Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Cities in motion: transport is as key to urban character as buildings or accents

with 7 comments

I have been very pleased to see the Guardian add a section on Cities, and I am finding the articles posted there very informative. For instance Alex Steffen writing about affordability  and his prescription – build lots of houses. This morning there is a wide reaching review of how transportation defines cities which is written by Colin Marshall who hails from Seattle and thinks London is defined by The Tube. It is an easy mistake for an American to make, and is about as misguided as a Londoner thinking that New York is defined by its subway. He does have a very interesting overview and a wide range of samples, and makes some good points. But both London (and New York) rely very heavily on a much wider network than their inner urban mass transit systems.

The tube, in London, serves mostly the northwestern quadrant – as is apparent from Harry Beck’s geographically distorted diagram. This is the original from the 1930’s. Bank Station – at the centre of the City is over to the right. Note the position of the Thames relative to most of the network.  The District Line through East London is not shown as a line, merely a list of stations.

The historical reason for this is that the mainline railway that served this quadrant was initially not very interested in operating suburban services as it made much more money from long distance trains. Including boat trains to Liverpool that connected to liners to New York, as well as the premium Scottish expresses. The tube was originally built by entrepreneurs looking to make money, and what they found was that the short lines under the central area were not long enough to be profitable and cost a great deal to construct. The companies became profitable when they extended out into the fields which could then be built over with houses for commuters. The first underground line (The Metropolitan Railway) was extended in tunnels to Wembley and then out to Amersham and beyond on the surface. Many of the connections into Central London were made by tacking existing branch lines onto the tube. In Beck’s map above the Central Line stops at Liverpool Street. The service now goes out far into Essex on former GE branch lines – and a new tube under Wanstead built just before the war and uncompleted in 1939 which became a factory until hostilities ceased.

There is only one tube line through South London (the Northern Line). That is because the Southern Railway and its antecedents had much less long distance traffic but were early adopters of electrification for the dense network of lines that radiate out from the series of terminals built to serve both the City (to the East) and the West End. The even built their own tube to connect Waterloo to the City (known as the drain and only relatively recently incorporated into the Underground network).

The main line railways were not allowed to build into the City itself, and were kept in a ring along City Road (under which the Met was built). For the Great Eastern (the same company that built what became to be BC Rail) the need for a larger terminal nearer the City meant they wanted to redevelop a notorious slum called the Jago. As a condition of being allowed to demolish that warren of extremely dense – and very unhealthy – housing, they had to provide workmen’s fares at low cost to allow the displaced to relocate to new suburbs in places like Walthamstow and Leytonstone.

London began to sprawl long before there were motorcars. Development stretched out into the country along the railway lines, railway stations became the centre of towns that grew up around them. In the interwar period with the construction of new faster roads for cars and as unemployment relief – the Great West Road, Eastern Avenue – this development started filling in. Instead of the “beads on a string” pattern of the railway towns, there was “ribbon development’. In the period when people were tasked with thinking out what would happen to London after the Luftwaffe were stopped from flattening so much of it, the idea was to prevent this continuous urban area by specifying a Green Belt. The current boundary of Greater London lies within that Green Belt, which marks the limits of how far the ribbons of sprawl had reached by 1939. Post war there were to have been New Towns, that would be both free standing and self sufficient – providing employment to reduce the need for commuting. That did not work out. Basically the suburbs leapt over the Green Belt and kept on going. Boxmoor (see below) is in Hemel Hempstead – near the station – and has a very fast service into Euston that I used to commute on just before I left for Toronto.


One of the stupidest decisions made by the self serving Governor of New Jersey was cancelling the railway tunnel that would have relieved congestion between New Jersey and midtown Manhattan. Penn Station (now hidden beneath Madison Square Garden) is not just the busiest in New York – it is one of busiest passenger terminals in North America. Grand Central is not far behind. Manhattan lies at the heart of a huge megalopolis and depends on railway services to the surrounding region. It would be impossible for the downtown towers to work as employment centres if those people all tried to drive to work. Though Robert Moses did his best to try and accomplish that.

FDR Drive

FDR Drive midtown Manhattan
my picture on flickr

In both Central London and Manhattan most of the people there during the day got there on trains. In the case of London those trains come from an ever widening ring of urban areas – as train speeds have been increased and services improved. I used to think that getting a seat for a 25minute ride into Waterloo so that I could read on my commute was about optimal. Many others travel further and longer. Lord Olivier famously commuted from Brighton (about an hour – and at one time you could get kippers for breakfast on a Pullman train).  Those commuters might need to add a short tube ride from a terminal like Paddington (as you will need to if you decide to use Heathrow Express to get into town from the airport) or Liverpool Street. The current construction of CrossRail is designed to reduce the congestion on that route.

For many people the tube is something to avoid. You do not have to suffer from claustrophobia to find the crowding and depth of the station platforms a deterrent. Fortunately there are always alternatives. In fact in Central London it is nearly always quicker to walk than travel between adjacent stations – or even three or four stops. Especially if a change of lines is needed. The need for a rapid increase in transit capacity created by the congestion charge lead to a huge improvement in bus services. For visitors, I would recommend that using a combination of Boris Bikes, buses and walking is going to be a much nicer experience than the tube – especially at Rush Hour (actually several hours).

