thoughts on our urban future

Why I really like the tube

Yes, I am talking about the London Underground, commonly known as ‘the tube’. Of course I don’t like taking the tube in the morning rush hour, when I have to wait for at least one (and sometimes two) trains before I can somehow squeeze myself in. It can be busy, noisy, even smelly at times. I don’t necessarily enjoy all of that, but there is something so intrinsically ‘London’ about it – and when I come to think about it, I think that also happens with the metro in Paris, Barcelona or Mexico City, or the U-Bahn in Berlin.

Inside the tube I find this most interesting public space. Just in case you are wondering, although since 2003 the London underground operates as a public private partnership system, the actual Underground network itself is still owned by Transport for London under the eye of the London Mayor, so indeed it is public space. The tube is a layer of the city which runs deep below ground (at least for the most part) and a series of interconnected public spaces which parallel those above ground, not only in name, but often in character: what other than Sherlock Holmes could you possibly be thinking about when going to Baker Street? I think of those medieval like drawings when I think of Charing Cross, and really enjoy the amazing architecture of most of the Jubilee Line Stations.

The tube has a huge significance to Londoners when it comes to their mental map of the city. Not by chance so many souvenirs are available to tourists with the London Underground logo. But the tube is also a place where for the length of a journey we are all equal, as almost everyone takes the tube at least sometimes. No matter how posh, even if homeless, we all meet there and sit next to one another. It’s one of the best places to become aware of the diversity of the city, how many languages are spoken on a train at any given time I would like to know.

The tube is a bit chaotic and very noisy, but those would define London as a city very well too. Not only you see people from all over the world but it is also a place where you can find out about much of what is going on: theatres, cinemas, events of all kinds. Even if not advertised, you will be made aware if Arsenal have won their latest match, or that AC/DC were playing that night. You just don’t get all of this if you take the bus.

The London Underground is actually the oldest system of its kind. According to Transport for London, the first line opened in 1863, and currently about three million passenger journeys are made every day.

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  1. The tube as public space is an interesting concept, one that was grasped and realised with the Jubilee line extension in London. Think of the power of Canary Wharf station, or the sprawling nature of the brick (inner) suburban West Ham station. These stations have been designed public spaces.

    Contrast this to the East London line – apparently done on the cheap in comparison. Although newer, lessons were not learned on how to think of station concepts and integrate them along a ‘new’ line. Fortunately, as it is an elevated exterior line, and the found, hidden views of the back streets, gardens and facades make up for the oversight in design of this linear public space.

    While I was a bit disappointed in the overall design of the East London line, the forthcoming, mega Crossrail project once again aims high – both in impact both above and below ground (its footprint is enormous), but also in station design. Preliminary designs show considerable thought, better transitions between the ground level and below grade levels and celebrated – even grand – entrances. I hope more transit systems are better planned and designed to consider their impact in expanding the urban, public space experience, and I also wish I had the enthusiasm Ximena has for the London tube system!

  2. I guess where this is even better realised is in the old style great railway stations around the world. Clearly those designing them had it very clear in their minds these were important public spaces – especially those which served as a gateway into cities. The idea that each tube station has a different character, whilst maintaining an overall ‘brand’ image, makes total sense if you think about it like that: it is the first impression you will have of a place if you arrive by tube… and one of the places in which potentially we spend more time of all the public spaces in our neighbourhood.

  3. It’s a bomloin’ nightmare! We wear Stan most of the time and rarely take the buggy out if using public transport (I don’t even bother with tubes anymore, just use buses). Most times I find myself using cabs to get back from where we’ve been as the thought of busing it is too depressing – it is a ridiculous extravagance that we can’t really afford. When I was pregnant I was like a woman possesed measuring the wheel chassis of prams as I wanted as narrow as possible!

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