We should steal more transit ideas: London Edition

London does many small things well, making it ripe for taking the best ideas, and stealing them for other systems.



Unfortunately, one big barrier to this is a sort of learned helplessness, or “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude, which is quite common in North America. We often act like we either can’t make small elements of our transit systems better because that needs to take away from more important priorities, or that we should be thankful for the substandard solution we have as a way of pretending that we put as much thought and care into coming up with them as other places around the world. You can tell there isn’t a rhyme or reason for these justifications in many cases because they contradict. We also sometimes justify inferior solutions with the classic “we’ve always done things this way” turn of phrase. Of course, it’s rarely mentioned that the best systems out there are often the ones most willing to try things they had not traditionally done in search of creating something better.

The truth is, a lot of change is possible if we only just realize that small scale interventions are just as valuable as large ones: in many ways for example I’d argue the London Underground is mostly separated from a system like the New York Subway, which is pretty generally agreed to be worse on balance not by fundamental differences but by a series of small things.

But what are some of these small things I think that other cities and systems should consider stealing? Let’s see!



Now, being fully walkthrough is far from the only nice thing about the S-Stock and London’s trains more broadly, I personally appreciate the longitudinal seating that keeps more space open for standing or navigating through the trains, but even this is implemented really well. Unlike in, say, New York, where the seating is almost all longitudinal but almost all in uninterrupted benches that encourage taking up tons of space and also make you more likely to slide around a sway, London seating almost always features armrests — which are nice for resting one’s arms, of course, but also help you stabilize yourself making the ride more comfortable, and allow for some separation from your neighbours.

The fact that the Underground rolling stock and rolling stock used on mainline rail like the Overground and Crossrail share design features like this is really nice as well (the mainline stock is also full walkthrough and open): It shows that the solutions are actually considered universally good, and it also provides consistency from mode to mode, which helps make everything feel like a fully integrated system.

I also appreciate that things like door open buttons generally feel like they are used (besides on the Underground where they make less sense). Seeing Toronto’s new streetcars, which feature door open buttons but basically don’t make use of them, it’s nice to know London actually sees the value in using the equipment it pays for mostly to its full extent! You probably aren’t surprised by this either, but I love London’s high quality digital wayfinding which is present in more and more places for things like telling you which lines are suffering from delays.

I’ve talked a lot about what some would see as superfluous elements of London’s rail system so far in this article, but the system also has the single most important thing for any transit system — good service. Across the 15+ different lines I used, over various modes from trams to buses to trains, I never waited more than 7 or so minutes for the specific service I wanted to use (London has a lot more branching than, say, Toronto), which just made the system feel convenient, and helped it feel quick as well!

One thing that I think gets written off about London is its branding and communications. I think it’s generally recognized that London is good at these things, but they’re also generally treated as more minor than I think they should be. London’s wayfinding is obviously quite renowned, and even though I don’t always think it’s as good as it could be (it often feels like you are being sent the long way round at stations, and you are), it’s abundant to a degree you don’t see in most places. I also think that the in-station announcements and on-train announcements are better than you see in most places: For example, when holding to help even out gaps in service, London’s trains actually had an announcement that played (treating the customers like the people they are; people are smart enough to understand why stuff like this is necessary), whereas in Toronto there’d just be silence. Of course, London also has the timeless roundels, and the iconic train color scheme of red white and blue that has been around for decades — something which few systems in North America have.

These are probably not the only ideas I think other systems can steal even from London, but these are some of the ones that came to mind first, make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss future renditions! Taking the best elements of other transit systems and putting them together can create a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts!

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