It’s clear that cities with good public transportation enjoy reduced congestion, fewer emissions, and healthier cities economically, but stating that fact almost always leads to the age-old question: Why is it so bad in the United States? With a few exceptions like the MTA in NYC, the cities with the best public transportation in the world are in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. What gives?
What are the best transit systems in the world?
Many people can give their personal opinions on the best public transport system in the world, usually referencing cleanliness or calmness. To be fair, we’ve created a list of metro systems and organized them by the sheer number of annual journeys they complete.
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When looking at numbers only, the scale of Tokyo makes it the best metro in the world, dwarfing the competition, with the next in line behind by 200,000,000 trips. Regarding livelihood, however, certain parts of Tokyo’s subway system are anything but comfortable, with “oshiya” or “pushers” shoving as many people into the trains as possible. Nevertheless, the world is in awe of this system and Japan’s handle on railways in general.
But there are a variety of ways to figure out the “best” metro system besides only considering the most efficient public transportation. Facts, like which metro moves people the furthest, may also be a factor. Looking at the data, the one with the longest subway system is Shanghai Metro. That’s not useful if the trains aren’t close to home, though. That’s one area that the USA wins! New York City’s MTA has the most number of stations in the world: 472. That makes sense once you look at the city’s population density.
And then there are secondary factors to keep in mind. For instance, the cheapest fare can also give a good indication for how the population can be helped economically. The lowest cost in USD for one ticket is Cairo’s train at 11 cents per ticket. Or, you could consider which one has been operating the longest: That’s the London Tube, the first subway in the world, which opened in 1890. On the other hand, you can look at simple aesthetics and get an idea of which one is the coolest. The Tube is fun, but Moscow hangs art replicas in its trains, making it one of the most calming modes for public transportation in Europe.
What can we learn from them?
So, really good metro trains in the world serve a lot of people, for cheap, have convenient stops, work consistently for years, and can move far distances both quickly and safely.
But carefully looking at each metro system map tells us one thing: They’re built for the city, not the other way around. U.S. cities have a lot to work on to make metros a fast, cheap, accessible, and convenient option. But in America, the unfortunate problem is often the cities themselves; sprawl is the enemy of all good public transportation projects. Big, spread-out suburbs are difficult to organize for drop-off points and non-invasive construction projects.
It’s hard to comprehend the problem, it’s hard to motivate people to pay for, and it’s hard to fix. Assuming one doesn’t care much about emissions or the environment, why bother investing millions or hundreds of millions for an expensive rail system that only some Americans will use?
If you completely rule out emissions as a factor (though it is a huge factor), there are still many other considerations. Those living in sprawl are more likely to be obese and be involved in fatal crashes. Regarding traffic fatalities, grid streets are often counter-intuitively safer than cul-de-sacs. Also, studies examining upward economic mobility in America shows that sprawl can harm a child’s prospects, rather than help them.
While we may feel stuck in limbo, like someone waiting for a bus that’s not coming, we need to remember that America once was home to some of the best metro rail projects in the world, from trolleys in California to subways in New York. Perhaps the American Public Transportation Association can motivate us to be that way again.