Geeking Out on London Infrastructure

One of the best ways to see London is from the front row of the upper level of a bus. It is quite exhilarating to feel like you are floating above the street, above the chaos and congestion, and you are better able to get your bearings as you travel through the city. You start to understand what it’s like for a pilot to taxi a 747, so high above the pavement that you lose sight of what is immediately in front of you, only in a much closer-knit, nail-biting urban environment. Nonetheless I love the London bus, and I’m pretty sure I could take my kids to London, put them in the front row of the upper deck, and they’d be completely happy for days, especially if the bus goes past Big Ben!

London Bus

“Heritage” Routemaster Bus – London

If a London bus is great, the crowning achievement is the old Routemaster, with their distinct lines and rear boarding platform. And so I was thrilled to see London still operates them on an actual route, albeit in a limited capacity. Route 15 takes you from Trafalgar Square, up The Strand and Fleet Street, past St. Paul’s Cathedral to Tower Hill (the Tower of London). The Twin Cities equivalent would be using historic buses for Route 16 relic service or some sort of downtown circulator (as opposed to weddings). I distinctly recall years ago in London I rode to the end of a route, and after miles of rattling and shuddering through traffic, when the driver shut off the engine, the silence was immense. The Routemasters are indeed old, require a driver and a conductor, and must cost a fortune to run, but they are a symbol of London transportation, and I give Transport for London immense credit for keeping a few on the streets.

London Underground

Victoria Line – London Underground

Of course, the real bones of the London transport system is the Underground, with its distinctive map. When it is running well, it is a terrific way to get around. Of course, like many transit systems, it is old and creaky and doesn’t always provide seamless service, but at least when a line is delayed or shut down the public announcements are polite and informative. And transferring between lines often means following a maze of tunnels, covering a greater distance than from your car to the diaper aisle of Target, which is less charming than it used to be. However, now that I think about it, I’ll take the Underground over Target any day. And interestingly, about 40% of Transport for London’s budget comes from fares – sound familiar? TfL gets a decent chunk of change from the city’s congestion pricing as well.

London Overground

Hackney Central Station – London Overground

Since I first visited in the 1990s, the London Overground system has been created, taking a few existing rail lines, connecting them and adding some routes to fill in key gaps and expand service. The Overground has made getting around east London significantly more convenient, certainly an improvement for places like Hackney, where I was staying. Trains alternate between a mostly open-air trench or elevated, and I suspect the oddly numbered five-car trains are chosen due to platform space constraints. For the trivia-inclined, yes there are places like Whitechapel station where the Overground trains actually run below the Underground.

London St. Pancras Station

Grand Arrival – St. Pancras Station

I arrived in London on a train from Brussels. It was only by happenstance that my itinerary took me there by rail, not air, but arriving at St. Pancras station is a deeply satisfying experience. I can’t say enough good things about the UK rail system. It isn’t perfect, and debates range from upgrading and electrifying portions of the network to re-nationalizing the system. The way I see it, at least there is a system to argue about! Here in Lake Wobegon, we have a single train per day and cannot even manage to keep that on time. In England I was able to reach Whitby, a town of just 13,000, by rail, in order to go hiking. A mundane trip from York to London, for example, covers 170 miles and took me exactly two hours. The notion of being able to get from Minneapolis to Duluth (roughly the same distance) in two hours seems like a distant dream, albeit a worthy one. And I swear I saw Sir Topham Hatt on a two-car train from Frome to Bristol!

London Bicycling

Cyclists – Morning Commuters in bike box

I’m quite blown away by the increase in cycling in London. When I first visited in the 1990s I was using my bike extensively at school in Madison and actually considered bringing it to London. I’m glad I didn’t, but now things are different today, thanks to considerable efforts from Transport for London. Although cycling in London is “terrifying,” according to the Guardian, it is more popular than ever and getting safer. There are bicycle superhighways, contraflow lanes, bike boxes (see above), and I even witnessed an official cycling lesson. There are bicycles everywhere, as the view out the upper deck of my bus during the morning rush hour confirmed. I used the bike share to do a little sightseeing, but of course, upon arriving at a popular locale (Broadway Market on a Saturday) all the bike spaces were occupied at both stations, and with the next closest station a half mile away, I had to wait for someone to check out a bike. Alas. Alas.

