A recent Beijing video clip has racked up nearly 2.5 million views for cringe-inducing footage: a station so jam-packed that attendants need to drag riders out of a subway car just so that the doors can close.
It’s a scene that resonates with Rose Wang, who lived in Beijing for about six months. “Even when it’s not insanely crowded, there’s tons of pushing and shoving.” Yet Beijing isn’t the world’s most crowded subway; that dubious honor goes to Tokyo, with an annual ridership of 3.1 billion.
While vital to both big-city residents and visitors, subway systems can inspire a love-hate relationship, with overcrowding to blame for much of the frustration. What distinguishes one busy subway from the next is cultural tastes and heritage, with some stations like New York’s Grand Central qualifying as tourist attractions in their own right.
The Paris Métro—Europe’s busiest—beautified the city with Art Nouveau station entrances designed by architect Hector Guimard for the system’s debut at the 1900 World’s Fair.
Seoul’s subway system, meanwhile, feels decidedly 21st century, with amenities like cell reception, TVs, and heated seats. It also has the world’s first virtual supermarket, allowing riders to browse for food and toiletries and use phones to scan the QR code of any items they want to purchase.
Completed in 2010, Delhi’s subway has already earned a reputation for being congested yet also clean, well maintained, and on time—an oasis of modern comfort in an otherwise chaotic Indian metropolis.
While we may not love riding in sardine-like train cars, we do appreciate the efficiency and even beauty of many of the world’s most popular subway stations. Read on for the results.
Methodology: We contacted government sources, read official reports, and searched online databases for the most recent ridership data available (for 2012 in most cases). Much of the results came from the World Metro Database run by Metrobits.org, an independent nonprofit that aggregates transit information and has been cited by outlets including The Economist.
While Cairo has traditionally ranked among the top 20 most populous subway systems, with 837 million annual riders as of 2010, the recent political turmoil made it difficult for us to find up-to-date reputable sources, so we excluded it from this list.