Tuesday, March 31, 2009

London Underground vs. The MBTA

Having spent all of the past few days taking mass transit - both the London Underground and the MBTA here in Boston - a comparison of the two is fresh on my mind.

Granted, London is a huge, sprawling metropolis with a metro population over twice that of our fair Hub. But both cities have legacy public transportation systems that are integral to the lives of millions. The London Underground is the world's oldest underground railway, and the Green Line of the T features the United States' first rapid transit subway system. The two systems deserve a head-to-head.

I purchased an Oyster Card (their version of our Charlie Card), loaded it with some pounds, and hopped on the Piccadilly line from Heathrow Airport to the Hyde Park stop, meeting my friends at their hotel.

Immediately, I noticed how clean the interior of the train was. After hopping onto and off of a number of trains at many different Underground stops, I realized that this was the norm for both the train interiors and the station platforms. The relative luxury of any London Underground waiting area made the nasty Arlington St. T stop look like a scene from the movie Hostel. Major points for London.

I am told that the London Underground's trains are not air conditioned, and that packed onto a stuffed interior during rush hour amidst some Londoners who don't fully embrace deodorant isn't exactly the most desirable place to be during a hot summer day. A couple points for the T, though being crammed onto the red line this morning, even for just two stops, totally sucked and stunk.

My friend informed me that Londoners seem to enjoy order and queuing, sometimes not even knowing why they line up. Order is evident on the Underground. Walk left, stand right on every single escalator - it's a given, just like breathing. They are very good at abiding by this.

Waiting for passengers to exit before cramming onto the train is also fully expected and embraced. The one time I saw people rush onto an Underground train before passengers disembarked was when about ten non-English speaking 12-15 year olds pushed onto a train with people trying to get off, only to have the departing Londoners throw them dirty looks, yell at them, and in one case, grab a kid by the shirt, get into his face, and scream "YOU WAIT....YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO WAIT FOR US TO GET OFF." Today at Downtown Crossing, I saw a full train pull up, people waiting on the platform give no room for people to depart, and remaining passengers on the train not move further into the train to allow for new passengers to board. Another check for the Underground.

Service notifications. In London, digital readouts not only clearly and accurately mention what three trains are arriving next, but how many minutes until each arrives. Service announcements are made over their clear overhead audio system in formal British English. Here in Boston, we don't know when the next train will arrive, let alone the next three. And in many stations, we're lucky to decipher a few words, sometimes delivered by people with thick local accents, over the scratchy loud speakers. More points for the Underground.

In both cases, sometimes it just takes forever to get somewhere, but it's still wiser to take mass transit. Driving in London is simply a mistake. It's far more manageable in parts of Boston (though headed downtown or to the financial district is still better served by T). But Tube stops in London just seem much closer than they actually are, and I never quite mastered getting anywhere in London on time.

Finally, pricing. The Underground institutes different pricing for rush hour vs. off-peak rides, but also institutes a daily maximum. For example, if using a debit version of the Oyster Card, the Tube will basically stop charging someone after the third ride in a day, instituting a daily cap. I don't believe the T features this for its declining balance Charlie Card users.

I will admit, overall, the Tube experience puts the T to shame. Clean, open with information, and efficient - I wish the T could learn a bit from our friends across the pond.


Doug said...

Mind the Gap!!!

squeed said...

One problem with the Tube is that it's basically completely inaccessible to disabled users. They say "mind the gap" for a reason! since there's absolutely NO way someone on wheels could use most of the stations in London. This strikes me as amazing. Even the green line platforms are accessible...

Jason said...

Good point. Life is most certainly different through the lens of people with disabilities. I have been to many European cities, and most of them seem horribly inaccessible for those using wheelchairs, canes, and walkers. I'm fortunate enough to be able to walk freely, but my mother is not, and I'm usually pretty cognizant of situations that would not easily include her.

Anonymous said...

Spend a few summer days using the Tube, and you will really come to appreciate the air conditioned comfort of the MBTA. It should also be pointed out that there has never been a successful terrorist attack on the T. The Tube on the other hand.....

Anonymous said...

ahhhh, another vote in favor of the americans with disabilities act.

Anonymous said...


I live in London (former Bostonian)and have had exactly the opposite experiences on the tube. I find both the cars and the stations filthy and crowded, transfers between stations can take forever as crowd control is forgotten and oncoming hordes of people must cross against other hordes of people.

There are only a couple of handicapped accessible stations, and even those are questionable.

It has been my experince that Londoners have no idea how to "queue" and when the doors open, its a free for all.

Also, because Londoners are used to living in miniscule spaces, they have no concept of "personal space" and will frequently stand up right against you on an escalator or on a semi-crowded train.

Worst of all, though, is the temperature and stale air on the trains, which are even worse than the already overheated stations. Its bad in winter, horrific in summer. Many Londoners have only a passing acquaintance with soap and deodorant. You can imagine what its like on a hot day to ride on a crowded car at rush hour. Londoners seem to have an aversion to fresh air, so the cars are stuffy and disgusting-smelling, especially on a wet day.

Each car has operable windows only at each end, and they are fairly small. They can open, which makes a bit of a difference if you are lucky enough to stand within a couple feet. The Brits, however, never ever open them. I make it my duty to do so on every car.

Also, they just passed a law in London prohibiting alcohol drinking on the tube. Strange that this was even an issue in 2009! It is still not unusual, especially at night, to see people opnely drinking cabs of beer and getting quite rowdy on the tube.

There is no way that the tube is better than any part of the MBTA! Its steps away from hell!

Jason said...

It's hard to argue with a local, especially with my experience of just four days in London. Thanks for the comments.