As late as 1980, the United States had more kilometers of metro lines per capita than all large developed countries but the United Kingdom—thanks in part to large public investments in projects like Washington’s Metro and San Francisco’s BART. In the decades since, both the United States and the United Kingdom have stagnated, falling behind even as other countries, particularly China, but also India and many in Europe and South America, have invested in massive new construction campaigns. Much of the world’s urban areas are rapidly becoming dominated by metro service.
In this post, I exploit data from the newly expanded Transit Explorer database, which now includes all metro lines worldwide plus other fixed-route transit services in many countries. The database has been significantly expanded since I wrote about findings from its last update in January. This geospatial database allows me to investigate when and where transit is being built.
The first trend is unambiguous: Worldwide, metro service availability has expanded exponentially. In 1950, only 24 metropolitan areas in 13 countries globally could boast of a subway, elevated line, or monorail (automated light metros didn’t yet exist). Today, 232 metropolitan areas in 63 countries can make such a claim.
Metro construction has accelerated. The number of kilometers of metro lines in active service has expanded from just over 7,000 in 2000 to more than 23,000 today—a tripling of service even as the global population has grown by only about 30 percent during that time. There are almost 7,000 additional kilometers of metro lines currently under construction globally.
The increase in metro service availability in since 2000 has been driven by Chinese cities, which now host more than 40 percent of world metro kilometers. European cities have been steadily increasing their metro route length since the 1970s, however, and Indian cities have accelerated subway and elevated construction since 2010.
Cities in the United States had a plurality of the world’s metro kilometers until 1960. At that point, cities in the now-European Union accumulated more route kilometers (European cities now have about double the total metro kilometers as those in the United States). Chinese cities passed those in Europe in terms of length in about 2010—and Indian cities are expected to host more metro service than the United States by 2025, given current construction activity.
One major explanation for the United States’ declining rank in terms of metro service availability is the fact that the New York City region—which had the world’s longest metro system until the mid-1980s—now has fewer subway or elevated kilometers than it did in 1940, at its peak.
The New York region now has the 13th longest metro system in the world (including the Subway and PATH)—shorter than systems in nine Chinese cities (not all shown on the following graph), plus London, Moscow, Seoul. By 2025, it will be the 15th longest, passed by Delhi and another Chinese city. Remarkably, Shanghai’s metro system is now twice as long as New York’s Subway—despite the former only opening its doors in 1993. New York City has no serious plans to expand its system, even as virtually every other major metropolitan area is doing so.
The result of the United States’ limited progress in providing metro services to its residents is that the number of metro kilometers per resident in the country is now lower than it was in the 1980s. It had the second-most-plentiful metro service per-capita in the world until that point (after the United Kingdom)—but on this metric it has now been passed by the European Union, as well as China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea, among other countries.
Even when incorporating data on light rail and streetcar lines—which US cities have been more focused on building than metros—transit service availability has declined since the 1970s. Indeed, all of the rail transit construction that’s occurred in the United States since the 1980s has done little more than keep up with population growth.
Up until 2000—perhaps surprisingly given lower transit ridership—the United States had more kilometers of metro and light rail lines per capita than residents of neighboring countries or many large European countries for which the Transit Explorer database has complete information (the database does not yet include light rail or streetcar lines for all countries).
But the United States has lost its position on this metric to France and Spain in the years since. France went from having about half the per-capita urban rail miles as the United States in 2000 to significantly more today. And countries like Italy and the Netherlands have been rapidly expanding their services in recent years.
What’s next for the United States? The federal government’s infrastructure law, passed in 2021, will send hundreds of billions of dollars to cities for new transit projects. So far, though, that hasn’t been enough to spur a massive investment in new transit lines compared to past efforts. Transit agencies in major cities are facing a “fiscal cliff” due to declining ridership that may make it more difficult for them to continue to provide adequate daily service. And construction costs are rising rapidly due to inflation.