Talkin’ Transit: London Edition

All Aboard
‘All Aboard’
courtesy of Samer Farha

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” — Samuel Johnson

I recently spent a week working in London, and got to experience, again, London’s remarkable, ridiculous, insane, and fantastic transportation system first hand. Did I say “again?” Yes, this is probably the umpteenth time I’ve worked in London for a short stint, and the umpteenth time I’ve been exposed to the system of busses, subways, and insanity that is the Transport for London (TfL). I’ve been there for strikes and breakdowns, and I’ve been there in the heat and cold. I prefer it when things are running well and in the cold.

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive article on the differences between Metro and the TfL. It’s more about what I see as obvious similarities and differences, and where one might have done a better job.

I’ll start with station architecture: Metro has this one down cold. Huge, cavernous stations with reasonably well marked platforms. The only time you feel claustrophobic in a Metro station is when the system breaks down during rush hour. The Tube is a little different. The system gets its name from the tube-like tunnels, which extend their presence into the stations. But each platform is its own tube, and the platforms get very crowded no matter the time of day. It feels much more closed in, and you will get jostled.

courtesy of Samer Farha

London’s system has a maze of stairs and escalators which you’ll need to navigate. The signage is pretty good, and they put reminders on the escalators that you should stand to the right. And the escalators seem to work, more often than not. And they are fast. They seem much faster than our elevators, and do a better job of handling the crowds.

You know those platform signs that Metro has up? If you are standing near them, you can tell what the next train is and other information. They are somewhat large, with really large type that limits their usefulness. There’s also only one on each platform. The Tube has at least two on each platform. They are thinner, longer, and use smaller type, but you can usually see one or the other from where ever you stand on the platform. They show the next train in a static line, then a rotating list of the following set of trains. There’s usually a crawling ticker to tell you of delays and other issues.

And there are almost always issues. In the week I was there, there was a strike by engineers on one of the lines. This didn’t disrupt travel, but it seems (perhaps unfairly so) that the Tube has quite the number of strikes. The Circle line, a line that goes in one big circle around central London, is slow and has frequent breakdowns. I think (and this is based on nothing but guy instinct) that the Tube seems to deal with their breakdowns better than Metro does. Signal breakdowns in particular seem to be fixed or bypassed much faster than they do here.

But I think the reason the system in London works so much better than here when there are problems is the sheer number of options you have to get around. You breakdown or discover that service is slow on one of the lines, and you can usually easily change to another line, even if it means a walk of a couple of blocks. In the main core of London, there are stations every block, it seems.

World Cup Spirit
‘World Cup Spirit’
courtesy of Samer Farha

Add to the plentiful lines and stations one of the most comprehensive bus systems I’ve ever ridden. It’s usually very easy to find a bus going where you are headed. If you know your way around town or have a decent map (get an A-Z London map if you go), you can quickly figure out which buses go close enough to where you want. Transfers between the train and the bus are free, and the opposite is true as well.

Speaking of fares, the Tube has a zone system. The central part of London is zone 1, and the rings expand out from there. If you are a tourist or even there on business, you’re unlikely to venture further than zone 2. If you’re going to be there for more than a few days, get yourself an Oyster card. You can buy them at just about any station, and you can top them up online. The cost is a £3 deposit. Like the Metro SmarTrip card, you can go negative on the balance, and you can use them for the Tube, the bus, and DLR.

The TfL website is actually really helpful, and the journey planner is updated with disruptions, delays, and detours. It is a model of what these systems should be like. As far as I can tell, the system is on Google Transit, but it gave me very mixed results. The TfL site was more informative and more accurate.

The big downside to London’s system is the lack of air conditioning. None of the lines have AC, and even in mildly pleasant low humidity 80° weather, it can be sweltering in the tube. I can’t imagine what our Metro would be like without the air conditioning, especially during this string of 100° days.

Born in Lebanon, Samer moved to DC to go to college. A lot of good that did him. Twenty-two years later, he still lives in the area. When he’s not writing for a blog or tweeting incessantly, he wanders the streets (and the globe) photographing whatever gets in his way.

6 thoughts on “Talkin’ Transit: London Edition

  1. Another thing london does better: the oyster will never charge you more than the price of a day pass per day, no matter how many rides you take. SmarTrip will just keep charging you – meaning we still have to buy a paper ticket if we’re planning on doing lots of metro-ing in a given day. Boo.

  2. Oh I heart London and the fact that riding the tube and bus was so easy made the trip all the more enjoyable. Definitely get an Oyster card – that thing was a savior and I felt like a local using it.

  3. The Oyster card pass options are a definite plus. But you don’t mention how late the Tube runs! Last trains are at midnight. That’s insane! I’m in London for the summer and am staying off the Northern line, which closes at 11pm every night for like 6 months because of construction. At least there are 24 hour bus lines!

  4. One of my better experiences in London was when a major line shut down.

    A crowd of people gathered around an Underground employee.

    People would shout their intended destinations, and the employee would immediately shout the required stations and lines, in the proper order, that they could take to get where they were going without using the shut-down line.

    Sometimes, he would give more than one permutation for the destination.

    It was freaking amazing to witness.

    Kind of like “the knowledge” for the tube.

  5. That is really amazing, Peregrine, especially give the number and variation of lines for the Tube, and some of the crazy routes one might have to take & transfer to handle that variation.

    I do think DC’s cabbies need The Knowledge test, though.

  6. My counter-example is the Philadelphia subway.

    Entering means going through a floor-to-ceiling turnstile in a wall of bars, strongly suggesting a jail.

    The dark ceilings are flat and low, festooned with cables, pipes, and wires. Combined with a grimy, dimly lit interior, the experience is oppressive and confining.

    Sneaker-sized rats scuttled about in full view, their presence explained by the ubiquitous uncollected garbage spread out far from the overflowing trash cans. I was shocked when entering a subway car door to find seemingly EVERYONE eating noisily and messily, usually mystery meat on a stick.

    Strangely, I suppose, I don’t recall whether there was climate control.

    At least the car didn’t break down, and while it was busy, it wasn’t overcrowded.

    Still, it was highly unpleasant, and I do not plan on using it again.