True life: I’m in a committed relationship with English transportation



Double-decker buses are typical modes of transport for Londoners. (George Bridges/MCT)

“The Hot Tea” is a weekly column dedicated to unearthing the intricacies of London’s social, political and millennial issues in the context of Pittsburgh’s own complex culture.

LONDON– There it is — the blue and red beacon of hope that chaperones you through the sodden, forlorn London darkness. It’s akin to the Cathedral of Learning on your drunken trek home, a tried-and-true compass when your phone’s gone kaput. It’s a cordial embrace on a bleak autumn night, after an evening at the pub that didn’t warm your insides quite properly. It’s a London Underground roundel — the iconic, eye-catching marker of the Tube system. And you’re “well happy” to see it.

As much as the English and expatriates, like me, live to complain about public transportation at nearly every given opportunity, I must admit that I’m in a committed relationship with London’s double-decker buses and trains. No doubt, when I return to the drudgery of Pittsburgh’s Port Authority buses — which are about as reliable as Pitt’s Wi-Fi connection — I’ll never take the Underground’s name in vain again.

The United Kingdom’s public transit culture is one every country should strive for, especially the United States.

At the outset, Americans use public transport far less than Europeans. According to National Geographic Society’s 2009 Greendex report, just 5 percent of Americans reported using public transportation once a day or more. Conversely, English travelers hovered around 16 percent. Far more astounding though, the report reveals that 61 percent of Americans never use public transportation, compared to just 13 percent of Britons.

Yet if American families chose public transportation over driving, they would save more than $800 each month, and more than $9,700 in gas money and car maintenance annually, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Those figures don’t include how much they would save in parking, which costs, on average, about $1,995 annually for commuters to park in downtown city areas.

With the increasing cost of living in U.S. cities, along with relatively stagnant wages in many industries, it doesn’t make sense that Americans don’t use public transportation more often — what’s different between the United States and the United Kingdom? As it turns out, the United Kingdom’s public transit is simply more encouraging and more mindful of its would-be riders.

Transport for London, or “sweet baby angel sent from God,” is the governing body responsible for this feat in mass transit. TFL is brilliant not only because it funnels all fare revenue back into the maintenance of its buses, subways and other vehicles, but because it also makes traveling smooth and straightforward for even the most clueless people — like me.

Seriously — TFL even sends you emails when one of the Tube lines is delayed or if conductors go on strike. In Pittsburgh, tardy buses are more of a way of life, nowhere near noteworthy enough to justify Port Authority sending out a message. If they did, those emails might be filed as spam because of their frequency. Port Authority does offer a bus-tracker app, which gives riders the chance to see how their bus is doing on time. However, when The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette conducted 200 separate tests of the system at bus stops in Downtown, Oakland and East Liberty in August, it found that “39 bus arrivals, or nearly 20 percent, did not show up on the TrueTime system because the GPS units on the buses were turned off, weren’t working properly or weren’t on the bus at all.”

TFL’s “Baby on Board” badges take the cake, though. It’s awkward to wonder if someone really is pregnant, but of course you want to give up your seat for soon-to-be mums. TFL fixed that miscommunication in etiquette by providing free pins to denote your dual ridership. Not only are the pins darling, but they promote good manners. Now that’s proper English.

Speaking of English manners, if there’s one thing I’ll miss dearly when I leave here, it will be the crisp, female voice politely reminding me to, “Please mind the gap between the train and the platform” at every Underground station. Although, on a Port Authority bus, the code of courtesy is almost as polite. There’s nothing I love more than packing onto a 71C in the morning and hearing the bus driver yell at everyone to, “Move ahtta the way,” for people getting off at the next stop — delightful.

London’s Tube system isn’t stand-alone though — it’s complemented by the National Rail network. National Rail is the passenger train system that runs throughout Great Britain, connecting sparser areas. It’s quick and efficient for trips from London to neighboring towns. I visit my boyfriend in Essex on the weekends, and it only takes me about an hour and a half to travel the 45 miles to his town from London.

When I used to commute from Pitt to my hometown in Plum, Pennsylvania, it took me up to two hours to travel just 13 miles due to infrequent buses and indirect routes. I don’t blame Americans for avoiding this conundrum and opting out of public transport.

If trains and buses aren’t your thing, England is huge on biking, or “cycling” as they call it. According to the BBC, the number of cyclists in London reached a record high this summer. The total number of cycling journeys rose by 5 percent to 610,000 a day — roughly 23 million a year.

This figure will only grow, though, as the mayor of London’s 2013 Vision for Cycling program has invested £913 million into four segregated superhighways and a Quietway network of backstreet cycle routes. Not to mention, bikes are easily accessible thanks to Santander Cycles, London’s self-service bike sharing scheme for short journeys. It’s the cousin of Pittsburgh’s Healthy Ride bike share initiative.

Biking is the one area where we yinzers don’t lag behind Londoners. According to Bike Pittsburgh, the city saw a 408 percent jump in bike commuting since 2000 — the largest increase in the nation.

I have a less positive relationship with this two-wheeled mode of transport. While in London, I pulled the ultimate stunt — getting run over by a bicyclist. Thump, thump — right over my back. It was definitely the most creative way I have ever cracked my phone screen. But if you’re savvier to all things on wheels than I am, London is probably your city. Me? I’m sticking to the Tube.

This time next week, I’ll be back home in Pittsburgh, likely bawling and holding a candlelight vigil over my Oyster Card — aka my Tube pass — and National Rail tickets, singing “God Save the Queen” in a feigned British accent.

But for now, I’m going to enjoy my last few opportunities to get scoffed at on the Tube. I’m going to look up to the gray sky and breathe in the fumes from a double-decker with a cheeky grin on my face.

Hell, I might even pretend I’m lost and stand in front of a Tube map like a tourist.

Courtney Linder is a senior columnist at The Pitt News, primarily focusing on social issues and technology. Write to her at [email protected].