The Transit Tourist takes a look at other transit systems across the globe from the first person perspective of a visitor. What can Metro learn from how these other systems treat the uninitiated – and often bumbling – tourist?
Last month I took some time off for a jaunt across the pond to Europe – specifically the cities of London, Amsterdam and Paris. While strictly a pleasure trip, it’s impossible to visit Europe without finding yourself immersed in mass transit, and typically at a scale that’s all but unseen here in the States. For a transit blogger it turns a vacation into inspiration for a new series, one I’m calling The Transit Tourist.
Here’s the plan: whenever one of The Source bloggers takes a getaway – be it to the largest cities in Europe or to a small town in America’s heartland – and hops on board the local transit system, we’ll come back with a report of the experience and a some thoughts on what Metro can learn from how things are down elsewhere.
The tourist experience on transit is a unique but important one. Tourists generally have different needs than the daily commuter, but my feeling is that when a tourist’s needs are met a transit system is doing a good job at two things: providing an easy to use system that also serves many destinations. In other words, if a system works for an outsider, it’s probably going to work for local residents as well.
First stop for The Transit Tourist:
|Population: 7.5 million||Transit Agency: Transport for London||Miles of Rail: 250|
|Density: 12,450/sq. mile||Rail Lines: 11||Bus Routes: over 700|
|Area: 607 sq. mile||Rail Stations: 270||Budget: $14.2 billion|
|Source: Wikipedia and Transport for London.|
One of the most important transportation moments for a tourist is the airport transfer. You’ve just arrived to a new city after a long flight, how do you get to your final destination?
On this trip, I flew into Heathrow Airport, one of London’s five area airports (each served by some form of rail). The London Underground’s Piccadilly Line directly serves Heathrow with three stations at the airport serving the various terminals. It’s a feature that’s well publicized – and since the stations are inside the terminals, you’re not going to get lost looking for your connection.
How long does it take to get from the airport to London proper? London’s transit system is divided into nine zones that radiate out from the central city. Heathrow is in Zone 6 and a trip to Zone 1 (Central London, aka the good stuff for tourists) takes at least 50 minutes. The distance from Heathrow to Central London is approximately the same distance as LAX to downtown L.A.
The zone system makes for an incredibly complicated fare system (take a look at this chart if you don’t believe me), but purchasing an Oyster card (London’s version of the TAP card, more on that later) greatly simplifies things. A trip to Zone 1 from Heathrow with an Oyster card will cost between £2.40 and £4.20 (around $4 to $7 respectively) depending on whether or not you’re traveling at peak hours.
In my case, I was actually going to be staying in a Zone 4 suburb called Hendon (if Central London is downtown L.A., then Hendon would be North Hollywood). This trip requires a transfer to the Northern Line in Zone 1 for a total trip time of about 1 hour and 30 minutes. Travel on the Underground from Heathrow isn’t neccessarily fast, but it is convenient and affordable.
Read on about London fares, the Oyster card, customer service and more after the jump.
Speaking of affordability, while a $7 trip from the airport is a deal (the LAX FlyAway is also $7 ), London transit on the whole can be a very pricey affair.
According to Tree Hugger, London has the highest fares of any transit system in the world. As I loaded up my Oyster card with a 7-day pass for Zones 1-4 this became obvious.
The slick touch-screen ticket vending machine displayed the amount due: £36.80. That comes out to about $57!
Even if you stick around Zone 1 and 2, the cost still comes out to a steep £25.80 (about $40). For point of comparison, the Metro Weekly Pass recently increased to $20. And London isn’t immune to fare hikes – prices will be increasing in 2011.
The good news is that a 7-day pass in London is good for seven days from the day of purchase, unlike the Metro Weekly Pass which is tied to the calendar week.
Bus fares are slightly different as buses don’t use the zone system. With an Oyster card, single fare on a bus is £1.30 (about $2). A 7-day pass is £17.80 (About $28).
More on the Oyster: it’s excellent.
Many London Underground stations have ticketing counters manned by actual humans that can sell you an Oyster card (for a £3 refundable deposit plus any credit/passes you add) and stations also have vending machines that sell Oyster cards. In other words, tourists have no problems getting hold of one.
Oyster cards feature the much requested “cash purse” feature currently absent from TAP. As a tourist I found it easier just to load up a 7-day pass and not worry about it any more, but the feature is there and it’s full realized – including daily price capping which ensures you’ll never pay more each day than the cost of a Day Travelcard (the equivalent of Metro’s Day Pass, it starts at £5.60 or about $9). It’s worth noting that both the Oyster card and TAP card are manufactured by the same company, Cubic Transportation Systems.
It’s no secret that the London Underground, also known as the Tube, is one of London’s many crown jewels. Over half the lines were opened before the turn of the 20th century (the Metropolitan Line opened first in 1863!) giving it the unique designation as the first urban subway system in the world. Despite its age, the London Underground is a thoroughly modern rail system.
Trains run frequently and the network is vast. Very rarely did I feel like I had to wait for a train — they seem to come by every few minutes, and highly visible electronic signage at every station tell you exactly when the next few trains will be arriving.
