Monday, October 9, 2017

KARA ABROAD: Public Transportation Is Easy and Also Terrible

A bunch of us were on our way to our friend Tina's bachelorette party in Richmond. We were all college students or fresh out at the time, so we weren't doing a lot of driving out of town at the time. There were five of us piled in the car, as I recall. Mary, in charge of directions, was fairly sure of where we were going, but was making backup plans.

"If I can't find the place, we'll ask Charles. If Charles can't, we'll ask Shannon. If she can't, we'll ask Meg, and if she can't I'm getting out and grabbing a hobo because sorry Kara you have no sense of direction."

She's not wrong.

And yet I get around London fairly adeptly. This could be because I have a Region 2 sense of direction, but in all honesty it's because public transport in London is so simple to follow that even I can do it and not end up sobbing in an alleyway.

Still, it's one of the things I get asked about most. Or get told is a reason people can't/won't go to London. They would, but ooh, the tube seems confusing and they're not sure they could do it. Or could I give them lessons. Or some such.

I could. I can. I will. But seriously, you don't need it. Navigating is easy enough that, by my second visit, I was confident enough to run away from my host and go sightseeing out in Rickmansworth.

I mean it. You'll be fine. Really. Here, I'll show you.

The tube itself is color-coded and everywhere.

So, first tip. If you get lost in London? Just keep walking. You will eventually see an Underground sign. And if you get on the Underground, you can eventually get anywhere. Easily. All you need to know at all is the closest tube stop and you're done.

Okay, but there's a bunch of lines that go in a big messy web. Yes, this is true. But they all have names and colors. I mean, think about it. People who don't speak English zip around London extremely easily, so it's got to entail a technique that is largely visual.

Every tube station has a map up front with a grid. Find where you want to go on the grid. Find the closest tube stop. Find you now. Then play connect the dots. All you really have to remember, really, are a couple station names and one or two colors.

"Take the Northern Line to Tottenham Court Road, the switch to the Central Line and take it to Shepherd's Bush" is a lot to remember. Easier? Black train, Tottenham. Orange train, Shepherd's Bush. Seriously. That's it. And if you're worried about which way to go? Massive maps outside each platform that tells you which stops each direction hits.

Oyster cards are good unless they stop working.

I love "set it and forget it" so I bought an Oyster card on my first trip and I still keep it in a bag with my passport for whenever I feel like coming over. Tap it on the big yellow circle outside the tube station, on the bus, on the train (certain trains -- you aren't getting to Wales on this), and you're off. Just, you know, top it up sometimes.

If you're only visiting for a day or two, there's really no need for this. But if you're like me and run away from home for two weeks at a time, and/or plan to be back? It's easier than buying a visitor's pass. Also, Mr. Murphy loves to visit, and visitor cards always break or run out about an hour before my train to the airport.

Mine is especially good because the friends I stay with are outside London -- but they're still on Transport for London, which means taking the train in and back goes on my Oyster and I don't have to stay in the big city if I decide on a quiet day or three in.

They (usually?) account for shutdowns.

In London, the trains always run on time. Except when they don't. Like if there's a strike. Or repairs. Or an accident. But if there's an expected issue, there will likely be buses pulling extra duty.

Now, if you don't like buses, that's not much of a help. And you do sort of have to keep your ears very open in the station, in case a train sort of just switches over in the middle of things. But more often than not, there is a second solution if something has fallen through.

The crowds are the hardest part.

This... you may have gathered.

When it comes to taking the underground, navigation is not a big deal. It's really, really not. You can teach yourself over the course of an afternoon of wandering. What's harder to adapt to is the crush of people, depending on the time of day.

If you're like me and have anxiety or any other issue exacerbated by noise and crowds, you may well need to monitor your travel times carefully and read up on how to get around with the least amount of crush. This... will genuinely be the hardest way to travel. But you may need it.

At present, London is working to alleviate this crowding. They're making walking, biking, and other alternate modes of travel safer so that people who have those options will be encouraged to make use of them. There's also the Elizabeth Line opening next year, which is expected to transport somewhere around 10 million commuters per year.

But for now? You'll have to plan carefully if you Just Can't with crowds. Avoid rush hour if you can, remember what time the various trains start and stop running, and do what you have to to keep from going completely mad.

Honestly, there's something about taking the Underground that reminds me that I'm Here. And I do love England, so reminders that I'm Here are quite nice. Granted there are plenty of reminders that Here is still A Place With People Who Shove Other People, but that's fine.

I completely understand public transport terror. I live in a suburb, and it takes me about half a day to relearn my stuff once I get back. But seriously. Trust me. You'll be fine, and you'll be navigating like a local before long. Or potentially better, provided you don't sleep through your stop.
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