Sara Says: Transport for London

This is the second in a series of posts where we’ll both give our take on a specific subject or topic. For our second effort (our flat/apartment posts being the first; our bad for not properly introducing it last time), we’ll be taking on the public transport systems in both London and NYC. Up first, Sara on Transport for London, with a strong focus on the Underground.

My uncle always said you’re a real New Yorker when you know exactly where to stand on the subway platform so that the doors open closest to the station exit offering easiest access to your destination. (This is pre Exit Strategy, obviously.) I can proudly say that in NYC, I’ve got this down pat for my commute to work and many other rides about town.

The subway, in my opinion, is the life and soul of New York. It breathes movement and connection and is the best display of the city’s melting pot marvel. Not only does it transport you from A to B and sometimes C in a (relatively) swift fashion, but you can be sitting opposite a hasidic man with a top hat who you think lives in Borough Park, Brooklyn, but is really some new rapper from the LES. You can hear a gaggle of friends speaking French and assume they’re on holiday, but really they’re all expats who have been living in NoLiTa for years. Artist Sophie Blackall created a piece of artwork for the MTA that displays this notion perfectly. Here’s just a small section of it, but the entire piece can be seen here.

mta.subway5

What’s more, you get all this for $2.25. (Yeah, yeah. I remember when it was $1.50, too, and some of you a mere token. Sigh.)

But I digress. I’m meant to be discussing the London underground, which actually has far more perks as an actual transport system than the subway. Unfortunately, I am not even close to mastering the whole train car/exit thing, but I am happy to share that I’ve deduced which transfers suck (Circle/District to Monument/Bank for the Central) and which are WAY more manageable (Circle/District to Liverpool for the Central). And by manageable, I mean I’m not walking underground for 8 minutes like a mole person, weaving my way up and down a series of insanely steep escalators.

london_tube

THE GOOD

  • There are handy signs at the entrance to each line that clearly list all the stops so that you know right away which platform you want (east/west/north/south) and how many stops you need to go before reaching your destination.
  • Turnstiles are designated for ENTRY or EXIT only, eliminating that awkward commuter-rush-get-out-of-my-way-dance many New Yorkers experience pre/post swipe.
  • Speaking of swiping, there’s no risk of that damn black strip deciding not to work for no apparent reason, causing you to “swipe again at this turnstile” until you’ve swiped so many times it’s deemed unswipable. Here, you’ve either got a ticket or an oyster card. I have no idea why it’s called an oyster card, but it’s similar to a metrocard in that you “top-up” (a fancy way of saying refill) and it deducts the ride amount when you hold it up to a more technologically-advanced touch-system and the gates open.
  • EVERY station has a countdown sign alerting you to how long the wait is until the next train comes. EVERY STATION. This is huge. Why New York is so behind the times on this one is beyond me.
  • Stations themselves are relatively clean and…wait for it…rat-free.
  • While line transfers can be a bit of a nightmare, at least they exist at more than three stations. There are several opportunities for connections, making it clear why the system is called The Underground: There’s seriously a whole world down there. Most of the time in NYC you have to exit and enter a specific line from the outside.
  • You can ALWAYS hear and understand the announcement alerting you to what stop you’re at and what stop is up next.
  • The TFL workers are kind and helpful and take their job seriously. Just recently, when I was bound for Twickenham for rugby, I got to my station to learn the train I meant to take wasn’t running. (Similarly to the MTA, there are weekend closures all the time!) Just as the man behind the glass at the Wapping station was about to help me, he realized someone had left all their change in the ticket machine. Rather than just scoff it off like most MTA workers would do, he quickly got on his microphone and made an announcement to those waiting at the station. “Whoever just tried to top-up, your change is waiting at the ticket counter.” Which brings me to…
  • They still have a very large majority of ticket window workers at all stations. On top of that, all stations are equipped with cameras on the platforms. So when situations like the above happen, the person at the ticket counter can actually look at his cameras and talk to any particular straphanger he wants! This actually happened at a Notting Hill station recently. Over the loudspeaker you heard the guy go, “Kid in the blue hat: Step away from the edge. You are too close to the track. A train is coming.” Awesome.
  • Finally, the overground trains — and perhaps others — seem to go straight through. In that, if you get in on one car, but want to walk way to another or the front/back of the train, you can do so without risking life or death and opening a VERY large steel door to have to straddle the in-between for a scary second.
Inside an Overground train

Inside an Overground train

THE BAD

  • The whole damn system shuts down at 12:30! Now, I admit I don’t usually take the subway in New York after midnight anyway for safety reasons. (Unless I’m with someone or coming from/going to a relatively well-traversed station.) But at least it runs. Come midnight in London, there’s a mad-dash to make the last train, which can completely screw up the pace of your night. What’s with the mad dash? Now, my friends, a brief bit on buses and black cabs…

Black cabs. There’s not much more to say other than they’re so freakin’ expensive. Seriously. My cheapest one so far cost me £8 ($12), and it was about a 4 minute ride — if that. I don’t take cabs back in New York because compared to the subway, they’re pricey, often take way longer, and can be life-threatening. (That’s not a myth.) What’s more, many cabs here do not have credit card machines! (And if they do, they charge you a 10% fee.) They’ll kindly stop at an ATM for you…while the meter continues to run. It’s also funny to me that you’re expected to tell the cab where you want to go before getting in as they have the option to refuse you. In New York, if that happens, we have the right to report their ass! (And many of us, ahem, do.)

Finally, there are those infamous double-decker buses, some of which run 24-hours, and are therefore a fine alternative to the lazy tube and the wallet-draining cabs. Like with any four-wheel vehicle, though, there’s the inevitable risk of traffic, and buses are infamous for being long and slow no matter what city you’re in. (Why do they ALWAYS MISS THE LIGHT??) But IMO, there are far more positives, including the fact that they actually come regularly and on-time. It may take a lot longer to get where you gotta go, but patience, I am still discovering, truly is a virtue.

10 thoughts on “Sara Says: Transport for London

  1. It’s called an Oyster card in reference to the phrase “the world is your oyster” implying it gives you the freedom to go wherever you please.

  2. While you’ve been Transporting in London, the MTA in NYC raised the subway fare (again) to $2.50 a ride. Sucks..but still the best way to get around this city for sure..so well worth it!

  3. Grew up in South Philly and the subway on Broad Street was the mode of travel to get to and from town. . I remember everyone used it to get to work in Center City. I actually went into labor with Jen on the subway on my way back from my doctor appointment in town. Made it home and she was born 5 hours later 2 weeks early. Love reading this as usual. So many people don’t know what they are actually.

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