Category Archives: Getting around

Happy 150th birthday, London Underground

Tube sign

The iconic Tube logo first appeared in 1908

The London Underground, affectionately known as the Tube since 1890, turns 150 years old on January 10. I have been known to complain about this form of transportation to anyone who will listen (ask the English Husband) and on this blog. My last entry called it ‘a vehicle for transporting germs’ destined to shorten my life. I am American and have always had a slight love affair with the comfort and convenience of cars, although I don’t like driving them any more.

While I still maintain that it can be an immensely frustrating experience for a daily commuter, the Tube is also an essential London rite of passage, without which the city would not be the same. It’s like a teenager coming of age. You are not a true Londoner unless you have used the Tube repeatedly, marching through its slightly depressing stations (all 270 of them) and cursing the crowds and the occasional filth.

My first Tube ride is not memorable. I reckon I was about 20 years old and it was 1994. I was most likely travelling to the Barbican theatre to watch Shakespeare, part of my summer studies in the UK. I was a wide-eyed student then, taken with the enormity and foreignness of London. The Tube was just the backdrop to the pulse of London life.

A few years later I was travelling on the Piccadilly Line to work on a Sunday morning. It was early and I was still feeling that zombie hangover of sleep. Suddenly, the Tube driver comes on the speaker and says mournfully, ‘This is the west-bound Piccadilly Line on this very, very sad day.’ I was suddenly alert – what was he talking about? I imagined this ambiguous message had something to do with a national holiday I knew nothing about. Everything was new to me back then.

It turned out to be the day Princess Diana died in a car crash in Paris, a day when the nation went into some sort of shock and collective mourning. I will never forget that Tube journey.

Other journeys that have stayed with me: the evening I was sick on the Tube. I vaguely remember an older couple, looking on horrified, while my English Husband (then a boyfriend) dug around in his backpack for what ended up being a sock to clean me up. Not a highlight but memorable with the Husband, who retells the story with glee.

Or the time a kind stranger I had never met before helped me as I collapsed at King’s Cross Station, fainting as I stumbled out of a train onto the platform. I don’t know who he was, but he helped me up and gave me his bottle of water. The staff at the station stayed with me until I felt better. Thank you.

There was the time, heavily pregnant on the Central Line, when a man I had never met before announced loudly to anyone who would listen: ‘Will no one give this pregnant woman a seat?’ Someone got up then.

There was also the very hot day in July when I got stuck in a Victoria Line tunnel on a packed train full of commuters. London trains can be unfriendly places at rush hour – no one makes eye contact and almost no one speaks. But this unnatural silence on a stifling train was broken by our shared experience of being stuck with nowhere to go. We were there for half an hour, temperatures soaring to nearly 100 degrees – and people started to hand out precious water to those who were feeling sick. Sometimes in London you can forget the decency of humans, but this brought it out.

I have also started and finished many books on London Underground trains. I am always thankful that reading on a train is my refuge, that moment of retreat from all the rushing around. It’s something I couldn’t do by car. I still, however, hate my switchover at Oxford Circus (from the Central Line to the Victoria Line for my trudge home). It’s hell at 5.30pm, and I could probably do it blindfolded if I wasn’t crushed by so many frenzied people, who have clipped my heels more times than I can count and then had the gall to tut at me.

Happy birthday, London Underground. Thanks for the memories. As we’ve been told many times, in many variations, it’s not the destination but how you get there.

A few facts

  • The Metropolitan Railway, the first underground railway in the world, ran from Paddington (west London) to Farringdon (east London) and was opened on 10 January 1863
  • Number of London Underground stations: 270
  • Number of passengers carried per year: 1,107 million
  • American talk show host Jerry Springer was born on the London Underground. His mother had taken shelter at Highgate from bombing during World War II
  • Number of deaths on the Tube in the last decade, excluding deaths from natural causes and terrorist attacks: 265
  • Chance of being involved in a fatal accident on the Tube: 1 in 300 million
  • Chance of being in a fatal road accident: United States (13.9 per 100,000) and UK (5.4 per 100,000) – Global Status Report on Safety, 2009
  • Proportion of the network in underground tunnels: 45%

Sources: London Underground/Guardian newspaper

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Filed under British life, Getting around

Commuting is bad for your health and marriage

Mumbai train

London Waterloo at 5.30pm is probably only a tad more civilized than this (pic courtesy of bellevision.com)

Although the kids are usually working themselves into a food-fueled frenzy at about 6.30pm, I managed to overhear this fact on the evening news: people who commute for 45mins or more are 40 percent more likely to divorce, according to a study conducted in Sweden.

