The London Underground

In London today we’re in the middle of another 48 hour strike by employees, which always causes disruption. London relies so heavily on the Tube for daily life. This and seeing a new London Tube map on-line last week, has prompted me to ponder the Tube’s story and diversity a little more…

The TubeThe London Underground, better known as the Tube, has 11 lines covering 402km and 270 stations. Opened in 1863, it is the world’s oldest sub-surface Metro network, and one of the largest. The Tube handles around 3.5 million passenger journeys per day, rising to more than four million during busy periods. There are many interesting facts about the Tube, some of these are;

  • The shortest distance between two adjacent stations on the underground network is only 260 metres. The tube journey between Leicester Square and Covent Garden on the Piccadilly Line takes only about 20 seconds, but can cost £4.30. Yet it still remains the most popular journey with tourists!
  • Many tube stations were used as air-raid shelters during the Second World War, but the Central Line was even converted into a fighter aircraft factory that stretched for over two miles, with its own railway system. Its existence remained an official secret until the 1980s.
  • Only 45 per cent of the Underground is actually in tunnels!
  • Over 47 million litres water are pumped from the Tube each day, enough to fill a standard leisure centre swimming pool (25 metres x 10 metres) every quarter of an hour.
  • Tube trains travelled 72.4 million train kilometres (45 million miles) last year.
  • According to a 2002 study air quality on the Underground was 73 times worse than at street level, with 20 minutes on the Northern Line having “the same effect as smoking a cigarette”.
  • On August 3 2012, during the Olympic Games, the London Underground had its most hectic day ever, carrying 4.4 million passengers.

One of the first Tube map’s produced in 1908 was a pretty basic diagram, with the central line being blue. This was based on fairly accurate plotting of the tube routes in relation to the street map above.

The ORIGINAL London Underground mapIn 1931, Harry Beck produced the well known Tube map diagram while working as an engineering draughtsman at the London Underground Signals Office. He was reportedly paid 10 guineas (£10.50) for his efforts. This map remains in use today, with some minor alternations.

The London Underground mapI’ve been using the Tube for many years. I can get my way round London fairly easily now. The hardcore Londoners know which stations have the longest tunnels you have to walk around to get from the pavement to the train. As part of Beck’s design back in the 30’s he disregarded the physical proximity of stations/ places above ground. This is logical in a way, but it can cause confusion and unnecessary travel.

You can see a more geographically accurate up to date map on the London Underground by clicking here. You can understand where Beck’s idea came from in creating some uniformity and consistency of proportions.

Recently a young French Architect, Jug Cerović, has been designing new tube maps for various global cities. His latest one is London and I quite like it. Graphically it’s not dissimilar to Beck’s version, but it introduces more curves and is more accurate in terms of geography. It’s a bit more practical as it identifies which lines you can get on/ off at each station, and it also includes the overground lines (in a diagrammatic circle) around Central London.

The NEW London Underground mapCerović has designed underground maps for most major cities around the world now. His concept is to form a global standardisation, which again makes a lot of sense for tourism etc. You can see more of his work by clicking here.

It’s good to see an architect demonstrating the value of good design, in a broader context of our built environment.

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