I recently read Dennis Green’s article in Business Insider, which compared London’s Underground to New York’s MTA, and the entire time I was screaming: “Yesssss!” I visited London a few months ago in April and ever since, I have been telling almost everyone I know about how the Underground (or the Tube, as the Brits call it) is godsend compared to the MTA. Here’s why:
Let’s start off with a story. Here I was in Gatwick airport, all by myself, without a working phone (I didn’t have British SIM card) or directions to my destination. Even though it was 2 in the afternoon, the airport was scarily empty, and all I had on me was a crumpled piece of paper with the address of my Airbnb scrawled on it and 30 British pounds.
After trying to get my phone to function to no avail, I began to wander around the airport, trying to figure out who the heck I could talk to and get directions from. But all that seemed to surround me were stores, fast food restaurants, and currency exchange centers. Not very helpful.
Eventually, after circling the vicinity for a while, I found a sign that directed me to the Information Desk, which was one floor below. When I got there, frazzled and close to tears (I’m a nervous solo traveler), I handed the man at the counter the note with the address on it and told him, “I have absolutely no idea how to get here.”
“That’s alright,” he said with a smile. “I’ll help you with this.” I don’t know why I was so surprised by his British accent. It was the UK, after all. But I guess in my distress, I had forgotten where I was.
After this weird epiphany, the man, whose name was Harold, began to set me up with the underground’s subway pass, an Oyster Card (which in my opinion is a way cooler name than “MetroCard”), and pulled out a map of the subway.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the map. Nearly every single inch of the city was covered with intersecting lines, each one a different color. “So you’re just going to get onto 4 different trains, okay?” Harold said, drawing an X on Gatwick Airport and mapping the route for me.
My face flushed red and my heart rate quickened. I could barely make it to two stations in New York without some sort of delay or incident—and I knew the city. How was I going to navigate four different train lines in a city I had never been to before in my life? I guess I was going to find out…
Harold went through the route a few more times with me, and then I paid for my Oyster Card. “Alright, miss,” he said, handing me the card. “Just head to the lift and you’ll see the train station.”
He pointed to a sign with a taxi car icon. Lift? It wasn’t making sense to me. But then I remembered Lyft, the taxi app. That’s probably what he was talking about.
“No, I don’t want a taxi. I want to go to the train,” I explained, wrinkling my eyebrows. “No,” Harold said, pointing again. “The lift. The lift leads you to the train.” And that’s when I realized, to my embarrassment, that lift = elevator in England.
After getting on the elevator lift, I found my way onto the first train, which was actually an above ground shuttle-type service towards the city center. To my surprise, multiple employees awaited me at the gates, and even offered to help me scan my card and give me directions.
I have never been more shocked in my life. Okay, maybe I have. But I was thoroughly shocked. In New York, you’re lucky if you find a single MTA worker behind the pay desk, let alone a multitude of workers at the entrance gates. And even if the MTA employees did happen to be down there for some reason, they would never readily offer help. Real customer service on the trains? It was unfathomable to me.
After I touched my Oyster Card to the yellow pad (no annoying swiping!!), I entered the tracks and waited for my train on the platform alongside the other riders. A few minutes later, the train arrived. I hopped onto a line towards the London Bridge stop and took a seat.
It was about a 30 minute ride in a train car that was strikingly similar to an old Long Island Railroad car before I arrived in the city center at the London Bridge stop. When I stepped onto the platform, tiny, circular logos informed me that I was officially inside the Underground.
After exiting the train, I looked at my map and took a moment to orient myself, but there wasn’t much need to. The clearly labelled signs directed me to exactly where I needed to go, and I was able to double check with an employee before I swiped in to make sure I was still on the right route.
The Underground train cars were clean, pristine, and SAFE. Equipped with blue, cloth covered seats and glass gates that aligned with the car doors to prevent customers from falling over the edge, this railway was better than anything I could have ever imagined. I thought back to the sticky, plastic seats in New York and all of the rats and roaches that always seemed to be scurrying across the tracks. None of that here in London. No sir.
Three transfers and a ton of suppressed excitement later (the Brits were totally unamused by their state-of-the-art subway, so I couldn’t blow my cover), I had arrived to my destination. Without a phone, without GPS and without any clue how the Underground worked. All I had used were my trusty paper map and a little guidance from the subway employees. There’s no way that would have happened if I had been in New York. That’s for certain.
Throughout the next few days of my stay in London, I used the Underground to get to my every destination, using nothing but a map, and towards the end of the trip, simply my memory. I was staying very close to Holborn station, which was a convenient intersection between the Central line and the Piccadilly line. (Might I add, the Underground has much cooler names for their lines and stations than New York… I mean seriously, all we use are numbers. Bo-ring!)
Moral of the story: the Underground is a wonderful, wonderful place. And New York should take note. Systematic infrastructural change is a difficult and lengthy process, but it would be well worth it if we could just reach a fraction of the progress that London has when it comes to our subways. After all, wouldn’t we all like to enjoy our commute rather than dread it?