Surfing world cities through the subway and metro train systems

Surfing world cities through the subway and metro train systems


As a New Yorker I have an intimate knowledge and understanding of the underground. I understand what it means to be a straphanger. I know to never hold onto a subway pole below the waist.  Trust me don’t do it. I’ve learned to decipher and understand Charlie brown like message announcements that are garbled in all sorts of ways.  After riding the subway for decades (basically while in the womb), I have come to learn where the good musicians tend to be. The New York subway system is vast and for just $2.50 you can get just about anywhere in the city.  Trust me there is no better bargain. Try spending 2.50 anywhere to take you as far as the NYC subway system goes.  Furthermore, you can ride the subway all day long if you wish.  Although, in the summertime you don’t even want to be in the subway system for a minute for fear of passing out from a heat stroke.  Riding the subway system in NYC in the middle of August while pregnant was a major feat of determination on my part. Nonetheless, the New York City subway system is definitely one of the best deals out there in a city that long ago went the way of  extreme gentrification. That’s the other thing that is special about the NYC subway system: everyone rides the train.  You can have a janitor sitting next right to a million dollar Wall Street guy at six in the morning. The subway is truly for all and used by all (well more or less).


As someone who has the NYC subway maps within easy memory reach, I enjoy getting to know other subway cities both in the United States and across the world. They each have a unique vibe. Although, I believe they all have public announcement systems that are incomprehensible to everybody.


I had the great fortune to be vacationing in Panama where the government just inaugurated their newly built metro system. It is the hottest ticket to get in town. For two dollars, we got a metro pass for the whole family and we could ride all day long getting off and on at every metro stop.  This was quite a treat for a social psychologist like myself. I got to experience a new system as others were also learning it and I got to see that learning process.  There were signs everywhere detailing where to stand and how to get out of a subway car.

There were metro handlers throughout the stations guiding the passengers on how to use the turnstyles and where to stand on the platform. I got to travel to sections of the city that most other tourists do not normally venture out to. I went to real local shopping centers where shirts were $1.99 and empanadas were a $1.00. I got to navigate the cultural landscape on my own without a tour guide doing their translation version. The train or metro or subway -whatever you may call it- is another cultural window that one should jump through.


Here are some of my impressions of other subway/metro /train systems around the world.


In London, there is fairly extensive and efficient subway system. Of course, it is referred to as the Tube. I most certainly got the impression of being in a tube.  As I sat on the platform with my luggage, I experienced a weird cylindrical body feeling. As I walked underground, I also had an overwhelming feeling of being watched. Maybe my odd body feelings came from watching too many MI-5 episodes. Although the system is extensive in London, I more often than not tried to walk throughout the city as I felt a bit claustrophobic underground.  Yet, I felt very much at home in the tube as I saw the grand diversity of the city.  Just stand on any platform for about five minutes and marvel at the living, breathing Benetton ad that London is.


In Vienna, I was mightily struck by what many of us foreigners referred to as the honor system.   You could walk through the train station doors and go onto the platform without dropping coins into a machine or sliding a card. You do need a ticket and it does need to be validated. However, you don’t need to show the card to anyone unless you get asked by an inspector.  Thus, ostensibly, you could ride the transit train system without paying. I wouldn’t recommend doing it as they have some fearsome German Shepard dogs accompanying police and inspectors throughout the city. The train cars themselves were clean and had nice little pictures to help guide one in its ridership.   And true to form, the system runs pretty much on time, is extensive and goes to most of the major sites.  Although, I must readily admit the train system there left me a bit cold.


The metro system in Rome reminded me of the aqueducts and transported me (probably unwittingly) to the times of yore. There was vast graffiti on the train cars reminding me a bit of the New York trains of the 1980s. The Roman Metro is designed in an X shape with line A and line B.  The lines cut across the city hitting many major locations. The stop closest to the Vatican still requires that one walk about fifteen minutes to the Vatican.  Considering how walkable Rome is overall, I barely saw the point of riding the train system in Rome.  As a New Yorker, who walks everywhere, I was cool with that.


