Why is the Shanghai Metro more advanced than the New York Subway? (I)

As a former Shanghai resident now living in New York, I’ve been lucky to witness the transformation of two mega-cities. This is the story of the two subway systems.

New Yorkers celebrated the new Q line extension (Second Avenue Subway) opening this New Year. It took MTA nearly a century to build this new subway extension, along with three stations in Manhattan. The stations, the artistic design and the new cars all look great, but the new station is still without sliding platform screen doors (PSDs). Sliding PSDs were considered to prevent falling hazards, but have not been installed to save money. Sadly, the only PSDs in Big Apple are at the AirTrain stations.

Capital construction and infrastructure costs

The subway system in New York City is operated by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). MTA capital projects are funded from “a combination of bond sales and federal, state, and local allocations”.

Extensive maintenance is required for the aging system. In 2012, the devastating Hurricane Sandy hit the city, and many stations were flooded.The $2.6 billion MTA Capital Program improves the stations; it also repairs and reinforces the subway systems on the weekend or at night.

On the other hand, the subway system is called the Shanghai Metro in Shanghai. The Shanghai Metro opened its first line in 1993; the development of the wider metro system continued gradually from there. The Expo in 2010 then became a catalyst for en masse metro construction in the city.

The Shanghai Metro is operated by Shanghai Shentong Metro. This public-private entity gets funding for capital construction from the government (20-50%), bank loans and other financing models.

Operation and Maintenance

The MTA is the largest public transportation network in the United States. The MTA not only operates the subway, but also the buses, regional railway, bridges and tunnels in the Greater New York Area. The subway system runs 24 hours and 365 days.

The track and station maintenance is usually at night or on the weekend. As a result, there are many “planned service changes” during those periods of time. Changes could be rerouted, or the service temporarily suspended. Riders choose alternative travel plans and take more time commuting. To make riders know the changes, MTA posts notices at all the stations every week. The MTA Weekender is a website where riders can check the information ahead of time.

Two lines (D and F) are rerouted. Photo from the author
Two lines (D and F) are rerouted. Photo from the author
The entire no. 1 train: no service. Photo from the author
The entire no. 1 train: no service. Photo from the author












The route designs of the NYC subway are very distinct from those of the Shanghai subway. Multiple lines exist exactly on the same route on the NYC system. For example, as you can see from the map below, A/B/C/D trains run on the same route from 125St to 59 St-Columbus Circle, but only B and C trains make small stops along the way. A and D trains run non-stop between 125 St and 59 St. The MTA calls B and C local trains, while A and D are express trains. In this case, local B and C trains run on the same local track, and express A and D share the same express track. The color for A and C are both blue, while B/D trains are orange. Counterintuitive? Color has nothing to do with whether it is local or express – MTA uses color to show the trains that are mostly on the same route.

Photo from http://web.mta.info
Photo from http://web.mta.info

The sharing track system provides the flexibility to maintain the tracks at night and on the weekend, by limiting the trains on one certain track. This is called the MTA Planned Services Change. When the MTA maintenance work starts, one track can be shut down for working, and the same color trains run on the available track, because the same color trains are able to substitute each other.

The MTA plans to make it easy to find the alternative travel option by color, but it is very confusing for newcomers and visitors. Additionally, if one train is delayed for any reason, the following trains on the same track are also delayed.

Speaking of color, the colors are used on the map, at the station signs, and on the train. To use an example: if you are at the Chambers Street station, and you can see a train coming, can you really tell which line it is? It should be an easy choice.

A or E
Photo: http://web.mta.info/maps/submap.html


But it is not an A or C, but an E train. The only place you can tell is from the small sign I circled. Yes, it is the same blue color that A, C and E trains use. But it is an E Train, very likely a rerouted E train. If you don’t read the notice, or don’t pay attention to the station announcement for temporary changes, you will easily be fooled by your instinct.

Whereas in Shanghai, Shanghai Shentong (申通) Metro manages the daily operation and maintenance in Shanghai. It is also in charge of the advertising in the Shanghai Metro system. No line in Shanghai works 24 hours; even the ones connected to the two airports and the three major rail stations don’t work overnight. As a result, the Shanghai Metro system can maintain all the stations and trains at night on a daily basis.

Almost all the lines run separately on their own tracks, except that Line 3 and 4 share the same track in between Shanghai Indoor Stadium and Baoshan Road. An incident with one line usually will not affect other trains.

However, this design offers little travel options for riders. This design focuses on efficiency of mobility, but places more burden on some especially busy lines. During rush hour, riders have to squeeze themselves in, an experience that is particularly uncomfortable for long distance commuters.

Photo from https://www.travelchinaguide.com
Photo from https://www.travelchinaguide.com

There is no way you will get on the wrong lines in Shanghai if you are on the right platform. The exception of Line 3 and 4 trains can be easily identified from the different colors.

Stay tuned for the second part of this story, with more insights on travel experiences, safety, and resiliency of the two cities’ subway systems.


(Top photo from http://web.mta.info)

Fang Yuan

Fang Yuan is our columnist. She used to live in New York and is originally from Shanghai. She is a Certified Passive House Consultant and works on sustainable building consulting. She believes that technology helps people and the environment if it is being used mindfully.

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