It’s not that surprising when you consider how easily commuting can put you into a bad mood. There were days when I would come home seething and sweaty from a disastrous hour-long commute in London. The expert advice? Live closer to work. I am guessing these people have never tried to own more than a closet in central London. You’d need to be on a pretty packet to afford livable space in the city.

The same news program told us that nearly 8 percent of Americans now spend more than an hour commuting each way. The average in the United States is 25mins, and Americans now spend more than 100 hours a year getting to and from work. Maybe my years in London has made me completely out of touch, but this doesn’t actually sound that bad.

New research conducted by the Washington University of Medicine also reveals that those who commute 10 miles or more tend to have bigger waistlines and higher blood pressure, while 33 percent of those with a 90min commute report recurring back and neck problems.

All of these rather depressing statistics seem to be speaking to me personally. The English Husband and I are trying to find somewhere to live in London together as a family. Newsflash: I am returning to London on July 9 after my grand, year-long experiment in the United States. Having spectacularly failed to get a job that would enable our move, I am going to pack up the kids and our growing possessions and head back across the Atlantic. This makes the move sound easy, but it’s not.

One of the biggest things we need to do is to find somewhere to live. It sounds straightforward enough, but we are working with one income at the moment, we have two kids, we want decent storage and we need to be within walking distance of a good school. I’m fairly certain we are a real estate agent’s biggest headache.

The ‘C’ word springs to mind. We either compromise on space or location. It usually comes down to one of the two. We talked about moving further out of London and getting off my beloved tube map. As someone who will not have a car, I cling to the tube map like a child clings to his comfort blanket. But I think I am ready to move further afield and get more for our money. Plus, the schools outside of the inner city tend to be better.

This, however, means embracing a long commute. The Husband drives to work in Maida Vale (northwest London) – an average of 25mins one way from our one-bed flat – and his commute would more than double if we decide to head to the suburbs of south London, where things are more affordable.

And since I now know what this daily grind might do to my marriage, I am wondering if it would just be better to trip over each other in a small and expensive flat, and shelve the idea of a commute for another year. I’d like a study that researches what is more stressful: having not quite enough living space or traveling long distances to work. I want to see the results.

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Filed under American life, Getting around, transitions, Uncategorized

Cars, buses and high-speed rail

Bus stop bench

My neglected bus stop five minutes from my house - always deserted and never appealing. I've never once used it.

A return to one of my favorite subjects, public transportation. I was involved in a small collision in a parking lot last week. Nothing major (an annoying fender bender), but it reminded me of how much I now rely on the car. My life would grind to a complete halt if I didn’t have access to my mother’s car. Even if I had the will to use public transportation in Southern California, I wouldn’t get very far, very quickly.

It has been one of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make since leaving London last year. I was used to walking everywhere and taking the tube and the bus when my two feet wouldn’t carry me as far as I needed to go. In the months I’ve been here, I’ve swapped tube stations for miles of busy, five-lane freeways. Instead of buses and trains, I am a slave to a 2011 silver Toyota Camry. Sometimes I love the car; at other times I wish I had more choice.

I’ve not tested the limits of public transportation here – I’d rather be confined to the house like someone under house arrest – but other people have. My cousin works in Escondido, a city to the north of San Diego. It takes her about 45 minutes to get there in the car when there is no traffic. She wanted to avoid putting so much mileage on her leased car and hoped there would be a train that she could use instead. Her options were limited and not appealing. Here’s the breakdown of her journey:

1. Drive for about 10mins in her own car or take a 30-minute bus ride to the downtown San Diego Coaster train station
2. Take a 1-hour Coaster ride to Oceanside (about 45mins north of here)
3. Switch trains to take the Sprinter for 1 hour to Escondido
4. Take a 5-minute bus ride
5. Walk 20 minutes to get to the elementary school where she works
TOTAL APPROX TIME: 2 hrs. 55 minutes vs. driving 45 minutes

She chose the car, as would every single logical person on the planet, even the ones who believe the car will be a major factor in the Earth’s destruction. Forget about saving the environment, most people would prefer to save their sanity.

A bus or a bust-up? Hard to know…

Meanwhile, it astonishes me that sane, business-minded people can’t see the great advantages of having a better linked-up metro system. In downtown San Diego, there is opposition to BRT (bus rapid transit) on one of this area’s main streets (Broadway).

Bus route 855 sign

I don't know where the 855 goes and how long it takes. The only people who use it are those who don't have a car. That's probably a good way of measuring true poverty in California.

