Getting around in London? Don’t anger the lift

By Jason Offutt

Author’s note: I recently spent three and a half weeks teaching in London. The next few weeks I’ll explore what it was like living in that city. If you’d like to hear more about life across the pond, let me know at

The lift (elevator) in my building is angry, which isn’t the attitude I want from something that could, if mood struck, plunge me multiple stories to a bloody death. That’s a lot of responsibility for a machine with the personality of Mr. T from every role he ever played. Stepping into my lift and pushing the button for the ground floor, the lift greets me with a gruff, “Second floor. Going down.”
If the machines eventually take over, it’s because the Brits gave them permission. This perceived threat, however, has encouraged me to take the stairs. Thank you angry elevator. I’m healthier because of you.
Outside the building, transportation in London gets a bit more complicated.
There are plenty of ways to get around in London; first is your feet. The British have a healthy attitude about walking. In America, where the distance to your destination can be measured in hours, people who walk are considered odd. In London, the place you are and the place George Orwell lived/the Beatles recorded “Abbey Road”/Churchill sat on the toilet, are all within a short stroll. And there are sidewalks everywhere.
Some of these sidewalks (pavements) have a Barclays Cycle station. For the cost of as little as nothing anyone can check out a bicycle, ride it for 30 minutes, and deposit it at the next bike station. If you stretch your trip past the 30-minute mark, the cost ranges from £1 for an hour up to £50 for an entire day, but if you plan your cycling trip just right it’s pretty cheap to bike around London.
That is if you survive London traffic. Cyclists are not allowed to be safe anywhere, like the sidewalk, or the pub. They ride on the street and London streets are a lot like blood vessels if red blood cells looked like Audis. The flow of cars never seems to stop.
Standing on a street corner, “Look Right” painted on the asphalt in white block letters, I’ve often wondered how many pedestrian deaths there are a year in London. Turns out surprisingly few. In a city of 8.2 million people, the average traffic fatality rate is 58 people per year. For New York, the same size city, the average number of traffic deaths per year is 149, albeit with much more cursing and hand waving. I’ll never get in a car in London – ever. Good thing there’s no need.
There are a number of public transportation options in London, but since boarding a bus or taxi involves willingly getting on the street I’ll head straight to the Underground.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of London Underground, or Tube. Two hundred forty-nine miles of track run between 270 subway stations that connect every part of London. The Tube transports an average of 1,107 million passengers a year.
I was nervous about getting around in London my first week here. It’s a big place. But the Tube is well marked, the color-coded maps are easy to navigate, and a week’s travel costs £30. The Tube makes travel in London, even for a first-timer, pretty easy to manage.
Two things to remember:
Mind the gap. Everything from signs to automated guides tell passengers to mind the gap between the car and platform. Some gaps are nonexistent, others big enough to swallow a medium-sized dog. When stepping out, really step out.
Shut up. British people are reserved enough to sit quietly on the Tube, reading a free Metro newspaper completely ignoring everyone around them, and polite enough to only roll their eyes whenever an American passenger gets on board and tries to talk with them.

Follow Jason on Twitter @TheJasonOffutt.

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