When Will U.S. Subway Design Catch Up With the Rest of the World?

The Hong Kong subway system has used open-gangway subway cars for years. David Leo Veksler/Flickr
The Hong Kong subway system has used open-gangway subway cars for years. David Leo Veksler/Flickr

One of the worst parts of using the subway systems in U.S. cities is the ordeal of getting onto the train and finding a place to sit down. You've got to pick a car, look through the windows hastily and make an educated guess about whether the passengers who are getting up will leave enough room for the crowd on platform, so that everyone can find a seat. If your guesstimate is off, you'll end up struggling to find place to stand.

Wouldn't it be so much better if you could just enter any of the subway cars and walk through the entire train to find one of the available seats? But to do that, the cars would have to have interconnected passages — open gangways, in transportation lingo. According to journalist and transit planner Yonah Freemark, at least 75 percent of the world's subway systems, in cities ranging from Mexico City to Chengdu, China, have cars with open gangways, and that benefits riders. In Toronto, for instance, where the transit system began deploying open-gangway cars in 2011, officials have found that it increases the capacity of trains by 8 to 10 percent.



But U.S. transit systems, with their ponderous bureaucracies slow to adopt innovations, haven't yet followed the rest of the world. That could start to change, now that the New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has announced that it will spend $52 million on 10 open-gangway cars as an experiment. The trains wouldn't actually be put on the tracks until 2020 or thereafter, but it's a start.

A rendering of one potential open-gangway subway car the New York transit system could soon adopt.

Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for MTA, says via email that the system will deploy two five-car trains — each from a different manufacturer — to test the open-gangway concept. We need to look at all options as we move forward with the design of the next generation of cars that could be running in our system for the next 30-40 years," he says.

At this point, some of the details are still sketchy. "Added capacity and space will depend on what the final configuration will look like," says Ortiz. "We hope to finalize designs later this year and award a contract in 2017."

But even if it takes a long, long time, it seems as if the MTA is destined to adopt the design innovation, and commuters will be the better for it. "Open gangway cars should help decrease dwell times due to the fact that customers would be able to move from car to car to exit," Ortiz noted. "If one car is more crowded and egress is slowed, customers can simply walk to the next car to exit."