Friday, 8 June 2007

Tube vs. Subway

A lot of people here ask me how London compares to New York. I usually answer that I like it here, but there are two things that really bug me about this city and make me miss New York.

The first is how decentralized it is, how it’s really more of a collection of little villages than a core-oriented metropolis like NYC. I’m still really the only person I know who lives in central London, everyone here lives way out in the middle of nowhere, miles from the city center. Everyone says it’s because central London is so expensive, but honestly I don’t think it’s any more expensive (compared with the outskirts) than Manhattan is compared with the outer boroughs. The difference is in New York, people are willing to grin and bare it. They’ll put up with living in a shoe box and paying an exorbitant rent because it’s worth it to live in Manhattan. So, when I lived in New York I always lived in Manhattan (Roosevelt Island still technically counts!) and most of my friends did as well. And if I called a friend at 9 pm to see if they wanted to grab a drink, they could do so easily because they didn’t live too far away.

But here, it’s like pulling teeth trying to get people to go out. New Yorkers: think about your friends who have moved out to Brooklyn or Queens, and think about how often you see them since they did so. Now imagine a whole city of these people, and you’ve got London. You need to give people about 2 weeks notice here in order to get them to come out, because a journey “into town,” as they call it, is so arduous.

And this brings me to my second least favourite thing about this city, the tube. It is truly god awful. It is so inferior to the New York subway I can’t even begin to explain. Well, maybe I can, in list form. Here are the top eight reasons the tube is vastly inferior to the subway:

1) It's incredibly deep so it takes forever to get down to the trains
2) The layout of the city means you usually have to switch trains, which can take as long as 20 minutes to get from one to another just within the same station (I timed it)
3) Even the most minor weather variation causes the trains to break down. In fact I don't think I've ever seen one of those signs say that all lines were working at the same time. The subway encounters these types of problems much less frequently.
4) On most lines, the cars are incredibly small and cramped.
5) The lack of air conditioning makes the trains truly horrific in the summer (and I think it's pretty bad in the fall/spring too)
6) There are basically no express trains (except on the metropolitan line), as opposed to NY where every line has an express. It makes the subway more confusing for tourists but much more convenient and fast for residents.
7) The map isn't geographically accurate (unlike the subway map), meaning two stations that are right next to each other in real life can be far away on the map. Therefore it is very difficult to figure out the best route to take somewhere just by looking at the map alone.
8) It's outrageously expensive, costing as much as $8 as opposed to the subway's $2.

Now when offered this ample evidence for the tube’s shortcomings, Londoners usually defend it by pointing out that it is the oldest underground public transportation system in the world. This is indeed true, the London underground system was started in 1863. But the New York subway system’s underground system was built in 1904, which is not all that much later (just 40 years). I’m not really convinced that these years saw an incredible amount of advancement in transportation engineering. The basic fact is the London underground was built on a short-sighted engineering plan while the New York subway system was built with a more forward-thinking plan. Of course I am willing to admit that the fact that Manhattan is on a grid system and is oriented in a linear matter helped, the city was blessed by geography.

I will admit also that the trains do come more frequently here though, and the stations have displays that tell you when the next trains are coming (like in DC) which is nice to have for peace of mind (although they are frequently inaccurate). Also, when I first moved here I thought the fact that the tube shuts down at 12:30 (yeah no joke, 12:30, even on weekends!) was going to irritate the crap out of me. But actually, the nightbus system here is so good that I don’t mind it. The nightbuses come far more frequently that the subway trains in New York do at night (they come every 45 minutes after 1am and don’t operate on any kind of set schedule). But maybe I’m biased because I live so close to where I go out. The fact that I have 4 different options for nightbuses to take certainly helps things, and if I wanted I can walk home in 15 minutes from Soho.

They’re talking about using the money set aside for the Olympic games to fix the tube, but honestly I don’t think there’s enough to do the extensive job that it needs. The basic fact is this city has outgrown its dilapidated public transportation system, and some kind of alternative needs to be developed. Because the system now does not have the capacity to hold the huge amount of people that will come here for the games. It doesn’t even have the capacity to hold the current population. But they cram in there anyway.

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