Taking the Tube, and More, in London
From Owen Duckworth, Organizer
As anyone following or working on transit issues in 2011 knows it was a hectic first six months of the year. During the legislative session, funding for public transit was under assault. TLC worked diligently with our members and allies to try to protect transit funding. But,little was decided at the Capitol by the end of session in May. Negotiations stalled in June and led to the government shutdown in July before a budget deal was reached. The resolution was far from good for transit, but at least preserved existing service and fares. Needless to say, at the end of this long fight, everyone (including me) was very happy to be able to take some time off.
I was fortunate enough to get out of the country for a few weeks, making two stops in the two nations where my parents were born and raised. The first leg of my trip, to the United Kingdom, where my father was born, offered me a chance to explore the London transit system. While I’ve made previous trips to London, this was my first as a transit advocate/nerd and I was eager to see what the city had to offer. After getting picked up from the airport and given an Oyster card (the London equivalent of a Go-To Card) I was ready to go.
The London Underground, or “the Tube” as it’s known to locals, is the backbone of their system. Itextends to all corners of the city and seems to be used by pretty much everyone, regardless of race, class, income level, or occupation. My first trip on the tube was from the West London suburb of Ealing, where two sets of aunts and uncles live, to the East London community of Greenwich, home of the Prime Meridian (hence Greenwich mean time) which, as one Londoner suggested, was proof that England really is the center of the world. The trip took over an hour by train and bus, but felt very easy to do, and I would repeat the trip a couple more times during my stay without issue.
While I was excited to ride the tube and take a double-decker bus or two, I was unexpectedly impressed by another form of transit in London. My second day in town, I took the River Bus from Greenwich into Central London. The River Bus is a ferry that runs along the Thames River through the city and functions in the same way as a bus or train, making stops at docks along the way. Riding along the river allowed me to see a lot more of the city than taking the Underground, as it went past sites including the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, and London Bridge. The boats themselves were very comfortable as well, with spacious seating, both indoors and outdoors, and even a bar with food and drinks.
London’s also famous for its double-decker buses, the older style of which seems to have disappeared, but smaller versions are still all over the place in the city. I was most impressed by the frequency of buses. Most of the local routes I took to the nearest train station came every 7-10 minutes.
My most interesting experience on the bus came after a night out in Central London with a couple of friends. We were able to catch the “night bus” [Owen—is the night bus like a taxi that takes everyone who gets on where they want to go? Or did you happen to need to go where it went?] a bus with a route running all the way from the center of town out to my cousin’s place in Greenwich. I should mention that we picked up the bus at nearly 4 in the morning, after an entertaining evening on the town.
As much as I enjoyed checking out the transit infrastructure in London, the best part of the trip was actually walking around the city. While London isn’t nearly as built up vertically as larger American cities, the neighborhoods are very dense, with housing, shops, restaurants, parks, etc., very close to each other, making it an extremely easy place to walk around. To me there’s still no better way to experience a city than walking around it and taking in the surroundings.
As transit advocates in America we tend to glorify European cities’ transit systems, sometimes to a fault. London certainly didn’t disappoint. While I was happy to get back to a slightly less busy metro area here in the Twin Cities, I can’t help but think about what it might be like to live in a place with such good transit and with neighborhoods as walking friendly as London has to offer. Next stop on my trip (and my next blog entry), was my mom’s home country, the Seychelles islands. I’ll share getting around on La Digue, an island where bicycling and walking are the main modes of transportation.