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Asia’s Largest Subway System

While cities cover just 1.2% of Asia’s land area, half of the continent’s 4.5 billion people will live in cities by 2023. Along with rising living standards and increased reliance on passenger cars, many cities are increasingly clogged. In many a country, a properly built-out mass transit system is just an afterthought. We wonder: Which city currently has Asia’s longest subway system?

A. Tokyo
B. Shanghai
C. Seoul
D. New Delhi

A. Tokyo … is not correct.

Tokyo doesn’t have Asia’s largest subway system, but rather its oldest. The Tokyo Underground Railway opened over 90 years ago, back in 1927. Today, it is called the Tokyo Metro. Since 1960, a second system – the Toei Subway – also serves the city.

The two systems together – serving a population of 14 million – have a combined length of 304 km (189 miles). Close to nine million people ride them daily, the second-highest number in the world, after Beijing.

The first subway system in the world was set up in London in 1863, followed by Budapest and Glasgow (1896), Boston (1897), Paris (1900), Berlin (1902) and New York City (1904).

Measured in terms of the length of its overall network today, the London Underground remains one of the longest in the world, ranking in third place at 402 km (250 miles).

Most Asian subway systems, often built more recently, offer their passengers excellent wireless connectivity during the ride. In contrast, in many subway systems in Europe and the United States, such connectivity is often still poor or spotty.

B. Shanghai … is correct.

The Shanghai Metro opened in 1993, some 130 years after the world’s first subway. It is currently the longest subway system in the world, at 637 km (396 mi).

China is also home to the world’s second-longest subway system, in Beijing. The capital city’s subway serves a metro area population of 22 million and is the oldest subway system in East Asia outside Japan. Like Tokyo’s system and many others in Asia (but unlike the Shanghai system), Beijing combines multiple operators’ subways.

The Beijing Subway opened almost half a century ago, in 1969. China’s capital established its subway ten years ahead of Hong Kong, the next oldest system in China today. Its MTR system started up in 1979.

At 3.66 billion, Beijing’s system now carries more riders per year than any other subway system. It runs 599 km (372 miles), which places it second in Asia – and worldwide. Its length is expected to grow by 75% by 2030, to more than 650 miles (1,046 km).

C. Seoul … is not correct.

The Seoul metropolitan area, South Korea’s capital and the home to 50% of the country’s entire population, has an extensive and dense mass transit network.

Opened in 1974, the world’s fourth-most-ridden subway now runs 332 km (206 miles). The subway system is also integrated directly to many hundreds more miles of national high-speed rail, effectively serving as part of the same system.

Seoul-Incheon’s overall integrated transit system, beyond subways and Seoul proper, also has by far the largest number of stations. The metro region of 25.5 million people is served by over 300 subway stations (just short of the number in Shanghai or Beijing) and nearly as many train stations. New York’s subway system has over 400 stations.

D. New Delhi … is not correct.

Like quite a few other Asian capitals, New Delhi was very late to establishing its subway system. It only opened in 2002 – and now spans 231 km (144 miles) in length.

Cities that got a late start on this way of traffic management suffer from totally clogged traffic on their roads, turning the streets in effect into a big parking lot for much of the day.

In no city in Asia is this more gravely felt than in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, where a subway is currently under construction. The country ranks fourth in the world in terms of its total population, with 32 million people (or 12% of its overall population) living in the Jakarta metro area.

A key reason why city planners were long wary of developing a subway system was that Jakarta is built on earthquake-prone and flood-prone land. Initially, there were plans in the 1980s to get started. However, those plans weren’t carried out due to financing difficulties and political troubles.

Other Southeast Asian cities, such as Manila in the Philippines and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, have to contend with similar difficulties. However, they are now building or expanding transit systems that will eventually include subways. The times when much city traffic was conducted on foot, on bicycles and buses are long gone. A wave of motorcycles have continued to hit the streets, and increasing incomes have brought more passenger cars.

For that reason, in Jakarta motorcycle taxis are now more expensive than taxi cabs. The price premium is due to the fact that they can weave their way through the traffic faster than passenger cars can.

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