After several days in London (albeit with a break in Amsterdam), I felt like I was starting to get a feel for the city, at least parts of it. Because I was staying in the south and generally teaching in the north, I had already traversed the city a half dozen times, using, variously, trains, buses, subways (“The Underground”) and taxis.
The most efficient route involved Victoria Station as a connection between British Rail overground train service to/from the south and subways to/from the north. It’s still not entirely clear to me how a 14-mile journey can involve an hour of travel time on the subway and still require a train trip afterward, but that’s London.
Locating the right train at Victoria Station requires practice. If all you know is where you want to go, you don’t have much chance of getting there, because the “departures” display organizes platform information by time, not destination. You have to know when your train leaves and where it terminates in order to find the track.
So people mill around, staring at the departures display, waiting until a track number appears — information that frequently isn’t disclosed until only minutes before the train departs. Then they head for the train.
In my case, I had to scan a lot more information, because I didn’t always know the train schedule or which route would take me to Streatham Hill. I also had to remember that neither Streatham Commons nor Streatham was good enough. The sheer number of train stops combined with the fact that I had never heard of most of them made the task fairly tricky. And I didn’t want to miss a train, because they only run four times an hour.
After a while I learned that London Transport offers both on-line and voice-activated-cellphone services for planning a route. And it turns out that there are usually a half dozen possible ways to get from one point to another that all take about the same amount of time. Where I live in Westchester, that’s true of roads, and a driver has to weigh personal choice, road quality, traffic, etc., when choosing between otherwise equivalent options. Londoners, it seems, do the same for public transport.
I also learned that, unlike the New York City subway map, the Tube map is not geographically accurate. Places that are very close to each other may not be so close on the map, and, equally, the map may make some locales appear closer than they really are. (“Caution: Places on the map are closer than they appear.”) And, in fact, many Londoners only know the layout of the city though that map. I just read a newspaper report that native Londoners sometimes unknowingly spend 10 minutes or more in the Underground to cover what could have been a three minute walk.