Le Métro Versus the MTA: Comparing 2 Great Cities’ Subways

A picture taken on November 27, 2012 of commuters waiting on a platform at the Cite metro station in Paris.
A picture taken on November 27, 2012 of commuters waiting on a platform at the Cite metro station in Paris. Photo: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

Parisians apparently think their métro behavior is improving. That's the finding of a new poll put out by the Paris métro system itself, in which users said they were seeing fewer incidents of classic Parisian subterranean incivilities, such as shoving without apologizing, barging onto trains before letting people off, and not yielding seats to elders. (Perhaps it's partly due to this very funny poster campaign the métro has put out in recent years, which depicts rude subway riders as various animals — shoving bulls, spitting goats, etc.)

But is the Paris subway any ruder than New York's? Or generally, for that matter, any better? Worse? Here's a quick rundown of major Paris-NYC subway differences, representing a composite of opinions from friends, acquaintances, and absolute strangers who've ridden the rails on both sides of the pond. (We'll leave the Tube out of this for now.)

1. Paris's subway is more reliable, but NYC's is at least 24/7.
The beauty of the fact that Paris's subway shuts down in the wee hours is that they can do all their repairs then, so when it's running, what you see on the schedule or a map is exactly what you get. There's no boarding the F train at West 4th to get to the Lower East Side at 11:30 p.m. only to suddenly find it's running on the A and you're halfway to Brooklyn. And there's no need to conduct an online investigative report before boarding the train on weekends. On the other hand, it's nice to be able to spend your last $20 on booze until 3 a.m. and still be able to get home by subway rather than drunkenly get on a Vélib' (the bike-sharing program) or splurge on a Paris cab. Even during normal hours, it seems, Paris trains come and go at precise 2-minute intervals and seldom sit in a tunnel for 20 minutes when you're late for a midday lunch.

2. Parisians think NYC's subway is a design disaster.
Why are there underpasses at some stations, allowing a free route reversal, and not others? Why do certain lines cross on a map but not connect? Why are there no signs posting all stops for a line at key subway-station locales or on pillars in front of each platform? Why are announcements completely unintelligible? These idiocies of the NYC subway dumbfound Parisians visiting New York for the first time expecting to encounter the sleek subway system of the world's most famous city. (They may not know that the MTA existed in a state of poverty and decay for much of the past 50 years, or that the subway comprises several formerly independent systems.) On the flip side, they happily note that pedestrian transfers are blessedly short compared to Paris stations, where it often seems you have to walk underground for 20 minutes to make a connection.

3. New Yorkers think Parisians lack sonar.
ScarJo was right when she said that Parisians don't seem to know how to acknowledge one another as they approach, leaving one to either shove or be shoved. Rare are the little smiles or expressions of "excuse me" that make getting around on New York sidewalks or subway passages a delicate but, for the most part, successful dance. This is not to say that all Parisians will forgo mumbling a "pardon" as they squeeze past you, but on the Paris trains, a willful blindness to others often prevails.

4. Paris subway entertainment is classier; NYC's is more fun.
Paris prides itself on its program that puts highly trained classical musicians in its subways; it's not unusual to be making a transfer at Châtelet and pass a mini-orchestra. (There's also no end of guys giving you cheesy-icon French accordion tunes, though, in a delightful irony, they often happen to be Romanian immigrants.) Though NYC has its own certified-underground-musicians program, everyone knows that tourists don't descend into the subway for that. They come for that drag queen at Union Square, or, of course, the Showtime Boys.

5. Climate Consideration.
Air-conditioning is still not a given in Paris, so Parisians often complain about the intense heat of the NYC subway in summer combined with the fact that one's sweat congeals on one's skin after boarding the iceboxlike train car. Conversely, any New Yorker who's ever ridden one of Paris's (mostly) non-air-conditioned subway lines on a rare humid day there knows that the city's storied ripe scents are not limited to the fromageries.

Bonus section if you're reading this on a stalled New York train:
• When you get off at a certain stop you say, "Je descends." (Even though, technically, you are soon to ascend to the street.)

Fun vocabulary for the Paris Métro:

• Most-fun Paris stop to try to pronounce: Réaumur-Sébastopol. Say it like the train announcer: "ray-eh-murrrrr say-bahs-toe-PAUL." Either that or Barbès-Rochechouart: "bar-BEZ roe-Shay-CHWAAAAA."

Paris-NYC train-stop equivalents:

• Grand Central = Châtelet (gigantic hub).

• Union Square = République (oval-shaped park that is portal to cool downtown-type neighborhoods).

• Bedford Avenue L = Oberkampf (preening yuppie-hipsters).

• West 72nd St. = St. Germain-des-Prés (older, moneyed, cultured types).

• Wall St. = La Défense (where the big money is made).

• East 68th St. = Porte de Neuilly (where the big money lives).

• West 23rd St. = Hôtel de Ville (portal to a gay neighborhood).

• Canal Street = Belleville (Chinatown).