You need to know four things to get around on public transportation almost anywhere in the world:
1. How to pay
2. Which line you need
3. Which direction you want to go (usually designated by the terminus of the line)
4. Which stop you need
In my experience, the first one is usually the most difficult to figure out, especially as cities get more strict about requiring the use of fare cards over paper tickets. I’ve lived in DC for the last five years, so I was used to using Metro to get around, but pubic transportation London was a whole different experience.
The London public transportation system makes figuring out all of these pretty straightforward. The network is massive, and the coverage is excellent. You can go almost anywhere on public transportation, either on the Underground or Overground trains, Docklands Light Rail or on a bus. Each station has clear signage, and each train/bus makes regular announcements about where you are and where you’re going.
What’s most amazing to me about public transporation in London is that they built the first Underground station in 1863, before electricity. Can you imagine getting on a steam train to travel underground?
The Underground is commonly called the Tube because of the shape of most of the tunnels. It’s not always underground – I think only about 40% of the network is underground – especially once you get out of central London and into the suburbs. Each of the 11 lines has its own quirks – my apartment is nearest a Hammersmith & City and Circle lines station, so I’ve spent the most time on those. They run some of the newest trains in the city, so the “Mind the Gap” reminders seemed silly. The trains come right up to the platform. But on some of the other lines, you can see that the warning is very important as some of the gaps are quite large. Sure, the Tube is crowded and can be frustrating. But on the whole, it’s a fascinating system. The stations are beautiful, too – the tile work alone is amazing.
I’ve split my commuting time in London about equally with the Tube and buses. The iconic double-decker buses go everywhere, even if they don’t go as quickly as the Tube. You do need an Oyster card though – drivers don’t accept currency. I like to be able to see where I’m going, so it’s fun to ride around town, especially if you get the front seat on the top deck.
Title quote: Neil Gaiman, Never where