City Transit Diaries 8: Rapid Transit

This is Part 8 in a series expanding on the City Transit project, looking at the different modes of public transportation of the U.S. & Canada in more depth and detail.

When it comes to public transportation, rapid transit is generally the ideal that every city would build. It's high-capacity, high-frequency, and highly efficient--but unfortunately has a high price tag to match.

Being completely grade-separated, rapid transit if often underground, which often enough is prohibitively expensive for most cities to implement. A city needs sufficient demand and density to warrant building a rapid transit system, something that is not very common in the car-focused United States.

Here, rapid transit systems generally fall into three categories:

  • Systems built in cities that were dense and heavily-populated at the turn of the century, such as New York, Boston, and Chicago
  • A second wave of rapid transit construction between the 50s and 70s, such as in Washington, Atlanta, and San Francisco
  • Fledgling systems that haven't quite reached their full potential, such as Baltimore, Los Angeles, Cleveland

The most recent city to add a rapid transit system was San Juan in 2004 (the most recent on the mainland more than a decade prior). Rapid transit lines do still get built around the world (especially in China), and existing rapid transit systems in the U.S. and Canada do still see expansions today, but after the introduction of light rail technology in the 80s, North American cities now generally opt for cheaper light rail technology (covered last week).

Below is a full list of the rapid transit systems found in the United States and Canada:



MARTA is a 48-mile system in the greater Atlanta area that first opened in 1979. It consists of four lines that intersect at the Four Points station downtown. The system is the 6th-largest of the U.S. and Canada, though it is 11th in ridership.



The 15-mile Metro Subway (recently rebranded as Metro SubwayLink) is the sole rapid transit line in Baltimore. Initial plans for rapid transit in the city envisioned a 71-mile, six-line network, though only this one line was built, first opened in 1983 and completed in 1995. Future lines were built as light rail.



Three lines of the MBTA T system are rapid transit, all of which began operation in the very early 20th century, between 1901 and 1912. The lines converge downtown, but make no direct connection to each other and each use unique rolling stock.



The Chicago 'L' is the second-oldest rapid transit system in the U.S., starting operations in 1892. Its lines are generally elevated (hence the origins of the name), and many of them converge downtown on the iconic Loop. It is over 100 miles in length, with 145 stations across 8 lines.



The Red Line is the sole rapid transit line of the RTA system in Cleveland. It opened in 1955, and was built next to current or former railroad lines. It uniquely shares a portion of its tracks with the city's two light rail lines, as it also uses overhead lines to draw power.


Los Angeles

The Red and Purple lines are the rapid transit component of the Los Angeles Metro Rail network, accounting for less than 20 miles of the 105-mile system. The shorter Purple Line is currently being extended westward in two projects, the first of which is planned to be completed 2023.



Miami's Metrorail is a 24-mile system over two lines, the second of which opened in 2012. It first opened in 1984, and is the only rapid transit system in the country to not feature any underground stations. Its rolling stock are identical to Baltimore's, as they were purchased in a joint order with the city.



The Montreal Metro first opened in 1966, and today is 43 miles in length and the busiest rapid transit system in Canada, as well as the third busiest in North America. It is one of two systems on the continent to utilize rubber-tired vehicles (the other being Mexico City) similar to the Paris Métro, which inspired the system. The system is also unique in that every piece of its infrastructure is underground, including maintenance yards.


New Jersey-New York

The PATH train connects Manhattan to New Jersey via two of the five tunnels under the Hudson River. In New Jersey, it serves Newark, Jersey City, and the Hoboken rail and ferry terminal. The 14-mile system first opened in 1908, and runs 24 hours a day.


New York

The New York City Subway, by a significant margin, is the largest and busiest rapid transit system in the U.S. and Canada. It is the largest in the world, by number of stations, and is one of the few in the U.S. to have more than two tracks in parts, enabling express service during rush hours. The system operates two different forms of rolling stock, as the network divided into two divisions from its predecessors. A Division equipment is narrower and shorter than B Division.



Two lines of the SEPTA rail network are rapid transit: the 13-mile Market–Frankford Line, which opened in 1907 and is the busiest line of the SEPTA network, runs from east-west and to the northeast of the city; and the 12.5-mile Broad Street Line, which opened in 1928 and runs largely north-south under Broad Street, with a spur downtown. The Broad Street line is also one of the few places there are express tracks outside of New York.

The PATCO Speedline also provides rapid transit service from downtown Philadelphia into the New Jersey suburbs of Camden and further east. It is not operated by SEPTA, though it is featured on most SEPTA maps. The Speedline first opened in 1969 and is 14 miles long.


San Francisco

The 109-mile BART system connects the downtown area of San Francisco to the far-reaching suburbs of the Bay Area via an underwater tunnel. The length (the third-longest in the U.S. and Canada) and structure of the system makes it more akin to a commuter rail system, though it uses rapid transit vehicles and infrastructure. The system is also being extended south to connect to downtown San Jose.


San Juan

The Tren Urbano opened in 2004 as the Caribbean's first rapid transit line. It is an 11-mile line connecting San Juan to the southern suburbs. It suffers from low ridership due to a less-than-ideal route, and expansions have been deferred as a result of economic issues.



Toronto's rapid transit network consists of four lines at a length of 42 miles. First opened in 1954, most of the length and ridership on the network is on two lines, as only Line 1 provides direct service to the urban core of downtown Toronto. Two lines operate as suburban extensions, including Line 3 in Scarborough which operates light metro vehicles.



The 50-mile SkyTrain first opened in 1985, and could be considered an extensive people mover system, as it is fully automated and utilizes light metro vehicles. It is the largest rapid transit network in Canada by length, and the longest automated system in the world. The system is also divided into two portions, as the western Canada line was built for different vehicles than the eastern Expo and Millennium lines.



At 117 miles, the Washington Metro is the second-largest rapid transit in the U.S. and Canada, after New York. The six lines of the system extend far into the suburbs of greater Washington, primarily providing commuter service for workers downtown. Though it suffers from declining ridership due to maintenance issues, it is still the third-busiest system in the U.S.