Within days of living in Barcelona, my friend (standing next to me) was pickpocketed while riding the metro train system.  Thereafter, I had extreme vigilance on the train in Barcelona.  Many others have noted the issue of pickpockets in Barcelona.  In a way, I felt like I was in New York. Not just because of the pickpocketing (and knock on wood, I have never been pickpocketed in NY) but also because it is very easy to change to different lines within the metro system.  Till this day, I still feel that the metro system in Barcelona is one of the easiest to navigate in the world.  My stop was Passeig de Gràcia and I could get to almost everywhere I wanted to be.   Because Spaniards start their partying late at night, it is quite feasible (and often done) to just party until the trains reopen in the morning. Also, the metro system in Barcelona is somewhat similar to that of Washington DC (which is a city modeled after Madrid) in that there are really long stairs to climb throughout the stations. I always have thought of that as a way to get exercise and thus have not been bothered. But be warned both Washington, DC and Barcelona can and will give your calves a good workout.


The Athens’ metro can take an individual on a ride to outer neighborhoods above ground.  By taking the metro, I got a better sense of how Athens was laid out and how people truly lived there.  The Panamanian system I just experienced reminds me somewhat of the one in Athens in how you can be transported to parts that other tourists do not readily head off towards.  I was admittedly a bit confused by how all metro tickets in Athens must be validated before the start of the train ride. I wish more systems were like New York where you buy a ticket and swipe.  One cool thing about the metro system in Athens is that there is a sense of Greek history embedded in the majority of the stations. When the metro system was being created it entailed massive digging. Guess what would happen when the digging occurred. The developers would find Greek historical treasures.   These finds are detailed at various metro stop stations.   The Athens metro overall does give one a sense of the city’s inhabitants, especially because there were not that many tourists riding the metro rails.   Thus, you can just sit, watch and feel the city vibe.


Surprisingly, in the island of Puerto Rico, there is a newly built train system. Sadly, not many Puerto Ricans use it as there are more cars than people on the tiny island. The  system goes a very limited distance but does go outside of the capitol to the suburban area of Bayamon. In a telling bit, one of the train stops occurs at the massive government and public health department “campus”. This is telling in that the government is the major employer in the island of Puerto Rico which not surprisingly is nearing bankruptcy.  Because hardly anyone rides the train, many of those who do ride it feel the need to start a conversation with their fellow passengers. Further, because many Puerto Ricans go to New York, they then find the New York City subway system to be vast, intimidating and cold; oftentimes not understanding why New Yorkers won’t talk to strangers on the train. I am hoping that slowly more and more people will use the system in Puerto Rico to help alleviate the massively congested highways and increasingly polluted air as a result.


In Japan I had a blast riding the subway system. It is vast, complicated and packed. It is a world onto its own. I used to think that Grand Central Station in New York City was hectic. Once I was in Tokyo, that illusion of Grand Central’s grandiosity went burst. However, despite the massive hordes of passengers, there is a sense of orderly chaos in Tokyo.The Japanese on the trains were all deep into their books or holding on tightly so as to not fall onto the other person that was within centimeters.


The first few days we tried bringing our baby carriage on board. Thereafter, we learned it was best to carry our son.    I have to note that however packed the train was, people made an effort to smile at my son.  They would look up from their books and wave to my son who would introduce himself at a drop of a hat. He won the subway riders by taking tons of photos of people waving at him–a seemingly cute and precocious kid.  We did have one scary moment returning from Kyoto on the bullet train where we got on the wrong train. When you ride the bullet train you get a ticket beforehand that tells you where on the platform to stand, wait and board the train.  Unfortunately, we didn’t read our ticket correctly and couldn’t understand a word that was being said on the PA system.  However, the train personnel managed to calm us down and let us know we would make it back to Tokyo just fine. Indeed, we were dazed and confused that night but we got back to our hotel in grand spirits.  Riding the system in Japan is an amazing adventure that I highly recommend to all to experience as you get to travel to vast corners of Tokyo and beyond; as well as interact in a totally different way with the locals.


Happy train surfing!

4 replies »

  1. I loved the read here in Montreal we have the metro. First inaugurated the year of my birth 1966, and was never upgraded, these last two years our new mayor has invested a lot of effort to modernize it. We got new trains, but the old ones are still around they had made a big deal about where and how to dump or sell them. I had read an article and believe it was NYC that was throwing them in the water and apparently made for homes for the fish.. any hoot lots of interesting stories on the recycling of trains.. here is a link to our metro history if your interested The Montreal Metro (French: Métro de Montréal) is a rubber-tired, underground rapid transit system and the main form of public transport in the city of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The Metro, operated by the Montreal Transit Corporation (STM), was inaugurated on October 14, 1966, during the tenure of Mayor Jean Drapeau.


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