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Subways are railways built underground. The ones with which I am familiar are heavy rail, meaning that the trains and tracks are of heavy construction the same as a regular railroad. Unlike a regular train, there is no separate locomotive. The trains usually consist of identical cars powered by electric motors.

I think that subways are the best mode of high-speed urban mass transit. The tracks and stations are below ground, keeping the streets above free of tracks and stations. The system is grade-separated, so the trains are not delayed by traffic problems. The trains operate at a relatively high speed, so people can move quickly between different parts of the city. Since travel by subway is much quicker than by car within the city, many people use the subway rather than drive.

The subway is a proven technology used in many cities around the world. The most famous subways include New York City, London (The Tube), Paris, Tokyo, Boston, and Toronto. In Toronto, The Yonge Street line, once it is north of Downtown, emerges onto the surface and runs as a surface railway, but the track is isolated from surface traffic with overpasses and underpasses, so it has the advantages of a grade-separated line but at lower cost.

The big problem with subways are that in today's economic environment, it costs too much to build them. Most cities that have subways built them many years ago when construction costs were much lower.

My opinion is the previous paragraph applies to developed countries such as the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. In countries with a lower per-capita income where the large cities have a high population densities. The situation is different.

In cities such as Calcutta, Mombai (formerly Bombay), and Manila, with a millions of people, and with lower labor costs, a subway can be built for much lower cost than in a richer nation with high labor costs. However, depending on local circumstances, monorail or elevated rail may be selected. Manila has no subway system, but now has two elevated light rail lines.

Today, for richer nations, if a city does not already have a high-speed mass transit system and wants to begin a system, the best solution may be monorail. Monorail has most of the advantages of subways but at a much lower cost. If a subway line can be build for a certain amount of money, that same amount spent on a monorail line will result in a longer line.

Even in richer nations, in a part of a city with a high density of population or high land value, a subway may be the best solution. Very high ridership and minimizing useage of surface area may justify the higher cost of a subway.

In the case of the Seattle area, I don't think the population density is sufficient to guarantee the high ridership necessary to support a subway line, and although the land value is high downtown, it pales in value to the cost of land in places such as Manhattan. Furthermore, the hilliness of Seattle would leave subways too far underground under the hills.

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©2002 Robert M. Fleming Jr.

This page was last updated 16 May 2018.

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