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I’ve spent the last year living in London, England. Whenever I tell my friends or family, who know me as a transportation geek, they remark: “Oh, you must love the Tube!"
I think every visitor to London with the slightest affinity for public transit comes back home with an awe of the London Underground. The Tube is the oldest, one of the most elegantly designed, and one of the most effectively run subway systems in the world. Needless to say I’m a fan, and I was not above collecting Tube memorabilia to decorate my modest London flat.
But this post is not about the Tube.
Well perhaps a bit. But it’s more about the many other, perhaps hidden, aspects of London’s transportation system that I found noteworthy, inspiring, and worthy of replicating in other cities. So here goes, my Top Ten Reasons I Love London's Transportation System.
1. Frequent Bus Service
Among transit consultant Jarrett Walker’s notable quotes, he remarks that “frequency is freedom”. That is, when the bus in front of your house comes every ten minutes, instead of every 30 minutes (or worse, 60 minutes!), a world of access is opened up. Suddenly, you don’t have to plan your day around bus schedules--you can simply show up and go. And if that bus doesn’t show up (our drivers are human, after all) there will be another not too far behind.
So living in London, one of the things I appreciate most is the sheer frequency of public bus service, city-wide. A typical headway is 8-10 minutes, and with a dense network of interconnecting routes, many stops serve multiple routes that provide you with a bus every 2-3 minutes. It’s liberating! Living a car-free lifestyle, people complain that, “with a car you can just get up and go, but with the bus you’re beholden to the schedule.” But in London, that “get up and go” lifestyle is available to transit riders too.
In fact, the social norms around frequent bus service are so strong that, in the midst of London transit budget cuts, I’ve heard riders complain furiously that their local bus route was cut back from eight-minute to ten-minute service. At first I chuckled, because while living in Boston, where my local routes often had headways of 20, 30 or 40 minutes, I’d dream of ten-minute service! But after a year in London, I am now too one of the crusty riders lamenting the ‘good old days’ before my bus service was slashed to every ten minutes.
2. Progressive Fare Policy
Oh, the pesky fare increase. In my hometown of Toronto, it’s become a trend for pundits to point out that "transit fares are rising faster than X". Take your pick of X, and chances are, the sentence still holds. National inflation rate? check. Local wage growth? check. Vehicle registration taxes? check. Parking fees? check. From a social equity standpoint, fare increases are one of the most painful policies we can inflict on marginalized populations. But just as frustrating, beyond the headline fare increase, is the structure in which fares are imposed.
Take the typical North American city. You have a single-ride fare and a discounted monthly pass. If you’re a frequent rider, it usually makes sense for you to get the monthly pass, since the per-trip rate works out lower. Of course, as many transit experts point out, this sort of policy, while perhaps well-intentioned, penalizes low-income riders.
Well, it comes down to budgeting. A monthly pass in Toronto costs $156. That’s a hefty one-time cash outlay for someone living paycheque-to-paycheque. A single cash fare of $3.50 is a lot easier to budget. But at the end of the month, a tally of all those cash fares either means (a) the rider ended up spending more than a monthly pass would have cost, or (b) they made fewer trips to keep costs down, meaning reduced economic and social activity. Both are negative outcomes.
Enter the humble fare cap. What London does, along with cities like Portland, Dublin and Sydney, is that you start off by always paying a single fare. But once you make a few trips in a day, you reach the “fare cap”, after which point you’re not charged any more for the day. And same goes for the week - one you hit the weekly maximum, every ride after that is free! In essence, you’re getting the benefits of a single fare and a monthly pass at the same time. It’s a win-win.*
Before smartcard fare payment systems, fare capping was difficult. But now almost every city can do it. London has done it since 2005. I hope more cities across North America will follow suit.
*The only small downside I see is that, from the perspective of psychology, some riders like the idea of paying upfront for a pass, and then having every ride with zero marginal cost, thereby reducing the “cost salience". With fare capping, your first few rides always have a high marginal cost, and the cost is salient, so that might discourage riders from even riding enough to reach the cap. But this is a nuance for another time!
3. Network Resilience
Living in London has made me appreciate the wonders of a dense, resilient rapid transit network. What is a resilient network? Well, suppose your usual subway line goes down. Can you still get to work? If yes, your system is resilient. Simple.
There are many more aspects to the concept of resilience, but I think this is a useful example. If one Tube line in London is disrupted, there are other nearby lines that can (at least somewhat) pick up the slack. It may involve an extra bus ride and slightly longer trip time, but your trip is still possible. In Toronto, on the other hand, if the Yonge Line goes down, the city's economy is brought to its knees.
So while cities often talk about extending existing transit lines to serve outlying populations, it’s important to recognize that networks with greater connectivity, and greater options for people to make any given trip, are more resilient to disruption, and more able to handle growth. That leads me to my next point...
4. Polycentric Transit
I’ve come to appreciate that not every transit line in London goes to a single point in the central city. This contrasts with many other cities, which built out ‘radial’ rapid transit lines, like spokes of a wheel, all helping suburban commuters reach the downtown. In these cities, trips that don’t fit this profile are difficult to do by transit - like going from one suburb to another.
In London, thanks especially to its legacy rail network, and forward-thinking planners and political leaders, there are a number of rapid transit options to connect locations that don’t involve passing through Central London. One such service is the “London Overground”, a network of suburban rail lines unified under the Transport for London network map.
Rapid transit doesn’t have to just take you downtown!
5. The Efficiency of Trains
Talk to a Brit, and they’ll complain about the British rail system. Sure, there’s plenty that could be improved. But in comparison to North America, wow, do they do things right.
The wonders of the British rail network crystallized for me one day when I took a day trip to Brighton. It was an hour from downtown-to-downtown, and cost me £5 each way. I rode a 12-car train, with a capacity of 1,754 people, and frequent departures from central London. When that train dropped me off in the cute narrow laneways of Brighton’s “The Lanes", I stopped to picture how a North American city would accommodate 1,700 cars arriving every 20 minutes in a small town. For scale, a multi-storey parking garage like the one shown below can hold about 1,300 cars. And a lane of traffic can hold up to 2,000 cars an hour. So if you want a North American version of the London-to-Brighton trip on this scale, you’re talking about an inordinate amount of parking spaces, roadway lanes, and OH MY GOD the traffic.
The quiet efficiency of the train never ceases to impress me.