Symbolic transport

Symbolic transport

Public transport in the United Kingdom (UK) and in London, in particular, is often heralded as safe, reliable and integrated. GAVIN MYERS explores what makes it tick.

There is perhaps no other city in the world that is symbolised by its public transport system like London is. And that’s perhaps with good reason … The United Kingdom’s capital city is consistently ranked within the world’s top ten for public transport systems. From having the third-busiest international airport in the world, to the oldest underground commuter railway system and one of the largest bus networks, the city presents commuters with a truly integrated means of getting around.

The London metro covers an area of 8 382 km2 (by comparison, the Johannesburg metro covers just 1 644,96 km2, while that of New York City covers a whopping 34 490 km2) so, naturally, one would expect its public transport system to be up to the task. This responsibility falls to Transport for London (TfL), the local government organisation responsible for most aspects of the city’s transport system.

The organisation’s website states that it is responsible for all the surface forms of transport in the city including cycles, buses, taxis, river transport, rail and the Underground (including the city’s “Tube” system and tramways) as well as Crossrail (a joint venture between TfL and the Department for Transport to build a new railway linking Maidenhead and Heathrow in the west, to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east).  

London’s public transport system is said to be one of the most extensive in the world.

In addition to private transport – and walking – London commuters have seven individual, integrated forms of transport to use to get around the city. Each of these has different aspects that make it special.

For example, in terms of air travel, the city is served by eight (yes, eight) airports. Chief among these is London Heathrow, which the Airports Council International, in Geneva, Switzerland, states is the world’s busiest in terms of international passengers annually (as mentioned previously, it is the third-busiest for total passenger traffic). Of course, international aviation doesn’t fall within TfL’s portfolio, but a different type of air travel does …

Symbolic transportThe Emirates Air Line (sponsored by airline operator Emirates and also known as the Thames cable car) has been operational since June 2012. It is a one-kilometre cable car that crosses the River Thames from the Greenwich Peninsula in the west to the Royal Docks in the east at a height of 90 m.

With 34 cars in operation at any one time, Emirates Air Line provides a crossing every 15 seconds, with a maximum capacity of 2 500 passengers per hour in each direction – the equivalent of about 50 busloads. The Air Line is also bicycle friendly – a good thing, as cycling is a very popular way for people to get around the city …

Daily cycle journeys in the city were said to have doubled between 2000 and 2012. Cycle lanes and paths are provided around the city and folding bicycles can be carried onto most forms of public transport. You may also hire a bicycle from the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme, which allows regular and casual users to rent a bicycle, pick it up from one of the 720 docking stations and use it to get around …

It’s interesting to note, however, that these newfangled forms of public transport haven’t taken much away from their more traditional counterparts. London’s iconic red buses – all 6 800 of them, operating on 700 different routes – conduct two-billion commuter trips per annum and collect £850 million
(R15,3 trillion) revenue each year. Of course, there is that other icon of London road transport – the black cab, of which there are about 21 000 in the city.

Yet another symbol of London is to be found underneath the city – the London Underground, which is also known as the Tube. This system comprises 402 km of track (of which, contrary to the system’s name, 52 percent is above ground) and 270 stations. It incorporates the world’s oldest underground railway, which was opened in 1863. In 2012/13, the system carried 1,23 billion passengers, making it only the twelfth-busiest transit system …

What makes London’s commuter transport system special, however, is the convenience with which users can move from one form of transport to the next. With the exception of the black cabs and the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme, commuters can make use of the city’s Air Line, buses and the Underground, as well as trams, London Overground (a suburban rail network with 83 stations and six lines), national rail services that pass through the city and the London river services – all with a simple electronic smartcard.

Known as the Oyster card, this pre-paid smartcard features an embedded contactless radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip, the same as the one Gautrain or MyCiti users are required to have to access those systems.

Users can load the card with pay-as-you-go credit, a Travelcard and/or bus and tram passes. When the user “touches in” and “touches out” of the system, it automatically decides which fare system to use to ensure that no double-billing occurs.

The Oyster card is designed to reduce the number of transactions at ticket offices and the number of paper tickets, as the acceptance of cash within the London transport system is being phased out (cash is no longer accepted on London buses, for example). Oyster fares are also cheaper than cash fares.

Originally launched in 2003, over 43 million Oyster cards had been issued by June 2012, and over 80 percent of all journeys on London’s public transport were made using the card.

Could the Oyster card one day become a symbol of London, to be seen ubiquitously in movies and TV series based in the city? Maybe. What it should definitely be, though, is a symbol of ease of movement on one of the world’s most extensive public transport systems.

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