On these subways, commuting is a contact sport

A recent Beijing video clip has racked up nearly 2.5 million views for cringe-inducing footage: a station so jam-packed that attendants need to drag riders out of a subway car just so that the doors can close.


It’s a scene that resonates with Rose Wang, who lived in Beijing for about six months: “Even when it’s not insanely crowded, there’s tons of pushing and shoving.” Yet Beijing isn’t the world’s most crowded subway; that dubious honor goes to Tokyo, with an annual ridership of 3.1 billion.

While vital to both big-city residents and visitors, subway systems can inspire a love-hate relationship, with overcrowding blamed for much of the frustration. While we may not love riding in sardine-like train cars, we do appreciate the efficiency and even beauty of many of the world’s most popular subway stations. Read on to find out which subways really pack passengers in.

No. 1 Tokyo
Annual Ridership: 3.1 billion

Shinjuku holds the Guinness World Records title for busiest single station, with 3.64 million daily passengers streaming in and out of 200 exits. “Nearly 10 different lines use Shinjuku station,” says Yuki Tanaka, a representative of the Japan National Tourism Organization. “It’s the most complicated train station in Japan, or perhaps in the world.”

Source: World Metro Database, 2011

No. 2 Seoul
Annual Ridership: 2.5 billion

You might be tempted to visit Seoul simply to hang out underground—granted, you’ll have a lot of company. These subway cars make up for cramped quarters with high-tech amenities: cell phone reception, Wi-Fi, TVs and heated seats. Each station has escalators and elevators as well as a dedicated arts space. Gyeongbokgung station displays historical artifacts from Korean dynasties throughout the ages. Another crowd-pleaser: fares that start at $1.

Source: Seoul Metropolitan Government, 2012

No. 3 (tie) Beijing
Annual Ridership: 2.46 billion

Beijing’s subway system is the longest in the world, numbering 275 miles and 227 individual stations. Its flat fare of 2 yuan (about 32 cents) is the lowest among the rapid transit systems in China and possible because of government subsidies. As tourism grows within China, a debate has arisen over proper subway etiquette; reports of physical fights and kids urinating in subway cars helped prompt a new Beijing law intended to curb uncouth habits.

Source: World Metro Database, 2012

No. 3 (tie) Moscow
Annual Ridership: 2.46 billion

Moscow’s subway system registered its highest number of daily passengers—9.2 million—on November 29, 2012. Some likely passed through just to marvel at the ornate stations, with flourishes like marble floors, intricate mosaics and sculptural busts. (Kievskaya is our pick for one of the world’s most beautiful stations.) Look for motifs like the hammer and sickle that date to the Soviet era. Stalin made speeches from the platforms of Mayakovskaya station, and the deep tunnels served as air-raid shelters during the Battle of Moscow in 1941.

Source: Moscow Metro, 2012

No. 5 Shanghai
Annual Ridership: 2.28 billion

March 8, 2013, was a record-breaking day for the Shanghai Metro, when 8.48 million rode the rails. The most crowded station is consistently People’s Square, the interchange between the two busiest subway lines. Exit here to browse shop-lined Nanjing Road, stroll People’s Park or catch an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai.

Source: World Metro Database, 2012

No. 6 Guangzhou, China
Annual Ridership: 1.83 billion

Guangzhou’s subway opened in 1997 and quickly became indispensable. With 144 stations, it’s the third-busiest system in China—and the most scandal ridden. In 2005, the operating company came under fire for allowing employees and their relatives to ride for free. In 2010, another scandal erupted around alleged fraud in quality inspections. A sinkhole that developed in January 2013 at a subway construction site consumed several houses. And the latest uproar occurred in June 2013 after construction work destroyed 2,000- to 3,000-year-old underground tombs.

Source: World Metro Database, 2012

No. 7 New York City
Annual Ridership: 1.65 billion

On an average weekday, more than 195,000 riders pass through Times Square, the most congested of New York’s 468 stations (and, not coincidentally, the gateway to the world’s most visited tourist attraction). Next comes Grand Central, whose vaulted ceilings gleam with the constellations of the night sky. Although complaining about the subway sometimes feels like a favorite pastime among New Yorkers, this is one of the few subway systems that operates 24/7—an accomplishment that front-runners Tokyo and Seoul can’t claim.

Source: Metropolitan Transit Authority, 2012

No. 8 Mexico City
Annual Ridership: 1.61 billion

Severe congestion problems on roads and highways, especially downtown, spurred construction of Mexico City’s subway, which debuted in 1967. It has since become a victim of its success, crowded with tourists and commuters alike. Cuatro Caminos is the station for claustrophobes to avoid, with more than 138,000 riders on an average weekday.

Source: World Metro Database, 2012

No. 9 Paris
Annual Ridership: 1.52 billion

Opened in 1900 during the World’s Fair, the Paris Métro gave the city architect Hector Guimard’s now-iconic Art Nouveau station entrances and signage. Gare Saint-Lazare, one of the busiest stations in Europe, has been a favorite among artists: Monet painted the station, as did his cohorts Édouard Manet and Gustave Caillebotte.

Source: Syndicat des Transports d’Île-de-France, 2011

No. 10 Hong Kong
Annual Ridership: 1.44 billion

No wonder it’s popular: the efficient, affordable MTR system makes it a breeze to navigate densely packed Hong Kong. Before heading to the airport, you can even check your bags in advance at the Hong Kong or Kowloon MTR stations. Hong Kong’s metro also happens to be one of the world’s safest thanks to glass doors introduced in all stations as of 2011—eliminating the risk of falling onto the tracks or being hit by an incoming train.

Source: Metro World Database, 2012

See All of the World’s Most Crowded Subways