The biggest opposition seems to be coming from local businesses, which fear noise, pollution and overcrowding.  The detractors are utterly convinced this will drive people away from the area. This argument seems a bit flawed to me. There are already plenty of buses going down Broadway, and some of the current traffic will be diverted to neighboring streets, to accommodate the faster buses with their own dedicated bus lanes.

Surely, there will be more people using these buses and that will mean more potential customers. Locals have also been promised wider sidewalks, and new paving and curbs with improved lighting.

These kinds of buses have worked successfully in other metropolitan areas, but the loud protestors are convinced they will destroy ‘the fabric of our downtown’. The project will cost $30m and is meant to be completed by 2014 if it doesn’t get scuppered.

A bullet to the economy

On the other side of the spectrum is the high-speed bullet train in California, the first of its kind in the country. It will connect San Francisco and Sacramento in the north, to Los Angeles and San Diego in the south. The estimated cost of the bullet train – which would travel 800 miles – is a staggering $68bn and it, too, is facing some stiff opposition.

Already, $30bn has been shaved from the budget, which had swelled to nearly $100bn. To get the project off the ground, the High Speed Rail Authority needs $2.6bn in state bond funds. This will release an additional $3.3bn in federal funds. If the Authority doesn’t get this, the project is as good as dead in the water.

The high-speed train was first approved nearly 15 years ago but has met with a huge amount of controversy and delays. The projected completion date is 2028 and it will utterly transform travel within the state. It remains to be seen if the first track ever gets laid.

It’s hard to comment on something this ambitious and I’m no expert, so I will state the obvious. The cost is gigantic and the state of California is broke. However, I can also see the huge benefits of a high-speed train that connects dense parts of the state with each other. The freeways are disastrous, overused and often inefficient. I spent five hours traveling to Los Angeles recently on the interstate 5. I wanted to kill myself at the driver’s seat or kill the person next to me. Any wonder why there is road rage? The journey should have taken just over two hours.

I’m hardly in love with London’s tube. It’s hard to love a thing that is mostly dirty, packed and stuffy. There were days – usually around 8am, smelling someone’s armpit in an overcrowded train – when I would have preferred risking London’s insane traffic. Yet I know that the benefit of having the trains far outweighs anything negative I can come up with.

Southern Californians will never having anything to rival this – and that’s a shame. I’d like more choice, the ability to go out with friends without worrying about how I will get home after two modest glasses of wine. Instead, a good deal of people around here drive over the legal limit. I’ve done it and so have almost all my friends. (My brother has a DUI and most of his friends are now on two.)

While people argue about rapid buses and high-speed rail, I’ll be climbing into my Toyota Camry – or should I say my mother’s Toyota Camry, since I can hardly afford a car – and driving, driving, driving.

Some facts from London Underground:

  • In 2010/11, LU  carried a record number of passengers, exceeding 1.1bn journeys for the first time. [San Diego’s transit system provides about 33m miles of annual transit service, carrying 70m total annual passengers]
  • In 2010/11, LU ran over 69m train kilometers, the equivalent of 1750 laps around the world or 90 trips to the moon and back
  • London Waterloo is the busiest station on the tube network. It carries 82m passengers a year. An approximate 57,000 people enter Waterloo station during the three-hour morning rush hour.
  • London Underground has been known as the tube since 1890

(Sources: London Underground and Sandag)

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Filed under American life, Getting around, transitions, Uncategorized

All things gingerbread

Gingerbread house

I swear that I didn’t vandalize this house

I don’t tend to get around town much these days. My travels generally take me up and down one very long street, which I have dubbed East County’s Champs de Elysee. I hope the French will forgive me for this woeful comparison, since this small part of San Diego doesn’t resemble the chic Paris street in the slightest, but the majority of what I do is either on this street or just off it.

In the last few days my little world has been turned upside down by the arrival of the English Husband. I ventured out of my 10-mile comfort zone and drove all the way to Los Angeles to pick him up last weekend. This would not be a major accomplishment for most people, but I have not driven a car regularly for over a decade and it usually induces some sort of panic when I have to get behind the wheel and go somewhere unfamiliar. I don’t know whether it’s a European trait, but I have come to regard the car as an enemy. Perhaps that is why I have an irrational fear that I will be involved in some sort of catastrophic car crash. It’s therefore a breakthrough that I managed to get to Los Angeles in a car and didn’t have some sort of psychological breakdown on the way. It came close. I did sit in snarled, slow-moving traffic for nearly two hours and had fantasies about helicopters rescuing me from the hell that is Interstate 5.

