When I visited New York City last month, I can’t tell you the number of terrific sounding books I wanted to purchase at the New York Public Library gift shop. In addition to the children’s book My New York, which you can read my review of here, they also had a book entitled Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden. It is literally a book containing maps, historical photographs, images, and interesting background information on metros from around the world.
For whatever reason, my post on metro systems is one of my blog’s most read ones. I have to say, excluding foul smelling riders and when the metro is so crowded people are forced to stand like sardines packed in a tiny airtight can, I like riding on the subway/underground when I travel. It’s a great way to immerse yourself among the local population and one of the fastest and least expensive ways to get around a city as well (I almost never take a taxi when traveling).
The book is divided into zones, with the metro systems in zone 1 being famous for having produced the greatest range of historical material (cities such as Chicago, Berlin and London are included). It was interesting to view the historical maps of a city’s metro system and how it expanded in size and scope as time progressed and a city’s population increased.
I really appreciated the intriguing facts that Ovenden mentions including that the metro system of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang is “shrouded in secrecy, rumored to be one of the most beautiful subways in the world.” It came as no surprise to read this since the entire country and its operations are shrouded in secrecy, with any information that is “filtered out” going through government channels first. I wondered if Pyongyang’s subway was ghost-like as much of the country is. I also wondered if it cost anything to ride and if so how much Won (North Korea’s currency) since many of its people are starving and and have no money.
Likewise I was reminded that the Mexico City metro has given every station its own unique emblem in order to help the illiterate. While some may be aghast to read this and think how can some people not know how to read in the 21st century, in a country where families are forced to survive on less than $5 a day, literacy is sadly not always a focal point. What the book didn’t mention about the Mexico City metro is that ten of the lines are rubber-tired instead of featuring traditional steel wheels. I myself rode on a couple of these lines and always laughed at the noise the rubber tires produced, not to mention their rather usual sight.
In what should come as no surprise to some, the metros in East Asian cities like Tokyo, Shanghai and Beijing looked incredibly intimidating between the sheer number of lines. Ironically enough, one East Asian city’s metro system did not look daunting but only because I was a veteran rider of it (Seoul’s).
I was happy to see that my hometown of Philadelphia was included in the book, although Ovenden notes that Philadelphia’s transit map can be incredibly confusing since it includes all forms of mass transit (there is a subway, an elevated train, regional rail, trolleys and buses) on the one map. But as a long time rider going all the way back to when I was in elementary school, it just looks “familiar.”
Of the 85 metro systems included in zones 1-5 (I didn’t include zone 6 in this since it comprised different vehicle types on rails), I personally have ridden on 16. While this may seem like a somewhat small number, I still felt quite proud on this since it includes metro systems on four continents and that’s not something everyone could boast.
If you know anyone who enjoys history and likes to travel, I know they would enjoy this book too.