When I wrote this I had not seen this article in The Independent ” twice as many people ride the bus each day as the Tube” by the Labour spokesperson on infrastructure.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 17, 2014 at 10:32 am

7 Responses

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  1. First you suggest that London and New York aren’t defined by their subways, and then everything after that explains exactly why they are. I’m getting a very mixed message…

    I guess what you’re trying to say is that subways are only one part of the transit network which helps to define the cities. But just as a city the size of London or New York can’t function on cars alone, neither can it function on buses alone…

    Sean Nelson

    February 18, 2014 at 11:11 am

  2. Agreed on the Cities section — the Atlantic did this a few years ago, but somehow the content hasn’t lived up to expectations. I’m sure Colin will appreciate the trackback for his writing. In a very technical sense, he actually hails from Northern California, where we attended the same elementary school.

    Thanks for the precis on early development of the Tube. I didn’t know such an explicit connection between housing development and rail extension existed in its early days, but I suppose it makes sense given a pre-automobile reality and the numbers of people.


    February 18, 2014 at 10:22 pm

  3. Well known old cities in the world are NOT defined by subways, because most of their streets, avenues, public and private buildings of all kinds, are all MUCH older than their subways and even railways..

    Most big enough old cities have a transit system–in the general meaning of the world–similar to the one in London.

    Subways are concentrated in the major town of a metropolitan area (Paris has the same size as Vancouver–10 km in diameter–but has 14 subway lines plus 2 short branches). The suburbs are serviced by regional trains and inter-cities buses.

    There are 7 railway stations in Paris, each one deal with a defined area of the suburbs and with several regions of the country. Gare du Nord, for example, is for the Northern regions of France.
    There are 29 commuter train lines in the Paris region..PLUS 5 RER lines (Express suburban network that run deep under Paris). The shortest RER line is 52 km long (a bit shorter than the WCE line to Mission). The longest RER line is 197 km long.
    There are also just over 1000 suburban bus lines! with a total of 24 000 bus stops…

    Lyon—Metropolitan area population 2.1 million..nearly same as Metro Vancouver, has 4 subway lines, 16 regional train lines, along with regional buses.

    Osaka city (2.7 million) has 8 subway lines, and the rest of the region (17 million people) is serviced by the numerous lines of 5 separate railway companies. I read there are about 10 million trips by trains and subways per day in the Greater Osaka region (Kyoto and Kobe, 2 towns close to Osaka, each have 2 subway lines).

    Toronto and Montreal follow the same pattern of subways in the old town, then regional trains and buses in the rest of their respective regions. Toronto has 7 lines of commuter trains, Montreal 5 lines..

    Then there is Metro Vancouver, 2.5 million, having to put up with low capacity rapid transit and one single regional train line…

    Red frog

    February 18, 2014 at 10:43 pm

  4. To be fair, an American writer might well be thinking of all London’s local railway services when he says ‘the Tube’. London Overground, Thameslink, Crossrail, and the metro-style services on the former Southern Railway are much closer to ‘the subway’ than to anything else you see on this continent.

    David Arthur

    February 21, 2014 at 7:37 am

  5. I will accept that people (as opposed to train nuts) talk about “the Tube” and mean more than just the deep bored underground lines. And I welcome the decision of Transport for London to take over some former BR routs and organize them as The Overground. But my reason for commenting at length on the original article was that the writer was trying to make a point. And failed because he seemed not to understand that The Tube is not nearly as universal as he thinks it is. And that makes me wonder about the other cities he writes about. Especially those I have no direct experience of. If he is as wrong about them as he is about London, then his thesis collapses. “Being fair” means I have to pay attention to what he wrote: I cannot be expected to determine what he might have been thinking.

    Stephen Rees

    February 21, 2014 at 7:57 am

  6. I think that many foreigners see London as well served by the tube because the tube map is the only map of the city they’ve ever seen. To them the Tube is London. Even those who do visit the city usually restrict themselves to the inner circle and thus have no idea just how geographically inaccurate the map truly is nor how much city there is beyond the reach of the trains with no head room.

    A long time ago I stayed in a hostel not far from the high street in Golders Green. Although one of the urban planners I follow on Twitter has declared “urban village” an oxymoron, I can’t think of a better term to describe what I saw there. It didn’t feel at all like part of a big city, at least not until I foolishly tried to use public transit to get to Gatwick on a Monday morning.

    A young man with a backpack and large suitcase is not what you’d call “welcome” on the northern line and I was shoved aside train after train. It took the arrival of a completely empty train from the depot and the determined lunge of a running back trying to break a tackle to finally get aboard. As annoyed as my fellow passengers were I think they recognized the look of a man about to miss his flight and let me off with only the dirty looks, foul language, armpits in the face and elbows in the ribs they were giving each other.


    February 21, 2014 at 5:39 pm

  7. In a travel blog about (mostly) Paris, quite a few US tourists ask which train to take from X to Y…To them anything on rails is a train…Some believe that the Eurostar goes to the Louvre and other well-known sights.
    On the one hand I understand their confusion, on the other hand it is so easy to find all sorts of accurate information about urban transit, commuter and long distance trains etc.etc….and lots of other useful stuff..

    Last year I noticed a frazzled looking couple, with suitcases, at the corner of Seymour and Hastings. They were from the US, on their way to a hotel near the PNE. I showed them the bus stop, then asked them if they had tickets…they showed me one paper receipt from a TransLink fare machine….it said something like “transaction not completed”..
    They assumed, without looking at it, that it was a ticket for they had never used transit in their life…
    I bought them 2 tickets and made sure they took the right bus..

    Mind you I used to work with a young lady, university graduate, born and raised in B.C. that nearly had a nervous breakdown when she was asked to take the Cambie bus across the street from our workplace (downtown), go to Cambie and 8th to pick up something, then come back…

    Red frog

    February 24, 2014 at 8:47 pm

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