We should steal more transit ideas: London Edition
London does many small things well, making it ripe for taking the best ideas, and stealing them for other systems.
Being in London this past week, it was immediately obvious and quite refreshing that the city has a lot of the same problems we have in so many transit systems around the world (though that’s probably less nice to hear as a Londoner). In that sense, London and its transport network isn’t special, but small decisions and minor interventions on various things help make it better, and make it feel a cut above so many other systems I’ve used — including even great systems like Tokyo in some ways.
Now, often it’s seen as bad to copy in Western culture, and I think we are too often obsessed with coming up with something new to solve every problem. Sometimes this makes sense because there are many solutions or the cost of creating something new is low, but far more often when taking into consideration implementation risks and difficulties, it’s probably better to use an already thought up solution, especially since some organizations have more resources than you do to come up with them. Standing on the shoulder of giants as they say.
Unfortunately, one big barrier to this is a sort of learned helplessness, or “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude, which is quite common in North America. We often act like we either can’t make small elements of our transit systems better because that needs to take away from more important priorities, or that we should be thankful for the substandard solution we have as a way of pretending that we put as much thought and care into coming up with them as other places around the world. You can tell there isn’t a rhyme or reason for these justifications in many cases because they contradict. We also sometimes justify inferior solutions with the classic “we’ve always done things this way” turn of phrase. Of course, it’s rarely mentioned that the best systems out there are often the ones most willing to try things they had not traditionally done in search of creating something better.
The truth is, a lot of change is possible if we only just realize that small scale interventions are just as valuable as large ones: in many ways for example I’d argue the London Underground is mostly separated from a system like the New York Subway, which is pretty generally agreed to be worse on balance not by fundamental differences but by a series of small things.
But what are some of these small things I think that other cities and systems should consider stealing? Let’s see!
One of the first things that really stands out to me are the vehicles, something I’ve talked about a lot historically, and which I think have a very much underappreciated ability to improve one’s experience on transit, which makes sense given they are one of the main interfaces between people and transit. I think this sometimes gets played down because a lot of transit fans like certain vehicles for a wide variety of reasons that sometimes don’t align with what the average person cares about (e.g. electrical systems and whatnot), but that should not lead us to writing off the value of a nice vehicle to the general public!
One of the ways I think this manifested itself to me was seeing the often-rough condition of stations and infrastructure on the subsurface tube lines, which is, to be fair, partly due to age, but which also really reminded me of New York. That said, the subsurface lines on the tube feel nicer than the New York subway, and I think that’s in no small part because of the vehicles. The S stock on the underground is really quite nicely designed and is fully walkthrough despite being first delivered 15 years ago in 2007 (as with Toronto’s Rocket trains delivered in 2011); New Yorks R211’s still have not entered revenue service and will not feature open gangways on all sets, which is crazy!
Now, being fully walkthrough is far from the only nice thing about the S-Stock and London’s trains more broadly, I personally appreciate the longitudinal seating that keeps more space open for standing or navigating through the trains, but even this is implemented really well. Unlike in, say, New York, where the seating is almost all longitudinal but almost all in uninterrupted benches that encourage taking up tons of space and also make you more likely to slide around a sway, London seating almost always features armrests — which are nice for resting one’s arms, of course, but also help you stabilize yourself making the ride more comfortable, and allow for some separation from your neighbours.
The fact that the Underground rolling stock and rolling stock used on mainline rail like the Overground and Crossrail share design features like this is really nice as well (the mainline stock is also full walkthrough and open): It shows that the solutions are actually considered universally good, and it also provides consistency from mode to mode, which helps make everything feel like a fully integrated system.
I also appreciate that things like door open buttons generally feel like they are used (besides on the Underground where they make less sense). Seeing Toronto’s new streetcars, which feature door open buttons but basically don’t make use of them, it’s nice to know London actually sees the value in using the equipment it pays for mostly to its full extent! You probably aren’t surprised by this either, but I love London’s high quality digital wayfinding which is present in more and more places for things like telling you which lines are suffering from delays.
I’ve talked a lot about what some would see as superfluous elements of London’s rail system so far in this article, but the system also has the single most important thing for any transit system — good service. Across the 15+ different lines I used, over various modes from trams to buses to trains, I never waited more than 7 or so minutes for the specific service I wanted to use (London has a lot more branching than, say, Toronto), which just made the system feel convenient, and helped it feel quick as well!
One thing that I think gets written off about London is its branding and communications. I think it’s generally recognized that London is good at these things, but they’re also generally treated as more minor than I think they should be. London’s wayfinding is obviously quite renowned, and even though I don’t always think it’s as good as it could be (it often feels like you are being sent the long way round at stations, and you are), it’s abundant to a degree you don’t see in most places. I also think that the in-station announcements and on-train announcements are better than you see in most places: For example, when holding to help even out gaps in service, London’s trains actually had an announcement that played (treating the customers like the people they are; people are smart enough to understand why stuff like this is necessary), whereas in Toronto there’d just be silence. Of course, London also has the timeless roundels, and the iconic train color scheme of red white and blue that has been around for decades — something which few systems in North America have.
Another thing I really appreciate about London’s communications and wayfinding is it once again takes a liberal approach to connections. For example, on the Tube Map connections which can be walked are clearly marked. But it’s not just that — announcements are also made to connecting services as well as even major destinations near stations, for example the major Westfield shopping center near Wood Lane. Making announcements for things like this rarely extends announcements that would already be made by much, but surely eliminates a lot of otherwise obvious questions people might ask staff or other passengers.
And you know what, some of these ideas have definitely been implemented in other places! Vancouver, which I’m obviously very familiar with clearly takes a lot of inspiration from TFL in its wayfinding and communications, and I think it probably has among the best solutions here in North America thanks to that! Is it maybe a little less unique than other cities, perhaps, but London-esque wayfinding in a city as different from London as Vancouver feels unique!
These are probably not the only ideas I think other systems can steal even from London, but these are some of the ones that came to mind first, make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss future renditions! Taking the best elements of other transit systems and putting them together can create a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts!