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!
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.
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 more ground 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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