Passengers wait in a German subway station
Passengers wait at a subway station in Berlin, Germany. Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

A new report confirms that the U.S. lags behind the rest of the world in mass transit.

The world is building mass transit networks faster than ever before, and ridership is increasing to match. But the United States continues to lag behind both Asia and Europe in mass transit. New York is the only North American city to rank among the global top-ten busiest transit systems.

That’s according to a new report published by UITP, the International Association of Public Transport, which takes a close look at mass transit systems in 182 cities across the world. It defines transit systems or “metro networks” as “high-capacity urban rail systems, running on an exclusive right-of-way” that hold at least 100 passengers per train.

Urban mass transit systems have exploded in recent decades as the world’s population has rapidly urbanized. The graph below, from the report, charts the growth in the number of transit systems since the earliest systems, created in the late 19th century. There was a surge in the opening of new transit systems in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, but there was an even bigger surge in the past decade. From 2000 to 2009, 30 new systems opened; from 2010 to 2019, 45 new systems are predicted to open, 33 of those in the Asia-Pacific region alone.

Metro System Opening (Per Decade) 1860 — 2017

© UITP

Worldwide, mass transit carried 53 billion passengers in 2017—an increase of roughly 9 billion passengers since 2012, with most of that growth occurring in Asia, and the Middle East-North Africa region. Asian transit systems carry more than 26 billion passengers a year; European lines carry more than 10 billion passengers; Latin America nearly 6 billion and North America (U.S. and Canada) just 3.7 billion. Metro networks are most utilized in Eurasia, with the average inhabitant taking 117 trips last year, although simultaneously, Eurasia is the only region to see a decline in trips per capita.

Global Ridership Evolution (in Millions)

© UITP

Metro Networks Worldwide 2017

© UITP

Among the world’s cities, Tokyo has the most used system, with 3.46 billion trips, followed by those in Moscow, Shanghai, and Beijing. New York City is the only U.S. city with a transit system that numbers among the world’s ten busiest; many other U.S. cities saw their transit ridership decline in the past six years. Paris, the last leading European city, dropped off the list in 2015 and was replaced by New Delhi.

Top 10 Busiest Transit Systems (Annual Ridership in Billions)

Ranking City Ridership
1 Tokyo 3.46
2 Moscow 2.37
3 Shanghai 2.04
4 Beijing 1.99
5 Seoul 1.89
6 New York City 1.81
7 New Delhi 1.79
8 Guangzhou 1.73
9 Mexico City 1.68
10 Hong Kong 1.60

Across the world, there are nearly 650 transit lines served by more than 11,000 stations and covering nearly 14,000 kilometers. Just between 2015 and 2017, roughly 1,900 kilometers of new track was put into service. Most went towards already existing metro systems, but about 30 percent went to brand new lines in China, India, and Iran.

Metro Construction Models Per Region

© UITP

Interestingly, most transit systems across the world are dominated by underground subway systems: About 70 percent of Asian stops are underground, 80 percent of Eurasian ones, 75 percent of stops in Europe, and more than half of the stops in Latin America, and the Middle East and North Africa. North America is the only region where fewer than half of transit stops are underground.

Over the next five years, the study projects that more than 200 new transit lines will open across the world. While there is much talk of driverless cars, the reality is that driverless or fully-automated mass transit is coming on stream much more quickly. Even though fully automated systems make up just 7 percent of transit systems today, the study predicts the rapid “mainstreaming” of fully automated metro transit, which does not require any human staff on board, in the coming years.

Transit is a key component of modern urban infrastructure. It contributes to the density and clustering that drive innovation and productivity, extends the boundaries of cities’ metro areas while creating opportunities for denser development around suburban stops, and makes for less-stressful commutes. While most of the rest of the world, especially rapidly urbanizing centers in Asia, is investing heavily in transit, the U.S. lags far behind.

CityLab editorial fellow Claire Tran contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.

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