It’s Corona Time; who knew I’d miss the métro?
1 billion go through the turnstiles per year in Manhattan, while 100.3 million passengers swoosh through Waterloo, and 1.8 billion furiously fuming French people run across the métro. The subway is a human zoo of non-stop ever going, just keep pushing, ok the train is departing — madness. A jungle filled with men and their routines from home to work, and work to home, and back again.
I find subway maps particularly fascinating. A self explanatory colorful representation of zone’s possible navigation. All I have to do is use it. Everyone else has already done the heavy lifting; circularly dug deep into the earth, made room among the worms and moles, cemented walls, slapped rails onto the ground, added a train, its driver, and the sound of its trumpet: Stand clear of the closing doors please.
Subways are also the first memories of independence. Some lucky kids get a car after their successful DMV test, while others discover the ins and outs of the underground. The close enough suburbia teenagers along with the inner-city rats ride down under in the city’s belly. Just a 20 min to 1 hour and a half ride away from meeting up with friends for a night out. As we grow older, stubbornly wiser, and somewhat cooler, we discover the grueling difficulties of drunkly racing to hopefully hop in the last train and make it home on time.
The freedom and seemingly somewhat surprising possibilities that could arise from riding the subway give it a sense of… magic. It can conveniently be used for to & froms, as well as adventures. Yet it all turns awry within a moment’s realization that we’re headed in the wrong direction. The sudden fussing of which stop to get off at. Hurry, they close to doors. Don’t touch anything. Don’t put your hands to your mouth. Give up your seat for the elderly or disabled.
In the jungle, no one will ask you if you’re lost. It becomes scary and alone when you lose your sense of direction. Take a good look around the platform. Are the others around you friends or fools? The lights flicker. For a split second you are engulfed in the underground’s darkness. Neon lights blind you, put your head down, hurry onto the train.
City dwellers accept that public spaces like the subway after midnight are places where women can’t expect to feel safe. Subways are particularly infamous. In high school my mom used to tell me, ah really. Going out? With that skirt in the metro? Go change into jeans. People will grope you. As sweetly honey-waxed as my Maman’s comments are, they do come in handy for survival in the human jungle of easy hands coming at you from all sides in a really tight moving car with nowhere to go, just your face to grow red because you don’t know who to call out when you feel a hand on your left butt cheek. The feeling of the unwanted stroking lingers there for days as a putrid reminder. It’s not new to our day and age. Tokyo’s subway was the first to introduce women-only train cars because of chikan – sexual molestation or groping — that first appeared in 1912 during rush hours to separate school girls from boys. Reintroduced mainly at the request of the Metropolitan Police Department in the early 2000s, they helped decrease complaints by a third in just a year. Wandering hands have not only been an issue in Japan. Movements of female only cars during rush hour have popped up all over the globe: New Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Teheran, and Cairo since 1990. Freedom from molestors. Fear of new segregation. A harem on wheels. Just keeping our wives, sisters and daughters safe. Even Jeremy Corbyn had brought up all female cars for after 10pm in London’s tube.
So what do we look for in a subway a part from safety? Cleanliness, convenience, frequency, and low density of passenger per square foot. The tube is surprisingly popular among my friends, which is particularly weird as most of them are two heads taller than me. I would have thought that as the one being 5.2, more giraffes would have sympathized with my animosity for its narrowness and shortened ceilings. Easy to understand, fast and not as dirty and cramped as the Paris métro or NYC subway are the main explanations. I asked my sister what her favorite subway was and why. She retorted defiantly: I don’t know. The métro? Even though it’s gross, it stands for everything I am no? However, the French are notorious for their grèves causing half of the system to a slowing halt. Apparently, Germany has “better subways than NYC or London” because they are clean and work well 24/7. Disclaimer: they close at 1am in Berlin. Don’t spread fake news, thank you. And no, the subway in Prague is not free — jumping turnstiles doesn’t count.
