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Transport / Mass transit

Which city has the busiest metro system?

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.
This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.