Atlantic Cities

A Love Letter to the Delhi Metro

A Love Letter to the Delhi Metro
Sarah Goodyear

“People are proud of the Metro,” one longtime Delhi-area resident told me. “They are on their best behavior when they ride it. You’re going to love it.”

She was right. During a recent 10-day stay in the National Capital Region (NCR) of India, I fell in love with the Delhi Metro.

Delhi’s system is relatively new. Construction started in 1998 and the system first opened for business in 2002, with service expanding rapidly in the years since. Right now, there are 145 stations and 120 miles of track, with much more to come. On a day this past August,the system hit a ridership peak of 2.2 million people in one day.

The Delhi Metro is everything that the streets of the NCR are not: clean, orderly, smooth, and quiet. Not only did it get me where I wanted to go reliably and comfortably, the Metro was one of the few places where I knew exactly what was going on and what was expected of me.

As a first-time visitor to India, traveling alone, I’m not ashamed to admit that I had plenty of moments when I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t know how to cross the busy roads safely (and in lots of places, there simply isn’t any way to do it). I didn’t know how to negotiate with an auto rickshaw driver or avoid being ripped off by a cabbie. Even in the sanitized, “Westernized” shopping malls and five-star hotels of Gurgaon, the Delhi suburb where I was staying, I often felt out of place. I don’t spend much time in malls or five-star hotels in the U.S., so maybe that’s not surprising.

But I am a card-carrying, patriotic citizen of public transit. I ride it in every city I travel to. I’ve ridden trains in Moscow and Madrid, in London and Rome, in Kiev and Seattle.

And on the Delhi Metro, I was reminded just how well that international citizenship translates, even some 8,000 miles from home. Once I bought a smart card designed for tourists that allowed me unlimited travel for three days at a time, I started swiping my way through the turnstiles with abandon.

Sure, there are a few differences between the Delhi Metro and the subway in New York, my hometown. First of all, Delhi’s system is much cleaner. You can always hear and understand the announcements, which are given in English and in Hindi. The trains arrive more frequently and reliably than in New York, less than three minutes apart at peak hours. The security is a lot tighter in Delhi: You have to put your bag through an X-ray machine at each station, go through a metal detector yourself, and get the once-over with a wand by a transit employee (women and men have separate lines for this). The first car of each train is designated for women only, which is especially welcome at rush hour. And you can use your phone in the tunnels.

But the Metro experience was more familiar than foreign to me. Transit etiquette translates surprisingly well across the globe. I recognized certain behaviors well: The shaming stare that a tired commuter, wanting to get off her feet, gives to a teenager who is hogging too much space. The impatient press of the crowd around the doors of an unloading train, each person hoping they’ll get on in time to snag a place. The quiet nod of thanks offered by an older lady when you rise to give her a seat. The smiles shared by passengers as a cute little kid grabs onto a pole and spins around for the sheer joy of it. 

Familiar, too, were the blank faces of people who just wanted their own space, a private moment in this very public place where they could listen to music from their earbuds. I felt at home in the rush of passengers jogging from platform to platform to catch a connecting train. I knew how to give and get the little jostles for more room that are common on crowded trains everywhere. This was a language I could speak fluently.

A couple of weeks ago, a quotation about public transit went viral on Twitter: "A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It's where the rich use public transportation." That sentiment originates with Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia. I thought about it a lot as I sped along the tracks in Delhi, looking at the people around me. Many of them were obviously well-to-do. Here they mixed easily with working-class people, and with migrant workers in traditional dress, and with a foreigner who pulled out a copy of the New Yorker and settled into her seat to read. The Delhi Metro belonged to all of us.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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