What if subways were capsules for a trip back in time? Moscow’s metro stations are underground heavens of baroque yellow ceilings, dancing colonnades, chandeliers, and at other times hammers not so subtly hinting at the socialist art. For 50 rubles (currently $0.62 thanks to Corona’s crashing markets), you can voyage endlessly through a European grandeur of the underground system built by mainly British engineers who were later promptly deported by Stalin. (They knew too much.) For an underground contemporary museum, run down into Stockholm’s T-Centralen. Dubbed the “blue station,” it was designed to create a beautifully calming atmosphere by the artist Anders Åberg for the city’s busiest stop. Sweden’s capital holds an art gallery underground with its stations such as Solna Centrum, a reminder of the country’s activism against deforestation in the 70s. Most of its ceilings are painted in red and the hallways’ sides smudges of green pine trees. Stadion is yet another emblematic one, and the subway’s cave is painted into teenage dream like rainbows that celebrate pride. If looking to include Roman art in your daily commute, travel through Athens’ subway. The biggest excavation program accomplished between 1993 – 2000 brought to light more than 50,000 findings during underground diggings. Storm through replicas of the Parthenon’s frieze at Acropoli on the red line, or swoosh by Athen’s stratigraphy exhibited at the Syntagma station on the blue line. Don’t fret if you’re not into old rocks that date back from 5th century B.C. because the Athenian metro also holds modern art such as Georges Zongolopoulos’s piece. (Fun fact: he was exhibited at the Tate Modern, oh oui!)
Busy body Mumbai is building line 3, the first underground subway in India that should be ready for use by 2021.The most populated city in India —3 times more dense than NYC — has made its biggest investment infrastructure project of 3.3 billion dollars. With 8 to 9 deaths per day of passengers falling off trains because of over-crowdedness, something had to be done. A smart rock solid woman, Faye D’Souza is spear heading the project of opening up Mumbai’s belly in multiple areas. The city’s c-sections is one technique used to create Mumbai’s subway, which is actually known as “cut and cover.” The excavation equipment is used to dig a large trench in the ground, then covering it up with a concrete deck where the surface activity can resume, while the construction keeps going down below. The second technique used in building a subway is with a TMB, aka the Tunnel Boring Machine. It digs through hard bedrock and soft soil, all the while supporting the tunnel created as it just keeps on digging. But it is more expensive… cause’ the bigger the machine, the more cash it needs to function! And within the tunnel, pipes carry in cold water, air, and other fancy chemical & physics particles to keep us breathing, while simultaneously pumping out hot water and used up air that have been nicely brewed through intricate ventilation systems. In the midst’ of digging deep in Mumbai’s belly, the Parsi community — descendants of the Zoroastrian religious minority that came to Indian from Iran starting centuries ago — are a powerful group that put the subway’s construction to a stop for 6 months. The subway’s construction could hurt their temple’s holy fire that has been kept burning for more than a century. Additional concerns included but were not limited to: interrupting prayers, desecrating grounds, fearing nonmembers and menstruating women passing below while riding it, as well as tunneling work that could damage temples. After the Supreme Court’s ruling in New Delhi to press the green light button, D’Souza was back on managing the birth of India’s first underground.
Seoul’s subway holds nursing rooms for breastfeeding women, along with a variety of items to help caretakers of young sticky crying humans. From coffee pot for sleep deprived moms, pamphlets and guide on nursing, to baby beds and sofas, “you are free to have access anytime when you need to take care of your baby.”
Copenhagen is more focused on reducing the possibility of human error and improving the overall system’s efficiency in its subways, than nordic newborns in subways. With high tech computer programs, the driverless trains can be monitored from control room operations and maintenance centers. Cool Copenhagen’s reduce reuse re-energy trick: subway breaking heat is used to generate power.
Singapore’s subway is super clean, super easy to use, super safe, super circular around the inner city with its circle line, super fast, super green, and super super super surveilled on camera too — smile and cheese.
Hong Kong’s mind-boggling clean metro, also has an eye-popping $2 billion annual profit. An anomaly among major rail networks. NYC’s subway suffers from chronic funding gaps and spent nearly 2.5 billion in 2015 to service its debt… So how did Hong Kong do it? Incredibly cheap fares (50 cents to $3), trains are 99.99% on time, and the real profits would come from property development. Its ‘special’ relationship with the government (also the main shareholder) providesd— at zero costs— land for use of train operator. Hong Kong’s subway then developed areas around its stations: 13 malls created right on top of its subway terminals. Sneaky.
And finally, most speedy subway goes to… Ch, Ch, Ch, China with Shanghai’s maglev going to up 431 km/h, connecting airport to city’s inner subway lines in just seven minutes and twenty seconds.
For someone’s whose directionally dyslectic, it’s quite practical to use a roadmap to get around. Swirly sworvy lines with just two dots tied together, and it gives me direction. That’s institutionalized agency and the make belief of choice. I choose to believe I have freedom to stop at the next colorful dot. And subways are the complete opposite of my quarantined body in bed for yet another day. They are the epitome of togetherness, elbow to elbow passing germs on greasy bars. But c’mon, there’s beauty in crass. Just take look at the métro no? Right now, the rats are singing to their lady mice, and it must be a banger down under.