Here at Kiwi.com, we’re interested in all aspects of travel. We realise some people don’t just travel for a holiday, but for a more specific purpose. In this series, we’re going to look at one topic or idea, and suggest destinations for you based on that. This week, we’re looking at…
Niche? Yes. Necessary? Absolutely. Underappreciated? Usually. It’s kind of a miracle that public transport systems run as well as they do, especially in big cities. The process of running and maintaining a smooth, trouble-free system is mind-boggling.
An army of traffic controllers presides over networks that have to carry millions of people each day, people who will probably not appreciate the behind-the-scenes work that goes into getting them where they need to be. Every delay brings complaints and moaning, but for every one problem, ten thousand things have gone right.
So here’s our guide to the heavy-duty beauty of one of the most underrated aspects of any city. Each has a story to tell, and its own special feelings, sounds, sights and smells that are as much a part of life as the buildings and the people. All aboard!
We’ll start with a classic. The London Underground – the Tube – is the world’s oldest underground rail system, as I’m sure you’re well aware. Opened in 1863, the first services ran between Paddington and Farringdon and used steam locomotives to haul wooden carriages lit by gas lamps (the Health and Safety Executive wasn’t a thing then).
Today, it’s a curiously lop-sided affair. Nowadays, only 45% of the network is actually underground, and less than 10% of its stations are south of the River Thames.
There are some arresting oddities (the journey from Covent Garden to Leicester Square is only 290 metres, and if you want to waste £4.90 on that rather than walk, be my guest), and some iconic pieces of design (the map; the logo, known as the roundel; the Johnston typeface).
As well as the Tube, London has a number of other things for the transport geek. The TFL (Transport for London) museum at Covent Garden is a fascinating (albeit pricey) way to spend a few hours, and they also do a series of tours called Hidden London.
That includes disused tunnels and eerie passageways around Euston station; Charing Cross’ mock-up station used as a film set; and the short-lived Down Street station which became Churchill’s bombproof headquarters during the Second World War.
Oh, and take a trip on the DLR (Docklands Light Railway) while you’re in the city. If you get a seat at the very front, you have to pretend you’re driving. That’s the rule.
“You know, a town with money’s a little like the mule with a spinning wheel. No-one knows how he got it, and danged if he knows how to use it.” With these words, Lyle Lanley introduces the dazzling concept of the monorail to the suggestible citizens of Springfield.
Only Lisa questions Lanley, asking him “why we should build a mass transit system in a small town with a centralized population?”
Perugia needed a Lisa.
The MiniMetro is a remarkable thing. A driverless series of what can best be described as pods move quietly along its two miles of track and into tunnels dug beneath the ancient city perched proudly on its ridge of hills.
At the end, each pod turns around in a graceful dance and heads back out again. They will do this seemingly forever, and yet, when I was there, I appeared to be the only passenger.
Official figures say that 10,000 people a day use the system, which sounds impressive, but by our estimates that only equates to three people using each vehicle on average, and that’s assuming they ride from one end of the system to the other, which obviously not everyone does.
At rush hour it must be relatively busy, but the rest of the time empty pods ghost past, opening doors that accept no passengers.
I’m not saying it’s not quirky and fun, because it certainly is. Maybe I’m being a bit harsh. It’s a bit of a folly, and it certainly adds a bizarre dimension to what is an ancient and beautiful city.
Google the Seoul Metro map. Go on. Take 30 seconds away from this article and have a look.
Are you back? Good. At first glance it scared me slightly too. Look closer though and you’ll find it’s actually relatively simple. It’s just the density of the stops and unfamiliarity of the names that’s scary.
The entire system is in both Korean and English, so that’s one fewer hurdle to overcome. It’s a relative newbie, having opened its first line in 1974, and with that comes the benefit that upgrades have come thick and fast.
Heated seats in winter, wireless connectivity, and wider than usual trains for more space on board are just three of the benefits of a system that still charges the equivalent of $1 for basic fare.
Sweden’s capital has a Metro system that, at first glance, looks about the right size and coverage for a city of 1.5 million people. And you’d be right. Technically it runs on three lines, but with the added curiosity of having a variety of terminals… that’s not why we’re here though.
Many people don’t even go into the Metro system to go anywhere in particular. They go to look at the stations themselves.
Sometimes known as the longest art gallery in the world, many of the stations leave the bedrock exposed, so it seems like you’re walking through a cave. These caves have been painted or are lit in a variety of vivid colours.
Solna centrum is a deep, almost hellish red; Stadion has blue skies crossed with a rainbow; Rissne includes a giant wall fresco charting 3000 years of civilization on Earth; Kungsträdgården is actually a living place, with moss and fungi growing on the walls. It is also the only place in Scandinavia you can find a particular species of southern European spider creeping about.
The internet can provide you with a number of self-guided tours of the artwork, sculptures and other vagaries of the system, and all for the cost of one Metro ticket. There are very few ways to get better value for money in any other city in the world.
Lines 2, 3 and 4 of mainland Europe’s oldest Metro system (it opened in 1896) are nothing that you wouldn’t see in any other big, Central European city. Line 1, however, was – fairly self-evidently – the first line to open, and was built on a very narrow gauge.
It’s also only just below street level, often as little as two and a half metres, which means a hop, skip and a jump down the stairs and you’re immediately into the tiled platform areas.
They’re very elegant too, with wooden benches and the names of the stops picked out in mosaic on the walls. The signage is very small though, and despite the “next station” announcements in the train being preceded with a jovial jingle, your Hungarian had better be pretty good to pick out the actual names of each station.
