London Underground overlaid on Twin Cities Highway Network

What if Minneapolis-St. Paul had the London Underground?

Many people have complained that Minneapolis – St. Paul does not have a good transit network, or is not a “real” transit city. Well London does have a good network, and if any place is, London is a real transit city, so it is informative to compare.


This map overlays the London Underground network on top of the Minneapolis – St. Paul street network, keeping scale consistent. We centered Green Park station at Nicollet and 7th in downtown Minneapolis. Like London, the Twin Cities region is asymmetric, with more people to the west than the east. The Underground service is much denser to the west of London than the east and south (the south does have more surface rail though). Lines are spaced at 1 – 2 mile intervals, so many people can walk to stations, even in the far suburbs of Metro-Land.

The system is radial, though not perfectly. London also has lots of cross-connections, and some of the radials cross as well, far outside the city center, and both the Circle Line (which is no longer circular, but more of a spiral), and the recently upgraded orbital Overground services. Roth, Kang, Batty, and Barthelemy argue that it is a natural stage of evolution for subway networks, once radials reach a certain point, to build circle lines to enhance accessibility at non-central stations. Doing so creates new hubs.

Why does London have such an extensive rail network?

The first answer is obvious, it is about 3 – 4 times as populous as the Minneapolis – St. Paul region. London has 8.3 million people in the city and maybe 13.6 million in the larger metropolitan area. In contrast, Minneapolis – St. Paul has 3.8 million people in the greater Metro area (well beyond the 3.4 million in the 7-county Metro), with only 700,000 in the core cities.

The second answer is that it grew to its current size before automobile dominance, and so co-developed the system with the city, much like the streetcars in the Twin Cities. Unlike the streetcars, the rail system in London was largely maintained at its full extent.

The third answer is that it has a higher transit mode share, and thus greater demand per capita. The London Underground is about 250 miles (402 km). The Twin Cities LRT system collectively are 23 miles (38 km) long, so about 10% of the length. London serves about 3.7 million passengers per day. The Twin Cities LRT will serve about 70,000 per day once the Green Line opens, about 2% of the London Underground ridership. The public transport mode share for work trips in London is 41%, compared with 5% for the 7 county Twin Cities region.

The fourth answer is that as demand rises, it becomes increasingly cost-effective to use rail rather than buses to move increasingly large numbers of people, as the higher initial capital costs can be spread over more users, while the potentially lower per person operating costs become more important. Thus, not surprisingly, London moves a greater share of its transit users on rail than bus. Perhaps surprisingly, even in London, buses still move many more passengers than the Underground, at about 6 million per day.

It would be nice to see similar overlays, transit systems of City X overlaid on the street networks of City Y to aid in comparative analysis. (It would be really cool to see an online tool that does this for any pair of cities). When we travel, we see other cities, and try to make comparisons back home, but it is difficult. The cities you visit are not as familiar as the ones you live in. The modes of travel are almost always different (even a rental car is not the same as your own car). Thus scales get distorted. By comparing cities, we are better able to see what is possible.

For clarity, this map does not include all of the transit serving London. It excludes the surface rail, the Overground, the Docklands Light Rail, and Croydon Tramlink, as well as the extensive and excellent bus service. The map is from 2008, and so includes the East London Line as Underground, not as Overground. Some other minor changes are also ignored. Note, this is also a scale map of the London Underground, so it might look very different to those accustomed to the Beck map and its successors.

A movie of the evolution of the London Underground, as well as other movies, can be found here.

This article is cross-posted at The Transportationist