Transport systems in London and New York are facing the same problem. They're too popular

The 'no message' here is not quite as symbolically important as it may at first appear. Image: Tom Page

New York has a problem. If you know anyone who lives in America’s largest, most hectic, crazed city, their steady trickle of complaints about this problem will have probably become more of a flood over the past year.

For me, as a devout and unapologetic lover of underground railways as profoundly miraculous feats of engineering that double as superb ways of getting about, it’s hard to take these complaints seriously.

“Of course there are bugs in any system,” I always reply. “But despite its flaws, the system is still phenomenally impressive.”

Up to a point.

Something Bad

The fact is that the New York City subway has reached breaking point – and if we’re not careful, London’s could be heading down the same track. Though the two systems are very different in a number of key ways, they’re facing different version of the same problem at the same time.

This problem is not any of the usual flaws that one would expect to afflict a vast underground railway network that’s over a century old.

Of course, there are the usual suspects. Some mornings, people take ill, fall in front of the tracks, or get involved in skirmishes that require a police presence. These inevitably cause delays.

People yawning does not normally cause delays. Image: Yanping Nora Soong.

Some of the time, the signalling systems on these systems can play up – as London learnt just the other day, when vast swathes of the District, Circle, and Piccadilly lines were crippled for most of the day by a gargantuan system failure. After all, these systems are often very old – in New York’s case, often pre-WW2; in London’s, some signalling dates back a century or more.

The trains, too, can cause issues. The Piccadilly line was in crisis earlier this year when the rubber wheels on a number of its trains had serious faults, meaning all these trains had to be taken out of service for a time to be fixed so as to be fit for safe passenger use. Having so many fewer trains available on the line meant service frequency took a huge hit, with all sorts of disruptive consequences.

All these and more are part and parcel of running such systems. But both systems face a trickier problem – they’re too popular.

Extensive research by the New York Times shows that overcrowding is by far and away the largest cause of delays on the New York subway, causing about three times as many delays as the next biggest, track maintenance.

And the reason your New Yorker friends are complaining about the subway – about twenty-minute commutes taking up to two hours – is most likely to be that there are just too many people between them and their destination..

The big squeeze

Figures from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway, show that, between 2007 and 2017, the percentage of trains running on time fell every single line of the New York subway. While some lines have only seen minor drops – the L train has only dropped a few percentage points to 91 per cent of trains on time – others have dropped off a cliff.

A packed New York subway train. Image: Daniel Schwen

In 2007, almost 90 per cent of trains on the 2 train ran on time. In 2017, that was barely a third. The same pattern holds true with the 4 and 5 trains. Where the J had a near-100 per cent on-time record in 2007, only 64 per cent of its services now run as planned.

This is nothing short of astonishing, and it’s down to how popular the system has become. The system has 1bn riders a year in 1990; by 2015, that had risen to 1.8bn. In that time, the system has gained only twenty-two extra trains (from 5,255 to 5,282), and has managed to lose five miles of track.

London has a similar problem. Station names such as Camden Town and Victoria make tube users come out in a cold sweat, and anyone who has used the tube in rush hour has faced closed gates, shouting TfL stewards looking harangued, and thick masses of fragrant commuters on the platform watching train after train go by, too full to board.

Dwelling Through Life

Why is overcrowding such a problem? In short: dwell time.

Problem! Image: Daniel Schwen.

The ‘dwell time’ of a train is the amount of time it spends standing at a station platform spewing out alighting passengers and taking on new ones – and it’s really important. It’s why trains these days are specifically designed with doors that open as widely as possible to make it easier for people to get on and off, and why the designers of the Victoria line’s 2009 stock built the handrails so that they subconsciously draw you down inside the carriage (at least, if you’re right-handed; we can’t help you if you’re a sinistra).

When trains and platforms are crowded, dwell time goes up. If loads of people want to get off at a stop, getting them all out takes longer. If lots of people want to get on, getting them in takes longer. Add in a system where platforms are so crowded that people are barging past each other and passengers on the platform are watching the first, second, or third train go past before one arrives that actually has space for them to board, and you have a nightmare scenario.

The authorities in London have been pretty good at coming up with solutions for this so far.

Look how many ticket barriers. Mmmm. Image: Tom Page.

Lengthening platforms on the National Rail network so that they can handle trains with twelve carriages rather than ten was a clever move worth the investment. Increasing the frequency of the Thameslink route through its central core (roughly King’s Cross St. Pancras to Elephant & Castle) from 16 trains per hour (tph) to 24tph was also shrewd.

Signalling tweaks on the Victoria line means that trains can now arrive and depart on the platform once every 100 seconds. That’s astonishing.

Once signalling changes are complete on the sub-surface lines (Hammersmith & City, District, Circle, and Metropolitan), trains will be able to run far more frequently than they currently do.

The new walk-through trains on these lines has also made a difference, with these same smart design choices also set to be part of the ‘New Tube for London’ rolling stock on the Central, Piccadilly, Bakerloo, and Waterloo & City lines coming in the next decade or so.

But these tweaks are not going to be enough.

