Monday is the first workday of the SafeTrack era for Washington-area Metro riders. Over the next 10 months, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority will begin a number of repairs on the region's subway system that will require temporary line closures, single-tracking and the suspension of late-night service on weekends. All of this, even though the system is one of the nation's youngest and serves the locus of political power in richest country on Earth. That got us at WorldViews thinking: What does the area's Metro system look like next to those in other world capitals?
Although Washington is much, much smaller than most of the other capitals we chose — even if you include its suburbs — its lines extend relatively far from its downtown. On the other hand, stations are far more spread out than in other systems, reflecting, at least in some areas, a culture of "park and ride."
Most systems adhere to a "hub and spoke" design, including Washington's. This means that lines converge at a central point where traffic is highest. It also means that riders moving between two non-central points may have to go to the center and transfer lines.
To be fair, in these comparisons, Metro is punching above its weight. Stockholm and Madrid are the only two cities of similar size in this comparison that have robust enough systems to compare with Washington's. Still, since Metro rivals that of much larger cities in size, it is still remarkable how few passengers it carries.
In fact, Metro ridership has dropped every year since 2008, with that trend steepening in the past three years.
And there is the sense that Metro hasn't lived up to expectations. The system has a huge budget, with contributions from the federal government as well as Virginia, Maryland and the District. It is the public transportation showpiece of a country that considers itself the greatest in the world. It is also used by the millions of tourists who descend on the city every year.
Below are some direct comparisons between Metro and some of the world's truly impressive systems.
As some readers will remember, WorldViews ran a cruel post in April: Nine things about the Tokyo subway that will drive Washington commuters crazy.
In it, Tokyo bureau chief Anna Fifield lays out in devastating detail how efficient and overwhelmingly pleasant the Tokyo subway is to ride. Its efficiency, and superior Japanese engineering, allow a system that ranks in the bottom half of the group in terms of miles of track, stations, lines and train cars to carry more passengers than any of the eight others.
Tokyo also boasts the world's busiest station — Shinjuku — through which almost 4 million people pass every day. Tokyo is the world's most populous city by a long shot.
Delhi is second only to Tokyo in terms of population, according to some calculations. The city is growing at breakneck speed, and the relatively new system is in a hurry to keep pace. Its first line opened in 2002, and the metro system has been expanding slowly but surely ever since, with major new lines expected to open within the next year. The new lines will transform Delhi's hub-and-spoke system into one that looks more like a spider web, with new lines traversing Delhi's vast inner- and outer-ring roads.
Delhi's trains and stations are clean and efficient — and heavily air conditioned. Each train's first car is reserved for women. In a country famous for crumbling infrastructure, Delhi's metro is a rare gem. It's cheap, too; the most expensive ride — dozens of miles in length and may take at least two hours — costs less than a dollar. At rush hour, however, expect to get up close and personal with fellow passengers.
London's iconic "tube" was the world's first metro system, with parts of it dating to 1863. It is the only system out of the nine compared here that reaches farther from its center than Washington's.
To D.C. riders' chagrin, the London Underground recently announced that it was starting 24-hour service this summer. On the other hand, riding the subway in London can be exorbitantly expensive, as can traveling in the city's cabs. If you're "paying as you go," a one-way fare traveling in just one "zone" of the system can cost about 5 pounds ($7.20).
Perhaps equally iconic is the Paris Métro, with its Art Nouveau signage and retro train cars. Among European countries, Paris's system is second to Moscow's in the number of passengers it carries.
But what makes Paris's system so remarkable is how, with very few miles of track and its spread over a relatively tiny area, it carries 1.5 billion people annually through an extremely dense network of lines and stations. Maybe Parisians don't like to walk.
Moscow's system has the most quintessential hub-and-spoke design. It is the busiest system outside Asia. Many of its stations display awe-inspiring architectural grandeur.
With the highest number of cars of any system we compared, Moscow is able to keep trains less crowded, and running at shorter intervals. During rush hour, trains show up at no less than 90-second intervals. The system is owned and run wholly by the Russian central government.
If you want to feel dizzy, check out the system's map.
Madrid is the city with the most similar population to Washington's in our comparison. With that said, Metro de Madrid has double the number of lines and triple the number of stations as Washington. Some of its stations also share an amazing history of having served as bomb shelters during Spain's civil war in the 1930s.
Mexico City's metro runs right down the middle of our comparison. Although the city's population is vast, it is also extremely spread out. The metro manages to reach many of the areas that are distant from the city's center.
It is also the cheapest system to ride. A single ride costs 3 pesos, which is less than 25 cents. Like Delhi's, the low price makes Mexico City's metro one of the world's most crowded but also most egalitarian.
Lastly, Stockholm. With more than 90 of the network's 100 stations incorporating various forms of artwork by more than 150 artists, the T-bana has been called the "world's longest art gallery."