A Tokyo (Transit) Story

Blog post written by Rudin Center graduate reasearch assistant Jorge Hernandez.

As a daily MTA subway rider and transplant New Yorker, the thought of visiting Tokyo and riding the Tokyo Metro was initially underwhelming. What other subway system in the world boasts 469 stations, over 600 mainline track miles, and averages just under 6 million weekday rides?

To my my surprise, the Tokyo Subway system – consisting of the Toei Subway and Tokyo Metro - not only fares well in comparison to the NYC subway system, but in many ways provides better service.
The Tokyo subway system serviced over 3.2 billion rides in 2014 (compared to NYC’s 1.7 billion in 2014) and averages over 8 million daily rides. It is made up of 13 lines, with 285 stations, running a total of 189 track miles. While the subway system is composed of two separate transit agencies, it is not jarred by bureaucratic red-tape and operational mismanagement one has come to expect of US systems. In fact, during my short experience with the system, the Tokyo subway upheld high Japanese standards for management, quality, and innovation.
My initial reactions to the subway system were primarily qualitative and centered on the following subject areas: 1. Cleanliness; 2. Organizational; 3. Aesthetics; and 4. Usability.

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Simply put – everything was clean. From stations to track, there was no trash to be seen, despite having vending machines throughout the entire network. One would be hard-pressed to find any form of litter on a track or in subway car. Additionally, there was no shortage of public restrooms and more importantly, you did not feel as if you were risking your life by entering and using them. This level of detail is not just operational but also cultural. When people are proud of something they own or use they are more prone to take ownership and care of it – as is evident in Tokyo.


While many might cringe at the thought of having to abide by rules on the subway, everything about the subway in Tokyo was orderly and efficient. Throughout the stations and subway cars there were arrows that led you up and down stairs, clearly marked dividers to ease the flow of traffic, and queues for those entering subway cars. The degree to which riders are organized, combined with the technological advancements of the system, creates efficiencies New Yorkers dream of experiencing. Throughout my entire experience, there were only two instances of train delays – each lasting merely seconds. Not a single rider appeared to have a sense of urgency or panic during rush hours; when trains were at capacity, riders were willing to wait for the next train since the arrival time of the next train was displayed throughout the station and could be expected to arrive without delays.


The Tokyo subway system is an exact representation of the Japanese aesthetic. Bright lights and retro colors fill the stations and subway cars, and also jingles that would excite any SEGA or Candy Crush aficionado. Throughout the network, stations are filled with retail shops, restaurants, and even food halls. Even in the busiest stations riders can find refuge in one of the many amenities provided. The subway cars are compact, slightly smaller than your standard MTA subway car, but provide overhead compartments and various handles to ensure maximum occupancy.


As a foreigner, I thought it was inevitable I would get lost using the subway. Surprisingly, this did not happen – mainly due to the way-finding signs, logical station numbering system, and place-finding redundancies. Two of the most useful tools were the maps of the corresponding line found at each subway platform and the numbering system used throughout the entire network. The numbering system allowed me to not have to memorize the name of stations, and instead simply determine the corresponding numbers of my departure and destination stations. For example, if I was going from Ueno (G16) to Omote-sando (G02) on the Ginza Line all I had to do was refer to the station number, and ensure the train was heading the right mathematical direction.

After my experiences in Tokyo, I now believe what truly separates a good system from an excellent system is a rider’s sentiment towards it. Riders must take pride in their transportation network, which will lead them to take better care of it and have a sense of ownership over it. But it must start with its operations and management.

Numbers from:
MTA, Facts & Figures, Subway &
Tokyo Metro, Business Situation, http://www.tokyometro.jp/en/corporate/enterprise/transportation/conditi…