5 Ideas We Need To Steal From Megacities With Great Subways

These transit systems are pioneering ideas–some big, some small–that lead to faster, safer, less stressful cities.

5 Ideas We Need To Steal From Megacities With Great Subways

The biggest, fastest-growing cities in the world all struggle with public transit. But necessity is the mother of invention, even when it comes to moving vast numbers of people through a 21st-century city–and many of these cities are either experimenting with new transit ideas or have pioneered transformative technology that’s now being adopted worldwide. Here are a few examples.


Rethinking Traffic Design
Traffic of any kind is a game of margins that are so small, most of us don’t even notice they’re there. For example, most of assume that the fastest and best way to deal with escalator traffic is to keep the left side open for people walking.

In fact, several cities are challenging that (and other) notions about congestion in subways. The Guardian‘s Archie Bland wrote last week that the London Underground is experimenting with a new idea in traffic flow, borrowed from cities like Hong Kong and Tokyo, both of which have actively promoted the idea of asking riders to simply stand on both sides of the escalator to allow more people to move through the station at once.

Flickr user Matthias Forster

In all three cities, testing such a novel idea took serious effort; habit is a difficult thing to break. “That meant teams of staff standing at the bottom of the escalators with loudhailers, asking commuters, as cheerfully as possible, if they would mind standing on both sides,” Bland writes of London’s efforts. “It even meant asking amenable couples to hold hands across the escalator, the better to thwart those who wished to slalom through the line.”

Yet the effort may pay off. In super-dense cities where subway systems are already pushed to the breaking point with new ridership, this seemingly innocuous piece of etiquette—which saves only a few inches per rider—could end up drastically reducing congestion when you extrapolate across millions of riders.

UX Isn’t Just For Tech
Commuting in fast-growing cities often means extraordinarily long rides. Some cities are experimenting with ways to improve that experience with entertainment that goes well beyond your internal critique of the ads on your train.


In 2015, the company that operates one of São Paulo’s metro lines, Via Quatro, teamed up with a publisher called L&PM Editores to create a program called Ticket Books. Each paperback contains an RFID chip loaded with 10 trips on the subway–readers could simply wave their tome over the chip reader at the subway’s entrance to ride, and a website for the project lets you add more credit to your book according to PSFK (as well as select a new read based on where you’re heading).

Beijing’s subway instituted a similar project this year, collaborating with China’s National Library to bring free digital books to a captive audience on the train. Commuters can borrow books chosen around a seasonal theme by the library’s director by snapping QR codes displayed inside trains. “We’ll change the themes every two-three months. If a passenger keeps going along with us, he or she will read over a dozen books a year,” the Metro Transportation Railway’s Yang Ling told China.Org.

Neither project is a cash cow for either city, but they’re both smart ways to keep people occupied (and awake) on long-haul commutes–demonstrating how a cultural tie-in with a transit agency can subtly change how people perceive their commutes as either boring and stressful or novel and engaging.

Transit Is Only Part Of The Business Model
Farming and subway management seem to have about as much in common as whittling and data entry. The Tokyo Metro disagrees: The company that runs the city’s subways is funding a hydroponic farm beneath one of its many metro lines. As PRI reported last year, the farm is both a way to diversify the metro’s business and offer a unique perk to riders, who can enjoy the greens at nearby restaurants and, someday soon, in salads purchased in vending machines and the like.

Naomi Gingold/PRI

Wacky though the idea is, the logic behind it is sound. As cities all over the world struggle with the increasingly meteoric cost of running—and expanding—their subway systems, upping the value of the land they already hold is a smart move. And in an era when many people are thinking harder about where their food comes from, locally grown—very locally grown—produce is a big selling point.


Or take Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation, which has another spin on the concept. The company invests heavily in real estate, partnering with retail stores to turn subway stations into entertainment meccas. Neil Padukone, the author of Beyond South Asia: India’s Strategic Evolution and the Reintegration of the Subcontinent, explained this idea in The Atlantic as “agglomeration”:

Like no other system in the world, the MTR understands the monetary value of urban density—in other words, what economists call ‘agglomeration.’ Hong Kong is one of the world’s densest cities, and businesses depend on the metro to ferry customers from one side of the territory to another. As a result, the MTR strikes a bargain with shop owners: In exchange for transporting customers, the transit agency receives a cut of the mall’s profit, signs a co-ownership agreement, or accepts a percentage of property development fees. In many cases, the MTR owns the entire mall itself.

For example, MTR owns the mall and housing development above Maritime Square, a station that was opened in 1999–they benefit not just from the journey, but the destination.

Flickr user Andreas

Retrofit, Retrofit, Retrofit
The Seoul Metropolitan Subway didn’t always have protective “screens” to prevent falls onto the tracks. But over time, it (alongside Hong Kong and Singapore) has become a pioneer in retrofitting these doors onto existing lines. The impact has been huge: Between 2009 and 2011, the suicide rate in the subway system reportedly dropped by 62%.

Flickr user Tom Page

“It’s easy to say these changes are mostly because the Seoul system is new, and could start fresh,” The Regional Planning Association’s Alex Marshall argues in an essay about the system. “But most of these amenities were added on to the existing system… They were retrofitted, and paid for by long-term leases on the advertisements over the doors themselves.”

Smarter Wayfinding Means Faster Commuters

This seems like an obvious one, but a handful of cities are testing new signage ideas that do much more than simply label exits, routes, or transfers. Seoul and Hong Kong are leaders here, as well, instituting a number of wayfinding designs that are exceptionally useful to commuters–and actually make their systems more efficient.

via MTR

Take Seoul’s diagrammatic station maps, similar to the ones Hong Kong supplies for its own system. These images, which exist for every node on its system, are officially posted to help people navigate through the often insanely complex transfer stations, which might connect multiple lines through multiple platforms and scads of exits. They’re perfectly diagrammed specimens of information design. The same goes for the city’s 2-D wayfinding designs, which include built-in information about which train car to use for specific transfers.

If both of those ideas seem like no-brainers to you, you’re not alone. In 2013, an anonymous group known as the Efficient Passenger Project put up similar “where to stand” signs in the NYC subway, while apps like Exit Strategy serve a similar purpose. Meanwhile, an architect has already recreated NYC subway stations in the style of Seoul and Hong Kong. One way or another, good ideas have a way of catching on.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.