The Possibility of Public Transport
What We Talk About When We Talk About the Tube: The District Line by John Lanchester.
In 2013 Transport for London celebrated 150 years of the Tube. Together with Penguin they published a slim book for each of the twelve lines of the London Underground. Journalist and author John Lanchester wrote an essay titled What We Talk About When We Talk About the Tube: The District Line. One reviewer called it a celebration of the possibility of public transport – I love this.
Late last year I sold my car and, though I miss driving, I don’t miss having a car. I live in a very well connected city and get around with ease by train, bus, boat, bike and on foot. When I moved house this year, I picked an area specifically because it offered me multiple transport options to get across town (and had many green, open spaces nearby). What is interesting about this book is that:
London as it exists today would not be the same place without the Underground. The Underground is what gave the city its geographical spread, its population growth, its clusters of spaces and places. The new Underground stations became the places around which the city grew: they were the first gravitational mass, like the clusters of debris in the nascent solar system, which agglomerated and grew and thickened and became the planets. The Underground stations in the early years of the network were these initial clusters of mass.
A 1907 photograph of Golders Green – today a thrivingly busy suburb, a traffic perma-jam and a transport hub – show next to nothing around the single-storey Underground station, except, tellingly, a couple of forlorn horse-taxis waiting to take travellers the last mile or two home. These early commuters had a journey to work which involved taking first the horse-and-cart to the station, and then the train to work.
The suburb of Golders Green itself – what we today think of as the place – doesn’t exist. The growth of the city created the need for a new transport network; and the growth of that network became fundamental to the growth of the city. London created the Underground, and then the Underground created London.
– John Lanchester
We Londoners like to moan about delays and problems with out transport network. The London Underground is old and, like the photo of Bank’s renovation suggests, it needs on-going maintenance. My experiences of traveling in other cities remind me how good we have it overall. I wonder what the system will look like in another century and a half?
Find out more about the book here.
TimeOut’s guide to How to Get Out and About in London here.