Which city has the busiest metro system?

Bit of a squeeze: the Tokyo Subway. Image: Getty.

This week we're taking a look at the surprisingly complicated question of which city has the largest metro in the world. As with so often with these things, the answer is: it depends.

Today, we start trying to count people, and things get really complicated.

There’s something inherently about awkward about phrases like “1.5bn people a year ride on the Paris Metro”. It doesn’t mean that a fifth of the world are hanging around Châtelet–Les Halles station at least once a year, obviously, it just means that there are that many journeys undertaken.


Anyway. Until very recently, on the question of which metro system carried the most passengers – had the highest ridership, in the jargon – there was a clear winner. The Tokyo Underground Railway Company launched Japan's first underground railway, the Ginza line between Ueno and Asakusa, in 1927. It was just 2.2 km long, but nonetheless, the line became so popular that passengers would queue up, sometimes waiting for over two hours just to ride the metro for five minutes.

Nearly nine decades later, the privately run Tokyo Metro runs nine lines, while the publically-owned Toei Subway operates another four and the Tokyo Waterfront Area Rapid Transit another. Between them they cover 290 stations – and carry a colossal 3.3bn passengers a year, or over 8m a day.

Unsurprisingly, the network has become a byword for overcrowding – a sort of metaphor for Japan's work culture. The concept of “pushers”, in which guards help passengers by shoving them into crowded subway trains, seems to have started in New York. But these days, the “osiyas” (literally, Japanese for “person who pushes for a living”) are associated mostly with Toyko's crowded metro.

Pushers at work. Screenshot from The Fat Finger on YouTube.

At some point in the last couple of years, however, Tokyo may have lost its crown as the world's most crowded. Beijing’s has 18 lines, run by two operators: between them they carried an estimated 3.4bn passengers in 2014.

We say “may” because, as ever, it is difficult to be sure we're comparing like-with-like here: a journey involving two operators and three different lines may be counted once, twice, or three times, depending on the statistical rules applied by the local authorities. At present, then, it's difficult to be sure that Beijing has overtaken Tokyo. If it hasn't, though, it seems almost certain that, in the not too distant future, it will.

Other networks are racing up behind, too. The Shanghai metro only opened in 1993, but in just over 20 years it's expanded to include 327 stations on 14 lines. By 2014 it was already carrying 2.8bn passengers a year. At the end of that year it's believed to have achieved a world record, when it carried 10.3m passengers in a single day.

Not far behind that is our own friend the Seoul Subway, where lines 1-9 carry 2.6bn passengers per year. (The extended network that we talked about last time carries considerably more.)

  • Beijing Subway – 3.4bn
  • Tokyo Subway* – 3.2bn
  • Shanghai Metro – 2.8bn
  • Seoul Subway** – 2.6bn
  • Moscow Metro – 2.5bn
  • Guangzhou Metro – 2.3bn
  • New York City Subway – 1.8bn
  • Hong Kong MTR – 1.7bn
  • Mexico City Metro – 1.6bn
  • Paris Métro – 1.5bn

*Includes the Tokyo Metro, the Toei Subway, and the Rinkai Line.

**Lines 1-9 only

The London Underground is bubbling under in 11th place with just 1.3bn. And you thought the Central Line got crowded of a morning.

Research: Suren Prasad.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.