Talkin’ Transit – Metro vs the London Tube

Mind the Gap, courtesy of Jonathtan

If you want perspective on the DC Metro system, sometimes it’s valuable to look at another light rail system somewhere else.   And nothing signifies subways more than the London Tube.  (All New York City fans can feel free to argue this in the comments section.)

The first thing to realize is that DC and the Tube are, in many ways, very much alike.  If you have ever used the Metro, you will be right at home with the Tube ticket vending machines and the entry gates.  And there are just as many escalators in a Tube station as there are in most Metro stations.  Even the platforms look a lot alike, with the textured area right next to the trains to warn the blind of the dangerous area ahead.

There are some great comparisons, and lessons that I think both sides could learn…

Metro Has it Better

A tourist in DC will find it cheaper to move around the city.  That is because the Tube is moving to an electronic fare card system (Oyster) and encourages everyone to use it.  The cost of a single one-way paper ticket on the Tube is a whopping £4.00 ($6.00).  An all day fare card, good for zones 1-6, is £6.80 (about $10.00) US and is worth the extra cost if you are taking 2 or more trips.  At a Metro station, the swipe cards and the paper tickets are all the same price, so you can choose which you want to use.  Metro’s $7.80 all-day pass is a much better deal.

Metro also has the benefit of a newer system.  Most of the Tube stations are like the NYC metro: individual tunnels carved out and supported with iron beams.  Metro’s open station design may be darker, but it gives the appearance of a lot more room and isn’t anywhere near as noisy.

Because the tunnels are older, it can be harder to navigate around a Tube station.   So anyone who has complained about the walkways in Metro only has to visit the warrens of the Tube to realize how good we have it.

Places we could learn something

The one real benefit of the London Tube is the sheer number of lines.  Our five line system is great, but doesn’t cover anywhere near as much area as the 11 line London Tube.   During my stay in London, I couldn’t find anytihng I wanted to visit that wasn’t 3-5 blocks from a Tube stop.  Imagine two to three times the number of Metro stops in DC, and lines going through almost every major suburb, and you’ll start to see the extent of the system.

Even more impressive is that London has trains to both Heathrow and Gatwick.  In fact, Heathrow has both Tube stations and an express line to Paddington Station.  Now that’s mass transit to an airport.  (Dulles dreams about having a rail line by 2075, but doesn’t hold out too much hope.)

But the Tube has conquered a number of other problems that we could mimic.  My favorite were the “line maps”, which show all the stops for a particular line on each train.  As a visitor it made it easy for me to find my way around, and I could always tell how many stops were left.  And the Tube has great recorded voices on most trains, which clearly state the next station stop.  Mumbling Metro?  Nothing even close.

The layout of the trains also seemed to be better thought out.  Instead of the two-across seating on both sides, the Tube puts a row of seats against the wall.  That means more standing, but also more room to stand.

I was also struck by the number of Tube stations that exited in to public shopping areas.  Rather than put all of the stops outside, the Tube has more stations like Pentagon City which put you out in to an enclosed, heated, dry indoor space.  This seems obvious to me, as commuters could easily stop at the Chemist on thier way home.  Metro, perhaps those outdoor stations should be a thing of the past.

Roads?  We don’t need roads…

The one thing that I realized, standing outside a London Tube stop, is that the train system is almost inversely linked to the roads.  London, wih it’s insanse street layout and few lanes for traffic, has forced commuters and the entire city to look for new ways to move around.  An extensive network of trains (the Tube is just one of many trains) helps solve this problem.  And London isn’t “choked”, it is a thriving and exciting city.

I think that DC should be watching closely.  There is only so much physical room for cars – and once that is gone, the city will need something else to help keep it vibrant and thriving.  Rather than planning just outlying suburb lines, it would be great to see Metro planners include more rails in all parts of the DC area.  The Tube proves that it can be made to work, and work well.

I just saw an article on Wired about the Tokyo Subway, and it makes a great counterpoint to this article so I wanted to add it.  Enjoy.

Jonathan Baker

came to DC, left for San Francisco, and then realized he couldn’t live without a daily fix of politics and came back. When not traveling to crazy locations, he speaks and writes for a major software house in CA.

5 thoughts on “Talkin’ Transit – Metro vs the London Tube

  1. Another big difference is the advertising inside the stations. The London Underground uses every single space and most of it is done with digital screens. Metro could certainly learn how to make some more money to support growth and maintenance without relying on government funding.

  2. Just in case anyone is heading to London I highly recommend that you invest in an Oyster card: when I was last there if you took more than one trip the card had paid for itself. Even better it also ‘remembers’ how many trips you take in a day and if an all-day-pass turns out to be the cheaper option thats what you pay. Far easier than each morning trying to figure out if you will take enough trips to make the daypass worthwhile.

  3. I agree.

    If you didn’t remember to get an Oyster card, just get a daypass. The second trip makes this more valuable if you are doing tickets day-by-day.

  4. One thing to realize about advertising is that the revenue is split between the vending company and the Metro system. Even so, it does provide extra income for the WMATA.

    Before we jump to “no government sponsorship” however, it’s important to note that every road you drove on in the last week is “government sponsored”. Metro claims a lot of government spending, but the numbers are balanced against the reduced wear and tear on the roadways, and the lost productivity time of having that additional traffic. I saw a study a while ago (I wish I could find it, but I’ll keep looking) that said the cost of Metro was something like 65 cents on the dollar for road improvements and support for a similar amount of car traffic. That’s a pretty efficient way of spending of your tax money.

  5. I’m a temporary English ex-pat, currently in the DC area. I have to say, I understand the Tube far better than I get the Metro. Even though the Tube maps bare absolutely no resemblance to the city above it (yeah, those two stops are actually 10 blocks apart, not two blocks…), I find it far easier to figure out where I’m going and the best way to get anywhere than with Metro. Admittedly, it is more expensive than its American counterpart, but compared to driving into the city from the suburbs every day, it’s worth it.

    Plus, hearing ‘Mind the Gap!’ is pleasing and reassuring.