Our Daily Commute

Does a city’s underground train system say anything interesting about the city itself?

For a preponderance urban dwellers, riding the tube/metro/subway/T/L  is a twice-daily fact of life.  We push onto crowded cars, (hopefully) give the elderly and pregnant our seats, groan when we’re waiting on the platform and a delay is announced, groan loudly and rudely when tourists block the thoroughfares.  While the  suburbanite deals with the furies of traffic while comfortably ensconced in their car-shaped bubble, city-folk are confronted with the physicality of their fellow humans, elbows, shoulders, sweat.

I’ve had the experience of being a daily commuter on the tube, the T and Washington DC’s metro, and here are, from what I can tell,  some pros and cons of these transport systems, as well as a few other cities where I have spent some time:

London’s underground “the tube”

PROS: Excellent, charmingly polite maps and signage (“mind the gap!” “alight here for museums!”), accurate countdown until next train, clear explanations of delays “the Piccadilly line is delayed due to a signal failure at Hatton Cross…”

CONS: Terrible station overcrowding and spontaneous station closures due to overcrowding (especially during football games! — and even during normal commutes), some stations only have stairs (no elevator/escalator options). Also — wildly expensive!

Boston’s subway “the T”

PROS: four color-coded lines (well, five, if you count the silver line).  It doesn’t get much easier than this. Cars (with exception mentioned below) are large with plenty of room to pack’em in at rush hour.

CONS: the entire green line, especially the “B” line, which stops every 100 feet or so to accomodate certain students who can’t bother to walk.  Also — why include the silver line as part of the T-system?  It’s a bus! Don’t insult our senses, MBTA.

Washington DC’s Metro

PROS: clean, fast cars, accurate countdown until next train.

CONS: God help us if there is ever a real emergency on the metro and riders actually have to understand the announcements made over the trains’ tinny little PA system.  Many, many times, I have been in a crowded station or a halted train and heard nothing but, muffle muffle muffle, static static static. 

New York City’s Subway

PROS: Finally!  A train system that runs 24 hours.  And it goes everywhere. 

CONS: They might as well just write, “tourists…take a cab” on their subway maps.  Navigating your way between uptown trains and downtown trains / local versus express trains and trains that start local and suddenly go express require a decent degree of insider knowledge. Also in the “con” category — I do not know one New Yorker who doesn’t have a story of some repulsive and/or criminal act that they witnessed taking place on the subway.

Paris’ Metro

PROS: It goes everywhere! And it’s fast. And the Metropolitain entrances are tres jolie.

CONS: I’ve heard anecdotally that wearing antiperspirant is bad for you and can give you cancer.  Apparently the French have known this for years and far prefer riding their metro au naturel, particularly in the summer.


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