The trains, quite simply, go everywhere – the most distant station in Zone 9 is about 29 miles from Central London. They hit every spot you’d ever want to visit in Central London and they network in such a way that transferring to a different line rarely feels like a hassle. One reason transfers are so easy, aside from the frequent service, is that the cavernous stations often have vast pedestrian tunnels connecting the lines that make the transit experience seamless even though you’ve actually done quite a bit of walking.
The stations themselves are relatively nondescript visually, and many are showing their age, but the most important visual elements – the wayfinding signage – are second to none. Signs are bold, simple and descriptive. One of my favorite signage elements are the massive line maps on the walls of the tunnel opposite the platform. They let riders know exactly where they are and exactly where the train they’re waiting for will be going.
Inside the trains are some of the most plush seats I’ve ever had the luxury of siting on in a transit vehicle. During peak times however, you’ll be hard pressed to get a seat – or even a cramped space on the train. Despite massive 8-car trains and frequent service, these trains can get CROWDED.
Like: I’m not squeezing into that tin can crowded. Or: I’d rather be on a Rapid 720 during rush hour crowded.
During my trip there were a number of times I chose to wait it out, often letting five or six jam packed trains pass by, rather than deal with the discomfort of the crowds. And those crowds spill into the stations, where you’ll experience London’s version the standstill on the 405, but with human beings instead of cars.
Other issues with train service:
On weekends, service seems to go haywire, with lines and stations completely closing. According to locals, it’s just a given. Riders are given fair warning, but it happens nonetheless.
A big surprise for a world-class city with world-class night life and a world-class subway system is that the entire London Underground shuts down completely around 12:30am and doesn’t open again until 5:30am.
Just as iconic as the Tube are London’s buses, and unlike most cities, in London you’re just as likely to see tourist on a bus as on a train.
This tourist rode a number of buses and if there’s one thing that stood out most about London bus service it’s this: London buses are the cleanest buses I’ve ever seen.
Maybe all those CCTV cameras have turned the populace into a docile sheep, maybe teenagers don’t rebel in the U.K. or maybe Transport for London requires the bus operators to hire the best cleaning crews on earth – all I know is that I didn’t see one mark, one scratch or one gummy residue on any bus I rode on. And that alone made the bus experience a great one.
In addition, buses seem to run frequently – I didn’t find myself waiting longer than 15 minutes for a bus to show up.
Bus stops run the gamut from your standard pole in the ground to stylish glass shelters with electronic signs displaying next bus information. Even the standard bus stop signs are really well designed with routes listed as a grid of squares – yellow squares indicating routes that require tickets to be purchased before boarding (available from vending machines at the stop).
Transport for London really shines when it comes to customer service, especially on the Underground. All stations are staffed and staff is extremely attentive.
At one point during my trip I ran into a problem with my Oyster card. I tapped it at the fare gate but it reported an error and I couldn’t pass. Immediately a Transport for London staffer approached me, walked me over to a ticket machine, diagnosing and solving the problem in no time (I had managed to exit a station the previous day without “tapping out”).
Another time I was simply looking at a posted Tube map for my own pleasure. It didn’t take more than a minute for a staff member to approach me and ask if I required any assistance.
The P.A. system is used constantly and to great effect. Train delay? Large crowds? Station closures? Passengers are always in the know.
- Vast rail and bus system with frequent service.
- Exemplary customer service.
- Oyster card makes a potentially confusing fare system easy for anyone.
- Direct airport rail connection that links not only to the central city but also to other rail lines makes taking the train a no-brainer for visitors.
- Trains, stations and especially buses are immaculately clean and free of graffiti.
- Transit oriented everything – London wouldn’t be London without it’s iconic buses and trains. And extra points go for how much value Transport for London places on that iconography.
- Unfortunately, good transit is crowded transit and during peak hours it gets VERY CROWDED.
- You get a lot of transit for your buck, but still… almost $60 for a week pass left me with some sticker shock.
- The Tube shuts down surprisingly early, but there are over 100 night buses to make up for it.
What Metro can learn:
- Sure, London has an almost 130-year lead on L.A. when it comes to urban rail, but that means we have a great template to work from. The lines of the Tube were originally built and run by different and competing operators and London has managed to create a cohesive network out the mess.
- The Oyster card is TAP done right. It’s the same technology, same manufacturer, same concept. It’s time to look at London and copy what they’ve done with Oyster because it just works.
- Tourists don’t always visit on Sunday and leave on Saturday. Passes should be tied to date of purchase, not the calendar.
- Sprawling train stations with many portals (entrances and exits) and tunnels leading to connecting transit are a good thing.
- A good transit system with an iconic visual identity can make a system that is synonymous with the city. I think Metro’s on the right track with this, but it’s worth remembering. Consolidate services under one brand. London buses are actually run by a large number of private operators, but a rider would never know that.
- Wayfinding signage is the most important piece of station art.
- Customer service should be downright excessive.
- Plush seats are nice, but not essential.