The Necessity of Subways

The city
drags itself awake on
subway straps
– Maya Angelou, “Awaking in New York”

There’s a reason I tend to travel to cities instead of more rural destinations. While I enjoy nature and all that it offers, I need public transportation. It’s a necessity if I want to avoid driving.

Singapore SMRT
Staring out the front of the SMRT in Singapore

Growing up outside New York meant that I spent a lot of time in the city. But I rarely took the subway because it was easier for my dad to drive the family from the suburbs. After my brother moved to Jersey City, my parents learned the convenience of the PATH trains into Manhattan.

In today’s New York Times Magazine, there’s an in-depth piece titled “The Case for the Subway.” The article delves into the history of the MTA and subway system and provides a glimpse into reasons for its inefficiency and decay. It also highlights nightmare scenarios if billions of dollars are not invested in fixing the major problems.

The Oculus
The Oculus transit hub

The article mentions some contrasts with the Hong Kong MTR. Hong Kong’s subway is impressive — it was the first extensive modern subway I rode in a foreign country (I don’t count Shenzhen as it only had one line during the time I lived there).

Of course, I even remember thinking that the London Underground looked nicer than the NYC subway when I studied there in 2000. I had a pre-paid pass to use it at any time during my stay, so I couldn’t complain about the cost. I did, however, notice the numerous service disruptions, the first of which was on my second day in London after my program coordinator told my group that we needed to find our own way back home (that’s a complicated request when the route back is shut down for hours and all you have is a pocket map book).

There were at least announcements about service in the stations in London. In New York, you’re more likely to be told that the trains aren’t running after paying to get in. And they still don’t have signs that tell passengers how long the wait is until the next train arrives.

beitou station
Beitou MRT station in Taipei

Amazing Subway Systems in Asia

It wasn’t until I reached Tokyo that I realized what public transportation should be (at least in some respects). Despite the cost of taking trains in metropolitan Tokyo, particularly if you switch train services, the service is great. I found the Odakyu line to be surprisingly quiet — and I don’t mean the passengers.

tokyo metro
Not quite a subway line in Tokyo

My only complaint about subways and trains in Tokyo is that the system is incredibly complicated. And if you don’t have an IC metro card, figuring out the fare, particularly on the JR lines, is almost impossible without reading Japanese. That, and stations like Shinjuku are so big that it becomes a maze. Here’s a video of a foreigner trying to find his way through Shinjuku station for the first time.

Seoul was a bit of a shock. My colleague, who is a local, told me to download the Seoul subway app because it has English and makes navigating the subway much easier. I discovered that everyone uses this app because even locals need a reminder to switch lines.

metro cards
IC transit cards for Seoul and Hong Kong

One thing I noticed in Seoul was that if I stood at one end of the platform, I couldn’t see the other end because the trains are so long. In one of the most populous cities in the world, it makes sense to have such an enormous public transportation system.

And the best part about all the subway stations around Asia is that they have public restrooms that are clean for the most part. I can’t imagine any station in the US ever offering such a convenience.

enoshima station
Enoshima Station in Japan

An additional convenience I encountered around Asia is that they’ve done away with the cheap disposable tickets (except for Tokyo). To avoid those single-use tickets, even travelers are encouraged to buy IC transit cards, which are refundable for unused fares. Those same cards can also be used for convenience store purchases and at some other retail locations — Taipei had the most extensive uses for the card. There were also some credit cards that doubled as transportation cards.


In contrast, the MTA only has similar cards that can’t be used outside of the subway for monthly passes. It’s so much better to have a sturdy non-expiring card on which you can just add money quickly. Plus, you can keep those cards in your wallet to pass through turnstiles.

The Problems with the NYC Subway

I’m disappointed that the NY Times article didn’t mention subway etiquette. It really needs a reminder from my favorite YouTube series Glove and Boots (the video has been deleted from YouTube for some reason).

But the article did mention more than a few facts that I didn’t know about the subway and MTA. I knew that a lot of people used it, but I did not know that ridership was 1.7 billion in 2015. I also didn’t know that the MTA gets pretty much nothing from real estate, unlike the train operators in other countries.

Most disturbing of points made in the article is this:

… much of the subway uses a signal system that dates to the 1920s and ’30s….I saw workers making mounting brackets and ball bearings; even the system’s most basic parts are so obsolete that they have to be manufactured in-house.

In addition, “about 3,000 of the system’s 6,400 cars date to the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.”

newport path
Newport PATH station

Yeah, the NYC subway is really old and passengers are reminded of that every time they step into a station.

Small Differences Have an Effect

It was the little things that made subways in other countries so much better. Subway etiquette was the top difference I notice — people not pushing their way onto trains before passengers got off, and the cleanliness of the trains and stations. Of course, subway systems in Asia employ a lot more staff than New York and they enforce rules.

taipei mrt poster
Taipei reminds you how to behave with cute posters

There are even volunteers who work at the stations to remind passengers about how to behave. And if that’s not enough, other passengers are likely to scold people who don’t follow rules, like eating and drinking on the train. This doesn’t mean that the rude behavior doesn’t exist, but it is less prevalent than in New York.

There’s also the setup of stations. What makes so many confusing is that they’re established like malls — there are shops and restaurants in so many of them. While some people may not want to bother with hurrying past shops on their commute, it does add revenue to keep the cost of subway rides down.

dome of light kaohsiung
The Dome of Light in the Kaohsiung MRT station

There’s a lot that the MTA could do that could offset the astronomical cost of renovating all the dilapidated stations in the city. Obviously, no single fix will fully cover the costs, but combined they could stop the losses.

I would like to see the MTA bring the subway system into the 21st century, or at least late 20th century. I hope I live long enough to see that day.

1 thought on “The Necessity of Subways”

  1. Thank you for your wonderful article. I’ve been to several cities you mentioned in your piece and experienced their subway systems. Tokyo, Nagoya are the best, they are just so quiet. But the systems are disorienting for foreigners. Shinjuku station is definitely a maze for first-timers. I was lost once at the station while I had to catch a train to the Narita airport. When I finally got to the airport it was approaching midnight and I could find anyone to help me except the police. But the policemen were really nice. Everything just worked out fine in the end. Indelible memories from that trip. Thank you.

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