In Defense of Publicly Owned Metros

Five reasons why Moscow's subways are the best in the world


Moscow has the world’s best subway system.

This isn't in spite of state ownership, it's because of it. Contrary to advocates of privatization, I'd argue that Moscow's public system benefits from central planning, which allows for the coordination of design, construction and maintenance without political stalemates.

The proof is in the pudding - Moscow's system is more efficient, speedy and attractive than any other system I've seen. And Metro is actually turning a profit. According to the BBC, it was $33 million in the black in 2009.

Below, five reasons why Moscow's system deserves to rank number one.

1. Efficiency

Like any other subway system, the chief objective of the Moscow Metro is to maximize throughput. This means optimizing the number of riders shuffled past the turnstile, down the escalator, onto the platform and on the train without compromising anyone’s safety. 

Soviet engineers have ensured that every aspect of the Metro’s operation functions with the grace of the Bolshoi’s ballerinas. Take the system’s escalators - each is monitored by a local operator tasked with slowing or stopping the stairway in case of a human logjam. Many stations are equipped with more than two escalators, which are adjusted depending on use. Busy central stations might utilize three escalators up and one down in the early mornings then switch to two up and two down as traffic evens out. Once passengers are on the platform, wait times are kept short as trains arrive with an average daytime frequency of 90 seconds.

2. Speed

When the Metro was being built, one of Stalin’s chief concerns was the imminent threat of war. Deeper stations were both less vulnerable to destruction, and could serve as shelters in the event of an attack on Moscow. As a result, stations are located well below the ground, with the deepest station – Park Pobedy – nearly 100 meters deep. One advantage to the system’s depth is that lines are not impeded by other layers of subterranean infrastructure, allowing trains to accelerate faster and maintain higher speeds between stations. Riders are delivered through the city’s underbelly at an average velocity of 25 mph. This compares to an average of 17 mph in New York and 21 mph in London. Much of this can be also attributed to short station intervals and infrequent track delays which keep the cars moving throughout the day.

3. Aesthetics

As a variety of travel magazines have recently highlighted, the system’s architecture and station artwork are elegant and, in some cases, outright beautiful. Given the creative constraints facing Soviet-era artists, public art – particularly that which was consistent with state ideology – was an outlet for the gifted. The Metro’s architectural design and artistic details were carried out by a handful of notable Soviet artists, and the stations reflect the social realism ever-present in Stalinist architecture. Even newer, more austere stations harness these design principles.

The Metro is also decidedly clean (though perhaps not spotless), and despite the fact that you may be sandwiched between a group of drunken naval cadets and Uzbek construction workers, the system is far from being a rat-infested health hazard.

4. Simplicity

The austerity inherent to the Soviet psyche has translated well to transit design. The Moscow Metro is more stripped-down and reliable than its western counterparts, and the system is straightforward even to an outsider. Unlike the systems of Tokyo and New York, there is a single standardized route identification system, and distinct from London and Paris, there are no fare zones or peak pricing schemes to worry about. 

A single 28 ruble ticket (about $.90) gets you unlimited transfers and time in the system (though you shouldn’t actually need that much). Furthermore, in contrast to systems that have added lines in a piecemeal manner, intersecting lines are quite functionally integrated.

5. Dynamism

Though the Metro’s elegant neo-classical stations may conjure up images of a system time forgot, the network is anything but antiquated. The Metro currently features 182 stations, the majority of which have been built since metropolitan population swelled in the mid-1960s. Russian planners have ensured that the Metro’s expansion has kept pace with urban growth. 

New segments have been completed in each of the past seven years, in addition to the new Aeroexpress services that connect the system to Moscow’s three major airports.  Contrast this with London or New York, whose networks have barely changed since WWII, and the expansion of Moscow’s system is quite impressive. New York’s 2nd Avenue line, for example, has been in the works since the 1920s.

About the Author

  • Thomas Sigler is a Lecturer in Human Geography within the School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. A Pennsylvania native, Dr. Sigler has worked in numerous contexts over the past few years including Honduras, Panama, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.