At the heart of many cities are its public transit systems, which help people get to work and get out of town. Some of the greatest public transit systems aren't just large — they also offer their riders something extra, or reshape the cities they serve. Here are some incredible public transit systems around the world.
Photo by Steven Dale
It's believed that public transit systems began in seventeenth century France with a horse-drawn public carriage system. Unfortunately, it was reserved for use by the upper classes and quickly abandoned due to lack of use. It took 200 years before public transit really caught on in urban areas. But by the end of the nineteenth century, most cities had extensive transit systems that still provide the foundations (and infrastructure) for today's elaborate trains, trams, skyways, and more.
1. Seoul's Subway System, Korea
This is one of the world's largest subway systems in terms of passengers carried, which isn't surprising considering that 9.8 million people ride the trains every day in the Seoul Metropolitan Area (whose population hovers around 21 million). Trains come between every 2 and 5 minutes, serving nearly all of the city and its environs. The Seoul subway is also incredibly high-tech, with electronic billboards and the world's first virtual market that displays goods in digital form and allows people to shop for groceries using their mobile phones. Of course, there's wifi in all stations and cars. The downside? Ridership can get so high that levels of C02 and "particulate matter" go above safety standards.
2. Hong Kong MTR, China
In Hong Kong, 90 percent of citizens use public transit for commuting. The geographic layout of the most densely-populated areas makes transit mostly linear, and wide-reaching. The Hong Kong MTR has implemented several systems that make transit efficient, but also among the most affordable public transit systems in the world. The Octopus railway card pays for all public transit, and is also accepted at many convenience stores and some restaurants. With 10 million Octopus cards in circulation, this cuts down on fare costs and transfer time. Because the MTR is widespread and widely used, there is no premium on access, and therefore locals see little rise in housing costs near transit lines.
3. Washington State Ferries, U.S.
The state of Washington has unique geological features that can make transit tough. The San Juan Archipelago and other islands are inaccessible from the mainland, while others, such as the snake-like Whidbey Island, would take hours to reach by car from major metropolitan areas. To compensate for this geography, Washington has the largest fleet of passenger ferries in the United States, servicing 20 docks, and operates them with shocking efficiency. In 2009, 22.4 million passengers and 9.9 million vehicles used the ferry system.
4. Venetian Vaporetti, Italy
Like Washington, Venice faces unique geological features. Composed of hundreds of islands and canals, cars, buses, and trains are not a viable mass transit option. Historically, people walked or kept a private gondola and gondolier, but modern Venetians use the efficient and extremely consistent vaporetti, which operate much like public busses and run around the clock. Unfortunately, the high wake speed of these motorboats has accelerated erosion of historic buildings.
5. Melbourne's Tram System, Australia
Begin in the late nineteenth century with horse-drawn carriages, Melbourne's tram system has grown to be the largest in the world. With 250 km of track, and 1753 stops, the tram system criss-crosses this coastal city, bringing people from the suburbs all the way down to the beach. There are 3.5 million trips taken on Melbourne's trams every week. Though the city of Melbourne managed the tram network for nearly 80 years, it was privatized in 1999. This mirrors the fate of many national train systems, such as those in UK, many of which were privatized in the 1990s and 2000s.
6. Vancouver SkyTrain, Canada
The Vancouver SkyTrain was built to reduce the amount of surface traffic in Vancouver, BC. The fully-automated elevated rapid transit line serves several areas around Vancouver, and has a very high level of punctuality. Ridership is ever increasing, and the growing reliance on SkyTrain has lead to concerns that the system may not be able to meet demands. The SkyTrain is also an excellent example of how efficient mass transit can transform cities, as population densities and wealth have increased around SkyTrain stations.
7. Medellin Gondolas, Colombia
Extreme terrain can lead to extreme traffic jams, lack of viable service, and extremely long commute times. Medellin, Colombia, is one such place. Barrios located on steep hillsides were not serviced by any form of mass transit, and private transport up and down the steep hills is inefficient and timely, due to low service and a high number of switchbacks. Average commute time was 2 to 2.5 hours from barrios to the downtown area, until the implementation of a gondola system. These gondolas connected people in outlying areas with the downtown and have cut commute times in half.
8. The (Lost) Los Angeles Cable Cars, U.S.
These cable cars were abandoned before the twentieth century had really begun. Over at KCET, LA historian Nathan Masters explains that late nineteenth century real estate speculators underwrote the city's extensive cable car network to make housing in hilly regions like Bunker Hill (pictured here) more appealing. The cars were based on the same designs used for San Francisco's cable car network, and eventually spanned the young city from east to west. But by 1902, they had all been replaced by an extensive network of electronic streetcars, which you can see in many early movies shot in 1910s and 20s LA. These streetcars were in turn scrapped to make way for cars and motorized busses.
Photo by Jonathan Warren
Bonus: The Abandoned Cincinnati Subway System
Beneath the city of Cincinnati lies the largest abandoned subway tunnel in the US. Built to revitalize the city's street-car system, the project was never opened. With eleven miles of tunnels dug, the multi-year project was abandoned in 1927 due to rising costs. Today, you can tour the tunnels. Despite extensive work on the system, no tracks were ever laid.