The lift in my building is angry, which isn’t the attitude I want from something that could, if mood struck, plunge me multiple stories to my 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, “Second floor. Going down.”
The voice, which was probably recorded by a nice struggling actress who dresses as Mary Poppins for children’s parties, sounds more like a threat than a friendly reminder of where I am because the words “going down” are almost never friendly:
Army of Darkness (1992): “You’re going down.”
Aliens (1986): “We’re on an express elevator to hell, going down.”
Foreshadow of impending doom.
My elevator (2013): “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 seem to have a healthy attitude about walking. Living in America, where the distance between the place you are and the place you want to be can be measured in hours, people who walk are considered to be a bit 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 sweat-free stroll.
And there are sidewalks. Walkable sidewalks. Sidewalks with friendly storefronts for Indian restaurants, Starbucks (lots and lots of Starbucks), chemists, and shops that sell cheap gaudy Union Jack souvenirs to tourists. Even the residential areas, with narrow streets and tall buildings of flats older than my nation, have great sidewalks that take you on relatively litter-free concrete wherever you need to go.
Some of these sidewalks have a Barclays Cycle station. For the cost of as little as nothing anyone can check out a Barclay’s bicycle, ride it for 30 minutes, and deposit it at the next Barclays station. You have to register, and 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 anywhere safe, like the sidewalk, or down at the pub. They have to ride on the street. As peaceful and neighborly as London sidewalks are (unless they’re full of German soccer fans. Then it can get kind of dicey), London streets are a lot like I’d imagine blood vessels to be 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 per year in London, city motto “If my car had brakes, I still wouldn’t use them.” Turns out there are 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 (me included for the moment) to stations so close together the most walking people have to do is usually within the Tube stations themselves.
I was nervous about getting around in London my first week here. It’s a big place. A really 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.
There are, however, rules when riding the Tube.
- 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.
- Wait your turn. Allow people to exit the Tube car before stepping on. This isn’t New York; people here have feelings.
- Apologize for bumping into someone even if it’s their fault.
- Shut the hell up. British people are reserved and polite. They’re 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.
It’s because of the last rule that I only speak to Americans on the Tube.
Riding from Westminster to Earl’s Court (the location of the last blue police box – or the TARDIS for Dr. Who fans – in London) two attractive twenty-somethings, one wearing a small hat, rushed into the crowded car at Victoria Station and grabbed the handrail next to mine.
“Everyone’s looking at me,” one girl, obviously American, said.
“No, they’re not,” her British friend told her.
“They’re all thinking, ‘there’s that stupid American girl wearing a hat.’ Nobody else is wearing a hat.”
The British girl touched her arm. “No, no. Ladies wear hats all the time. You look wonderful.”
I leaned closer. “I’ve been here two weeks,” I said. “I’ve never seen another woman wearing a hat.” Then turned away from them.
“Oh,” her British friend gasped. “That was just wrong.”
I don’t feel badly about that. Serves her right for talking on the Tube.