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

9 thoughts on “What if Minneapolis-St. Paul had the London Underground?

  1. Mike Hicks

    Thanks for the map. I know Alex Bauman has tried a doing a couple of these on his blog, using Paris and Washington, D.C. as comparison points. As he noted in that post, the Twin Cities is strange in that we have two downtowns, plus at least a few other major trip generators — the University of Minnesota and the Mall of America to name two. Any comparison will need to have caveats along with it, but it’s still worthwhile to compare maps and question whether we’re over-investing in a particular type of transit at the expense of another. The two downtown cores being 10 or so miles apart has distorted Twin Citians’ sense of distance — if they’re twins, they must be close together, right? Well, only kinda sorta. Part of it is just generic American sprawl too.

    I’ve felt that it may be better to upgrade the existing freight rail corridors to a relatively high-frequency commuter rail standard like Metro North or LIRR in the New York area, but only extending out about 20 miles from Minneapolis. Then take your pick of Streetcar, LRT, or a “heavier” underground service for lines radiating 5-10 miles out, mainly from downtown Minneapolis, but some from St. Paul and maybe the University of Minnesota and MOA (people may snicker, but from a traffic perspective, the MOA is basically like the MN State Fair happening every day of the year).

  2. Joe

    More people live to the west in the metro itself but I’d wonder if you split north-south from the western downtown it’d still be the same… Usually the E/W split is taken at about Snelling, instead of downtown Minneapolis…

  3. Julie

    London is funny in that rather than two downtowns, as MSP has, it has scattered hubs of activity.

    In some of the outer rings of the Tube network, it becomes far more effective to bus to a Tube connect, then hop on. The less-than-one-mile units tend to be in the inner ring of London, rather than as you move outward. When I lived in N20, my best bet was to walk out to the Broadway, hop a bus to the Tube, then get out whichever stop was not closed for potentially suspicious packages accidentally left on the platform. So one of the reasons the buses see so much action, I’d expect, is because of the multi-modal transfer element.

    Another factor in bus volume is how late the Tube runs versus night buses. Last Tube is… pretty early, compared to the night life. So the night buses see a LOT of action. There are buses all night, on more limited routings.

  4. Jessica

    Not to rain on the parade, but an underground system in the Twin Cities can’t happen no matter what the growth. Well… it could, but we would need submarines or those duck like vehicles they have at Wisconsin Dells.

    Minnesota’s water table is very close to the surface, and I mean REALLY close, tens of feet close. Though the water table is not as near the surface (today) in London as it is in Minnesota, water table levels are rising in London due to people drawing their water from other resources which is causing major issues. Entire subsystems that pump or cool the underground water are being studied to delay the flooding of underground system.

    Another Minnesota jab to our transit dreams is the weather. While the construction of a tunnel is more expensive than at grade tracks, the major cost comes into play when maintenance is factored in. After all is said and done, tunneled track costs about 3x’s more than at grade track. On top of that, the gift of climate change will hit tunnels harder. The FTA even did an RFP to study the major costs ahead of us as extreme heat and flooding make their mark.

    So… transit submarines?

  5. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    Fascinating how Brixton is approximately where our Phillips neighborhood is, the bucolic suburb of Richmond is where Edina is, and the Olympic Village is where our State Fairgrounds are. London’s M25 is roughly analogous to our I-494/694 ring, except as David points out there are three to four times as many people.
    It is staggering how close together major destinations are in that city.
    This is informative as to why we consider an LRT line out to Eden Prairie when even expensive streetcars on major streets within two miles of downtown would be more cost-effective given the density they serve. Even if we set a rail ridership goal of 25% of London’s (since we’re about a quarter the population), we’ll never get there.
    Nice post, David

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