This post is inspired by two separate things. The first is my work on a fantasy subway map for Lagos; here is the current live version. There are twelve radial lines, all serving the western half of Lagos Island, converging on nine transfer stations. Under the principle that whenever two lines intersect there should be a transfer station, this greatly constrains the paths the lines can take. Result: the path between two CBD stations, Eko Bridge and Leventis, carries ten tracks underneath it. This is under a wide street, and it might be possible with a double-deck four-track-wide tunnel and two more tracks deep-boring around it, but it’s not easy to construct.
The second inspiration is a post by Brian Stokle about subway line spacing. Brian looks not at spacing between successive stops on one line, but at spacing between parallel lines, averaging a few North American examples. The average is a little higher than half a kilometer, narrower than the typical stop spacing. On Twitter, Joshua Mello notes Boston’s spacing was narrower; in comments, I add examples from New York and Paris, which are a bit narrower than Brian’s examples but wider than Boston (New York is one block in Midtown, so 280 meters, and Paris is 300 between Metro 3 and Metro 8 and 9).
These two examples together illustrate the tradeoff in subway construction. Most subways have a stop every 1-1.5 km; newer systems are at the high end of this range, mostly because of the demographic weight of China. It’s normal for stop spacing to tighten in the core, but not to a large extent. In Tokyo, the average stop spacing is 1.2 km, and in Central Tokyo it’s perhaps 800 meters. In London, the Tube lines seem to tighten from an average of 1.2-1.5 km to 600-800 meters in Central London.
At the same time, subway line spacing is necessarily short. The reason is that modern CBDs are geographically small. Midtown is maybe 4 km^2, from 30th to 60th Streets and from between 2nd and 3rd Avenues to between 8th and 9th. The Paris CBD, from just west of Les Halles to just east of Etoile, is also about 4 km^2 (see job density on PDF-p. 6 here). The Tokyo CBD, defined around Otemachi, Nihonbashi, Hibiya, Shimbashi, and increasingly Roppongi, is maybe 5-6 km^2, in a metro area of 38 million people.
Subway networks in such CBDs are necessarily crowded. The CBD is where people want to go. A subway line can get away with skirting it – Paris M4 does, and is in a near-tie with M1 for highest ridership per km. But avoiding it entirely is a ridership killer, except specifically for circumferential lines concentrating off-CBD travel: in Paris this suppresses M10 ridership, and in New York, it suppresses ridership on the J/Z (even though they serve Lower Manhattan) and the L (even though it serves Union Square). This means that the CBD of a large city will have many subway lines converging on a relatively small area. New York has its five north-south lines through Midtown.
Ensuring that every pair of intersecting subway lines has a transfer in this environment is difficult. Line spacing is usually narrower than station spacing, requiring kludges like the block-long walkways in New York, such as between Times Square at 42nd/7th and Port Authority at 42nd/8th. Paris managed to have an almost perfect network – before M14 was built, it only had one missed connection, between M9 and M12 (built by a competing private company) – but only by having very short station spacing, unusual even by the standards of the early 1900s, ruling out significant suburban extensions of the kind that are routine in London and Tokyo.
The situation in smaller cities is actually easier. The CBD is very small, often smaller than a square kilometer, but there are fewer lines, so it’s easier to make sure lines intersect properly. It’s also much easier to get line spacing right outside the CBD, where there’s less intense demand, allowing line spacing compatible with stop spacing on any intersecting or circumferential line.
The fundamental issue here is really about planning for the future. It’s not hard to gets lines 1, 2, and 3 to intersect nicely, or even lines 1-6. But beyond that, a city will often find itself in a situation where the best street alignment for line 7 happens to be right between two stations on line 1, spaced too far apart for a transfer. This is what happened to Tokyo. In New York, the three constituent systems (IRT, BMT, and IND) were each internally planned cohesively, so when two lines within the same system intersect, there’s a transfer, and, with difficulty, the IRT/BMT intersections have transfers as well. But the IND connects poorly to the other two systems, sometimes deliberately, and the IND’s layout made future extensions and service changes break transfers. My proposal to reduce reverse-branching in New York runs into the problem of breaking the transfers designed by the IND around a specific service plan.
When lines are designed together, it’s easier to avoid this problem. Paris M8 and M9 share a route through the center, as they were built simultaneously as the street is wide enough for four tracks. In contrast, building a line under or next to an existing line is much more difficult; New York did it anyway, under Sixth Avenue, but this led to cost overruns that doomed the IND’s early plans for further expansion. It is also difficult to build a new station under an existing transfer station, as it usually requires underpinning; in Paris, this problem means that transfer stations tend not to have closely-aligned platforms, requiring long walks between lines. When I’m proposing running multiple lines in the same tunnel in Lagos, this is from the point of view of assuming coordinated planning, with sequencing that allows entire streets to be dug up at once.
However, in reality, even coordinated design has its limitations. Subway networks take multiple decades to build, and in the interim, the city changes. Planners can attempt to use zoning to shape city development in a way that facilitates further expansion, but some tendencies are too uncontrollable. For instance, high-income neighborhoods tend to commercialize; I mentioned Roppongi as a growing part of the Tokyo CBD earlier, which is an example of this trend. The hottest new part of New York commercial development, the Meatpacking District, is really not a subway hub. This means that even if a city plans out lines 1-12 to share tunnels appropriately, it may not be able to control where there will arise the most demand for line 13. Coordinated long-term planning makes things easier, but it will not solve the basic problem of optimal subway spacing and CBD size.