London Sidewalk

Immaculate London Pavements

As wonderful as buses, the Underground, and bikes are, there is no better way to navigate a great city than on foot, and London is no exception. I’ve always like the pavements in London for their distinct offset pattern, but this time around I grew particularly impressed by the city’s ability to maintain them. Certainly there must be uneven sidewalks that some number of the 8 million or so inhabitants of London traverse, but I didn’t find them. That is quite amazing when you stop to think: the most important connective tissue of all the means of transportation in the city, the thing that just about all Londoners use, and they are, if not flawless, certainly a high priority.

London bus bikeshare

London Transportation – Old and New

On my last evening in London, I made my way to the Waterloo Bridge (for the Sunset, of course!). As I watched the tide come in past St. Paul’s, a bus rattled past. On the upper deck was a gentleman, in the front row no less. As the bus passed, I could see him gazing out the window. In an age when most transit riders’ eyes are glued to their phones, here was a guy who was just staring out the window as he crossed the River Thames. I guess it doesn’t get old for some of us, good ol’ London-town.

This post reposted from the author’s blog Joe Urban.


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13 Responses to Geeking Out on London Infrastructure

  1. Eric Anondson
    Eric Anondson November 5, 2015 at 11:23 am #

    Infrastructure related, I recall seeing videos of retractable bollards to the entries for bus lanes where an ignorant driver tried following a bus into such a lanes and got smashed.

    Best thing ever. I want them here.

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg November 5, 2015 at 4:51 pm #

      A very good idea. I can think of a few places for them.

    • Betsey Buckheit
      Betsey Buckheit November 7, 2015 at 12:08 pm #

      Cambridge, UK installed “rising bollards” too, and in a case of car-hits-bollard,I was pleased courts required the car driver to pay for damages to his own car and the bollard.

      Lots of places (parks, college campuses, central cities) where emergency vehicle access could be permitted this way while keeping the areas free of cars most of the time.

      • Eric Anondson
        Eric Anondson November 7, 2015 at 12:30 pm #

        Oooh. I can think of a few places in the Twin Cities I’d have these. Say, close Portland through the Commons but put the retractable bollards for the emergency response vehicles?

        I have a few fantasy bus routes I’d put these up in the Twin Cities too.

  2. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman November 5, 2015 at 1:12 pm #

    The UK has long used low pressure sodium vapor streetlights. LEDs are just now catching up with their energy efficiency, but people in the US never much liked them because of their monochromatic yellow. The only place I’ve seen them in the Twin Cities is the parking lot of the Ramada in Bloomington, although Richfield used them on major north-south streets from the 1980s to the 1990s.

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg November 5, 2015 at 4:55 pm #

      Nothing but gas lamps where I was. But seriously, it is odd how different decisions about things like streetlights are made, and result in fundamental differences between entire countries.

      I just saw an op-ed about LED lights, and how they are less romantic than those they replaced. I think it was in the Sunday New York Times in the last few weeks – I’ll try to find it.

  3. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke November 5, 2015 at 4:09 pm #

    Lovely post, Sam. I remember taking the train from London to Leeds. It’s so quick, but you’re basically going through all of England. That place is SOOOOOOO compact compared to the USA.

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg November 5, 2015 at 5:01 pm #

      Well yes, geography is a huge factor. 80 million people on an island not much bigger than Minnesota. If Duluth, Grand Rapids, Brainerd, St. Cloud, Mankato, Rochester, Albert Lea, Winona, Bemidji and Eau Claire all had more than a million people. Basically there is a ton of potential train travelers, not that we shouldn’t be adding rail service here, it’s just night and day, so it’s hardly worth comparing.

      • Walker Angell
        Walker Angell November 6, 2015 at 3:28 pm #

        I’ve often wondered if with good rail service we could revive many communities in Minnesota. Small communities still seem to thrive in the UK (and NL, DE, SE, FI, …), why is that? Are people there simply more willing to forego the ‘benefits’ of a major city for the benefits of a smaller community? Are their smaller communities more appealing to live in? How much difference does it make if getting to the city is a quick and easy train ride away?

        • Sam Newberg
          Sam Newberg November 7, 2015 at 9:53 am #

          The amazing thing about London is how big its “commuter-shed” is. Read real estate listings, particularly those targeted to people working in finance, and as long as you can reach London by train in less than an hour and twenty minutes, any little place counts, and little unknown villages are being “discovered” all the time.

          In some ways this is like “drive-till-you qualify,” except it is by train, not car, but the logic is the same – you can get more house and land for your money, plus maybe be in a cute little village.

