Try to walk down the sidewalk in London and immediately you’ll be struck by how different transportation is in England compared to the United States. First, you drive on the other side of the road. Because drivers sit in the front right seat, you drive with the sidewalk on your left, not on your right. This means that every time you cross the street you need to think very hard to make sure you’re looking in the correct direction for oncoming cars.
You also don’t necessarily wait for the green walking light to go on at crosswalks before crossing the street. Jaywalking, or crossing at unmarked locations on the road, is perfectly fine here. You just wait for a break between cars, and you weave through traffic. Weaving between cars is not the safest, so I recommend waiting for the crosswalk light, as traffic in London is pretty crazy.
Because there is so much traffic in London, most people don’t drive anywhere. This is true for most major cities, like San Francisco and New York City. Instead, London has an amazing public transportation system made up of buses, the Tube, and trains. Most of the time, you walk!
The sidewalks are very wide, but there are so many people living and working in London that it gets really crowded, especially at the beginning and end of the work day. It’s better to walk during rush hour than trying to take the bus. Cars are basically parked on the street during rush hour; it’s that busy!
The cool thing about public transportation in London is that it’s all connected. You purchase something called an Oyster Card, which is the size of a credit card. You add money to it, and can use it for the buses and the Tube! You might be familiar with London’s buses, the red double decker buses. The bottom of the bus looks like a normal bus from the United States, but there’s also a spiral staircase that leads to a second level. I haven’t tried traveling on the second floor yet, but it’s a great way to see the sights! Normal buses don’t run 24 hours a day; instead there are special “Night Buses” that start running when the rest of the public transportation shuts down for the evening. So there’s always a way to get home. If you can memorize the bus routes…
When you enter the bus, you just tap your Oyster Card on a small round plate near the driver, and it deducts £1.50 from your card. You only pay to enter the bus. That means you can travel the entire bus route and only pay £1.50!
Another method of transportation is the Tube. The Tube is the English work for the subway. It is composed of underground trains that take you all over the city. There are different lines with different routes that are color coded. For example, the Piccadilly line is blue on the tube map. Everything is labeled really well, and they always announce the next station right before the train stops, so you have advance warning of when it’s your stop.
The Tube is organized into zones. These are concentric circles (a small circle inside of a bigger circle inside an even bigger circle, etc.), so you have Zone 1, which includes most of Central London; Zone 2, which includes the outer reaches (Queen Mary is located in Zone 2); all the way up to Zone 6, which includes the airports. You pay different amounts depending on which zone you start in and which zone you travel to. You don’t have to worry too much about the pricing structure. The system calculates it automatically. You just tap your Oyster card on the small round plate in front of the gate or turnstile when you enter and exit the Tube stations.
There are so many trains on the Tube. You never have to wait more than three minutes for another train to come along, which is really convenient! The one confusing thing is that “trains” are technically different from the Tube, even though the vehicles on the tube lines are also called trains. The DLR and Overground trains sometimes travel above ground, while the Tube is almost always underground, but all three still work with the Oyster Card, so you never really pay much attention to the difference between them.
The one major difference is the National Rail. These are more like traditional trains that we’re used to in the States. They can take you short distances around the city, but they are more intended for longer travel, like across the country. You have to purchase special tickets for these trains, as they’re owned by a different company than the rest of the public transportation. So sadly the Oyster Card doesn’t work on the National Rail.
Okay, so this was a massive amount of information, but I’m almost done. The one other major form of transportation is bicycles. Personally, I would never ride a bicycle around London. There aren’t always bike lanes and both pedestrians and drivers can be a little crazy. The nice thing is that there are bike stations located around the city. You can pay £2, pick up a bicycle from their bike racks, and then you can use the bike for 24 hours. However, every 30 minutes you need to return the bike to one of the stations, which isn’t a problem as it wouldn’t take you more than 30 minutes to bike to your destination.
So I’ve given you a somewhat complicated overview of different methods of transportation in London, but now I’m going to focus on my favorite: walking.
Walking has been one of my favorite activities in London. The entire city is filled with history, from St. Paul’s Cathedral (the big church when Mary Poppins sings “Tuppence a Bag”) to the Globe Theater on the Thames, but there are also lots of fantastic hole-in-the-wall places that don’t make it into the guide books. The only way to truly get to know the city is to wander around and explore!
Moving to a new country can be overwhelming, so sometimes I need to take some time for myself, get some fresh air, and walk around. Last Tuesday after one of my classes, I realized I was close to Kensington Palace, so I went over there are walked around their gardens, and then through Hyde Park, which is connected. Hyde Park is massive, filled with statues, trees, benches, grass, and lakes (which are filled with geese that aren’t terrified of humans. I’m afraid one day they’ll attack me). The circumference of the park (walking all the way around) is 4.3 miles!
Walking through Hyde Park I discovered another method of transportation: horses! There are horse trails around the park, and the police use horses to patrol! They looked so official. I really wanted to pet the horses.
My goal is to “map the city” through walking. Essentially, I want to learn streets and create a mental map of London by walking enough that I become familiar with the city.
Walking is very connected to the culture of the city. It’s the best way to understand where different neighborhoods blend together, as riding on a bus would take you past buildings too fast to understand the architecture or history.
For example, here’s a walk from Covent Gardens back to Queen Mary takes you through a bunch of different neighborhoods. One thing to remember: Don’t walk alone at night, and there’s no need to walk this far in one go. This walk takes you about 1.5 hours.
Covent Gardens is one of the main shopping areas in the city. It’s centered around a square with food, clothing stalls, and traditional stores. You’ll find the Disney Store along with other traditional shops like the Gap, and British Clothing brands. However, walk further East and you’ll walk past the Royal Courts of Justice. A little further and you’re at St. Paul’s Cathedral. But once you get onto Whitechapel road, you have entered “East London”, which houses the largest Bangladeshi population in London. This means lots of independently owned fast food shops, most titles “Something Fried Chicken”. There are also British Somalis, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, and Pakistani residents.
So by walking from one part of the city to another, you can visually see the cultural differences and diversity of the city. Even the sidewalk will change. In some portions, the road and sidewalk are made from cobbled stone. In other areas it’s traditional concrete. Sometimes it’s wider, other times narrower. And occasionally one side of the street has a wider sidewalk than the other. All of these help you analyze the cultural make-up and the overall intention of the district. A large sidewalk indicates lots of traffic, likely meaning a large shopping district. Narrower sidewalks filled with food stalls means a less touristy region with more independent businesses.
Next time you walk around your neighborhood, pay attention to how the sidewalk and buildings are built, and see how that’s related to the part of the city you live in.