Couple this with doors that don’t remain open for long before slamming shut with a force that defies their size, and you very quickly learn just to count the number of stops you need to ride!
After dashing up and down line 1, (it only takes 11 minutes to get from one end to the other, on a route that basically runs straight under the main drag of Andrássy útca), jump off at the western end. At Deák tér station, there’s a small museum detailing the history of the original system, complete with period carriages and so forth.
Then go and explore the rest of Budapest. It’s brilliant.
There’s not a lot that hasn’t been said (particularly, I must admit, on this site by me) about this, but it bears repeating. Merely the numbers are staggering. 9.7 million people ride the system daily from one of its 206 stations across 14 lines.
Park Pobedy, at 84m down, is one of the deepest stations in the world. By 2020, the city has 62 more stations planned, taking the lines snaking out into the suburbs.
It’s beautiful and brutal. The ticket barriers don’t open when you scan your ticket; they slam shut if you don’t. Being bundled through the gates with the tidal wave of commuters, it comes as a rude shock to have your leg trapped in a bear trap of a barrier because you forgot to top up your travel card.
The steps at the suburban stations are too shallow to take one at a time and too wide to take two at a time. On winter days when your breath seems to freeze in your lungs, you push open the doors to a sauna of heat; and if, like me, you wear glasses, you have to remove them as they instantly fog up, leaving you blinking blurrily as those behind you bundle past, now sweating profusely under layers of coats.
It’s noisy. It’s aggressive. It’s grand. It’s overwhelmingly confusing before becoming so much a part of you that you no longer notice. It’s Moscow.
This is just one particular piece of engineering making up one line of Shanghai’s vast public transport network, but it’s one straight out of Thunderbirds, and I’m a sucker for all that sort of stuff.
Running from Longyang Road to Pudong International Airport, the Maglev (magnetic levitation) train uses magnetic technology to hover above its tracks, meaning there are no moving parts and no friction.
The upshot of this is that the Maglev train can zip you from one end of its journey to the other – 30km – in just over seven minutes, hitting a maximum speed of 431 km/h on the way.
So why are there not more of these systems? Well, mainly cost. High-speed trains such as the TGV can run – albeit at lower speeds – on conventional rails. This system needs a completely new infrastructure to be put in place. On the flip side, they’re quieter and require less routine maintenance than regular railways.
Maybe one day we’ll see more Maglev systems running. For now though, you’ll have to make do with this very, very rapid transit system.
Okay. So it’s kind of a mess. It’s noisy, it’s full of rats, it’s confusing and it smells. But it’s as symbolic of New York and the Moscow network is of Moscow and the London one is of London. And I mean that in the nicest possible way.
The reason it’s such a mess is because it was never really one system. It was integrated in 1940 from the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit), BMT (Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit) and IND (Independent) lines.
This led to a massive lack of uniformity in signage and timetabling, and a chaotic service which still seems full of archaic oddities to this day.
Express trains pass through stations with neither rhyme nor reason. You can accidentally find yourself at the wrong end of Manhattan if you’re not concentrating. The map – supposedly modelled on Harry Beck’s London masterpiece – is a tangle, and there are a whole bunch of crazy people down there.
As an aside, a lot of people will credit the rise of Helvetica as a widely-used typeface to the standardisation of the New York subway, but this is only partly true.
The subway actually used a font called Airport, which then gave way to Standard Medium (via a convoluted process involving the Milan Metro) and, unusually, used white lettering on black backgrounds as a way of combatting graffiti.
It only became the standard in 1989, and only then because other companies mistook Standard for Helvetica and started using it. Ironically, it was this that led the subway to adopt it officially.
So yeah. It’s kind of a mess. But it’s a messy part of this most vital, exciting and thrilling of cities. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Ah, Adelaide. Slightly – and unfairly – overlooked for the glories of Melbourne and Sydney. It’s a charming, friendly place, full of turn-of-the-century brick buildings such as their famous market hall, mixed with 21st century steel and glass edifices that can compare with anywhere else in Australia.
It’s safe, clean and sunny. So what would be an obvious thing to do?
Solar powered buses.
They’re known as Tindos, after the Aboriginal word for sun, and you’d think they’d be heavy and bulky, having to lug around solar panels enough to power a bus for hours on end, right? Wrong.
All the solar panels are at Adelaide’s Central Bus Station, so each bus charges up and then heads out. They can do around 200 km before having to charge again; around 30% of this power is generated by a Formula 1-style ERS (Energy Recovery System), which basically means that kinetic energy generated by braking is converted into electrical energy and fed back into the powertrain.
All Tindos have air conditioning for those hot Aussie summers, as well as free wi-fi. Oh, and they’re also totally and utterly free to use. Nice one, Adelaide!
The last city on our list doesn’t have a subway system. So why feature it? Well, deep beneath Cincinnati are two and a half miles of tunnels that are the legacy of a mighty engineering project, abandoned due to a combination of war, political infighting, the Great Depression and, finally, the rise of the car.
Over the years there have been attempts to revive the idea of building a subway using the tunnels – after all, they’re structurally sound, many with entrances and platforms already in place – and a few wilder ideas.
In the mid-60s, Meier’s Wine Cellars, Inc. wanted to use them as a wine cellar and bottling plant, and charge tourists to come and see the operation in action.
As recently as 2002, a plan for a light rail infrastructure in the city was mooted but voted down, which seems all the odder as the tunnels have to be kept in good order (at a cost to the taxpayer) because a highway runs almost directly above and a collapse would be disastrous.
Tours have been discontinued since 2016, but apparently, there are still ways in; urban explorers are still to be found poking around. Just don’t tell them I sent you.