in the Tube. While London doesn't get nearly quite as hot, it can still make for a pretty sweltering ride in the summer.
Subway trains themselves also feel a bit more spacious. In contrast, the Tube train is shaped like, well, a tube. The way the walls arch inwards makes the whole experience somewhat claustrophobic. The aisles are narrow, so don't be surprised if there's a crotch in your face when you're seated. On the positive side, at least those seats are cushioned! Thankfully, a few of the lines have already updated to newer, more spacious, trains.
The TFL and MTA cite various sources and data points that make their respective systems seem more efficient. From my personal experience, I have found the Tube to be more reliable. Trains seem to run more frequently with slightly fewer service disruptions and delays. I seldom wait more than 3 - 5 minutes for the next train. When there are delays, stations do a much better job of announcing issues. In New York, one of the worst feelings was waiting for the next G train wandering when, or even if, it would ever arrive.
However, one major issue with the Tube is lack of late night service. It only operates from 5 AM to 12 AM Monday thru Friday with reduced service on Sunday. Yet again, this is an area where the buses come to the rescue. Thankfully, the Tube will be rolling out 24/7 service next year.
"Safety" is a fairly broad term, so this is another category where opinions will vary. Overall, crime rates have fallen in both public transportation systems. London recently announced an 11% decrease in reported crimes across the entire transit network, and New York just came out on top in a global survey of safest public transport systems.
I'm sure not everyone will agree with this sentiment, but I personally feel safer when riding the Tube. Perhaps its the lack of late night rides or the ubiquitous presence of the CCTV. There seem to be more safeguards and precautionary measures in place to avoid major crimes and petty incidences. When I lived in New York, I encountered plenty of belligerent shouting matches and fights on the Subway and in the stations.
Tube riders tend to be a bit more polite and keep to themselves. Everyone minds their own business, which makes for a more peaceful, quieter ride. The only exception are the tourists. Both cities welcome millions of visitors a year. For some reason, tourists on the Tube seem so much more clueless and like to wander aimlessly.
On the flip side, Subway passengers tend to be more...eclectic. Every car is a unique social experiment. It all makes for some good people watching until the crazy lady starts yelling at everyone. One quick word of advice for Subway newbies: if you encounter an empty car, don't get in unless you enjoy the sweet aroma of piss and vomit emanating from the homeless man in the corner seat.
Both cities have stations like Times Square and Kings Cross that will always be chaotic and nightmarish for travelers. However, for the most part, London Underground stations are more organized and orderly. There is abundant signage to help guide you through mass crowds and get you to the right train. Additionally, every stop has numerous screens updating travelers on exact train times. I cannot emphasize enough how big of a difference these signs make for daily commuters like myself. If you do get lost, TFL staff members are much more willing to help than lazy MTA employees who couldn't care less about your problems.
Tube stations are also infinitely cleaner than Subway stops. Remember those rats I mentioned previously? My only issue with stations in London are their maze like structure. Most are built so far below ground and the series of one way tunnels ironically lead to bottlenecks.
9. Ease of Use
Both public transit systems require a slight learning curve. Even after living in New York for 4 years, I still found myself occasionally getting on the wrong "blue" train. Was I supposed to use the A, C or E? Which train runs on the express tracks? London is no less complicated. The combination of zones and connecting rail services like the Overground, DLR, Tramlink, etc. can get a bit confusing. These complexities are unavoidable when you're moving millions of people around every day. Thankfully, apps like CityMapper and Google Maps have made public transportation so much easier to figure out and navigate. Therefore, I'm going to call this one a draw.
As most Londoners and New Yorkers can tell you, both cities' transit systems are constantly undergoing renovation. They are adding lines and renovating congested stations to account for increased ridership. While New York's plans for new lines continue to face scrutiny and funding concerns, London has laid out a comprehensive, long term plan to address current issues and prepare for the future. With the "New Tube for London", passengers should expect driverless trains, updated designs, air-conditioning (finally!), wider doors and carriages as well as more screen doors on the platform. In the nearer future, the city will be opening the Crossrail, which will improve connectivity between east and west London.
After in-depth analysis, the London Tube comes out the winner! Of course, the results are completely debatable and I'm fairly certain many will disagree with the outcome.
Ultimately, when you take into consideration the sheer scale and complexity of both cities, Londoners and New Yorkers are truly fortunate to have such extensive public transit systems. While we may hate them at times, the Tube and Subway are indispensable and enable all of us to explore these amazing cities.