In the nineteenth century London, Paris, and Berlin transformed from merely big and famous cities into metropolises. At the end of the century underground transport systems had become one of the core features representing the world's leading cities; an integral part of the industrialization of the city, they had a great impact on urban life and served as visible proof of modernity.
From the 1830s on surface railways carried more and more workers and other people to the city center while the number of people living in urban areas rose continuously. Although the railways improved their services to the big cities throughout the century, the city centers had not been penetrated by the mainline companies. All of the railway lines stopped at the periphery, and the scattered railway stations lacked connection. Passengers had to change at the terminus to horse-drawn buses, trams, or cabs to get to another station or to their next destination in the city. Soon, traffic on main roads in the city centers began to jam. Beginning in the 1890s newspaper articles described the intolerable conditions on the road. Contemporaries—mainly leading engineers, politicians, and journalists—regarded subway systems as the ultimate technological solution to overcoming these intensifying traffic problems. The first underground line in the world, the Metropolitan Railway in London opened in 1863 from Farringdon to Paddington, linking together the three major mainline railway termini at King's Cross, Euston, and Paddington. (The name metro is derived from Metropolitan Railway.) The Metropolitan Railway was operated by steam engines, which made travel rather uncomfortable due to unventilated tunnels filled with smoke and the carriages lit by smelly, dripping, and flickering lamps.
In the 1880s, electrical companies, train operators, and engineers in London, Paris, and Berlin had simultaneously developed plans for improved underground systems. They soon came up with two breakthroughs: electric traction improving travel conditions and advances in tunnel-boring enabling deep-level tunneling. The hitherto applied "cut-and-cover" method under the roads was costly, made the systems uneconomical, and caused
disruptions on the surface. The new methods in tunneling relied on the use of an iron cylindrical cutting shield and used cast iron segments that were bolted into immediately behind the cutting shield to replace the previous practice of labor-intensive brickwork. Electrical traction was shown to be feasible at the world's fair in 1879. The first electrical tramway powered by overhead wiring ran in 1881 in Berlin. But electrification did not take off on a larger scale before the 1890s. The first new electrified underground, the City and South London Railway, opened in 1890. This pioneering undertaking led to great interest not only among people connected with railways and kindred undertakings, but among the general public as well.
Its success encouraged other cities to carry on with their own plans, as local authorities elsewhere considered the underground to be an efficient solution for their traffic problems. Budapest (1896), Glasgow (1897), Vienna (1898), Paris (1900), Berlin (1902: combined elevated railway and underground system), and Hamburg (1912) followed by imitating and improving on London's model. In 1913 London already had a network of around 210 kilometers (10 lines), in Paris there were 10 lines with an extension of 93 kilometers and Berlin could muster up 36 kilometers of subway lines. Although Glasgow, Vienna, and Hamburg tried to share the fame of an underground system in the nineteenth century, each only ever had one line, which hardly contributed to their transport efficiency at the time.
Historians still argue whether urban transport caused suburbanization or followed an already existing pattern. But underground systems must be regarded as one of the key factors in this process. At the beginning of the twentieth century, while already linking inner-city destinations such as train stations, underground lines began to reach newly developed suburbs. One of these new areas was Metro-Land in London. Starting in 1915, the Metropolitan Railway published its famous series of Metro-Land guides, intended to encourage London businessmen to buy new homes in order to enjoy the "quiet restfulness and comfort of a residence in pure air and rural surroundings." Indeed, the underground system generated centripetal and centrifugal forces. The faster links to the outskirts of the cities not only helped to develop suburbs but also intensified the concentration process in the inner cities. Contemporary critics already pointed to changes in the social structure. Not only did the underground systems encourage the middle and upper classes to leave the city, the star-shaped networks in London and Berlin underserved wide parts of the city.
For contemporaries these underground systems provided a superior form of urban public transport as they increased mobility and expressed civic pride, progress, and modernity. A new underground also represented the technological and aesthetical capacities of modern engineering. It is perhaps worth noting that while London and Berlin emphasized the commercial and technical aspects of their underground systems, aesthetics were more important for the Paris development. There, the municipal council only agreed to build artistically pleasing viaducts and employed the avant-garde architect Hector Guimard to design the entrances to the Métropolitain. The fluid, curvilinear lines that characterize Guimard's designs became synonymous with the art nouveau movement at the time.
Although the stations in London were impressive as well, the general manager attracted international attention primarily with new technologies. With the City and South London Railway the company introduced only one class, a system that was adopted by the other railways soon afterward. The most impressive innovations however were the hydraulic and, later, electric lifts for up to eighty passengers as well as escalators (1911), which saved the passengers the fatigue of climbing and descending stairs to and from the trains.
In Paris the municipal council was responsible for building the underground. Therefore it was planned as a whole system in a much more logical and comprehensive way than in London, where private enterprises (railway companies) developed a series of competing lines. In Berlin the situation was even more complicated: private enterprises (Siemens and AEG) had to negotiate with the government as well as with different municipal authorities. In London the different underground railway companies did finally team up to form the Underground group in 1908, producing a standard map including all lines and using a common sign (the still-known roundel) as a part of promoting the new cooperation. At the same time, the Underground group began the tradition of artistic poster design that contributed to the high profile of the Underground. Advertising was deliberately designed to have a universal appeal. Unlike the main line railways, the Underground could offer the lure of comfortable travel on equal terms to rich and poor alike.
The underground made a big difference in mobility patterns for urban city dwellers. Already before World War I, all social classes traveled daily by underground. In 1913 London's Underground transported 710 million passengers (all railways, but 474 million passengers were carried by local railways in 1911), Paris's Métropolitain 312 million, and Berlin's Hochund Untergrundbahnen 73 million. In London and Paris underground transport contributed more than 50 percent to all urban public transport, while Berlin lagged only about 6 percent behind. Passengers clearly benefited from these new transport systems, but the various underground companies also made big economic gains.
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