Take the A Train: A Musical Inspiration for Planners

"Take the A Train" is a beautiful celebration of rail transit, urban sophistication, and the Harlem Renaissance all packed into the most danceable 2:54 minutes of musical teamwork ever recorded on a 78 disk. It's my inspiration for great planning!

August 16, 2021, 7:00 AM PDT

By Todd Litman


New York Subway

"Take the A Train" played on a gramophone. | littlenySTOCK / Shutterstock

I was recently interviewed by Andy Keeton for a Between the Lines podcast titled, Why Smart Planning for Emerging Transportation Technologies Will Help Save the Planet? We discussed key concepts from my book, The New Mobilities: Smart Planning for Emerging Transportation Technologies, which critically evaluates the benefits, costs and equity impacts of emerging transportation technologies and services.

Andy ended the session with an interesting question, “What is your favorite commuting song?” Expanding the definition of commuting to include travel for dining, drinking and entertainment, I chose the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s signature song, Take the A Train, a beautiful celebration of rail transit, urban sophistication and the Harlem Renaissance all packed into the most danceable 2:54 minutes of musical teamwork ever recorded on a 78 rpm disk. 

Ellington is one of my personal heroes. He was a skilled musician, a terrific and generous band leader, and a man of great dignity and style. I wish I had been able to see his Orchestra perform at one of Harlem’s famous night clubs. Ellington and his musicians often traveled by train; his music conveys the rhythms, sounds and excitement of rail travel.

Here are the full lyrics:

You must take the "A" train
To go to Sugar Hill, way up in Harlem
If you miss the "A" train
You'll find you missed the quickest way to Harlem

Hurry, get on, now it's coming
Listen to those rails a-thrumming
All aboard, get on the "A" train
Soon you will be on Sugar Hill in Harlem

You must take the "A" train
To go to Sugar Hill, way up in Harlem
You must take the "A" train
To go to Sugar Hill, way up in Harlem
If you miss the "A" train
You'll miss the quickest way to Harlem

Hurry, get on board, it's comin'
Listen to those rails a-thrumming
All aboard, get on the "A" train
Soon you will be on Sugar Hill in Harlem

Harlem, boy
Next stop is Harlem
Next stop, Harlem
Come on, get aboard the "A" train

Get aboard
Next stop is Harlem
Take the "A" train

Here is a video of the song played on my gramophone. For more information see the PBS documentary The Story of “Take the A Train,” Duke Ellington’s Signature. This video shows "A Train" composer Billy Strayhorn taking a bow. Thanks Billy! Thanks Duke!

What music would you choose? What song inspires your work as a planner?


Todd Litman

Todd Litman is founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, an independent research organization dedicated to developing innovative solutions to transport problems.

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