The Delhi subway system is far superior to the one in Washington D.C. This is something I've always said to people in New Delhi, where I now live. The temporary shutdown of the subway system in D.C. has finally validated my claims.
I lived in D.C. at various points in my life and each time, like many residents I complained often and loudly about the metro rail system. Many parts of the city and suburbs are way off the grid. The long waits outside of rush hour (I've waited up to 20 minutes for a train!), and the delays related to never-ending track work were a constant source of irritation.
As for Delhi, the metro rail is one of the few things I adore about this dusty, sprawling city with air so polluted that I dread stepping out of my apartment. The streets are congested, men frequently pee on the sidewalks and piles of garbage spill out from the open drains. Drivers and pedestrians are rude and aggressive.
But the minute I get into a subway station, I feel like I'm in a different city. The trains and stations are spotless. The stations aren't architecturally eye-catching, but they look modern. One station houses the Metro Museum, with exhibits tracing the history of the metro rail system. Another station has a beautiful display of traditional Indian textiles and crafts, which would otherwise be inaccessible to most ordinary citizens. The very same people who are quick to litter the city's streets never do so when they ride the subway. Even their aggression seems turned down several notches.
And the service is reliable. While driving or taking an auto-rickshaw or a cab or even walking can mean precious time lost to heavy traffic, traveling by metro has a much needed predictability. I have never had to wait longer than three minutes for the next train. Even late at night (the line is in service until around 11 p.m.) and on the weekends. And I've never experienced delays or shutdowns because of track maintenance work.
Granted, the metro rail here is very new. The Delhi subway began operations in 2002. "We'll see what happens in 20 years," says Amit Bhatt, the director of Integrated Urban Transport at the World Resources Institute's New Delhi office. "When they were planning, they looked at metros around the world. And a lot of preventive planning was done in advance. But as systems age, as technology changes, they will have to be very careful about how they manage."
Nonetheless, he admits that the Delhi subway is "a great engineering marvel." It used state of the art technology. For example, most trains now run on the modern standard gauge tracks, which are narrower and allow faster travel compared to the older broad gauge, which the Indian Railways still rely on. Also, the construction was so well managed, that it consistently delivered before time, says Bhat. (If you don't know this yet, everything in India tends to take longer than anticipated.)
"It is a phenomenal case of well managed construction," he says.
It is also heavily subsidized, which makes for very affordable fares – the lowest is only about 12 cents.
Today, the Delhi metro rail has six lines, covers about 140 miles and transports about 2 million passengers every day, he says. And it is expanding rapidly, adding an additional 60 miles to the network by the end of this year alone, which would put it in the top ten of systems around the world by track mileage.
"It's convenient," says Shriya Malhotra, 32, a New Delhi resident who lives a short walk away from a subway station and uses the subway often. "In the summer particularly, if you take the metro, you are not sweating. You're not a wreck by the time you reach the other end." As a woman, she finds additional benefits. "It's much safer to be traveling in a big crowd."
"The only problem is the last mile connectivity," says Malhotra. Even though her home is a 10-minute walk away, she feels unsafe walking home at night. She has to hire an auto-rickshaw, a small, three-wheeler vehicle used in many Indian cities. "It's not nice to get out of the metro and argue with auto drivers about rates, because they know you don't have any other options," she says.
I can relate to her. The one time I lived a 20-minute walk from the nearest subway station in Delhi, I used it less frequently for the same reasons. It is indeed a big problem with the Delhi metro, says Bhatt. It is also partly why the Delhi subway system still meets only a third of the city's daily demand. There is a desperate need to expanding parking at metro stations and better connect the subway to other forms of transportation, he says.
In London, you can use one card to travel by multiple modes," says Bhatt. "Here you can't do that." Similarly, in Johannesburg, the metro operator also operates buses. "If you have mass transit, you want people to use mass transit." But as I often complain to my husband, so many people I know in this city — all educated, well traveled, politically engaged citizens — commute by car and rarely use the metro or any public transportation. I too am guilty of taking cabs more often than I'd like to. Car sales in the city are only going up. And if that trend continues, it would only undermine the accomplishments of this marvelous metro system.