A packed platform at Bethnal Green. Image: Tom Page.

“One can almost envisage Neville Chamberlain waving around his tablet computer showing the Tube Improvement Plan and reassuring us that all is well,” wrote train nerd maestro ‘Pedantic of Purley’ on London Reconnections.

Defying Brevity 

“Crossrail!” I hear you shout. Again, a great move, and one that will increase London’s transport capacity by a whole 10 per cent.

But Sir Peter Hendy, former commissioner of Transport for London, once said: “I predict that when Crossrail opens in 2018 it will be immediately full.” Obviously it’s now not opening until late next year, and it’s unwise to take him literally on that, but he has a good point.

London’s population is growing pretty quickly, meaning a whole load more passengers needing space on the network. By one consulting firm’s estimation, London’s population is growing by 2,000 every eight days. By TfL’s estimate, it’s growing by a Tube train full of people every week – roughly 750. By an LSE economist’s estimate, we’re growing by 100,000 a year, about 1,900 a week. Buried deep in the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) documents is a projection that suggests London could have grown by 106,000 people every year in the decade up to 2021.

Think about that 10 per cent capacity increase again. The census of 2011 had London’s population at 8.2m. By the GLA’s figures, in 2021, that number could be around 9.3m, an increase of 11 per cent. Far from being the great sigh of relief providing space and connectivity to the capital, Crossrail will merely help us keep our flailing proverbial head above water.

One Short Line

Meanwhile, New Yorkers are facing a population increase of 9.5 per cent between 2010 and 2040, matched only by a piddly three new stations on the Second Avenue Subway.

The second avenue subway. Shiny, but not enough. Image: Jseliger2.

Though $1.7bn has been allocated to build three more stations as part of so-called ‘Phase 2’, phases three and four have been given no funding commitments. Despite the excitement, this is by no means anything like as radical and large-scale as Crossrail.

London and New York have the same problem – as populations have grown, city economies have thrived, and transport systems become less grim and crime-ridden, the underground and the subway have boomed. Ridership is up, and so is overcrowding.

But the nature of the illness is pretty much the end of the similarity. London has seen intelligent quick-fix solutions, small but smart tweaks, and a willingness to put its cards on the table and invest properly in the future. Though at the current rate this will soon prove inadequate, if a similarly large-scale project can be firmly set on its way in the next few years – called, I don’t know, Crossrail 2 – then all shall be well.

New York’s sickness, meanwhile, may prove more intractable. To have performance falling off a cliff on every single line is astounding, and, anecodtally, has meant that many are ditching the subway altogether. New York has failed to invest in the housekeeping tweaks to its system that have proved so canny in London, and where it has embarked on bold projects, it has done so with such sloth and financial largesse that the exercise is almost rendered futile.

Something needs to give.

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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Seville has built its entire public transport system in 10 years. How has it done?

Just another sunny day in Seville. Image: Claude Lynch.

Seville, the fourth largest urban centre in Spain, was recently voted Lonely Planet’s number one city to visit in 2018. The award made a point of mentioning Seville’s impressive network of bicycles and trams, but it neglected to mention that it’s actually their ten year anniversary. The city’s metro opened just two years later.

This makes now an excellent time to look back on Seville’s public transport network – especially because almost all of it was completed in the middle of the global financial crisis. So, is it a good model for modern public transport? Let’s find out.

Cycle Hire

Seville, like any good metropolis, features a cycle hire scheme: Sevici, which is a clever portmanteau of the words ‘Seville’ and ‘bici’, short for bicicleta, the Spanish for, you guessed it, bicycle.

The service, launched in 2007, is run as a public-private partnership. Users can pay a flat weekly fee of €13.33 (£11.81) for unlimited rentals, as long as all the journeys last 30 minutes or less. For the fanatics, there’s a year-long subscription for €33. This makes Sevici cheaper than the London equivalent (£90) but slightly more than that of Paris (€29).

However, the reason why the bike hire scheme has gained particular praise in recent years is down to Seville’s network of cycle paths, snaking around the town centre and into the suburbs. The sheer scale of the scheme, 75 miles of track in total, has prompted comparisons to Amsterdam.

But there is a meaningful distinction between the two cases. First, cycling culture is such a big deal for the Amsterdammers that it has its own Wikipedia page. In Seville, cycling culture is a growing trend, but one that faces an uphill struggle, despite the city’s flatness. Around half of the cycle paths are on a pavement shared by pedestrians; pedestrians often ignore that the space is designed specifically for cycles.

A Sevici station in the town centre. Image: Claude Lynch.

Surprisingly, cyclists will also find exactly the opposite problem: the fact that bicycles enjoy the privilege of so many segregated spaces mean that, if they dare enter the road, motorists are not obliged to show them the same level of respect – because why would they need to enter the road in the first place?

This problem is only compounded by the Mediterranean driving style, one that takes a more cavalier attitude to objects in the road than that of the northern Europeans. While none of this makes cycling in Seville a write-off – it remains the cycling capital of Spain – budding tourists should bear in mind that the cycle paths do not extend far into the old town proper, making them a utility, for the most part, for budding commuters.