Add some spice

The rescue came later, in the form of a one-night getaway at a relaxing hotel in San Diego that was booked as a reunion treat. There were drinks, a bit of lounging, some dinner and there was a gingerbread house, lovingly put together near the entrance to the hotel. It was impossible not to walk past this paean to sugar without indulging in some childish need to be photographed near it. The hotel management even included a recipe, should you ever be inclined to try to reproduce it. You will probably need an industrial-sized kitchen and an army of elves to help you crack over 2,000 eggs.

Gingerbread house recipe

Warning: don’t try this at home unless you want to induce stress

Feeling emboldened by our drinks and the fact that we were paying guests, we sat inside the gingerbread walls and posed with wrapped presents and lollipops.

Gingerbread house

The English Husband got a bit more interactive than I did

Other people had got a bit too interactive with the festive display and had torn off the gumballs that decorated the walls; one vandal had even broken a lollipop and left it abandoned on the floor. I fear the house might not survive the holiday season without some serious damage.

The next day we went back to the gingerbread house with the Chatterbox, who hadn’t yet seen it. A heavy black rope was now draped in front of the sugary house, presumably to protect it from people like us.

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Filed under Getting around, holidays

Driving yourself senseless

The San Diego Union-Tribune, my local paper, printed selected facts from the 2012 Census Bureau this weekend. One of these stated that only five percent of American workers use public transportation. And people who use public transportation in San Diego can save up to $11,000 a year. I’m not at all surprised the figures are so low despite the financial incentive. Using what qualifies as public transportation in San Diego is almost guaranteed to shorten your life. Only one person I’ve met has even attempted to work out the complicated bus routes that take twice as long to get you anywhere. Meanwhile, the San Diego trolley seems like a good idea until you see some of the people who ride it.

This is only a model; the actual car being used is full of crumbs

All of this is the polar opposite extreme to London, where those who drive to work are very much the exception. Everyone else has to schlep around on the tube (the Underground system) and use the buses which go to every destination imaginable. To get to work, I had no choice but to take a 10-minute bus ride to my closest station, Finsbury Park, and then get on the tube and negotiate a ridiculous number of tunnels while dodging people holding briefcases and huge handbags. Hesitate for more than a second during rush hour and you will have someone either step on you by mistake or tut at you. It would take about 45-50 minutes on average to get to work. I’m not saying it was ideal – it could get very tiring – but I did get to read a lot of books. In the 15 years I lived in London I never once drove a car. Not once. And, honestly, I didn’t really need to.

So, it comes as no surprise that one of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make since returning to the United States nearly three months ago is getting used to the car. When I was 16 years old, the car represented freedom from my parents, a chance to strike out on my own. Fast forward 22 years and I’ve come to regard the car as a necessary evil. While I recognize the convenience of the car, especially in southern California, I detest having to use it for absolutely everything. Gone are the days when I used to nip to the shop, five minutes from the flat, to buy a pint of milk, cheese and bread. Instead, I now have to strap myself into that hulking great piece of metal and drive to – I shudder to say it – my local Vons, a supermarket so cavernous and dark that even an experienced explorer from the South Pole could get lost in there without a compass and flashlight.

But the worst part of driving everywhere is the school pick-up and drop-off. The British call this, rather neatly, ‘the school run’. The race starts at about 7am, as I rub my eyes and try to rouse my five-year-old from the bed we now share together. (An aside: never in my wildest dreams did I think I would share a bed with my child and not my husband. At 16 I didn’t even think I’d have a child.) If it’s hard to wake her now, I’m trying to imagine what it might be like when she’s 13. Luckily, my imagination fails me.

Because I am one of those unfortunate souls who doesn’t own a car in SoCal, I have to share my mother’s. This means dropping her off at work before dropping the Chatterbox at school. The whole journey takes an average of 45 minutes, the amount of time it took me to get to work in London. In the afternoons, the whole thing is considerably more harried, because it’s impossible to drive into the school without negotiating an obstacle course of cars, cones and frustrated parents. I prefer to park on one of the surrounding streets and then walk, passing kids holding stop signs and well-meaning parents wielding whistles.

In London, I used to walk across the street to my child’s school. Journey time: 5 minutes on foot. I realize how lucky that is, and I know what I prefer. I’m not trying to say that a car wouldn’t have been nice in London sometimes. Try negotiating a stroller up a hill in driving rain with about 10 pounds of groceries hanging off the handles. But I’d rather have the choice to do one or the other: take a car or go on foot. It’s a shame that more Californians don’t have a choice but to use the car.

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Filed under Getting around, transitions