London Olympics Guide 2012: How to Survive the Tube This Summer

London truly is a spectacular city to visit. The city is steeped in culture, both historical and contemporary, and there is always something to do. However, the weather and the transportation system are the two things that London fails miserably at. There is nothing I can do about the former, except to say the rainfall in London is not the worst in Europe. In fact, there is more rainfall in a year in Zurich, Amsterdam, Brussels and Milan then there is in London. As for the latter though, I might be able to help.

Now when the London Underground, affectionately called the “Tube,” first opened in 1863, the first of its kind, no one could have ever fathomed that today 3.4 million people travel on it on a normal day. I, myself, spend a good 2 hours a day on the tube getting to and from work, that’s 10 hours a week, 520 hours a year, which is nearly 22 whole days out of the year. When you factor in weekend travel, when I’m likely showing around the many couch surfers who are visiting me. It equates to about a single calendar month out of the year that I spend underground. During my subterranean existence I’ve seen and experienced it all on the tube, drunken fights, morning rush tube-rage, suicide jumpers, women giving birth, I was even on the tube during the July 7th, 2005 London Bombings. Luckily I was on the parallel line to the one with one of the bombs.

By spending so much time on the tube it's hard not to notice the little things that people do, or don’t do, that either help make the journey a little bit more bearable or frustrate you to the point that you want to punch someone. So here is my little guide to all you London newcomers and I hope it helps you get to where you’re with as little fuss and stress as possible.

1) Plan Ahead:


 

Visit www.getaheadofthegames.com to find out which stations are going to be the busiest. For those of you with smart phones, I implore you to download one of the many free tube apps (I recommend TubeMap) that plans your journey for you -- including real-time line information so you won’t be caught off guard at a interchange to find that the line you are wanting to get on is down or delayed. Also, remember that the London tube map is not an indicator of distance, but was designed so that all station could fit easily together on a single page and be read annoying, I know). If you want an idea of the distance between stations, visit www.london-tubemap.com.

2) Ticket vs. Card:


Even if you are in London for just 1 day, getting yourself a London Oyster Card will not only save you time, but it will save you money as well. The average Central London (Zone 1) single journey costs you £4.30 ($6.50), but with Oyster its £2.70 ($4). Oyster will also cap your daily spend to £8.30 ($12.50), the price of a Day Travelcard so you’ll never spend more than that in a single day. For those staying in London longer than a day, I recommend pre-charging with a Zones 1 to Zones 2 Week Travelcard (£29.20 or $43). You can also use your Oyster on buses, trains and TFL riverboats. Pre-order your Oyster online from the www.tfl.gov.uk or buy them from any major tube station. However, I recommend you getting one when you arrive at the Oyster Transport Desks found in Heathrow Terminal 5, Gatwick, Stansted and City airports. Make sure you register it, because if you do and lose your card, your can replace it and have your credit transferred over. The card itself costs a £5 ($7.50) deposit which you can claim back on return of the card, but why bother. Keep your Oyster as a little handy souvenir of your time in London.

3) Stay on the Left:


Yes, in the UK we drive on the left-hand side and the same rule applies when going down corridors (or it should anyway). I’ve encountered the entrance to many tube stations to be  as much a chore as the journey itself. Unfortunately, it all boils down to the fact that mass throngs of visitors are going down the wrong way on the right-hand side. My advice is stick to the left-hand side (especially inside the station), but at exits and entrances just go with the flow. Also you’ll notice that on station escalators, the left-hand side is the ‘express lane’ for people wanting to actually walk rather than stand. So remember not to leave any luggage or stand on this side unless you want to risk being knocked over and rolling all the way down (I've seen it happen).

4) Don't Stop: 


More a health and safety tip than anything, when making your way down the corridors to the tube platforms whatever you do, do not dead stop. Not even to read the route schedule. This especially applies to groups of 3 or more, who stop and end up blocking the entire corridor. You may not see it, but there is likely to be hundreds of people right behind you on your heels and you stopping can lead to a very nasty pile up (with you at the bottom). If you must stop in a corridor move to the side and turn your back to the wall so that people can still get by you.

5) Keep it a One Way Traffic: 


Some corridors are one-way traffic and others are two way. For the latter, the ‘stay on the left-hand side’ rule applies strictly. However, for the former you’ll notice some people decide to break the rules, as it may be a quicker way to get out. Now, I, myself, am guilty of cutting down the wrong corridor because I know it will get me out quicker, but during the games I strongly advise against it, the corridors are likely to be crowded enough, we do not need people going the wrong direction and holding up the queue even more.

6) Mind the Gap: 


Hurray! You’ve made it to the platform! Now remember to stay behind the yellow line. It's OK if you don’t some of the lovely platform attendants will remind you to do so. Now, my biggest tip for you whilst on the platform in the busier stations is to look for the ‘Mind the Gap’ signs painted on the floor and make your way there. The reason is that this is where the train doors will stop when they pull up to the platform and you’ll be able to get on-board quicker. Just remember to let people off first and wait to the side of the doors.

7) Use All Available Space:


You may have an inclination to stay close to the door, but seriously with station stops alternating between the left-hand and right-hand side doors so much, the number of people who are going to be getting on and off at each stop this is pointless. Just make the most of the space and try and enjoy the ride

8) Stay Hydrated:


Unfortunately, the tube is not air-conditioned and some lines are as hot as a sauna (especially the Central line). If travelling more than 3 stops make sure you have a bottle of water with you, as it will make a hell of a difference, that and cracking open the air vents.

9) Silence is Golden:


Aside from blocking corridors, the second biggest annoyance on the tube is loud people. Chances are you’ve got a person’s ear directly next to your mouth. Remember that the next time you are having a conversation with someone. Just look around and you’ll see most people on the tube are in quiet reserved silence. The same goes for you headphone junkies the last thing anybody wants to hear is you deafening yourself to Metallica right next to his or her head.

10) More Than Just the Tube:


When planning ahead don’t overlook alternate forms of transportation. There are better options than the tube to get around and your Oyster is valid on all of them. Buses are a great way to get around the city and are often faster than the tube. Overground trains around the city are less trouble and, outside of the morning and afternoon rush, are likely to be nearly empty. If you are looking to get from one side of the city all the way to the other consider a riverboat, which will get you across the entire width of the city in no more than 30 minutes without any traffic and limited stops. For journey’s less than 1.5 km (0.9 miles) my advice is just to walk. If you must take a taxi, be prepared for traffic jams (buses are faster with bus lanes) and expect to pay £20 ($30) minimum for a central London journey and whatever you do, do not get into non-licensed (anything other then a black cab, often advertised as Minicabs) without first negotiating the price (even if they say they are on a meter), and never get into a non-licensed taxi on your own. 

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Steven Bywater

Steven Bywater is an alumni of the University of Leeds and Nankai University with a background in international marketing and Asian studies. Based in London, he works as a marketing professional on the commerical side for the European and African operations of one of China's largest state media agencies. Of English, Dutch-Afrikaans and Taiwanese-Chinese heritage, Steven has traveled the world and worked across Asia, Australia and Europe. His current projects includes bringing Chinese media in line with internationally recognised circulation auditing procedures and to develop both print and digital Chinese media products for overseas markets.

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