The metro system in Seville consists of a single metro line that travels from Ciudad Expo in the west to Olivar de Quintos in the east. It has three zones, which create a simple and straightforward fare system, based on the number of journeys and number of “saltos” (jumps) between zones, and nothing more.

The need-to-know for tourists, however, is that only three of the metro stations realistically serve areas with attractions: Plaza de Cuba, Puerta de Jerez, and Prado de San Sebastian. Given that a walk between these is only a few minutes slower than by metro, it shows the metro service for what it is: a service for commuters coming from the west or east of town into the city centre.

Some of the behaviour on the network is worth noting, too. Manspreading is still dangerously common. There are no signs telling you to “stand on the right”, so people queue in a huff instead. Additionally, there is no etiquette when it comes to letting passengers debark before you get on, which makes things precarious in rush hour – or if you dare bring your bike on with you.

On the plus side, that’s something you can do; all trains have spaces reserved for bikes and prams (and they’re far more sophisticated than the kind you see on London buses). Trains are also now fitted with USB charging ports for your phone. This comes in addition to platform edge doors, total wheelchair access, and smart cards as standard. Snazzy, then – but still not much good for tourists.

Platform edge doors at Puerta Jerez. Image: Claude Lynch.

The original plan for Seville’s metro, launched in the 70s, would have had far more stations running through the city centre; it’s just that the ambitious plans were never launched, due in equal measure to a series of sinkholes and financial crises. The same kind of problems led to Seville’s metro network being opened far behind schedule, with expansion far down the list of priorities.

Still, the project, for which Sevillanos waited 40 years, is impressive – but it doesn’t feel like the best way to cater to an east-west slice of Seville’s comparatively small urban population of 1m. Tyne and Wear, one of the few British cities comparable in terms terms of size and ambition, used former railways lines for much of its metro network, and gets far more users as a result. Seville doesn’t have that luxury; or where it does, it refuses to use it in tandem.

You only need to look east, to Valencia, to see a much larger metro in practice; indeed, perhaps Seville’s metro wouldn’t look much different today if it had started at the same time as Valencia, like they wanted to. As a result, Seville´s metro ends up on the smaller side, outclassed on this fantastic list by the likes of Warsaw, Nizhny Novgorod, and, inexplicably, Pyongyang.

Seville: a less impressive metro than Pyongyang. Intriguing. Image: Neil Freeman.


The tram travels from the high rise suburb-cum-transport hub of San Bernardo to the Plaza Nueva, in the south of the Seville’s old town. This route runs through a further metro station and narrowly avoids a third before snaking up past the Cathedral.

This seems like a nice idea in principle, but the problem is that it’s only really functional for tourists, as tram services are rare and slow to a crawl into the town centre, anticipating pedestrians, single tracks, and other obstacles (such as horse-drawn carriages; seriously). While it benefits from segregated lanes for most of the route, it lacks the raison d'être of the metro due to the fact that it only has a meagre 2km of track.

The tram travelling down a pedestrianised street with a bicycle path to the right. Image: Claude Lynch.

However, staring at a map long enough offers signs as to why the tram exists as it does. There’s no history of trams in Seville; the tracks were dug specifically for the new line. A little digging reveals that it’s again tied into the first plans for Seville’s metro, which aspired to run through the old town. Part of the reason the scheme was shelved was the immense cost brought about by having to dig through centuries-old foundations.

The solution, then, was to avoid digging altogether. However, because this means the tram is just doing the job the metro couldn’t be bothered to do, it makes it a far less useful service; one that could easily be replaced by a greater number of bike locks and, maybe, just maybe, additional horses.

So what has changed since Seville’s transport revolution?

For one thing, traffic from motor vehicles in Seville peaked in 2007 and has decreased every year since, at least until 2016. What is more promising is that the areas with the best public transport coverage have seen continued decreases in traffic on their roads, which implies that something is working.

Seville’s public transport network is less than 15 years old. The fact that the network was built from scratch, in a city with no heritage of cycling, tunnels, or tramways, meant that it could (or rather, had to) be built to spec. This is where comparisons to Amsterdam, Tyne and Wear, or any other city realistically fall out of favour; the case of Seville is special, because it’s all absolutely brand new.

As a result, it’s not unbecoming to claim that each mode of transport was built with a specific purpose. The metro, designed for the commuter; the tramway, for tourists; and cycling, a mix of the two. In a city with neither a cultural nor a physical precedent of any kind for such radical urban transportation, the outcome was surprisingly positive – the rarely realised “build it, and they will come”.

However, it bears mentioning that the ambitious nature of all three schemes has led to scaling back and curtailment in the wake of the economic crisis. This bodes poorly for the future, given that the Sevici bikes are already nearing the end of their lifetime, the cycle lanes are rapidly losing sheen, and upgrades to the tramway are downright necessary to spare it from obsolescence.

The conclusion we can draw from all this, then, appears to be a double-edged one. Ambition is not necessarily limited by a lack of resources, as alternatives may well present themselves. And yet, as is so often the case, when the money stops, so do the tracks.

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