          So could fast rail service revive small towns and cities within a decent commute of Minneapolis? And if not “revive” then make even more desirable? Yes! Northfield, Stillwater, Hudson, Excelsior, Norwood Young America, Hastings, etc. would all be more attractive with rail service. Anoka is slightly more so with Northstar, and just think if that was 15 or 30 minute service all day. Red Wing technically has rail service (Amtrak), but once daily doesn’t really count. The list goes on.

          • Sam Newberg
            Sam Newberg November 7, 2015 at 10:04 am #

            To Walker’s point, though, I think smaller communities in the UK, etc. generally benefit from being in geographically smaller countries, but also generally better land use planning and transit service at the national level all the way down.

            That’s a broad generalization, of course. And not absolute, as many countries also have more sprawling edges of their cities compared to a decade or more ago.

            Then again, you’d think crossing the border between Belgium and the Netherlands would be innocuous, but you can really tell the difference – the Dutch have much more focused planning.

            But I suspect a lot of the issue here is density, like regional population density. It would be interesting to compare population density around several major cities – New York, Chicago, London, Frankfurt, etc. and overlay rail service. Like there are X cities of more than 100,000 population within 100 miles of London that have 15 minute rail service intervals or better. Then compare it to here, which I guess bolsters the argument or rail service to Rochester!

  4. GlowBoy November 11, 2015 at 11:28 am #

    I spent a few days in good ole Londinium myself this summer, with my wife and our two young kids, and we used most of the transit modes discussed here.

    We didn’t ride the public double-decker buses, but we did buy tickets twice for the Big Bus double-decker tour, which basically follows a couple of fixed loops around most of the major sights in London. The buses run every few minutes, and your ticket lets you hop and off as desired. Sitting on the top of these was by far the BEST way to see the city (at least when the weather is nice – the upper decks of these buses are open-air).

    We spent a couple of our nights in a Docklands area hotel, and also had one flight out of City airport, so we got to know the Docklands Light Rail (aka Overground) very well. Very nice and efficient system, and it was still running (allowing us to reach the Tower of London and get on the Big Bus loop) on the day the Tube workers were on strike! One caution is that some of the coarser-grain versions of the famous Tube maps don’t show how multiple DLR lines share the same corridor and how you may need to switch trains at some point along the way.

    And the Tube … oh, the Tube … well … it was great for us when it was fully up and running. But one of the days we were there it was shut down for a strike, and on the day we needed to get from Docklands to Heathrow with all our bags, there was a medical incident that shut down a station – including all lines running through it — for several hours. The alternate Tube route we ended up having to make looked good on paper, but took a ridiculously long time (the trains were running slower than usual), somewhat exasperatingly with two kids and lots of bags to deal with. Fortunately the kids were troopers and very patient. But we were less than impressed with the efficiency of the system, and some other riders hinted that our experience wasn’t as unusual as you’d hope.

    But I will say the Tube stations were clean and orderly, many even had restrooms and the staff were amazing: when they saw us coming with a stroller (and often suitcases, since we arrived and departed London several times on this trip), they would open up the family gate for us before we even got there, often without checking our tickets (though we still paid*). Many of the Tube stations had restrooms (most with baby-changing facilities), many were handicap accessible (also meaning stroller and suitcase friendly), and most Tube maps indicate which ones are and are not handicap accessible.

    Contrast this with Paris, where we also spent four days: while efficient, the trains were obscenely crowded at all hours, there were almost NO restrooms anywhere – and baby-changing tables are unheard-of there. There were NO elevators or escalators, forcing us to carry the stroller and baby up and down VERY long staircases on a constant basis, and NO family friendly turnstiles, often forcing us to remove the baby from the stroller and fold the stroller just to get through, then reverse the process on the other side of the turnstile. As a result of all this we were surprised to find London infinitely more “family-friendly” than Paris, despite the latter’s considerable other charms.

    * I will point out that public transport in London is FAR more expensive than anywhere else I’ve traveled. 40% of revenue from the fare box? At those prices, I’d hope so!

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  1. Sunday Summary – November 8, 2015 | streets.mn - November 8, 2015

    […] Geeking Out on London Infrastructure is Sam Newburg’s trip to and around London (go to Paris with him here) to travel by bus, train, Underground, Overground and foot; there’s additional comment-discussion about how smaller UK towns are connected by rail, rising bollards, and streetlights. […]

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