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CityLab's Essential Transit Tunes

We’re looking for the best songs about subways, buses, streetcars, and trains.

A commuter listens to music on headphones on New York City's MTA.
Grooving to the sweet sounds of transit-centric tunes. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

How much do you love transit? Does your passion for fixed-rail infrastructure so fill your heart that you must break out in song?

For singer-songwriter Kyle Thompson-Westra, the answer is apparently yes. At a rally today organized by Purple Line NOW in support of the Purple Line, a proposed light-rail line between Bethesda in Montgomery County and New Carrollton in Prince George’s County, he busted out a folksy ode to the unbuilt 16-mile, suburb-to-suburb connector.  

The song, which can be heard in its entirety here, lays out the urbanist case for the Purple Line in impressively wonky detail. (Sample verse: “Fighting dated zoning and suburban sprawl/Building pleasant communities to benefit all.“)

This got the CityLab staff, whose devotion to public transportation is also formidable, thinking hard about other songs in praise of the oft-embattled mobility modes that keep the urban world rolling. From “Mystery Train” and “Folsom Prison Blues” to “Love Train” and “City of New Orleans,” songwriters have long been drawn to the rhythm of the rails. But streetcars, subways, and buses tend to get less musical love. Or so you’d think. Once we started coming up with transit tunes, we literally could not stop. (Especially after we reached out to people on Twitter for suggestions. Keep them coming!) Here are a few favorites, plus the ever-growing CityLab Spotify playlist of transit-oriented grooves.

Months ago, I raved about “Get Out” by Kansas City’s Kemet the Phantom, which is just way better than any promotional song for a modestly scaled Midwest city’s streetcar line has any right to be. Here it is again. You’re welcome.

And for fans of Parisian mobility and/or louche Europop, here’s a throwback number from Serge Gainsbourg, an early hit about a ticket-taker battling ennui in the Metro of the late 1950s.

Mark Byrnes suggested a pair of odes to Canadian mass transit; both are as relentlessly good-natured and unselfconsciously ridiculous as Canada itself. First, let’s all enjoy Canadiana-purveyor and national treasure Stompin’ Tom Connors, who so loved his hat that he refused to take it off when he met the Queen.

Wait, come back! Here are the Shuffle Demons! The outfits! The berets! The sort-of-rapping! It can only be 1986 in Toronto.

Brentin Mock reached back to 1996 for his pick, “C'mon N' Ride It (The Train),” from Florida’s Quad City DJs. Truly, an unstoppable groove:

For Tanvi Misra, nothing can top the late-’90s Rudy-Giuliani-bashing of Kathleen Hanna and her lo-fi bandmates in Le Tigre, who really loved the NYC subway:

For Amanda Kolson Hurley, memories of being a grad student abroad accompany the Divine Comedy’s "National Express," an ode to the U.K.'s main inter-city bus (sorry, coach) line. Despite the general mood of depression on board, a ride on the National Express holds the tantalizing possibility of escape: "We’re going where the air is free,” Neil Hannon sings.

Laura Bliss’s L.A. roots are showing with her pick, which ignores public transit entirely. “Nobody walks in L.A.” sings Missing Persons’s Dale Bozzio, bemoaning the lack of SoCal pedestrianism in this classic love/hate song to the City of Angels:
If you’re stuck in gridlock, here’s our full playlist.

About the Author

  • David Dudley
    David Dudley is the interim editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.