How does London work?

London, London Transport Museum, Covent Garden

London, London Transport Museum, Covent Garden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those of us who travel around London, it’s easy to take the transport system for granted. Although the city above is a labyrinth of winding streets that seems to make no sense whatsoever, the London Underground is an easy to understand schematic which gets you to exactly where you want to go without fuss.

We managed to get down to London for the day during the Christmas holidays. Carefully avoiding the shopping areas which were jam-packed with consumer induced zombieism, we made our way to Covent Garden for a drink. We needed something to do next and the London Transport Museum had the virtue of sharing the same location, so in we went.

Unlike the cities of the United States, London wasn’t laid out in a nice grid network and unlike cities like Paris, there was no grand plan for London. There was no central body in charge of planning for much of the development of the capital. The City grew like a living creature to accommodate the needs of the rapidly growing population. Predictably, this led to absolute traffic chaos.

There were many suggestions for solving the traffic problems including double-decked streets and charging people for using the streets. These ideas were dismissed as preposterous at the time and yet we have flyovers and congestion charging today. Eventually, the city looked underground for the solution and the tube network was born.

Initially, tunnels were constructed using the “cut and cover” method. Basically, digging a massive trench and then plastering over it to make good. If this sounds disruptive, it was absolutely devastating in the reality of densely packed London. There is a very good model in the museum to give you an idea of exactly how much devastation was involved. Because of the way that London had evolved, there were no plans of what lay below and accidents were common.

Diagram of Brunel's tunnelling shield and Tham...

Diagram of Brunel’s tunnelling shield and Thames Tunnel construction (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There simply had to be a better way, and there was, thanks to a British invention, the tunnelling shield. Effectively a giant cookie cutter that gets pushed forward on rams as the men inside dig out the clay. It doesn’t sound that clever today, but this was in the days of Queen Victoria and it had never been done before. Pretty much every tunnel since has been dug in exactly the same way.

The real genius in London’s transit network came not from their construction, groundbreaking (sorry) though it was, but from a map. Traditional cartographer’s struggled to capture the simplicity of the network, wedded as they were to geographical accuracy.

A man by the name of MacDonald Gill came up with the idea of spacing all the stations out evenly and using straight lines to link stations. Unshackled from the bounds of geography, the new map could show the entire network in a simple and easy to understand form. Another invention that was so successful, every transit map produced since owes something to the original simple design.

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3 comments on “How does London work?

  1. I certainly think the transport network is one of the few things that make or break a city, and London has done an amazing job of connecting places without sacrificing any of the diversity and chaos that distinguish a great city.

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