America / China / Cultural difference / Japan / Lifestyle / Thailand

A subway tells a thousand words

As I consider myself a city person, one aspect that keeps me excited about an urban lifestyle is public transportation, particularly the subway.  Not only is it reliable and efficient, but it also portrays a vibe of the city quite accurately. There is no substitute for the distinct music video-esque vibe a Manhattan subway ride offers. Similarly you won’t be able to find security guards who could possibly be stricter about passengers not crossing the platform line than those working at Bangkok skytrain stations. The subway is also heaven for chronic people watchers like me.

Personal obsession aside, I find the subway system to be an insightful snap shot of a city’s development and urban planning. Two of the most connected subway systems among the world-class cities are Manhattan’s and Tokyo’s. Since most of my frequent readers probably know about New York City’s subway system better than I do anyway, I will spare you by not pointing out the obvious.

The well-connected New York City subway system (enlarged view)

Although New York City boasts the interconnectedness of its subway system, it is still a pain to travel across the island as the subway lines correspond to the shape of Manhattan. This is one thing that Tokyo subway system does better; it looks more like an elaborate spider-web, comprised of subway lines that are laid in all directions.

Tokyo’s JR lines: government-subsidized subway (enlarged view)


Tokyo private subway lines | JR + Private lines = Explosion of Tokyo subway lines (enlarged view)

Another unique aspect of the Japanese subway system is the collaboration between the government-subsidized and private sectors. Tokyo residents can use the subway service provided by Japan Railway (known as JR East – the world’s largest passenger railway company, subsidized by the government until a recent spin-off) or they can opt for one of the thirteen privately-owned subway lines. These together make Tokyo the city that has the most extensive rapid transit system in the world.

Interestingly, the sheer number of subway stations in Tokyo creates a parallel underground city that exists almost on its own entity. It is quite amazing to think that while Japan is one of the world’s leading car manufacturers, most Tokyo residents don’t own a car and the government has been placing an emphasis on railway construction as opposed to road construction since the beginning of modern day Tokyo.

The user-friendly subway system of Washington D.C. (enlarged view)

Although by no means as fancy as NYC and Tokyo subway systems, Washington D.C. metro is one of the friendliest, cleanest, and most reliable I have ever ridden. DC metro may not have that many lines, but all of them intersect often enough so that the transition between one line to another can be done quite effortlessly. Plus, who doesn’t love DC’s space-looking metro tunnel?

Bangkok public transportation system: still a long way to catch up (enlarged view)

Moving to the East and we’ve got Bangkok’s subway system at its infancy. With two skytrain lines, one subway line, and one speed boat route, Bangkokians scream ‘we want more of these’ as we get stuck daily in Bangkok’s infamous  and outrageous traffic. Unlike NYC, Tokyo, or Washington D.C. where the subway systems were integrated to the city planning, Bangkok’s was designed after the city was developed. As Bangkok lacks a proper city planning, Bangkokians rely on the city’s landmarks instead of its orientation.

Although Rome might not be built in one day, the Beijing authorities have proven that the city’s entire subway system can be constructed in under 24 hours, or at least it feels like it. From taking a quick glance at these illustrations of the Beijing subway system at different stages – 2002 (pre-Olympic), 2008 (post-Olympic), and 2015 – one can see how Beijing’s rapid transit system is being constructed at a rapid pace. It blows my mind thinking how the government has managed to stay on such ambitious track.

6 bjsubway1Beijing subway: 2002, pre-Olympics (enlarged view) 7 bjsubway2_full2008, post-Olympics (enlarged view)

8 bjsubway3Beijing in 2015 which I cannot wait for it to arrive (enlarged view)

Unfortunately, I find the Beijing subway system to be very poorly-planned. Theoretically speaking, subway lines should intersect so that passengers can switch from one line to another seamlessly. Beijing subway, on the other hand, is very loopy; it takes forever to transfer between lines.

See how it doesn’t make sense?

For instance, to transfer from Chaoyangmen station on line 2 (dark blue) to Hujialou on line 10 (light blue), one must get on the dark blue line, transfer to the red line, and then the light blue line. The entire trip would take up to 40 minutes by subway when you can get there in ten minutes by bike. In fact, I get angry every time I look at a Beijing subway map. (Read my friend’s detailed blog entry about the Beijing subway.)

In any case I am grateful that Beijing long subway rides offer a perfect opportunity for me to witness many more unique aspects of the city, extreme PDA, awkward breakups, and mad crowds included. I guess I should save some for later. So stay tuned!

7 thoughts on “A subway tells a thousand words

  1. hey napats,
    after creepily facebook stalking you i ran across your blog and couldn´t help but reply to this one. you may not know but i`m actually unhealthily obsessed with metro systems around the world. i agree with you that ia well developed and integrated subway speaks volumes about a city’s development and simply ‘buzz’ (Case in point: NY vs LA). However, the DC metro wasn’t built until the 70’s and not before the city developed so it really shows that bangkok can catch up and hopefully surpass the rather horrible american public transit systems. anyway just thought i’d give my two cents.
    P.S. If you’re more interested in this, urban outfitters until recently sold a pretty awesome book called “Transit Maps of the World”. Yes I am a nerd. Don’t judge.

  2. No one likes to transfer more than once (i.e. taking at least 3 MRT lines w. at least 2 transfers) to a destination.

    I appreciate the Tokyo railways system most because it allows one to reach a destination in one sitting (a train which travels on 2 or more railway lines; instead of passengers leave the train and transfer to another line, the train itself does the ‘transferring’).

  3. Pingback: First Days in Beijing or Few Things Change. « The Comme Il Faut.

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